The Real Helen Titcheners
Behind the closed doors of Blossom Hill Cottage in Ambridge, the fictional village that is the home of Radio 4’s The Archers, a disturbing domestic abuse storyline is excruciatingly playing out. Even if you’re not an Archers listener you might have heard of Helen Archer's emotional bullying at the hands of her nutcase husband Rob Titchener.
Rob is a textbook psychopath. He is smooth, handsome, amazing at cricket and disarmingly charming when he chooses, but highly volatile, an accomplished liar, manipulative, often violent and so scheming he seems to be writing his own storylines. I imagine the character manifesting at writing meetings and forcing the scriptwriters to do his evil bidding without them even realising he’s there, skillfully playing them off against each other like his grandad was Iago.
Rob has been dodgy from the start, cheating on his long-distance wife Jess with the overeager Helen (the squelchy kissy noises at the beginning of this car crash of a relationship were particularly repulsive.) When he dumped Helen and Jess arrived in the village, we got a glimpse for the first time of what a bad-tempered and controlling brute he was in his treatment of her. All the while, Helen and her mate Kirsty scowled from the sidelines, and we listeners thought ‘Well dodged there, Helen.’ Then he gave Jess the boot and went running to Helen, who took him back with open arms despite the disapproval of her parents and groans of the listeners.
Ideologically, these two were ill-suited: Helen was the angel of Ambridge Organics, a passionate advocate of organic farming and animal welfare, Rob was the manager of the mega-dairy milk factory and a member of the local hunting group. Helen’s family didn’t like him at all, they saw through his smooth-talking and Tony (Helen’s dad) particularly hated him. They hated the way Helen seemed change under his influence; taking part in the hunt, defending Rob’s work and giving a talk about animal welfare at an open day for the mega-dairy. But, and here lies the difficulty for Helen and any hopes of extraction from Rob’s chokehold, the family now adore him.
Rob has Pat and Tony eating out of his hands, and he’s made himself central to every aspect of Helen’s life. He’s now manager of the family’s organic farm shop (and has started stocking non-organic chicken!), he’s living at Blossom Hill Cottage and dipping into Helen’s inheritance, he’s adopted her son Henry, alienated her from her friends, and got her pregnant against her will via, probably, Rohypnol (that was a horrible episode). Now that Helen’s pregnant he’s banned her from driving or doing anything in the slightest bit strenuous, such as kissing her child goodnight or not sitting down. He uses her pregnancy as an excuse to increase his control over her, and he makes it seem like he’s just being caring.
The people of Ambridge think Rob is so perfect that if she told them what has been going on they’d think she was unhinged - and he has laid the groundwork for this by dropping hints about how confused/tired/hormonal Helen is. He’s been gaslighting her for over a year, turning her into an emotional wreck (yet again, because poor Helen has quite a back-catalogue of demons) and attacking her Achilles Heel - her history of eating disorders. He has never been physically violent with her, but his emotional abuse is so pernicious and harmful I don’t think the writers will need to escalate it into actual hitting - and this way there is scant chance for Helen to be able to prove anything, if she ever comes to admit it to herself.
The Rob and Helen saga has had a mixed reception. Archers fans either love Rob for his scumbaggery and enjoy hating him, love it but find it too distressing to listen to, think the series has been hijacked by this drawn-out storyline, find it unrealistic, find it too realistic, want it to end quickly, want it to be brave and play out...Whatever we think, there’s no denying it has opened up dialogue on domestic abuse and the many forms it can take. Helen Titchener’s ordeal has brought the issue of emotional abuse in seemingly cosy middle-class families into an uncomfortable spotlight, and the writers are working closely with women’s charities to make sure the storyline remains true and faithful to the experiences of real victims of abuse.
This is a fictional story, but for every fictional Helen there are many many real Helens, a fact beautifully articulated by Archers fan Paul Trueman. His Just Giving page ‘The Helen Titchener Rescue Fund’ has raised over £60,000 for the women’s charity Refuge. At a time of austerity and brutal cuts to funding for women’s services, how heartening to see real people moved by a fictional one and banding together to raise money for the women who truly need the help our government is denying them.
Under the Conservatives, 32 women’s refuges have closed. According to Woman’s Aid, 155 women are turned away from refuges on a typical day - because there are not enough spaces in these underfunded shelters, and because councils have to prioritise local women despite the fact that most abused women will apply to refuges that are not local to them precisely because they want to get as far away from their abusers as possible. Every week, women are murdered by their husbands and boyfriends, and yet women’s services continue to be axed.
When the Tory tampon tax came under fire last year, Osborne tried to pacify angry women by pledging that all that extra money he took from us in taxes would be used for women’s services - the same women’s services whose funding he had just cut - effectively forcing women to pay for their own problems.
Walking through central London in December after a ‘Don’t Bomb Syria’ rally, I came across a demonstration by the feminist group Sisters Uncut. All dressed in black and chanting ‘You cut, we bleed,’ they marched in a funeral procession to Trafalgar Square where they dyed the fountains red in a visceral message against austerity at the cost of women’s lives. They are the same women who jumped on the red carpet at the premiere of the movie Sufragettes, chanting ‘Dead women can’t vote.’ Sisters Uncut are angry and with good reason:
Real women are being let down and allowed to die by an uncaring government policy that is causing refuges for victims of domestic abuse to close their doors against the vulnerable women who need help most. These women might not have a rich farming family to back them, they might not have an organic farm shop to return to, they might not have the support networks to help them get away from an abusive partner. These are the real Helens, and they’re being failed by the system.