“I’m pretty invested in Helen,” Louiza Patikas tells me. And well she might be – she has played Helen Archer (now Titchener) on BBC Radio 4’s staple radio drama The Archers for 16 years. The radio-listening public is pretty invested in her, too – five million people tune in every week to hear about goings-on in Ambridge, the farming village nestled in the fictional Borsetshire countryside, and the show is rapidly approaching its 66th year on air.
Born to a Greek father and an English mother, Patikas has always had a gift for mimicry, and it was a love of “things like poetry competitions and reading aloud” that first got her into school plays. A turn as Mrs Brown in a production of Paddington Bear, after which “someone said that I had a very nice forehead and I did it very well”, encouraged her to go into acting. That led to Helen, which has grown into the role of a lifetime – in both senses.
Patikas and Titchener have been through a lot together. They even, in an odd coincidence, had a baby at similar times – Patikas’s second and Helen’s first. Yet nothing has been so draining, for the listeners as well as for the character, as her latest storyline: the three-year saga of Helen’s awful treatment at the hands of her husband, Rob Titchener.
Patikas tells me that at times she’d come away from recording “exhausted”. When you cry on the radio, you really have to cry, she explains. “You have to access that feeling and come through it.”
When Rob Titchener first arrived in Ambridge in early 2013, he was seen as a bona fide catch – “the tall, dark and handsome stranger [Helen] always wanted”, as Patikas puts it. By July that year, Helen and Rob had begun seeing each other, even though Rob was already married.
But their whirlwind romance and marriage soured soon after they wed in August 2015. Rob began to exert ever more control over Helen’s life – over what she wore, what she ate, where she went. He gradually isolated her from her friends and eventually raped her.
When Helen attempted to escape, Rob ended up with a knife in him – and Helen’s virtual imprisonment in her marital home threatened to become a custodial sentence. The day before I meet Patikas, a jury, played by a roster of Britain’s best actors, eventually acquitted Helen of all charges in an hour-long special of The Archers, much to the relief of the show’s listeners.
For Patikas, the harrowing events of recent years all came as a surprise. Although the show has never shied away from current affairs and dramatic storylines – covering everything from the impact of the falling price of milk to the torrid affairs of the resident Ambridge cad Brian Aldridge – Helen’s domestic violence storyline broke new ground for both the programme and the coverage in drama of coercive control (the means by which Rob isolated Helen from her friends and family).
The actors receive scripts just four weeks ahead of broadcast, so for Patikas, as much as the listeners, the dark turn of Helen’s relationship with Rob Titchener was revealed piece by piece. “Not knowing doesn’t make much of a difference,” she explains, “because you just live each day as we do anyway, just in the truth of that day.”
It was a surprise, though, that all this happened to Helen. “If, a few years ago, someone had said: given these five characters, which do you think would have been a sufferer of domestic violence? I’d have said: ‘Probably not Helen – she’s bright and articulate and intelligent, got a great family behind her. She’d pick up on that.’
“It made me realise it could happen to anybody,” Patikas says. “We probably all know at least two people who are going through the same thing and have no idea.”
For listeners, it has come as a surprise to find themselves on the side of Helen, who, Patikas recalls, “was sort of the character people loved to hate”. Before the domestic violence storyline began, Helen was known for being headstrong and fond of a moan. Indeed, her reputation for whining was such that one Mumsnet user wrote in 2010 that “I cannot stand her, and find her smugness annoying enough to batter the radio”.
Did Patikas hate her, too? “I buy into her decisions – I sort of have to,” she tells me. “She was flinty, sort of tricky, but her beloved brother John had just been killed, so I always explained it like that.”
To help her with this latest storyline, Patikas met with victims of domestic violence and coercive control, which she describes as “vital”.
“Much as I’m playing Helen’s truth, it’s our job [as actors] to educate ourselves,” she says.
I wonder if – considering that, for many women in Helen’s situation, a happy ending even of the partial kind experienced in the courtroom is rare – it would have been closer to truth for Helen to end up in jail.
“I just don’t think they could have ended it like that,” Patikas replies. “We wanted to give courage to the people who’ve been through that. But it’s far from over. There’s the custody hearing, there’s the children,” she sighs. “Rob is going to be tied to Helen for ever, which is a miserable thought.”
Listeners, she thinks, will be looking forward to hearing the first meeting of Rob and Helen in Ambridge after the trial. She asks me how I wanted it to turn out and I confess, somewhat shamefacedly, that I was hoping that Rob would never recover from his injuries.
“I don’t want Helen to have killed someone,” she retorts. “I don’t want that in her past. I don’t want anything bad to happen to her. I just wanted her to be able to walk away and move on.”
This article appears in the 14 Sep 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of the golden generation