The slow-burn horror of the psychological abuse suffered by Helen on Radio 4’s The Archers has rightly won praise for its realism. Resisting the rushed pace and shoehorned-in cliffhangers that might be expected of a different kind of drama, the writers have instead portrayed her husband Rob’s transformation from solicitous smoothie to snarling bully over whole a two and a half years.
Listeners have held their breath as arguments over apparently trivial matters have offered subtle but escalating glimpses of Rob’s vicious, controlling nature, his ability to manipulate her into thinking it is she who is behaving outrageously, and even his willingness to turn her young child against her.
Why then, did Sunday night’s denouement seem to make such a lurch towards sensationalism by having Helen attack and apparently kill Rob, instead of vice versa? The pattern in domestic homicide is well-established: women are more than three times as likely as men to be murdered by a current or former partner, who are virtually always men.
But, however rare it may be, brutalised women do kill their partners. And when they have done so in the past, the aftermath has shown up the inadequacies of the criminal justice system in deeply troubling ways.
In the 1990s, a slew of high-profile cases saw women who, like Helen, had finally turned on an abusive partner forced to fight long battles to get their murder convictions overturned. While male defendants who killed their wives after discovering they were unfaithful or planning to leave were able to claim they had been provoked, and hence convicted of the lesser charge of manslaughter, women like Emma Humphreys, Kiranjit Ahluwalia, and Sara Thornton– beaten, raped, threatened and in Humphreys’ case even pimped by her abuser- were all found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
The underlying logic behind this manifest injustice was this: to be provoked had been defined through past cases as meaning a sudden and immediate loss of control. The court could not look at the months and years of growing dread that might have preceded an act like Helen’s; only what was said and done in the moments before counted. It took decades of campaigning by lawyers and activists, including highly influential feminist campaign groups like Justice for Women and Southall Black Sisters ,to change this position; the old defence of provocation was replaced with a new, broader one of loss of control as recently as 2010. In legal terms, this is very new indeed.
The question of how Helen will fare in a system that is so slow to reflect our changing understanding of an issue like domestic abuse is not a straightforward one. A victim who kills their abuser doesn’t suddenly stop being a victim, but our adversarial justice system wasn’t made to cope with that level of complexity. You can even start to write the prosecution cross-examination already: but he only hit you once, and only because you threatened to hit him. And wasn’t he unarmed? And, of course, the perennial: if it was so bad, why didn’t you leave?
What is unique about Helen compared to her non-fictional counterparts is that she has an enormous section of the public who have been through her ordeal with her- and are firmly on her side. The story has been controversial in the sense that some have wondered whether a previously gentle, tea-time soap- where the plotlines usually focus more on udders than murders- is the right place for a story like this. Few, however, have seemed to question whether Rob’s behaviour really constitutes abuse, or doubted its impact. Instead, a nation gasped at its radios as Rob told Helen he forgave her for nearly hitting him, shortly before apparently raping her- again. The Helen Titchener Rescue Fund, set up by one inspired listener long before the events of last weekend, has so far raised over £90,000 for Refuge.
So, is it possible that Helen Archer- herself not always a popular or perfect character, and all the more realistic for it- may end up having as much of an effect on the criminal justice system as the real-life women her story resembles? Given the public response so far, I think it is. I can’t guess where the writers intend to go next, but the direction they’ve chosen certainly has the potential to throw some of the worst aspects of our justice system into timely relief, and inspire even more discussion, understanding and, yes, vital fundraising.
The decision to put the knife in Helen’s hand, and not Rob’s, may not be the most statistically representative one. But I don’t think that’s the point. The writers could have picked a much neater, easier ending for this relationship, and nobody would have begrudged them for it. But instead of giving themselves- or Helen, or their listeners- a break, they have decided to push on into yet more difficult and important territory. We should applaud them for it.