The story of Helen Titchener and her relationship with her abusive husband, Rob Titchener has been widely praised by domestic violence charities as a sensitive and accurate portrayal of coercive control and intimate partner violence, including marital rape. The plotline, which has been allowed to develop over nearly two years, reached a climax last night when Helen stabbed Rob in a confrontation over her decision to leave him. Helen’s character was later heard telling her friend that she believed she had killed her husband: the reaction to this episode reverberated across social media, with pundits claiming the episode had “broken Twitter”. However, in allowing the storyline to conclude in this manner, the BBC have sacrificed realism for ratings, and undone much of their good work up to this point. They also missed an important opportunity to highlight the difficulties facing victims of domestic violence in accessing support when attempting to extricate themselves from violent relationships- difficulties exacerbated by changes to legal aid, which impact disproportionately on those living in rural areas.
The Archers was originally conceived as a means of disseminating information to farmers and rural smallholdings to increase productivity after the second-world war. Sean O’Connor, the producer who presided over the current storyline has been credited with wanting to develop realistic storylines, “reflective of the world we live in, not the one we prefer to imagine”.
In concluding the storyline with Rob’s murder at the hands of his wife, script writers have chosen to end the storyline with the less likely outcome – a more realistic portrayal would have seen Helen dead.
Data from the Office for National Statistics published in 2014 demonstrated that women were far more likely than men to be killed by their partners or former partners. The charity Refuge states on their website that 4 times as many women as men are killed by their partner – statistics now indicate that up to three women per week die as a result of domestic violence in England and Wales. In choosing to conclude the storyline with Rob dead (or at least, grievously injured) at the hands of Helen, The Archers has followed a pattern in the fictional depiction of domestic violence where relationships culminate in women attacking and killing or grievously injuring their abusers (remember the Eastenders storyline of Little Mo and her evil husband Trevor?). In so far as soap operas function to set the conversational tone around topics of significance, this trend is as damaging as it is inaccurate – a study published by Marianne Hester of the University of Bristol in 2013 stated that men administer a greater amount and more severe abuse to their female partners than the other way around, this grim reality needs to be reflected in media portrayals of domestic abuse.
In choosing to conclude the storyline with Rob’s apparent murder, scriptwriters have missed an opportunity to highlight an issue that disproportionately affects the rural communities the programme was originally developed to serve – the lack of availability of legal advice for issues such as divorce, child custody, housing and welfare benefits. A report published in 2013 by the University of Warwick indicated that cuts to civil legal aid funding disproportionately impacted on the ability of individuals living in rural areas to access free legal advice. In the Archers, Helen is married to Rob and he has taken control of her finances. Were she to require legal aid to assist her in obtaining a divorce from him, she would find herself needing to provide evidence that she was the victim of domestic abuse before she would be eligible to access this support.
Rights of Women published research indicating that 40 per cent of victims responding to their survey were unable to access evidence that would enable them to receive legal aid, resulting in vulnerable women representing themselves in court or simply staying trapped in violent relationships- this evidence formed the basis of a recent successful legal challenge to the government’s rules heard in the Court of Appeal. Through enabling listeners to follow Helen as she attempted to access the support she needed to divorce Rob, scriptwriters could have provided vital insight into the difficulties created by the changes to funding for legal advice, an issue that, considering both its importance and relevance to large sections of the population, is woefully under-reported.
Such a resolution may not have broken Twitter, but it could have done something much more valuable, in helping to raise awareness of the barriers facing individuals in extricating themselves from broken relationships.