I have a confession to make. In the last year I have fallen in and out of love. And this time, it was completely deliberate.
You see, I decided that I would become an Archers fan. The Archers, for those enjoying a peaceful existence on Mars, is a soap opera which has been running on BBC Radio 4 for the last 65 years. For most of my life, I’ve used the Archers’ theme tune (an impossibly jaunty Morris dance type jig) as the signal to turn the radio firmly OFF. Then I decided I needed something to help me out of a bad patch of insomnia. What could possibly be better, I reasoned, than the everyday saga of farming folk? I knew nothing at all about cows, sheep or fields, I cared less, I didn’t know the names of any of the characters, I had absolutely no idea what was going on. I’d be asleep in seconds flat.
And so it proved. I loved it. But, unfortunately, I started to be sucked in to the Archers’ world. Little did I know it, but my sudden interest in the Archers had coincided with the show getting a new editor, Sean O’Connor, who had previously been responsible for such televisual crack as Eastenders and Hollyoaks.
I should reveal, at this point, that I have history as a hopeless soap junkie. I was addicted to Neighbours and Doctor Who as a student, then became a slave to Eastenders. No sooner had I weaned myself off that than Doctor Who got a revamp and I now had children that I could pretend were making me watch it. There were a few fallow years before the Archers got me (though I can be snared by fictional series just as easily, I’ve read the Barchester Chronicles, the Dance to the Music of Time, Tales of the City, Dickens, Jilly Cooper, show me a set of five or more volumes and I’m in) but I was ripe to fall.
And fall I did, though I was soon regretting it. For one of the storylines, amid the hooha over the culvert (what?), route B (which?) and Prudhoe (where?) was deeply troubling. It was the burgeoning domestic abuse scenario. This has been painstakingly built up month after month by the scriptwriters, like master craftsmen buffing a plank of well-seasoned burr walnut. The storyline is now burnished with a deep, rich depth of patina – but I cannot listen any more.
Evil Rob Titchner has gone from borderline creep (married man/bit on the side/you get the picture) to out-and-out domestic abuser, whittling away at the fragile self esteem of his pregnant eating disorder-ridden wife until she is virtually bed-bound, a quivering wreck who cannot grill a sausage without causing a conflagration. But even this was not what made me stop listening. It was when Rob started turning his attention to Helen’s five year old son, the adorable Henry, that I could bear it no longer. Henry, from being the sweetest little boy ever, is now a bed-wetting bully who is on the brink of being dumped at boarding school. And the worst thing of all is that Rob has turned him against his own mother, whom he now views as incompetent, ‘silly’ and nasty.
It’s brilliant radio. It’s really compelling, and if you haven’t listened, I strongly urge you to do so. It’s so horribly real that one listener has set up a Just Giving page for real-life Helens which has raised £68,000. But if you’re looking for a cure for insomnia, you’ll have to go elsewhere.
There is one bright spot on the Archers horizon, though. Sean O’Connor has announced that he’s going back to Eastenders. Though I’m sad, because he’s obviously a genius, I am at the same time relieved that, some time soon, it will be safe for me to venture back to Ambridge. I’m hoping there’ll be a nice long agricultural storyline for me to zone out to. Maybe the return of Adam’s mysterious herbal leys? The only thing I know about these is that they are not, sadly, anything to do with that nice boy Charlie.