It’s no secret that I’m an Archers’ addict – I frequently comment on twitter about the storylines, and I’m noisily grateful to the The Archers’ producers for many hours of excellent listening. And in addition to that, The Archers was responsible for my great stroke of luck prior to the publication of The Road Back.
The stroke of luck was that I was introduced to Colin Dexter, author of the Inspector Morse novels, at an Oxford Writers’ Group party. Later, Colin read the manuscript and asked to endorse it with the words, ‘A splendid love story, so beautifully told’. And he came to my launch at Waterstones Oxford.
Colin and I had bonded at the OWG party over our mutual addiction to The Archers. At that time, we were both critical of the many new, difficult-to-identify young voices who’d suddenly been added to the cast, and we felt that the storylines needed a good shaking-up.
Well, we certainly wouldn’t make those same criticisms today! The story of Rob’s physical and emotional abuse of Helen has been absolutely gripping.
And this is despite some early confusion about Rob’s character. Let me explain what I mean.
When Rob moved into Ambridge, he was at loggerheads with his then wife, Jess, and it wasn’t long before he’d started a relationship with the emotionally-fragile Helen. Later, he divorced Jess and married Helen. Some time after that, Jess visited Helen, claiming to be pregnant with a child fathered by Rob after he’d married Helen. We, the listeners, believed Jess over Rob, and even more so when Rob refused to take a paternity test until he was effectively forced to do so. However, defying the listeners’ expectations, the DNA test results said that Rob wasn’t the father. Hmm, we thought.
And then some of us started to suspect that Rob, who was already showing a nasty side away from Helen, had falsified the notification of the DNA test results. This idea was fostered by the return of Dr Richard to Ambridge. But we weren’t to learn if we were right as the issue of paternity was suddenly dropped. (Of course, it might still surface again.)
For a short time after that, it seemed that Rob’s preoccupation with Henry, Helen’s young son, and Henry’s sudden emotional disturbances and nightly bed-wetting, might be related. But this line was dropped, too. It would have been too dark for The Archers, I’m sure.
At the same time, we were watching Rob’s actions outside the house. For example, he tried to put a wedge between Adam and Ian prior to their marriage. Why try to do this, we asked. But we were never given an answer. He then seemed to have been dishonest at work, and promptly resigned when financial discrepancies were raised by his boss, Charlie. But Charlie didn’t pursue the matter. Why didn’t he, we asked. But again there was no answer.
By then, the story of Rob’s abuse of Helen was beginning to surface, an abuse which was to result in her loss of self-worth, and in her blaming herself for her ‘failings’ as a wife and a mother, a sense of guilt induced in her by Rob.
For the listener, Rob’s verbal attack on Helen, which happened in real time, made for chilling and harrowing listening. It has had a profound affect on people, with Helen’s plight being taken to heart by listeners, and more than £80,000 being raised through a JustGiving fund set up by Archers’ fan, Paul Trueman, to help victims of domestic abuse.
Looking back at the different directions taken by Rob since his introduction to the show, it’s hard to avoid concluding that the writers originally intended Rob to go down one path, but then, drawing ideas from the way in which the actors/characters sounded together, changed their mind and sent him down several different paths until they happened upon the path on which he’s ended. This necessitated them turning their back on the several false starts and focusing solely on the domestic abuse of Helen.
The nature of radio means that storylines which are started and then abandoned, are done so in front of the listener. To give a literary analogy to this: it would be like experimenting as we wrote the novel with the ways in which our different characters could be used, and then publishing the novel without any editing.
Cavalier disregard for storylines that have already been started can be seen as an insult to the listener’s intelligence. However, when the story ends up being as powerful as the Rob and Helen story, I can forgive (almost) anything, and judging by the response from the numerous listeners, so can many others.
We authors are lucky in that we don’t have to leave the workings-out for the readers to see. If we have new insights into a character while writing the novel, we edit what’s gone on before so that every aspect of the story agrees with our changed vision. After that, the publisher’s editor will check that the novel works as a whole. By the time that our novel is put before readers, any inconsistencies and diversions will have been ironed out, and everything that happens in the story will be relevant to the story.
It’s Sunday morning and looking at the clock, I can see that it’ll soon be time for the omnibus edition of The Archers. As I don’t want to miss a single minute of it, I’m going to end now.
Over and out!