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London // Middle England is bracing itself for the trial of the century, which begins at 7.02pm on Sunday and is expected to last all week.

In the dock is Helen Titchener, a 37-year-old farm-shop manager and accomplished cheese-maker who faces charges of attempted murder and wounding with intent after stabbing her allegedly abusive husband Rob, in the presence of her five-year-old son, Henry.

Sunday at 7pm would be an odd time for a court case to begin, were it not for the fact that Helen and Rob are not real people, but characters in The Archers, a radio soap opera with six 12-minute shows a week, plus a 75-minute omnibus edition every Sunday at 10am.

The fact that the case is pure fiction has not, however, prevented it becoming a cause célèbre among the long-running programme's five million devoted listeners, many of whom, with an average age of 56, appear to have lost touch with reality.

The plot line about Helen's abusive relationship with Rob has provoked storms of fury, on Twitter and beyond. As far back as September last year Timothy Watson, the actor who plays the manipulative cad, was booed and heckled by the middle-class audience when he appeared on stage for a debate during the Radio Times Festival at Hampton Court Palace.

Since his character's coercive behaviour drove Helen to stab him in April, he has understandably been keeping his head down, beyond offering the observation that Rob is "narcissistic and horrendously abusive. A psychopath [who] has no ability to conduct a proper loving relationship."

Many have welcomed the plot for highlighting the issue of domestic abuse and coercive behaviour in relationships. A fund-raising website set up for the charity Refuge in Helen Titchener's name — "because for every fictional Helen, there are real ones" — has almost hit its target of £150,000 (Dh732,000).

One devoted fan of the programme is former justice secretary Michael Gove, who says The Archers is "required listening in our house" (as, apparently, it is for several members of the royal family, including Prince Charles). In May Mr Gove said Helen's plight had added impetus to the government's plans to change the way the prison system treated pregnant women and mothers with babies.

In December last year the UK introduced a law making "coercive or controlling behaviour" in a relationship an offence. It is not clear if Rob's behaviour played a part in shaping the legislation, but many fans are hoping that the inevitable plot twist at the end of this week will be that the legal tables are turned and he falls foul of it.

Other fans of The Archers, the world's longest-running soap opera, miss the days of escapist rural twaddle and are unhappy with the sensationalist direction the show has taken, but in the 65 years and 18,000-plus episodes since it first went on the air this has been a frequent complaint.

Set in Ambridge, a village in the fictional county of Borsetshire in the English Midlands, the show was first broadcast on January 1, 1951, more than two years before the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Producer Godfrey Baseley developed the show with the help of the ministry of agriculture, fisheries and food as an entertaining method of conveying topical farming tips to help ease Britain's post-war food shortages.

At its peak in the 1950s, The Archers was attracting up to 20 million listeners an episode, with plots no more incendiary than an outbreak of potato blight and the occasional hotly contested jam-making competition.

There was one early controversial stab at high drama — the death in a stable fire of key character Grace Archer, bumped off by the scriptwriters on September 22, 1955, supposedly in an attempt to sabotage the launch of the UK's first commercial television station.

Producer Baseley was replaced in 1972 and in 1996, the year before he died, he grumbled that The Archers had "completely lost its way".

"Luckily," he added, "I'm nearly completely deaf and can't listen to it any more."

In the beginning, The Archers was billed as "an everyday story of country folk". Today, the BBC styles it a "contemporary drama in a rural setting" and over the years The Archers has increasingly neglected pig-rearing and chicken fancying in favour of issues of interest to listeners far beyond the tree-fringed idyll of Ambridge.

After female scriptwriters were introduced in the mid-70s, feminist writer Julie Burchill observed that Ambridge's women had finally been liberated from "the gallons of greengage jam old-guard male scriptwriters kept them occupied with for over 20 years" and were now into "postnatal depression and alcoholism on the way to self-discovery".

Not everyone is looking forward to the week of high drama. The trial of Helen Archer, wrote one critic this week, "will be a life sentence for us all". The man credited with — or blamed for — the controversial new Archers is Sean O'Connor, who moved over to the programme in 2013 after masterminding the excruciatingly tacky ITV drama Footballers' Wives. Now he is off again, this time to the long-running BBC TV soap opera EastEnders, where many believe his flair for melodrama will be more comfortably accommodated. In an interview last year Tony Hall, director general of the BBC, commented that The Archers had become "EastEnders in a field".

Even Mr O'Connor thinks The Archers may have strayed too far from its rural heartland — not least, perhaps, because the show's ratings wavered slightly in the first quarter of this year, despite the relentless onslaught of high drama. "You couldn't do a story of this magnitude again for a few years," he said recently. "The show needs to return to a much gentler way of telling the stories for a while."

After Helen Titchener's ordeal finally ends on Friday, as surely it must, there are many who, as the show's theme tune Barwick Green fades in, would welcome the sound of dusty jam jars being taken from cupboards once again.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae



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