Dum, de dum, de dum, de dum…
The theme tune of my childhood and soundtrack to the washing up, these voices are almost as recognisable as my own family’s. In our house it was appropriate to ‘shush’ people as they walked in to ask a question if The Archers was on, and I can dry up in stealth mode so as not to drown out the voices. I only need those few notes to summon me back to my childhood home and a steamed up kitchen with misted windows on a winter’s evening.
With, Poldark, for example, much as I love him the programme, it’s easy to half watch and rely on recognising a face or place to follow a storyline. With radio, you simply have to listen. As I stood in the kitchen, I learnt to distinguish between the Aldridges and the Archers and the Grundys. The construct of Grange Farm and Ambridge is as complete in my head as it is in someone else’s, albeit entirely different as it’s largely based on the village I grew up in. You let these people into your home, and you can picture them vividly in your mind.
You begin to care what happens to the characters because they’re not characters any more – you’ve let them into your mind and your kitchen, and they’re your friends. I remember Brian’s affair with Siobhan, and Jennifer’s reaction, and being baffled when I realised they’d spelt Rory ‘Ruairi’. I remember David and Ruth’s experiences, mirroring friends of ours, struggling with foot and mouth outbreaks on the farm. It seems these events all happened in 2001, which was clearly a peak in my Archers listening career. Until now.
Despite all my protestations about it being something people of my parents’ age listen to – never mind that they must’ve been around my age back then – The Archers is now something I might tune into if I’m deliberately making tea around that time. I was determined not to. It’s like being sucked into back to back Netflix episodes – you keep returning for more. But recently Helen’s story and ensuing trial for attempted murder has drawn me back. Along with many of my peers.
It’s the culmination of two and a half years of emotional abuse by her husband, Rob. And because we can’t see it, because it’s radio, we’re asked to imagine ourselves into that scene, day after day. Every little scathing comment, the undermining of self-esteem, the checking of her phone and dismissal of her friends that isolated Helen was up to us to imagine. We’re trapped in a world we have constructed ourselves, yet have no control over with regards to what happens there; much like Helen. Her reality was deliberately distorted, and we were trapped outside, desperate for someone within to help her.
Tuning in, and usually joining in verbally, I got the sense that sometimes in The Archers, it’s actually what’s left unsaid that really matters. It’s hearing what’s between the lines that counts, what someone chooses not to say, and what they reveal to whom. I began to realise how carefully I listen to someone can reveal a lot to me about where they’re at. What are they not saying? What topics are they avoiding? Am I listening to the silences as well as the sounds?
And I am so, so thankful, as is the nation, for Kirsty: the incredible and tenacious friend who listened and heard what Helen wasn’t saying. She heard the silences and didn’t accept a vague answer or a brush off. She heard the unsaid, and calculated the things that didn’t add up. So it was her that Helen finally called, with the emergency phone Kirsty had given her ‘just in case’ because Rob checked her usual one, and who’s championed her every bit of the way.
#FreeHelen and ‘solidari-tea’ may seem like social media storms in an actual teacup, but perhaps we’ve done it because we all want to be a friend like Kirsty and to have a friend like her if we’re ever in dire straits. Listeners have donated more than £135,000 to a fund in Helen’s name to help those like her via the charity Refuge. The Archers has heightened awareness of coercive control as the nation has listened.
Helen seems like our friend. She lives in our imaginations, we hear her voice, and she even pops to mind during the day. We care, we absolutely want her to be acquitted, and if we’re really honest, we were shocked that Rob didn’t die and angry he continues to manipulate.
But maybe you really have a friend like Helen. Maybe their story isn’t coercive control or emotional abuse, but maybe – like Helen – they can’t tell you it all. Are we listening to the silences as well as the sounds? Are we accepting what we hear for what it is, or are we piecing a bigger picture together? I can recognise these voices in any kitchen in the land, but can I recognise my own friends’ silences as well as their voices so I can stand in solidarity with them?