Disturbing news from Ambridge: coercive, emotional bully Rob Titchener, whose slowly simmering domestic abuse of wife Helen has the nation on tenterhooks for her safety in one of the most gripping soap plot-lines ever, is not a one-off.
“We all know a Rob,’’ says Louiza Patikas, the actor who has played Helen for the past 16 years. ‘‘Or at least the type. The sort of man who likes to be in charge of his family. An Alpha male. And I have friends who are married to ‘Robs’ who have very happy lives. Maybe at the start that is just what Helen wanted.’’ Or at least, thought she was going to get.
But in the past three years, following the couple’s (initially illicit) courtship, marriage and current pregnancy, a darker side has emerged to former dairy farm manager. Helen may not be ready to accept it yet, but Archers aficionados know only too well that this apparently charming man’s determination to dominate and ‘‘look after’’ his wife can only end in some kind of monstrous denouement.
The storyline has not just captured the public’s imagination, but also broken the fourth wall in dramatic style, with a Twitter hashtag (#JeSuisHelen) uniting anxious listeners and a fabulous monologue delivered by Shakespearean actor Fiona Shaw on International Women’s Day imagining the moment Helen wakes up to reality.
One listener, Paul Trueman, has even set up a JustGiving page for those disturbed by the plot twists and who want to donate to real-life Helens. Trueman explains on his page, which has now raised more than £75,000 for Refuge, the charity for women experiencing domestic violence: ‘‘If over the last year or two you’ve sworn at the radio, tweeted in outrage, taken the name ‘Robert’ in vain, or posted your disgust at the worsening situation in Blossom Hill Cottage, then now’s your chance to do something constructive about it.
‘‘A fiver could get Helen (and Henry) a taxi round to the safety of her mum’s farm (she’s not ‘allowed’ to drive). A tenner could get her that maternity top [he made her send back].’’
It’s true Rob has firm views on Helen’s choice of clothes (he likes her in unflattering mauve), but today Patikas, two years older than Helen at 39, is looking decidedly confident and unsubmissive in a stylish animal print jacket and dark blue nail varnish. Relaxed and confident, she is more or less the polar opposite to her on-air character.
After her parents split up when Patikas was six, she moved back to Surrey with her mother Heather, a teacher, before studying acting at the Drama Studio in Ealing, west London. Early work included student films and helping to train junior doctors by acting as difficult patients.
Even after landing the role of Helen at 23 in 2000 – something she describes as ‘‘still one of the happiest days of my life’’ - there has been time out for small roles in films including Goldeneye, although the demands of motherhood - she has two children aged five and six - mean she is choosing to limit extra-curricular work to voiceovers for now.
She has seen the character of Helen through bereavement (a boyfriend committed suicide, her brother died in a tractor accident), anorexia, temporary estrangement from her father when she chose to have a child via assisted conception, and ensuing single motherhood. Yet even so, the current scenes are, she says, “ghastly’’.
‘‘As part of my research I sat with a survivor of this kind of abuse and she taught me a lot,” she says. “I found her story very harrowing and it left me with this sense of emotional responsibility to get it right.’’
The woman, who came to the BBC via the charity Women’s Aid, told her how ‘‘every sense was so heightened through fear that she was on constant alert, a sort of jumpiness that left her exhausted.’’
The whole Archers team, from its editor Sean O’Connor through to the writers, have meticulously researched the plot line and Patikas pays tribute to the “incredible scriptwriting’’ that reflects this. Listeners will recall one subtle example: Helen comes downstairs to a cry of “that’s better” from Rob, who we suddenly realise is now telling her what to wear.
For Patikas herself, the worst moments have centred on Helen’s relationship with her son Henry. In real life she lives happily in south London with actor husband Jonathan Aris (who has his own recurring part as Philip Anderson in Sherlock), but as a mother, it cannot be too difficult for her to summon up Helen’s distress when Rob warns she is frightening Henry with behaviour he claims includes sleepwalking.
“When I read the script for an episode where Henry tells Helen ‘I’ll look after you, Mummy’, I had tears streaming down my face.’’ Equally painful to play was the moment when Helen is coerced into sex by Rob. Isn’t she itching for Helen to wake up to what is happening? Will it happen soon, I ask optimistically?
Patikas looks enigmatic. ‘‘The penny drops at different times for women in this situation. Many people have been asking whether we are stringing the story out, but we are not artificially sustaining it. We want to do it in real time, because that is the reality. Do I wish Helen would fight back? As a listener, I wish it would reach a denouement, but in real life abuse can span decades.’’
So what would she regard as the optimal outcome?
“Well, she may be defined by triumph in the end…’’ she says, with not a great deal of confidence. ‘‘I’d like her to end up knee-deep in Borsetshire blue, spending happy time with the children, playing in the polytunnel. But there is an interesting future developing. There is a child on the way, and what will the effect of this abuse be on Henry longer term?’’
From a performer’s perspective, of course, the ongoing drama is no bad thing though. Nor does Patikas particularly want her on-air marriage to end because she enjoys working with Timothy Watson, who plays Rob in such a deliciously sinister fashion.
‘’I feel very lucky to be working with Tim,” she says. “We have read-throughs so I know what will happen but he continues to surprise me. There is something very easy between us as actors, a special thing, which doesn’t always happen.’’
Does she ever feel antagonistic towards Tim when Rob is being particularly controlling? “Not at all. To make this very delicate emotional story work, it has to be collaborative. So it would be interesting if we both stayed in somehow - and that would be more realistic too. But I have no idea what they have planned.’’
Bother. I thought she was about to give a hint of the climax to come, but no. She insists she doesn’t know how the story will progess. All she can offer for now is her sympathy for Helen and her decision, so far, to stay with Rob.
“She has invested everything in this relationship. Listeners might think she should go, but I stand by her decisions,” she says. “Throughout our lives she has had triumphs as well as dramas. And this has never felt like Helen’s downfall.’’