The Archers trial: Essential listening or a step too far?
Domestic abuse storyline keeps many listeners 'riveted', but others long for the Ambridge of old
WARNING: This story contains spoilers
Millions of listeners tuned into the BBC Radio 4 drama The Archers last night to hear the gripping conclusion to the fictional trial of Helen Titchener for the attempted murder of her abusive husband Rob – but has the show lost its way?
Following a week of Archers episodes focusing on the trial, the special hour-long instalment concluded the high-profile domestic abuse plot and delivered a verdict on the incident in which Helen was accused of stabbing Rob. It featured a star cast of jurors, including Nigel Havers, Dame Eileen Atkins and Catherine Tate, who considered Helen's fate at Borchester Crown Court.
After a period of nerve-wracking deliberations, in which Havers's character seemed determined to find Helen guilty, Dame Eileen's character managed to convince enough fellow jury members that there was reasonable doubt. The majority verdict was not guilty of both counts of attempted murder and wounding with intent.
"The nation breathed a collective sigh of relief after the fate of Helen Titchener was finally revealed," says Siobhan Fenton in The Independent. She says the drama has become "essential listening" after keeping audiences hooked for weeks with its tense domestic abuse plotline.
The outcome also prompted thousands of responses on social media, causing the show to trend on Twitter for hours after the episode aired. Members of the public, celebrities and even some politicians tweeted their comments.
Like many listeners, Allison Pearson in the Daily Telegraph, says that she was left shaken by the story. We had "knots in our guts, tears in our eyes, dread in our hearts, gin in our trembling hands".
But this new kind of Archers – "EastEnders with hay bales and marital rape" – is not to everyone's taste, notes Pearson. It has "alternately riveted and angered listeners", many of whom preferred it when Ambridge was rocked by scandals about undermarked marrows at the village fete.
Thousands have switched off since the abuse plotline began, adds Pearson, even if "few could resist the gravitational pull" of this episode.
I fear "it's curtains" for The Archers as we know it if it keeps trying to chase ratings like this, says Kate Chisholm in The Spectator. The domestic-abuse storyline was gripping to begin with, she says, but in reality "abuse is too raw, too monotonously awful, too dull" for the writers, who "turned the storyline into cheap melodrama".
In fact the whole soap has been "well and truly done over, and every halfway believable character cast off, every spot of light relief subsumed into the desperate desire to crank up the ratings", says Chisholm.
We know Ambridge is a soap whose happenings are "mere whispers in the mind", argues the commentator. She adds: "Just make it true to life."