I find this kind of funny: while The Night Of had the world on tenterhooks with its cliffhanger trial storyline, Britain had its own pop culture moment this week, a few weeks after the end of The Night Of, The Archers on BBC Radio 4 had its te country on the edge with its upcoming trial where Helen Tichener was on trial for attempted murder of his abusive husband Rob.
For American and non-British readers, The Archers is the longest-running soap opera in the world. It began in 1950s and has been running six episodes a week since 1998. It’s set in a farming village in rural England and features a large, evolving cast of characters, essential a generational family saga that enables the writers to cover just about any political or social issue, including farming and agricultural information, in real time to fulfill the BBC’s brief to educate and inform on top of entertain. I’ve often snarked about this show being about the most boring characters in England, offering as it does a cozy middle-class setting full of stereotypical characters from the social spectrum of British life, but it does bend over backwards to dramatise all the issues of the day. The show really is representative of Britain. It’s how the British like to see themselves: essentially well-meaning and moral if flawed. It’s frequently a snapshot of the UK, no matter how mawkish, cozy, corny of dull.
This past year has been setting up the domestic abuse storyline to call attention to the issue that culminated with Helen stabbing her abusive husband Rob, getting arrested and gearing up for the trial. The show has gotten coverage in all the British papers this past week. The climax of the storyline was an hour-long special episode on Sunday featuring special guest stars like Eileen Atkins, Nigel Havers and Catherine Tate playing three of the jurors debating whether or not to find Helen guilty.
The past week’s episodes had been about the trial itself with the testimonies and summations that let the listener hear all the evidence and experience what a trial would feel like, then on Sunday be a fly on the wall in the jurors’ arguments as they struggled over what verdict to render. This was where things got interesting since it’s not just a slice of naturalistic writing. The jurors were divided with half believing Helen was guilty of plotting to murder her husband while the rest believed she was abused and defending herself and her son. There was another level to it, of course, where the arguments and attitudes of jurors also became an allegory for Brexit Britain with some of them expressing the types of reactionary attitudes that led to the Brexit vote. One particularly reactionary juror launched into a rant about the British losing their rights and laws giving why to liberal bias and hand-wringing. No prizes for guessing how he would have voted during the Referendum.
I also noted all the Scriptwriting 101 tricks of seeding the characters’ arcs so there were twists and reversals later on, where no one was quite what they at first appeared to be. It was no accident that Dame Eileen Atkins, a Grande Dame of British drama, having been the creator of Upstairs Downstairs on top of an acclaimed actress was cast as an imperious juror with an academic background who drove everyone crazy with her insistence on paying attention to the letter, not the spirit of the law and a thorough examination of the evidence. It was also no accident to cast Nigel Havers from Chariots of Fire to play the juror who initially appeared to be the very picture of a decent middle-class British chap, or Catherine Tate from Doctor Who and The Catherine Tate Show as a loud, obnoxious, reactionary bigot who insists Helen must be guilty. Then the worms turned – Nigel Havers’ decent chap was revealed to be a frustrated, seething misogynist, Catherine Tate’s angry bigot turned out to have been a past victim of abuse herself filled with self-loathing and denial, and Eileen Atkins’ grande dame was the true voice of reason who helped drive the verdict towards the correct one as rendered under the law. The script did an expert, manipulative job of slowly turning the screws as the characters’ true colours came to be revealed as the hour passed. It was as captivating as any drama about a trial, and without the gimmicks or plot holes The Night Of had. Where The Night Of depended on gimmicks and US network TV tricks, The Archers here depended on nothing more than characters revealing and defining themselves through dialogue and performance. This was The Archers doing Twelve Angry Men, though it was more like Twelve Angry Brits.
Soap operas are ultimately melodrama, depending on a ratcheting of tension as far as possible before opening the release valve at the climax for catharsis and relief. I don’t have to spoil here what the verdict was because if you know anything about happy or tragic endings, you can easily guess the outcome. As I listened, I chuckled at the expert way the writers built the well-oiled machine, set the gears and turned the wheels. This was an instant of a piece of popular entertainment educating the public about a social issue, here being domestic violence, the psychology of abuse and why the abused are often not believed and stay with their abusers, and how difficult it is to get justice, not to mention the biases and torturous machinations of jury trials. The BBC included links to websites and helplines for domestic abuse and a charity set up by a fan to aid domestic abuse organisations raised over £150,000 during the week the episodes aired.
This may not be Marvel or DC or Doctor Who, but it has millions of listeners all over the UK listening in waiting to hear the verdict. This is beyond geek devotion. This is a mainstream pop culture moment. It’s what the BBC does best, holding a mirror up to Britain and hoping it can live up to what it would like to see.
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