Notebook

Andrew M Brown: The Ambridge melodrama is a familiar story

The domestic abuse storyline that has captivated Archers listeners for the past few months took a cataclysmic turn this week, as Helen Titchener stabbed her controlling husband Rob. This plot has been rich in the sort of dramatic irony that soaps thrive on: we always knew that Rob – a relative newcomer to the series – was a baddie, but why couldn’t any of the characters see it? Well, now it should be out in the open.

Pam Ayres composed a poem for the occasion: “Gut-wrenching scenes to make you stagger, / Helen stabbed him with a dagger / Lying in his bloodstained shirt / Rob got his pie and his dessert.”

Over many months Rob has subtly and sometimes not-so-subtly chipped away at Helen’s confidence to the point where she began to question her sanity. Strange things started happening: she ‘‘forgot’’ to pick up her five-year-old son Henry from school; toad-in-the-hole was left to burn to a cinder in the oven, despite the fact that Helen thought she’d timed it correctly; and she nearly scalded Henry in too-hot bathwater. “That’s not like Helen at all,” was the universal reaction from her parents and chums. And it was not like Helen – but Rob had managed to convince her that perhaps she was going mad.

Remind you of anything? It’s the plot of MGM’s 1944 masterpiece of paranoid melodrama, Gaslight, based on a play by Patrick Hamilton. The central idea of that film, as in The Archers, is how bullying, control and even madness can all lie hidden within a marriage. In Gaslight, Paula Alquist is the Helen figure, and she’s played by Ingrid Bergman, who won an Oscar for it. Charles Boyer plays Gregory, her dead-eyed pianist husband, who – in such gentle, caring tones – suggests that she is “losing her mind” because she keeps (apparently) losing her things, jewellery and such-like. In fact, he has hidden them.

The casting of Bergman sheds interesting light on the whole scenario, because she was an essentially powerful actress playing a weak character. Similarly, Boyer was the great romantic lead of the 1930s, now cast as a dastardly manipulator. Bergman was not at all the clichéd “silly” or girlish ingénue (as David Thomson points out in his biography of Bergman, she had had a fling with Gary Cooper), and the psychodrama works better as a result.

Something similar applies to Louiza Patikas’s Helen, who had previously been a strong and independent woman, producing her own cheese, Borsetshire Blue, and running an organic shop. She is vulnerable to Rob because she loves him.

In Gaslight, Joseph Cotten as the Scotland Yard inspector saves the day; but Helen in The Archers has become horribly isolated: who will come to her rescue?

There are some people who so love broadcasting that they are more “themselves” when they’re on live television. When the ON AIR sign starts flashing, they are in their element.

I wonder if Mother Angelica was one of those. Watching hours of Mother Angelica’s Live Classics last week, I noticed her masterly technique: how, for example, she seems completely unaware of the camera, addressing the small audience in the room with her. At other times she breaks the “fourth wall” to look straight into the camera, fixing her eye directly on the viewer, or the person who is ringing in. She might have a cold, and will repeatedly take a moment to blow her nose, then tuck her handkerchief into a fold in her habit. She takes gulps of water and you can hear her swallowing.

When a caller rings in to say that he is gay, HIV-positive and struggling with his lifestyle, you wonder how she’ll deal with such delicate subject matter (remembering that the programme was made in the early 1990s). Yet with the air of someone cutting through double-talk, she starts off by simply stating: “You have Aids.” Whether that was strictly accurate or not, I don’t know, but I think her point was that we should call things by their proper names, and she would go on to emphasise that it is the behaviour that’s causing the trouble, the risk of infecting others, and so on.

She was unique and you can see why she drew huge audiences. She was an elderly lady with her own television show, and she said what came into her mind without censoring herself. Surely a good recipe for gripping television.

Mary Kenny is away