Why the pictures really are better on the radio

I love radio,’ said the barrister-turned comedian Clive Anderson, in an interview he gave to Media Guardian in 2002, ‘I tend to have speaking radio on in the background. Someone gave me a digital radio and it’s fantastic. It’s one of the great inventions of our times – though my knob fell off after a few weeks.

I know what you’re thinking. Some of you clicking on this will be chuckling loudly at that quotation, while others will find it objectionable, largely on the basis of that ambiguous word in the last sentence. Nonetheless, apart from the cheap laugh, I raised Clive’s words to underline a belief of my own, which I am sure is shared by plenty of others: radio is one of the great inventions of our times. It has informed, educated and entertained billions across the world, and also helped to get them to communicate with others. What’s more, I would not have known about the aforementioned Anderson quotation if I had not heard it being used as a “cutting” in BBC Radio 4’s News Quiz a few years ago…

This evening we are being treated to what promises to be another illustration as to why the quality of radio’s pictures consistently outperforms the ones on television. It’s the start of the Helen Titchener Trial on Radio 4’s The Archers. In the first week of April this year, a two-year drip-drip storyline of Rob Titchener’s controlling and abusive behaviour (which involved rape and assault as well as psychological “gaslighting”) came to a dramatic head in the Titchener home when, in trying to defend her 5-year-old son Henry from one of Rob’s rages, Helen stabbed her husband twice with a kitchen knife, almost killing him. A jury now has to decide, after the coming days or weeks of various players giving evidence, whether or not she is guilty of attempted murder and wounding with intent.

The 3 April episode where Helen told her husband that she was leaving him, has been called The Day The Archers Broke Twitter, as tens of thousands of Archers addicts took to social media to share their thoughts, not just about that episode, but about the storyline generally, and how the soap had done much to raise the profile of the still-little-understood issue of domestic abuse. Beginning in February, one Archers fan set up the Helen Titchener (nee Archer) Rescue Fund on JustGiving.com, to raise money for the Refuge charity, with the fan explaining on the page that ‘for every fictional Helen, there are real ones‘. Thus far over £135,000 has been raised, and with the target set at £150,000 it seems hard to believe that this will not be met or even exceeded, as the trial gets underway. Some fans have responded to the drama a little too zealously, apparently forgetting that Ambridge and Borsetshire and all their inhabitants are actually fictional. Timothy Watson, the actor portraying the villainous Rob, has been forced off Twitter, and apparently been abused in the street, by listeners who seem to think The Archers is a docusoap.

Helen (played by Louiza Patikas) and Rob Titchener (Timothy Watson) from The Archers

Helen (played by Louiza Patikas) and Rob Titchener (Timothy Watson) from The Archers

This is not the first time that The Archers has made waves, and not just radio ones. Since the soap started in January 1951 it has been more than just about “an everyday story of country folk.” It has tackled such issues as drug addiction, abortion, and racial abuse, as well as more predictable agriculturally themed ones. Most famously, of course, the scriptwriters in September 1955 sensationally killed off Phil Archer’s first wife Grace in a barn fire on the same night that ITV went on the air in Britain – an episode that was brilliantly parodied on Hancock’s Half Hour in a 1959 episode entitled “The Bowmans”.

The power of radio can also be frightening: in 1938, in a bid to attract more advertising for his CBS radio adaptation of H G Wells’s sci-fi classic War of The Worlds, Orson Welles added in realistic-sounding news flashes informing listeners of how a fleet of Martians had landed at various North American locations. These reports included eye-witness accounts, many of them voiced by the same actor (Joseph Cotten). Another actor went so far as to impersonate President Franklin Roosevelt. In the resulting panic, restaurants emptied in New York, and there was a rush to bus terminals and taxi ranks as horrified listeners, believing the news reports to be real, hurried home to be with their families in the coming Martian onslaught. When the panic had died down, and people realised that what they had been listening to was in fact a radio play rather than an extended news bulletin, not a few of them issued lawsuits against CBS totalling around $750,000, but these were soon abandoned as CBS itself basked in the publicity and proceeded coolly to milk the coming advertising revenue. As the writer Nigel Blundell put it…

[Orson] Welles, worried by the ratings, was throwing everything into War of the Worlds. He knew that CBS would ditch his show if it did not find a big-money sponsor. And it would not get a sponsor if it did not gain more listeners.

In other words, there was no such thing as bad publicity…(discuss…)

Since the ’50s and ’60s, of course, radio has suffered somewhat from competing with television for attention, and you have to wonder sometimes what life would be like if TV had not arrived. Take, for instance, the 1960 live presidential debate in the States, between Jack Kennedy and Richard Nixon. It appears that most people following the live debate on the radio considered Nixon the winner, while most TV viewers reckoned that Kennedy had won…

These days, radio faces even tougher competition, as it is also in the same position as television in battling against the power of the internet for listeners. There are so many things that radio does better than any medium: the argument is that, in painting pictures with words (as it were), it feeds the imagination, whereas television supplants it, and the gradual story of Rob’s persecution of Helen in The Archers has proved to be masterful in racking up the tension in a way that a televised soap really could not. Who knows how much longer this invention will go on? Maybe Queen were right in musing in their 1984 hit Radio Ga Ga:

You’ve had the time, you’ve had the power,
You’ve yet to have heard your finest hour, radio…

Meanwhile, a fictional woman is about to take to the dock in a fictional courtroom, and for all we know, one particular radio programme may be about to experience its own “finest hour”… or finest fifteen minutes, at any rate…

, ,