You may have seen this morning that both the Today programme and the BBC News front page, along with many print papers, ran headline pieces on an attempted murder trial. And you could be forgiven for wondering why – because it wasn't real...
The defendant, the victim, and all of the witnesses were characters from The Archers – that national treasure, the long running radio soap airing six days a week, which usually focuses on nothing more stirring than the Flower & Produce Show, milk prices and poaching ethics.
“An everyday story of country folk” may not sound exactly riveting, and you certainly may not expect its fictional events to hit national headlines – but for the last year this 13 minute long nightly radio drama has built a compelling domestic abuse narrative around two central characters. Yesterday culminated in a unique one hour special, where jurors deliberated over an attempted murder charge against Helen Titchener, the terrorised wife.
But more dramatic than the triumphant Not Guilty verdict – greeted with euphoria by Archers fans on Twitter, where #FreeHelen has been trending for months – is the surprising action it has provoked beyond the fictional world of Ambridge.
In February this year, an Archers fan set up a Just Giving page for the ‘real life Helens’, to help listeners donate to the domestic violence charity Refuge. After seven months, the page has raised almost £160,000. That’s a phenomenal amount of money, largely given in increments of £10 and £20, simply as a response to a story.
No one associated with the radio drama has ever asked for a donation. Not once in the entire storyline has mention been made of Refuge, or their reliance on charitable giving to survive. Helen doesn’t even access this form of support to escape her abuser.
Simply put: the insight, compassion and outrage elicited by this story has triggered a spontaneous response from the show’s listeners, to collaboratively provide the best help they can. Nobody thinks Helen Titchener is real, but they are very clear that she represents a real experience for many.
Stories captivate us. We live out the emotions and ideas of the characters. We imagine ourselves in the same situations. We wonder how we could help. We want to act.
If you want to go beyond simple awareness from your audience, tell them a story – and watch them respond.