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How a Radio Soap Got a Whole Country Talking About Domestic Abuse

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A controversial storyline about domestic abuse in a hugely popular British radio show has had such a profound effect on its listeners that they have raised more than £159,000 ($211,000) for a domestic violence charity in the name of a fictional character who has been abused.

BBC program The Archers is the world’s longest-running radio soap opera. Set in the fictional village of Ambridge in the English midlands, generations of listeners have followed the lives of the show’s lovable – and not so lovable – recurring characters since it began in 1950. Since then, more than 180,000 episodes have been broadcast and roughly 4.7 million people tune in to the six fifteen-minute episodes released each week. The drama unfolds in real time, and listeners hear the characters grow and develop alongside their own lives.

But one highly controversial plot has gripped listeners especially hard: the tumultuous relationship between Helen Archer and her husband Robert Titchener which came to a head Sunday evening, with millions of listeners tuning in to hear Helen acquitted by a jury of stabbing Rob in self defense.

Rob’s emotional abuse of Helen has been a slow-burning storyline drawn out by the writers over the past two and a half years, from Rob gradually acquiring control every aspect of Helen’s life from her friendships to her mobile phone, to him raping her “over and over again” – as was revealed in an episode this week.

It finally reached a climax last April when a depressed and pregnant Helen attacked Rob with a knife. “It’s your choice, but it’s the only way I am ever letting you go,” Rob said, goading Helen to kill herself after she told him she was leaving him.

A violent scuffle could then be heard and a blade clanking to the floor. Listeners soon learned that Rob had been stabbed, but had survived. Helen was then charged with attempted murder and wounding with intent and, after months of anticipation, her week-long trial began September 5.

Helen’s story has transcended radio drama to touch real life. Nigel Pascoe, a barrister from the New Forest, offered her representation in court. “I know we are not allowed to tout,” he tweeted, “but I am more than prepared to represent Helen, along with most of the criminal bar.” He had clearly thought through what his legal position would be as when asked he quickly cited: “Defences open include loss of control, lack of intent and almost certainly diminished responsibility. I’m up for it!”.

It has also sparked a national conversation about domestic abuse. British charity Women’s Aid, which works to support victims of domestic abuse, has been involved with the show from the beginning of this storyline, advising the producers and introducing actress Louiza Patikas, who plays Helen, to real life survivors of domestic abuse.

The Archers is wonderful as a piece of drama as it’s absolutely gripping,” Polly Neate, the charity’s CEO, told TIME. “But it has also been incredibly successful in raising awareness of domestic abuse and coercive control.”

The plot twist of Helen stabbing Rob has been criticized by some as being melodramatic, but Neate thinks otherwise. “We can’t shy away from the fact that women do retaliate and when they do it is often used against them and they are treated as the perpetrator when actually they are the victim,” she said.

“Helen’s found herself in a familiar situation where an act of retaliation has been interpreted as an act of unprovoked aggression. The story of Rob putting the knife in her hand and taunting her to kill herself rings true; it’s quite common for perpetrators to manipulate a woman to lose her self-control in some way and then use that to insure she ends up on the wrong side of the law, as a further way of controlling her.

“Helen has been a victim of mind games – she lost all her self esteem, started to doubt her own version of events and it took her a really long time to even acknowledge what happened to her. This has opened people’s eyes to a form of abuse they might not have been aware of before.”

This was the case with longterm Archers fan Paul Trueman. Utterly moved by Helen’s moving and “eye-opening” experience, he was inspired to set up a fundraising page to raise money for Refuge, the country’s largest provider of specialist services for women and children escaping domestic violence, in her name.

The JustGiving page, which is called The Helen Titchener (nee Archer) Rescue Fund, has received more than £159,000 ($211,000) since its creation in February – the equivalent of almost 2,900 nights in a refuge for a woman and her children.

The messages left by patrons are heartbreaking. “I was a victim of domestic violence 33 years ago. I can only say that it is as if the scriptwriter witnessed those scenes in my life all those years ago. My son and I survived and life became joyful again,” a donor under the name ‘Helen’ wrote.

Trueman, a social media manager from Devon, told TIME the show had opened his eyes to the reality of domestic violence. “When I thought of domestic abuse and violence, I thought about physical and sexual abuse – but never the mental side to it,” he said. “The day I created the page I set the target at £1,000, which felt incredibly presumptuous. Three hours later, I went to bed slightly shaken because we had already reached it, purely through social media.”

As well as raising funds, the program has done wonders for raising awareness about domestic violence and is cited as the reason for a 17% annual increase in calls to Britain’s national domestic violence helpline, which is run jointly by Women’s Aid and Refuge.

“The storyline has provided a brilliant opportunity to raise awareness of domestic violence – in particular, its subtle, insidious nature,” Sandra Horley, the chief executive of Refuge, said. “As it has unfolded, Refuge has been able to share vital messages with listeners, ensuring that women who find themselves in Helen’s situation know where to turn for support.”

Helen’s trial may have concluded, but the storyline will continue to have an impact for a long time to come.

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Write to Kate Samuelson at kate.samuelson@time.com