Radio’s most unhappy couple greet each other with a warm embrace. Louiza Patikas and Timothy Watson have come to a BBC meeting room to reflect on portraying one of the most talked-about storylines in the Radio 4 soap opera’s 60-year history: the escalating emotional and physical abuse that his character, Rob Titchener, is inflicting on hers, Helen Titchener, née Archer.
If such a publicised narrative were happening in EastEnders, the actors would need bodyguards to go shopping, but sound confers invisibility and Watson has just walked unmolested around one of London’s most popular stores, although he is beginning to experience some public recognition: “I was introduced to an elderly gentleman in the pub the other day, and he said, ‘I know who you are. I saw a picture of you in The Daily Telegraph and my wife said I shouldn’t speak to you!’”
Actors are often very far from the parts they play, but Rob’s brutal manipulation of Helen is so vivid on air that the warm mutual respect between the performers seems somehow surprising as they compare notes on when they first realised where the fictional relationship was heading.
“The signs of control were there quite early,” says Watson, then asks Patikas: “Would you agree?”
The actors initially had, like listeners, to pick up hints because, unlike in most forms of acting, the performers in soap opera don’t know the whole story – the Archers cast get scripts only a few weeks ahead – or where it will end.
“In the early days,” says Patikas. “Timothy would sometimes look at one of Rob’s lines and say to me, ‘I’m not sure if I’m as bad as this suggests or not’.”
“Yes, that’s key for me,” he agrees. “In most other roles, you have a knowledge of the whole storyline and that inevitably informs how you approach it. But we literally play from one scene to the next. It’s a very good technical discipline and, in that sense, it’s a lot like real life because, in our own lives, we can’t behave according to what we know is going to happen.”
In compensation for not knowing the ending, soap opera casts have a much longer past to draw on. The actress, for example, is always conscious that Helen is a woman whose first husband killed himself and so she may be psychologically over-keen to keep her second spouse happy. “I started this role in my 20s, and so there’s a very rich history to draw on. Helen’s had a very chequered past and just wanted Rob to walk into her life and fix everything.”
Unlike in some soaps, such as EastEnders, where the actors are given a substantial character biography when they arrive, new recruits to Ambridge pick up their histories day by day. Watson only found out what Rob’s mother, an apparently key figure in his psycho-pathology, was like when Carolyn Jones started playing Ursula Titchener. “There are hints that she is the only person who has ever been able to influence Titchener’s behaviour.”
Women’s Aid, a charity helping victims of domestic abuse, has advised the writers and helped the actress with research: “I was lucky enough to sit down with a survivor of a similar story. And I found it incredibly upsetting and difficult to listen to, so I do understand what it is like for some listeners of the programme.” She has received “some very very affecting letters” from women in abusive relationships.
Actors who plays scenes of rape or physical intimidation on stage or screen have to negotiate carefully between them the physical actions and proximity but, if they wanted, Watson and Patikas could stand either side of a microphone. “We don’t act it all out physically,” she says, “but we have to be very close at the microphone.”
“Yes,” he agrees. “I sometimes put the scripts aside in order to be able to play the scenes more as you would on stage or on camera.”
Archers performers can choose the extent to which they use costumes or props in the studio. Patikas reaches over and touches her colleague’s chunky wrist-watch. “For me, that’s a massive part of Rob Titchener: that thing you do with your watch.” She rattles its metallic strap, in a sound that tells listeners Rob has raised his hand towards his wife. “Did you know that? That sends chills through me.”
“Wow,” he says. “I’ll never be able to do that again now. To me, it’s just my watch and it makes that noise. But there’s a Barbour jacket I wear in some scenes, and that does help. That wax jacket sound is unlike any other.”
Patikas reveals another trade secret: they have never met the young actor who plays Helen’s son, Henry. Due to child labour laws, his lines are recorded separately.
“I’ve never met my son!”, laughs Louiza. “But it works. There’s a scene coming up soon where Henry says, ‘Mummy, I’ll look after you!’, and it’s heart-breaking.”
“We are often close to tears after recording,” her radio husband agrees.
Apart from that sneak preview of a Henry line, the cast are banned from discussing future plot developments, but surely there must soon be some kind of resolution to the Titchener storyline?
“Well, sometimes women endure this kind of abuse for decades,” says the actress.
One tragically plausible outcome of a Helen-Rob relationship in real life would be her murdered and him in jail, but, for the sake of radio acting careers, the actors must hope that neither happens. “For the characters as well as our careers,” clarifies Patikas. “I hate the thought of Helen being taken away from her family as much as being extricated from The Archers myself, and I’m sure Timothy feels the same.” Watson nods a very non-Rob-like approval.
In a previous overlap of their CVs, both have provided voices for James Bond video-games, with Watson playing 007 himself. So would he like to put himself in the shortlist to replace Daniel Craig as the movie Bond? “I’m realistic about my time of life and so on. But I really would like to throw my hat in the ring to play a Bond villain.”
Perhaps he could do so as Rob Titchener, running a sinister experimental dairy farm from an undersea lair.
His co-star demands an equality that their radio characters tragically lack: “Can I be a Bond woman, then? If you do it, I have to do it, that’s only fair.”