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19/02/2019
BBC Radio 4

How Helen's trial was written

It seems a long time since I sat down to write two and a half hours of The Archers, comprising of six ‘normal’ episodes, Helen’s trial and Sunday’s Jury Special. In fact it was only four months ago.

Not everyone may appreciate how quickly The Archers is made, but for a week’s worth of episodes we have two days to prepare a pitch, four days to write a synopsis, a couple of weeks for the scripts and then rewrites are normally done over a weekend. Even when the episodes are out of the ordinary we have no extra time, so I felt as though I was embarking on a marathon that had to be run at the speed of a sprint.

A realistic and accurate framework

Fortunately I had a fantastic team around me. Journalist Sarah Swadling was brought in to research the trial and worked closely with criminal barrister Simon Phillips to produce a realistic and accurate framework. Outgoing Editor Sean O’Connor and I then worked to shape it into six, dramatic twelve and half minute episodes. This was easier said than done. The British justice system is not given to revelations and cliffhangers.

For instance, for Jess to be allowed to give evidence she would have to come forward before Helen finished giving hers. But how to do it without spoiling the surprise? Add to that the difficulty of squeezing a four day trial into seventy-five minutes, as well as the restrictions on the number of characters we’re able to cast, and simply structuring the episodes became a huge challenge even before I started thinking about dialogue.

Creating new characters

Not quite as big a challenge as the Jury Special though. Writing for characters you already know is one thing, but having to create eight new characters from scratch is quite another. What I knew I didn’t want was a group of functionally written jurors sat around doing nothing but going over the evidence. One would hope that most listeners are on Helen’s side so it wasn’t as if anyone’s opinion was going to be swayed. Where was the dramatic potential that could make the Special genuinely special?

At the time the country was still reeling from the Brexit vote and it seemed to me that the jury room could be a forum in which some of those issues could be raised. I’d also just read about a study that found that attitudes to capital punishment are a much better indicator as to how a person voted in the referendum than socio-economic factors. How much would the jurors’ individual worldviews affect how they saw Helen’s case?

By this time Sean had moved to EastEnders so I drove down to see him in Walford (Elstree Studios) and pitched the idea. Fortunately he liked it and a month later we were recording the jury scenes in the radio drama studio at Broadcasting House.

Eight actors were cast specially to play members of the jury in Helen's trial.

It’s only now that everything has been aired that I can take stock of the last few months. I’m sure we’ve given the listeners the verdict they wanted, but I also hope we’ve provided the emotional moments along the way that reward their commitment to such a painful story.

Of course the moment everyone still craves is Rob getting his comeuppance, but in the eyes of the law he’s still an innocent man. Is that how the residents of Ambridge will see him though?

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