It is often said that if Charles Dickens were writing now it would be for a popular soap opera perhaps as a script-writer for BBC radio 4 serial The Archers.  John Yorke described soaps as ‘modern morality plays’; the latest Archers storyline involving the tragic decline of character, Darrell Makepeace contains all the elements of a classic Dickensian morality tale.  But is this story either educational or entertaining for audiences?

The story is on one level a social commentary on welfare cuts, mental health and community which is perhaps particularly apt at Christmas. On the other hand it has been difficult for audiences to identify with the plight of Darrell who has made a series of ‘bad choices’ from being led astray by workmates into receiving stolen goods and imprisoned. His return to ‘polite society’ is short-lived as Darrell manages to find work but falls out with his new boss.  He becomes involved in a scheme to help out a former prison mate in a particularly nasty story line involving an illegal dog fight and though Darrell escapes prison he has become more vulnerable with every episode since (his marriage failed, he is estranged from his daughters).

To the surprise of some long term Archers fans Darrell has been taken into the home of Shula Hebden Lloyd (nee Archer), a key character whose attempts to ‘sort Darrell out’ have rapidly come undone. We might say that Shula represents ‘Archers’ aristocracy’, willing to step in and show benevolent humanitarianism, fuelled by her devout religious beliefs. However Darrell has become increasingly disconnected from village life. He is passive and withdrawn with occasional alcohol fuelled outbursts. After each argument with Shula (in whose house he now resides), Darrell can be found sulking in his borrowed bedroom, drowning his sorrows in the local pub or on one occasion, vomiting on the precious family video collection. As a consequence Shula has become less benevolent and at times openly frustrated, screaming, ‘Why can’t you get a grip?’ ‘Be a man’.

The character of Darrell has tried the patience not just of Shula but of the not insignificant community of Archers’ fans. It may not be clear to listeners but Darrell is meant to be a depiction of someone who is clinically depressed. Shula is angry because he lies around all day but she seems blind to the fact that the signs are there that he is ill not ‘useless’. Darrell talks about how exhausted he is and even the smallest effort is too great. The copious form filling and meetings required to secure independent housing under the new benefits system is shown to be far too daunting for someone in his position. The task of intertwining a gripping story of mental illness and welfare cuts as embodied in a fairly new and generally unsympathetic character is a challenge for script-writers despite the fact that The Archers has taken advice on the story from a mental health professional:

He doesn’t need sympathy, but empathy. If Darrell were helpless at a bottom of a well, we would try to encourage him to climb out, maybe even help him. This is what empathy is. Sympathy would be to look down on him crying, becoming helpless ourselves. This approach helps nobody. While Darrell will ultimately have to take responsibility for his own actions, those around him must not disempower him from doing this. Once his mood has lifted and he can see more clearly, the recovery process begins. Unlike a broken arm or leg it is difficult to place a timespan on how long his recovery will take. Mental health differs from physical health in that many other external factors can all impinge on any progress made.

This story raises some interesting questions of how far people can take mental illness into their own hands and avoid turning to clinical services. It also provokes the question of whether religiously inspired charity is a meaningful, effective or even ethical response to depression. Certainly the character of Darrell appears to have challenged the most liberal of Radio 4 listeners.  Many Archer’s fans have criticised the show for the decision to run a mental health story with a character who was also a petty criminal and alcoholic. As one describes:

That Darrell’s problem is a psychiatric one is the most optimistic take on his situation. It is also possible that he is a scrounger and a manipulator, Shula being his main victim. Very frustrating indeed.

The fact that so many people relate Darrell’s plight to being a manipulative ‘scrounger’ is not surprising partly because of his characterisation but it also resonates with the wider mediation of austerity messages via the mass media where use of the word “scrounger” in media reports has tripled in the last five years; newspaper campaigns encouraging the public to denounce people they judge to be disability benefit fraudsters have been run and the “scrounger” rhetoric has resulted in the general public believing 50 to 70 percent of those on disability benefits are claiming falsely. According to the government’s statistics, the real figure is actually under one percent.

It is always difficult to write about the meaning of soap stories as they are ‘never ending’ and rarely ‘finished’ however the latest twist in the story is that Darrell has taken a paracetemol overdose and is now in a coma. We don’t yet know how the story will resolve but few people are clear about the intended message of the story. Characters that are not well established in the programme can rarely generate public sympathy and it appears that listener empathy is limited for Darrell. Some may argue that this story has not been successful. John Yorke rejects the popular criticism that soap stories are depressing:

Ironically, it seems soap operas are successful because of their morality – because good triumphs over evil. When they forget this and fall into the trap of telling you just how bad life is, they tend to flounder in the ratings.

Christmas is a time when all soap operas are competing for audiences and morality tales of characters and their misfortunes are likely to feature across an array of storylines.  The story of Darrell and his downfall is not especially innovative but it has additional charge in the current climate as we are witnessing large scale welfare reform with serious repercussions for public health and community based solutions.

NOTE: For those not familiar with the joys of listening to the world’s oldest soap opera, Stephen Fry gives listeners an instant introduction to the programme here.