Hiddleston, Hitchcock and The Archers, by Sean O’Connor
The Fatal Passion of Alma Rattenbury is the latest book by radio, TV and film producer Sean O’Connor. He has found that his work as a producer was inspired by his interest in true crime – and vice versa…
In 2010 I produced the film version of Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea. This starred a young, pre-Thor Tom Hiddleston. Tom’s character was an ex-RAF pilot who realised that his finest hour had been during the Battle of Britain. After the war he felt without purpose or direction and had taken to drink. During filming, I mentioned to Tom that I’d heard of a similar case of an ex-RAF pilot, Neville Heath, who had turned out to be a killer. Wouldn’t that make an extraordinary film? So I decided to see if there was anything more to the story than the sketchy headlines I’d read. During my research, I was struck that in the 1960s, Alfred Hitchcock had intended to make a film inspired by Heath. Influenced by the French new wave, he imagined a new style of film – shot with hand-held cameras, extreme violence and full-frontal nudity. But Hitchcock’s plan was thwarted by his producers. According to them, the film he outlined wasn’t a ‘Hitchcock movie’. The film was abandoned, though in 1972, Hitch did go on to make Frenzy based on a novel inspired by the Heath case, but which today feels curiously old fashioned, given it’s by the director of the game-changing Psycho. This started me thinking. Could I make the film that even Hitchcock was prevented from making?
I consulted some of the books about Heath, but they tended to be salacious and bordering on the pornographic- He was infamous for tying up the women he killed and whipping them with a riding crop. But on consulting files at the National Archives in Kew, a much more complex story was revealed. One witness statement from Heath’s commanding officer outlined that Heath was suffering from some sort of post traumatic disorder. This was years before he was finally arrested for murder in 1946. The statement was not referred to at Heath’s trial as Heath’s commanding officer had a heart attack on the day of the trial so never gave his evidence. This new material – much of it never examined previously – seemed too rich and complex to be covered in a two-hour film. I decided park the idea of making a film and started writing. Handsome Brute was published in 2013.
Just as I was thinking of my next book, I had a call from the BBC asking if I’d like to take over as Editor of The Archers for Radio 4. Even before I started working back in Ambridge, I read several books by previous editors. What was clear from the early history of the programme was that it was defiant about what it was. The first editor of the programme, Godfrey Baseley, had been at a conference in the late 1940s about the challenges to the farming industry in the wake of the war. One farmer had told Baseley that what they needed was new information, but delivered in a popular, accessible way, a ‘farming Dick Barton’, referring to the drama serial Baseley had produced. This was the key to The Archers’ success – short episodes with all the most compelling elements of drama – comedy, romance, relationships and – importantly – cliffhangers. It was never just about bovine TB and cake.
For me, the genius of The Archers is its simplicity – and the fact that this simplicity hides a profound truth – a farmer’s life and livelihood is dominated by Fate. A bad crop or disease in his herd can bankrupt a farmer overnight. Farmers are always struggling with the land, the weather and various acts of God. The listener doesn’t need to be a farmer to know how dramatically life can be driven off course by the unexpected.
One of the great Archers moments was the death of Grace Archer in 1955. Grace was Phil Archer’s young wife, who died trying to save a horse in a fire. This tragedy happened completely out of the blue and caused a national outcry and a media sensation.
I wondered, in an age of social media and 24-hour news, could we achieve something similar? What would play to the strengths of intimate radio drama and particularly the daily soap format? A court case would give us an inciting incident, an investigation and a trial. I then began thinking of some of the great literary murders. Could we create a murder story where we saw, from day to day, how the situation developed over time from both victim and perpetrator’s point of view? I was particularly keen for the murder to be very domestic – it should take place in the kitchen, just as Winnie Verloc stabs her husband in Conrad’s The Secret Agent. I then thought about Hardy’s Tess – a book that spends four hundred pages exploring how an abused woman is driven to kill her lover.
Talking to one of The Archers’ writers, Tim Stimpson, I mentioned that I thought that we could tell such a story with the newly arrived Rob Titchener and Helen Archer who had long frustrated listeners by talking ad infinitum about her cheese. She was a spiky, sometimes caustic character, with a complex background – her brother had died in a farming accident, her boyfriend had shot himself, she had subsequently suffered from anorexia and then chose to have a child as a single parent by artificial insemination. Helen was not a straightforward woman. A man like Rob might just provoke a woman like Helen to violence.
The next day Tim rang me. Had I ever heard of ‘gaslighting’? This was an American term for what we’d now call coercive control, inspired by the Patrick Hamilton play where a manipulative husband tries to convince his wife that she is losing her mind. Gaslight; The Secret Agent; Tess of the D’Urbervilles. These all seemed rich story structures to exploit.
We then learned that the law regarding coercive control was – possibly – about to change. Over the years, The Archers had covered various social issues, such as drugs, alcoholism, rape and teenage pregnancy. I firmly believe that part of the BBC’s remit as a public service broadcaster is to raise awareness of current social issues and though challenging, the subject of domestic abuse seemed very much in tune with that tradition. Though we had to take the risk that the story we had planned to reach a climax in a couple of years, would also coincide with a change in the law.
We consulted domestic violence charities (Refuge and Women’s Aid) who put us in touch with victims of domestic abuse who would be crucial in giving the story a sense of realism. We then consulted a Birmingham barrister who prepared cases for both the defence and the prosecution. We had to plan all this far in advance as the circumstances of the murder would be the basis of the trial in a couple of years’ time. It’s while talking to the barrister that he mentioned that the easiest way of proceeding to a court case – which we wanted – but without Helen getting a life sentence, was for her to kill Rob and then receive a conviction for manslaughter. It would be much more complicated if Rob were to survive and for Helen to be charged with attempted murder.
Given The Archers is a soap opera, with hundreds of episodes a year, it seemed to make most sense to take the more complex option. Rob would coercively control Helen, she would be provoked to stab him, but he would survive, leading to Helen being tried for attempted murder. This was essentially the story we played out, almost daily, a drip, drip effect of menace over three years. It gave us the opportunity to explore the tiniest moments between Helen and Rob and her awakening sense of what was happening to her. In order to increase the pressure on Helen we decided that she would be raped by Rob and be pregnant whilst in prison awaiting trial.
Originally we planned for the attack to happen on a Good Friday – most listeners would be at home on the Bank Holiday, they would then have Saturday to tell all their friends to listen, there’d be the omnibus on Easter Sunday and we would drive the audience to listen live on Easter Sunday evening. Radio 4 felt nervous about ruining Easter for some listeners, so we moved the attack until a couple of weeks later (this was the only change Radio 4 requested during the whole story), though followed the same trajectory with the attack at the end of the week on Friday leaving the audience sure that Rob was dead and that Helen had killed him.
In 1955, during the recording of the death of Grace Archer, at the last minute Norman Painting who played her husband Phil, changed the final lines of the script so that the devastating denouement was kept back until the very last word; ‘In the ambulance – on the way to hospital – she’s dead.’ We did exactly the same. Helen phoned Kirsty and the final lines of the episode were; ‘He’s dead. I’ve killed him.’
During the planning of Helen’s court case, I was researching my next true crime book, The Fatal Passion of Alma Rattenbury, which also ends in a dramatic court case. This is the story of a middle-aged woman who had an affair with a younger man, both of whom were tried for murdering her husband in 1935. The case was the sensation of its day, one of the first great tabloid news stories.
What was fascinating in my research into the Rattenbury trial and in my investigation of Helen Archer’s case, is how little the law – and the media- seemed to have changed in its attitudes to women in the dock accused of violent crimes. Women are not expected to be violent, so when they are, the police, the law and the press find them an aberration. How does the ancient machinery of the law deal with women who don’t behave in the way the law expects them to? Deep-seated cultural attitudes come to the fore and are revealed in often prejudiced assumptions in court and skewed reporting which can lead to unsafe convictions such as that of Edith Thompson or most recently, Sally Challen. As I prepare for the publication of The Fatal Passion of Alma Rattenbury, Alma’s trial, like that of Helen Archer, feels like a startlingly prescient parable for our times, the story of a woman who dared to challenge the status quo only to be crucified by public opinion, pilloried by the press and punished by the relentless machinery of the British legal system.
The Archers’ storyline anticipated the #MeToo and #Time’s Up movements by a couple of years. It hugely raised awareness of the nature of domestic abuse and coercive control. Calls to Refuge and Women’s Aid increased enormously as a result of the story. It has been referenced in real-life court cases and even in the House of Commons. One listener started a JustGiving page and to date has raised £173,265 for Refuge – the largest single donation the charity has ever received.
And, just as Handsome Brute is also re-issued in paperback, the book is under option as a feature film with a script well under way by a major writer. So, at last, the movie that even Hitchcock couldn’t make, will finally make it to the big screen…
The Fatal Passion of Alma Rattenbury Simon & Schuster 11 July 2019
Handsome Brute Simon & Schuster 11 July 2019