Radio raises awareness: The Archers mental health storyline

I recall listening to Radio 4’s The Archers as a teenager on long hot summer afternoons; the “heatwave” summer of 1976 springs to mind. As with listening to cricket, the radio soap helped me to relax and I warmed to its quaint and easy listening style. I would not have envisaged all these years later that I would be involved with the programme – and with such a controversial storyline.

I’ve been advising The Archers on the storyline about the depression experienced by the character Darrell Makepeace. The Archers is moving with the times. It remains a quintessentially English portrayal of village life, but also has to echo the modern age and remain current. Just yesterday, new figures were published on use of the Mental Health Act in England, showing that the number of detentions, which has increased by 12 per cent in the last five years, exceeded 50,000 in 2012/13.

Controversial, contemporary plotlines will appeal to the listeners, but Radio 4 must get the balance right by keeping its traditional support base whilst acquiring a younger audience. The Archers is the world’s longest running radio soap opera and the station’s most popular non-news show with more than 5 million listeners.

With this in mind, I began offering advice on the character Darrell and his spiralling fall into depression about three months ago. As part of the Time To Change media advisory service, my role was to try to add as much realism and sensitivity to his presentation. This differed so much from my previous advisory role for the character Zak Dingle in the soap Emmerdale. Why is this so?

Well, Darrell is a character who has hit rock bottom and, in doing this, has not only caused much pain to himself but also to those around him. Chaotic and unpredictable would be just two words to describe this. He is also very manipulative. The Archers’ listeners appear divided in their opinions about this. I remain very enthused that we have highlighted the devastation of depression, its indiscriminate nature, and the “loose cannon” impact.

Emmerdale’s Zak endeared himself to the viewers as he was deemed a “loveable rogue” The fans empathised with his plight. But Darrell is not so endearing and his manipulative behaviour has only served to isolate him from most fans.

Therein lies the challenge for me, and the producers themselves – to promote more understanding and acceptance of mental illhealth, and its indiscriminate nature. I received praise and criticism – in equal measure – from listeners, and that’s fine. I no longer lose sleep at night worrying about criticism; it opens up a debate and encourages more dialogue around mental health that so far there is a reluctance to do.

This work is challenging because, by my very nature, I am a sensitive person. I have had to grow a thicker skin since to take the blows but the praising comments helps to ease the pain. The criticism at times to my role and advice taken has been quite personal, but I can only give advice from my own perspective.

I have a passion to promote more understanding of mental health and eradicate stigma from society. I hope The Archers’ storyline will help transform people’s attitudes to mental health.

* The first national Time to Talk Day takes place on 6 February, aiming to spark a million conversations about mental health. Part of Time to Change, it highlights how little things – sending a text, a chat over a cup of tea- can make a big difference to someone with mental health problems.

About Lol Butterfield

Lol, 51, is a qualified mental health nurse with a 30-year career in mental health services as a clinician. More recently, he has become involved with working towards eliminating the stigma and discrimination of mental health, which is his passion. Until recently Lol was an advisor for the ‘Time To Change’ national anti-stigma campaign covering the north east of England where he lives. His book, Sticks and Stones, is an autobiography detailing his childhood experience of stigma as a consequence of his father's mental ill health.
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8 Responses to Radio raises awareness: The Archers mental health storyline

  1. Joe O'Farrell says:

    Interesting article, particularly if read in conjunction with your entry on the Archers blog.

    The problem, though, is that unless a listener has read that blog they will be totally unaware that Darrell is has MH issues – there has been no diagnosis on air. As you point out, Darrell is not a particularly sympathetic character. Unfortunately, listeners have seen only a descent into criminality, not mental illness; I can’t see how that really helps raise awareness of the issues.

    It would be interesting to hear how you feel your input has been handled, because from a listener’s viewpoint it seems not to have impinged on the programme at all.

  2. Lol Butterfield says:

    The producers will in the end have the final say as to how someone is depicted. My advisory role was mainly during the initial stages of Darrells decline when I was asked a number of questions relating to his decline into full blown depression, ie his behaviour, impact on others, symptoms, etc etc. As I have explained this has been challenging because Darrell is not particularly liked and his behaviour has won him few friends. I am always mindful that this is an ‘entertainment’ programme at the end of the day. My promotion of personal and professional nursing values and empathy is secondary to this aspect. So how do I deal with this? well I have to accept my influence is limited. I know that this is very much the start of an advisory journey with the media. It is a relatively new service we offer and wish to tweak and improve in the course of time . I won’t get it right all the time, neither will programmes on the TV or radio covering mental ill health. BUT we are encouraging discussion and debate which is what we are hoping to achieve and the fact that people are talking about this storyline is bringing a taboo subject into the open. I hope this has gone some way to answering your questions Joe?

    • Joe O'Farrell says:

      Thanks, Lol

      Yes that does answer some of the questions. FWIW, I think the producers handled this very badly. To date there has still been no on-air reference to a diagnosis, only those who read your blog got the full story.

      C’est la vie, I suppose…

  3. Stuart M MANGER says:

    The whole Darrell story line has been a disaster form the start, whatever pious intentions may have fuelled it. The character from the very start he appeared has been a whingeing, whining loser, given banal dialogue, and to make things worse, on several occasions was involved in very deeply unpleasant and downright criminal activities, for which t here has been not the slightest whiff o condemnation by anyone in the cast, nor in the law as they ventured into The Archers. He was shielded by locally important community leaders, and to this day, not a single one of his criminal activities, from aiding and abetting dog-fighting by stealing a key to a farm property, to deliberately screwing up a repair job for two vulnerable pensioners one of whom dies as a result of the stress etc – has been so much as mentioned.

    A shabby, and exceptionally dishonestly handled plot line which will have set the cause of MH awareness back years for TA listeners. AND don’t listen to the BBC’s self-played trumpeting. Read the fan sites if you want to get a glimpse of the almost undiluted anger and derision that has dogged this SL since its arrival.

  4. admin says:

    Thanks for your comment. I’m aware the plot line attracted controversy and criticism, as the previous comment also makes clear. Lol’s words – from a media advice perspective, rather than a script writer one – touch on some of your concerns…concerns that show how, when it comes to challenging ‘real life’ story lines, there is usually some way to go before a balance is reached between ‘education’ and ‘entertainment’. For those interested in reading more, here’s a previous piece by Lol on the BBC Archers blog on how Darrell would be supported in ‘real life’ – along with a range of readers’/listeners’ comments: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/thearchers/posts/Darrells-depression-the-professionals-view

    • Gnome de Plume says:

      The programme and the writers, whether using the mental health guidance/advice to a greater or lesser degree, have to this listener managed to achieve neither entertainment nor education. There are so many aspects that have been handled so clumsily in the writing and portrayal, that – here, anyway – it’s been a dis-service more than any insight.

      Having experience directly and indirectly with depression, the main comment here is that this storyline has alienated listeners, to read listeners’ comments, and disengaged them.

      Perhaps the advisor feels let down in the way his experience and advice has been used in the story. There are a lot of listeners on boards who are either confused at the muddled presentation, and/or irritated by the apparent instant, home-spun, crack-papered cure.

  5. David Wheeler says:

    As someone who has lived with bipolar disorder, mainly depressions, for over 25 years it was interesting to hear Darrell’s descent, rather like mine culminating in an act that would not have left me alive today.

    However, I feel what could have been an excellent way of showing depression as a tunnel and not a cave was missed when Darrell signed himself out of hospital after his overdose. This prolonged the situation and I confess I did start to lose sympathy with him – and the scriptwriters – at that point. A missed opportunity there?

    Until then, I empathised with his behaviour and imagined a depression sufferer had been advising the writers. Wanting to leave social events as soon as possible resonated, as did the guilty feelings.

  6. Gail says:

    This has been a difficult storyline to listen to, especially in conjunction with seeing the audience reaction (via Twitter) to it. Darrell wasn’t a particularly sympathetic character before he became ill, and because he’s fictional it seems easier to attack him in a way that most people (I hope) wouldn’t in real life. Despite that, a lot of it has rung true with me, and what hasn’t just reminds me that everybody is different, & deserving of support however ‘difficult’ they may be. I’m not sure that a diagnosis would help the audience accept Darrell any better, but it might make him easier to put in a box and dismiss.

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