Why did soap opera scriptwriters use stoma bag to vilify character? asks professor

Disability 'used to make Rob from The Archers unattractive and evil'

THE way scriptwriters vilified a soap opera character by giving him a stoma bag was discussed by a long-time fan and university professor.

In an abusive relationship plot that gripped listeners of BBC Radio 4's popular radio drama The Archers, Rob Titchener needed life-saving bowel surgery after he was stabbed by wife Helen as she cracked in the face of his controlling behaviour.

Professor Katherine Runswick-Cole, Professor of Critical Disability Studies and Psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University, considered the ramifications of the character's newfound disability while delivering her paper 'Bag of the devil: the disablement of Rob Titchener' at a unique academic conference dedicated to the long-running serial.

Prof Runswick-Cole said: "When Rob first came into Ambridge, he was very attractive, good at his job and good at sport.

"He was portrayed as athletic and hyper-able: when he went to the village shop, Susan, the shop manager, would flirt with him, he almost single-handedly turned the fortunes of the cricket team around and he rescued people from a flood.

"As the coercive control storyline developed, the scriptwriters turned Rob into a villain and everyone hated him. The stoma bag played a part in changing how the audience felt about Rob.

"They were using the stoma bag to besmirch Rob's character. Just as they used his hyper-ability to develop Rob as an attractive character, they used his disability to make him unattractive and evil."

Prof Runswick-Cole said there several examples where The Archers had introduced a storyline around a disability and other difficult topics, such as dementia, Down's syndrome and miscarriage, in order to explain the realities of these issues and steer listeners towards more information in indirect and subtle ways.

But she said in Rob's case the stoma bag seems to have been used purely as a tool to "emasculate" him without any reference to support groups, websites or charities that provide help.

She said: "People with stoma bags listening to the programme already live with the stigma associated with having a bag. Using a stoma bag to develop a character in this way is just reinforcing really negative stereotypes.

"If the scriptwriters had Rob confronting or discussing the challenges of using a stoma bag it would have brought sympathy for him and that is, clearly, not what they wanted.

"I love The Archers and what we we want them to do is engage in disabilities in more ordinary ways.

"Why don't they have ordinary representations and stop using disability as a temporary feature and a plot device?"

Prof Runswick-Cole presented her paper - co-authored with University of Birmingham Research Fellow Becky Wood - on Saturday during the 'Helen and Rob' strand of the Academic Archers, the conference being held at the University of Lincoln.

She said: "I think it's an absolutely brilliant idea and it really is a truly interdisciplinary conference.

"People bring their passion for The Archers and their passion for their discipline - this is serious academic stuff.

"Contributors apply their depth of knowledge to The Archers and we have a bit of fun and that's what makes it so special."