Angela Black couldn’t feel more timely with its portrayal of domestic abuse10/11/2021
Warning: this article contains distressing content which may prove triggering for some.
On the surface at least, Angela Black (played by Joanne Froggatt) seems to have it all: two healthy sons, wealth, a volunteer position at a dog’s home and a devoted husband. But the art of deception is well-executed in ITV’s new six-part series, Angela Black. Written by Baptiste’s Harry and Jack Williams, the drama’s opening scene alone is a nuanced look at how domestic abuse can be hidden from friends, family and the outside world in totality.
“You embarrassed me,” Angela’s husband Olivier (played by Michiel Huisman) says to her after their mutual friends have left their dinner party. While Angela washes the dishes, Olivier appears to be livid that she accidentally let slip that he’d missed an organised lunch with their friends because he’d been playing golf.
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The vitriol continues: “You did it deliberately,” he says. “You wanted to embarrass me.” Trying to diffuse the situation before it escalates, she kisses him on the cheek and gently asks him to leave it. As she walks off, he grabs her hair from behind.
We hear him physically harm her as she screams but we don’t witness the violence. Her tooth then rolls into sight after he’s knocked it out. Do their friends – who blissfully left moments ago – know this is Angela’s reality? No. Because, like so many domestic abuse victims will attest to, there is shame, and with it comes silence.
“I worked closely with the researchers and the production team on Angela Black to ensure that the script echoed real life examples of abuse as much as possible,” Teresa Parker, head of media and communications at Women’s Aid, tells Stylist. “I used examples from cases I knew of to inform the development of the perpetrator and how he would act and rationalise his behaviour.
“Survivors have told me how their abusers would manipulate everyone around them, and convince colleagues, neighbours and family that they are respectable and would never consider them capable of abusing their partner.”
Olivier achieves exactly that: he’s well-respected in the workplace, he’s naturally charming in a crowded room and he’s perfected the role of the ‘family man’ with a lovely wife and two sons by his side.
“I shared real life examples, and gave written feedback on different versions of the scripts as the story developed and evolved,” Parker continues. “The team behind the programme were so committed to making sure the story rang true, and the examples I gave echo through in the script. So much of what is written is terrifying, but what women experience in real life at the hands of perpetrators is terrifying.”
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And the onscreen portrayal of male violence that almost one in three women aged 16-59 will experience in their lifetime couldn’t feel more timely. Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020, instances of domestic abuse have increased in every country that reports figures.
During the UK’s first national lockdown, Refuge, one of the UK’s largest domestic abuse charities reported a 66% rise in demand for its National Domestic Abuse Helpline. Furthermore, it experienced a 950% rise in traffic to its website. During lockdown, it was even harder for a woman to leave an abusive situation.
After Olivier knocks out Anna’s tooth, she attempts to leave him again. The scene carefully attempts to educate and answer the most ignorant question that is often asked: why doesn’t she just leave him? Instead, we should question why he can’t keep his anger under control.
“You’re always sorry,” she says to him with her suitcase by her side and with one hand on the door handle. “I know you have no reason to believe me,” he responds, calmly.
“Because we’ve had this exact same conversation right here in this hallway,” she says. “You promised it would be different. You came to that shitty hotel room I had to stay in, that our children had to stay in and you looked me in the eye and you promised me. You swore on our kids’ lives and now here we are four months later.”
It’s a common situation for a victim. “On average, it takes seven attempts of leaving before a woman finally leaves a perpetrator. It’s very common,” Lisa King OBE, director of communications and external relations at Refuge, tells Stylist.
“It’s also the most awful and inappropriate question that everyone constantly asks: why doesn’t she just leave? There are a myriad of different reasons for not leaving a partner. It’s often due to safety and fear for their own wellbeing as well as complex matters around children, or work, or finances, and all sorts of things.”
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In this instance, Olivier uses their children as a manipulation tool. But first, he uses classic gaslighting tactics by saying things like, “You know it’s not me. I lose control, sometimes” and “I could be better. I want to be better.”
As she makes a move to turn the handle, he reaches for the one thing she can’t live without: her children.
“What will you tell our boys?” he asks, placing the blame on her. “I love those boys,” he continues. “We both do. We both want the best for them – don’t we? Don’t rush them away from this house again. They were so scared last time.”
The outcome he hopes for? She feels motherly guilt. With storytelling that will resonate with many women, charities expect to see a surge in calls to helplines as the series plays out.
“I know from my previous work on TV programmes the huge difference that storytelling around domestic abuse and coercive control makes,” says Parker. “TV dramas like Angela Black will increase understanding, start conversations and let women know – when a charity like Women’s Aid is involved throughout – that there is help and support out there.
“Women have reached out to us because of what they have seen on screen, and I know from what survivors have told us that storylines like these can change and even save lives.”
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There’s one particular moment that, unfortunately, may make some women relive similar situations from past relationships. Before Olivier’s work dinner, he gives Anna a subtle instruction over the phone: “Wear a dress. The black one. Backless.” She arrives in a blue iteration instead. Not being able to control her choices, he accuses her of attempting infidelity with one of his colleagues.
“Isn’t that why you invited me here to talk to your colleagues? she responds. “To talk, yes. Not to try and fuck them,” he says. She nervously laughs a little. He grabs her by the arm, saying “Don’t you laugh at me.”
We learn that this is also an accusation that’s occurred multiple times. “I’ve lost count of the amount of times that you’ve accused me of flirting with other men and cheating on you,” she says. “I wonder why that is, that that’s where your mind goes to? What is it that you’re hiding?” Thanks to the character of Ed (played by Samuel Adewunmi), the private investigator does reveal some home truths to Angela.
King expects this relatability will lead to women contacting charities for help in the coming weeks. “Yes, we will [see an increase in calls to our helpline] because we will follow Angela Black,” says King. “We will use the hashtags and we will share our information off the back of it. We will do some awareness raising and signposting as a public responsibility.”
For Ngozi Fulani, CEO of Sistah Space, this relatability may not hold as strong for everyone, for there is yet to be a TV storyline that has helped tell the stories that women of African heritage have faced at the hands of violent men.
“These horror stories are, to me, perfect ideas for programmes or films but nobody’s interested,” says Fulani. “I think it’s good to see TV programmes raising awareness about domestic abuse, but it would be really fantastic if they can get to a place where they can make it more inclusive.”
Angela Black’s depiction of domestic abuse is important, expertly adding to the current cultural conversation around male violence and women’s trauma. But domestic abuse will only be considered as a legitimately serious issue when women from all ethnicities and backgrounds are part of the storytelling on our screens.
Angela Black airs on ITV at 9pm on Sunday 10 October.
The 24-hour National Domestic Abuse helpline can be contacted on 0808 2000 247 and further support can be accessed online via their website.
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