In the opening scene of ITV’s latest psychological thriller, Angela Black, the titular protagonist (Downton Abbey’s Joanne Froggatt) shares an unusual fact over drinks with her two friends and husband, Olivier (Michiel Huisman).
Nursing a glass of red wine in her dimly lit, suburban London home, Angela tells them that hippos are in fact the most dangerous animals in the world. “They cause more deaths than crocodiles and they attack for no reason”, she muses, as the reflection of the fire hits the bifold doors. The conversation moves on, but Angela’s comment turns out to be more than trivia, and rather a sign of what’s about to unfold.
Once their guests leave, an argument over something small ensues between the couple. After walking away from Olivier in an attempt to de-escalate the situation, Angela gets dragged to the ground by her hair in a sudden flurry of violence. The attack continues out of shot, but in true Hitchockian style, the viewer is plunged into the room with them; as Angela’s broken, bloody tooth rolls onto the ground. It’s a startling portrayal of how domestic abuse is often hidden in plain sight, as the rapid shift from hosting drinks to heavy violence forces us to engage with a reality that 1.6 million women in England and Wales face every year.
While this initial act of violence makes Olivier’s physical capabilities chillingly clear, the show deftly explores other forms of emotional abuse that are often overlooked. Despite everything being seeming idyllic from the outside looking in – two young children, a husband with a high-flying job, a beautiful home – Angela’s life is dictated by coercive control, a form of abuse that relies on diminishing a person’s self-esteem through constant humiliation, intimidation and other assertions of power in order to make the victim dependent on their perpetrator.
Olivier controls everything: from the amount of butter that Angela spreads on her toast, to what she wears. He gaslights her into believing that she’s losing her memory and constantly accuses her of being unfaithful, when he is (in fact) a serial cheater. Yet time and time again, Olivier, played by the eerily convincing Huisman, promises to “do better”, dialing up the charm and using the couple’s children as emotional bait when Angela threatens to leave the relationship. Each scene feels claustrophobic, as if you’re trapped in the home just like Angela is, while the dizzying fear of violence is palpable.
The producers worked closely with Women’s Aid to give an authentic depiction of both the victim and perpetrator, calling on the charity to give guidance on the script, based on real-life examples of abuse.
Written by Baptiste’s Jack and Harry Williams, the pair were conscious of avoiding gratuitous violence on screen, instead focusing on the cyclical patterns of behaviour that erode a person’s sense of self in an abusive relationship. Although violence is present, the show predominantly delves into Olivier’s insidious controlling behaviour, to help viewers understand just how isolating and tortuous emotional abuse is. One scene that stayed with me was Olivier leaving an envelope stuffed with cash under Angela’s pillow after beating her so badly that her tooth falls out, in a disturbing take on the tooth fairy tradition.
The series offers many twists and turns, one being Angela’s encounter with a private investigator who ends up warning her of her husband’s sinister plans to kill her. While the producers have made commendable efforts to root this relationship in truthful events, few real-world victims would receive such direct warning before suffering violence at the hands of their partner.
Yet what the show does do so authentically is explore the nuances of abuse that don’t make headlines; exposing the unrelenting emotional turmoil that many women face behind closed doors, and that ultimately leads to fatal violence in some instances.
The show has aired at a poignant moment, where discourse around women’s safety has become heightened. We’ve all read about the tragic losses of Bibaa Henry, Nicole Smallman, Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa. While these women were killed by strangers, Angela Black’s storyline acts as an important reminder that the majority of violence against women occurs in the home.
The Counting Dead Women project estimates that at least 109 women have been killed by men in the UK in 2021 alone. In order to honour these victims, we must tackle the root of domestic abuse, and that starts with awareness, something which ITV’s latest drama will bring into focus as it depicts the detrimental impact of coercive control and how difficult it can be to leave an abusive partner.
If only the government would take a leaf out of ITV’s book in listening to specialists on how to tackle violence against women. Since the sentencing of Wayne Couzens, the police officer who raped and murdered Sarah Everard, every solution that has been suggested by the police and the government has put the burden on women to protect themselves, rather than focusing on perpetrators.
While urgent action is welcome, the suggested 888 helpline scheme does nothing to challenge the misogynistic attitudes that facilitate domestic abuse. If the Tories have £50m to spend on this initiative, then why have they not got the funds to rebuild the broken refuge funding system that they have spent the last decade eviscerating?
The awareness that shows like Angela Black brings is vital, but these institutions are all too aware of the endemic nature of violence against women. Now is the time to listen to campaigners, survivors and all women who feel exhausted from shouting into the void for so long.
If you’re affected by any of the issues raised in this piece, you can contact Women’s Aid here