Bad drama is better than message-led drama
Yes, the EastEnders cot-death baby-swap plotline is crass, but we don’t need ‘expert groups’ vetting scripts.
Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure is a pretty harrowing read. Even when the eponymous hero looks to have found some semblance of happiness in an extra-marital relationship with his cousin Sue, society’s rejection leaves the pair, and their three children, in abject poverty. Given this is a Hardy novel, you know things will get worse. Misery will be stacked upon misery with all the necessity Hardy accords to something approximating a cosmic fate. And so it comes to pass. Upon hearing that Sue is pregnant, Jude’s young son Little Father Time decides that he and his two half-siblings will be too much of a drain on the family’s meagre resources. So, after killing them both, Little Father Time proceeds to hang himself on the back of a door where Jude, devastated, will later discover him.
While BBC1’s quart-weekly soap opera EastEnders lacks Hardy’s poetry, it more than matches him for sheer, unrelenting misery. Take, for instance, the travails of Ronnie Brannigan (played by Samantha Womack): she was sexually abused by her now-murdered father; she has lost the daughter she didn’t realise she had (until it was too late) in a car accident; she has endured one miscarriage; and now, during the Christmas/New Year episodes, her newborn baby James died of a cot death. This last insult proves too much and, driven half-crazy by grief, she finds herself swapping her dead baby with the very much alive baby of neighbours Alfie and Kat Moon who, in turn, are left to endure the agony of what they think is their child’s death. In EastEnders, you see, there is no misery that cannot be multiplied, no storyline so absurdly bleak that it can’t be dragged out for months on end. Even Womack seems to have had enough, given her decision not to pursue a new contract beyond this year.
But this storyline, this desolate fiction, unlike Hardy’s tragic offerings, has somehow passed over into real life: it has become an actual problem, an actual event. Since the baby-swap storyline was aired last month, nearly 10,000 people have formally complained to the BBC; condemnation has poured forth in newspaper columns; and the internet has been alive with the sound of angry offence-taking. So much so, in fact, that the founder of the social networking site Mumsnet wrote a public letter to the BBC director-general Mark Thompson, declaring the storyline ‘at best to be ill-informed, and at worst… a cynical ploy to make headlines by creating deliberate controversy’.
‘How could the scriptwriters do this?’, has been the cry. How could they make this up? Broadcaster Anne Diamond, who founded a cot-death awareness campaign group following the death of her baby son, described the baby-swap story as ‘a crass twist to an otherwise credible storyline [which] hasn’t done one iota of good in educating a young audience about cot death’. Elsewhere, Fiona Brown, executive director of the Scottish Cot Death Trust, captured the sentiments of many: ‘Many parents are feeling very aggrieved about the baby-swap storyline because it portrays bereaved mothers as unhinged baby snatchers.’
In each of the complaints, the same conflation of fact and fiction makes itself felt. EastEnders is not just a soap opera, its characters are not just acting out stories in a fictional universe. Rather, they are acting out stories in our actual lives, too. A fictional action – the imagined swapping of a dead baby for a live baby – has seemingly had real consequences. The worry seems to be that EastEnders is suggesting that this is how people really live, that the actions of a particular character in particular circumstances will be taken as the actions of everybody regardless of circumstances. Hence the refrain of those doing the complaining seems to be that the supposed prejudices of the audience will be confirmed: bereaved mothers, particularly those who have lost a child due to something as tragically inexplicable as cot death, are mad, bad and possibly dangerous.
But are the 13million or so who tune in to EastEnders really so credulous? Are we the viewers really incapable of distinguishing between what admittedly does look like a particularly sadistic storyline (how much can we make this character suffer?) and real life? When we read Jude the Obscure, we understand that not all children in poverty-stricken families kill themselves and that not all unconventional relationships necessarily end in tragedy. Likewise, we understand that the death of a child is a horrific event, but that not all bereaved parents steal the baby of another. Rather, we implicitly grasp that fictional universes – especially well-crafted ones – operate according to their own, often melodramatic, laws.
Of course, on dramatic grounds, there probably is plenty of room to criticise EastEnders. After all, even a drama with a tentative claim to realism relies upon a degree of plausibility. And the baby-swap storyline, taken on its own terms, is most definitely implausible, which no doubt explains the critical response of those who actually watch the show. But it is not people’s critical faculties that are being exercised in the ongoing furore around EastEnders; it’s their power of censure. Mumsnet and their ilk are not simply criticising the show as a gallery-goer might criticise an exhibition; they are calling for intervention.
So while Ofcom is currently reluctant to stick its state-approved oar in, Mumsnet is considerably less reticent. As founder Justine Roberts concluded her public letter: ‘We urge you to consider the views we’re sharing with you today when future storylines are developed and would be very happy to host a webchat at a time convenient for you, for a fuller discussion on this issue with our community.’ Likewise, Joyce Epstein, director of the Foundation for Sudden Infant Deaths (FSID), seemed to expect a similar creative role when she told BBC Five Live that the charity advised on the issue of cot death but not on the ‘drama line’. So blurred have the boundaries between fiction and fact become that the creative process starts to look like a public consultation.
But this, alas, is partly the BBC’s own fault. Having consistently justified the soap on the basis that it is not only dramatic but educational and informative, too, the producers shouldn’t be too surprised when it is judged precisely by such non-artistic criteria. Perhaps if they stopped worrying whether ‘viewers have been affected by events shown in this programme’, and treated us as people capable of distinguishing between fact and fiction, then this strange fuss could be avoided. You never know, it might even improve EastEnders.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
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