The recent furore over the current EastEnders storyline has got me thinking about what it is that we want from a drama and why this story has caused such uproar. For me the power of great drama lies in its emotional truth and I wonder if that is where the problem lies in this particular instance.
EastEnders has a great tradition of tackling difficult stories and doing so with sensitivity and integrity and no one is criticising the show for tackling the deeply tragic Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (Cot Death). As a mother of young children there was nothing more frightening than the idea of looking in on them wrapped safely in their cots when they were newborn babies and finding them dead. It is surely the most shocking and harrowing experience imaginable and EastEnders has every right to play such a story.
I don’t have any problem with harrowing stories about babies and my understanding about the majority of complaints is that they too don’t have a problem with the Cot Death story. I vividly remember watching the superb ‘This Little Life’ when expecting my first baby and although I wept through almost all of it I had nothing but admiration for those who produced it and for the BBC for showing it.
What some people (and it’s by no means certain what percentage of the audience those complaining represent) are finding unpalatable and unbelievable is the decision to use this story as a spring board for the much more rare baby-swap.
I wonder if there are two issues causing this reaction to the baby-swap element of the story. The first is the emotional truth of the story. Having worked on returning drama series (medical and crime) and developing original dramas I firmly believe that drama should not be confined to the probable. As long as it’s possible then it’s fine by me. What follows, particularly when tackling rarer types of behaviour (murder, stealing someone’s baby), is the tricky job of getting the psychology right so that you take the audience with you and they absolutely believe that this character would have behaved in this way in these particular circumstances. In ‘Blue Murder’ we were telling the stories of ordinary people (not psychopaths) who were driven to murder. The hardest bit for me was always making sure that we believed that our character who had committed the murder would have done so in those circumstances. A huge amount of work went into character psychology and backstory in order to create the circumstances that would make the act of murder believable.
I am in no doubt that the hard-working team at ‘EastEnders’ did the research and tried hard to create those circumstances. For some reason (and not having not seen every episode that Ronnie has appeared in I can’t be sure either way) it feels as if they haven’t quite managed to carry all of their audience with them on Ronnie’s journey from bereaved mother to baby-stealer. I am sure that many in the audience have absolutely been carried and firmly believe the truth of Ronnie’s behaviour but clearly for some her behaviour has broken that bond of emotional truth and consequently feels contrived and implausible.
I also wonder if the other element causing such unease is the slight feeling that the show is using the Cot Death story simply as a means to play the baby-swap story. On a personal level, the combination of these two stories gives the impression that the show doesn’t feel that the Cot Death on its own is emotionally dramatic enough and so feels the need to ratchet up the drama.
We should be applauding EastEnders for tacking Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and I’m sure the story will have helped to raise awareness of this tragic occurence. For me the furore reminds us of two important things. First that our audiences don’t watch our dramas passively but rather are emotionally invested and this is particularly true of returning drama series. The success of our dramas is down to that intense level of engagement. Second that as storytellers we have a responsibility to tell stories that at their heart have an emotional truth to them. It’s a tricky balancing act – too much insight into a character’s unhinged state and we signal where our story is going, too little and we won’t believe their behaviour.
We should always remind ourselves that we make an emotional bond with our audience and if we play stories which break that bond we risk alienating the very people we seek to engage. However, self-censorship is a dangerous thing, we cannot please all of the people all of the time and we should never be afraid to tackle difficult and challenging stories. Be bold, be brave and be truthful.