Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 26 July 2014

Soaps always shock, so why the big outcry?

Ronnie Branning lost her baby to cot death in EastEnders

Soap bosses have been spectacularly blind-sided by the still on-going row over an EastEnders plotline featuring cot death and child kidnap.

This centres on Ronnie, female, (it's soap: these things aren't always a given) who, in grief over the loss of her baby, snatches another mite which she then passes off as her own.

To date somewhere in the region of 10,000 viewers have called in to register a complaint. Ten thousand! Only the switchboard of NI Water was busier over the festive period.

To EastEnders scriptwriters, previously secure in the knowledge that in the season of goodwill nothing boosts ratings better than a burst of indescribable bleakery, it must have been a shock to the system.

Has the world gone mad?

Quite possibly, judging by the scale of the backlash against a soap doing what soaps have done since time immemorial ...

Entertaining its audience with shock twists to improbable plots packaged with more maudlin than a Victorian melodrama.

To set the row in context, Easties was up against the likes of Coronation Street (tram crashes into street leaving three dead, including one corpse dragged there by her murderer plus the young mother of a baby - tot survives - whose father is about to be unmasked as adulterous 'friend' of woman's husband whose own wife is fighting cancer.)

Bleak doesn't begin to cover any of it. Undoubtedly there are people out there who were genuinely distressed by this stuff in general and the cot death plot in particular.

However - and it is a big however - it is only fiction.

That plot could even be described as Shakespearean in content (if not in execution).

Small comfort there, of course, for grieving parents who were hurt by some scenes.

And I am not without sympathy here. Or empathy. I know from my own experience that the pain of your baby's death never goes away.

But the bit that bewilders me is this: why put yourself through watching such scenes in the first place?

Details of this particular plotline has been in the papers since about October.

We were warned it would be harrowing.

Having reached the stage in life where I now avoid being harrowed wherever possible, I just didn't switch it on. Critics, in fairness, point out it's not just the scenes of grief they object to - it's the inference that a bereaved mother could be so demented that she'd steal another woman's baby.

But regular viewers of EastEnders will also know that this latest tragedy is just one of a series of nightmares to have scarred the fictional Ronnie Branning (below). She's had another child die in her arms, her father's been murdered, her boyfriend shot ... Ronnie, as we say round here, has not had all her sorrows to seek.

Perhaps a more pertinent question about the plotline then is, has the Beeb, has TV soap in general, been hurt by it?

Obviously not in the short term - controversy always being good for ratings.

But in future before show bosses trolley out that trite, pious line about "raising awareness" as justification for their darker plots, might they consider that plonking a helpline number on screen as credits roll may not be deemed nearly enough by a viewing public suddenly demanding new improved soap sensitivity?

Caught in a furore that has seen an actress heckled, internet abuse hurled and headlines castigating, surely even EastEnders staff themselves will understand the need for more solid support than that standard old line?

"If you are a scriptwriter and you have been affected by any of the issues raised ... "

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