Sensitivity or sensationalism? The dilemmas of storytelling.

Storms have been brewing in the world of BBC serial drama over the festive period. Firstly to mark 60 years of rural radio 4 soap, The Archers, the decision was taken to have one of the show’s most popular characters fall off a roof to his death. The untimely demise of Nigel, an aimiable toff, and wife of Elizabeth Archer provoked a howl of protest from the Twittersphere to the broadsheets. Only this morning in the Telegraph Alison Pearson accused the show’s producers of political correctness in piece called Ambridge and its putsch of the posh while complaints and laments continue to pile up on the BBC website when the actor who plays Nigel, Graham Seed explained how and why the decision had been made for him to leave the series.

However this fades in comparison to the fuss about Eastenders, which celebrated Christmas day with two birth scenes and then proceeded with a plot line over the next few days to extinguish one baby in a case of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and then send the bereaved mother to kidnap the other newborn child. This story has received at time of writing at least 6000 complaints from the BBC, not least from Anne Diamond, who lost a baby in the same tragic circumstances and has campained ever since for research and understanding of such deaths.

According to a piece in the Guardian she

branded the plot “tacky sensationalism”. “I think it’s crass what they’ve done,” she told ITV1′s Daybreak.”I find it amazing that a cot death isn’t awful enough for any drama.” That they’ve had to actually make the cot death mother go slightly mad and then do a baby swap, is frankly offensive.”

The Guardian continues,

The Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths (FSID), which worked with EastEnders ahead of the story, has also spoken out about the storyline, stressing its involvement “was limited to advice on SIDS risk factors, bereavement and the involvement of health professionals and the police”.

The charity added in a statement: “FSID had no involvement in the planning or adoption of the specific ‘baby-swap’ plotline. The behaviour and actions of Ronnie Mitchell are in no way ‘endorsed’ by FSID as a typical, or even likely, reaction of a bereaved parent.””

The BBC have apparently now been forced to cut short the storyline due to these complaints.

For a writer and storyteller it has been interesting to observe the arguments and emotions that these two dramatic story lines have evoked. It is in fact a powerful and heartening reminder of the meaning and value that people attach to their stories. These programmes, which are fictions, are significant parts of their lives. They love and hate the characters that the writers and actors create. They are enthralled and involved by the events portrayed. They care about those fictional worlds and their inhabitants and draw solace, distraction and amusent from them. In the case of the death of Nigel Pargetter there is a real sense of loss and indignation that someone that they have allowed into their lives has been disposed of so callously by the powers that be. To many listeners it is a betrayal.

As a result, as storytellers, we have to remember that our task is a delicate one. A shocking storyline is always a great temptation. I have done horrible things to my own characters in my time and been berated by readers for it. There is always a danger of going too far and forgetting the impression that such events cause, or worse still, thinking gleefully “that’ll make ‘em cry.” Of course there must be drama, there must be heartache, there must be shock and awe, despair and triumph. We have to make things happen. We do not want anodyne fiction where tea cups clink together and passion is banished. But there are lines which we cross at our peril. The great trouble is that those lines are very often invisible.


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