Thursday, January 06, 2011

Whose soap is it anyway?

I don't watch EastEnders but I sympathise with the actress Samantha Womack, who was so upset by having to play a character who lost a baby to cot death that she's leaving the show. The producers explain it all away by saying they're trying to produce dramatic television and point to the fact that they give an action line number at the end of the show for the benefit of anyone affected by the issues.

Samantha Womack obviously feels a bit closer to her work than the people who write the scripts and says: "What Ronnie has been through is such a crushingly awful thing to even pretend might happen to you. I actually felt ill having to portray it."

Funny that this should happen the same week that the producers of The Archers, which I do follow, decided to throw Nigel Pargeter, arguably the show's most loved character, off a roof. He didn't want to leave but when the fickle finger of ratings was looking for a victim he was the one it was pointing at.

There's a lot of detached talk about story arcs and how difficult this kind of thing is to play but out here in the audience we don't want to know. You've taken away our friend and cast a pall over what is already the most depressing week of the year. We know it's not real. It's a lot more important than that.


  1. I don't think anyone minds the occasional character being killed off, but when it feels like a cynical ratings-grabber, that it's happening solely for that purpose, that's when the audience start feeling cheated and manipulated.

    I was listening to Radio 5 this morning and someone from Mumsnet was talking about the cot death storyline - saying a massive worry for users of the site was that people would think bereaved mothers were crazy enough to do what Ronnie does in Eastenders.

    I'm not sure anyone would seriously think that - it's such a massively stupid and ridiculous storyline that I think most people probably felt as sickened as the actress playing Ronnie did while acting the scenes.

    What was wrong about it was forgetting that cot death is such a tragedy for parents, such a sensitive subject, that it deserves to be treated incredibly carefully and realistically so that even people affected by it might see that in dramatised scenes, it's been handled with care.

    To make it part of the new year episodes, to add such a stupid twist as Ronnie swapping the babies to make it more entertaining or compelling (?) - makes me wonder whether the Eastenders exec actually wants to be fired. It's such a gift to the tabloid press as well... the last thing the BBC needs at the moment.

    Soaps really need to think about what their audiences watch them for, and start treating them with some respect.

  2. There's also something interesting going on in the way that audiences care about characters on Radio versus the screen.

    TV soap characters tend to come and go far more often as actors either move on to bigger and better things, or achieve unpleasant tabloid notoriety. With only a couple of exceptions soap characters are seldom there for the long haul.

    Radio allows for roles to be re-cast far more easily. A character goes quiet for a couple of months and then reappears with a slightly different voice. This means that in The Archers we're used to characters who span decades, growing up, evolving and becoming part of our lives. It's this difference that makes the anniversary-driven demise of Nigel so annoying.

  3. My problem with Nigel's death is that Archer's don't need that sort of "ho-ha" we've sat through 60 years of turkey plucking, Parish Council meetings and Joe Grundy's stories we don't need contrived drama and press release plot lines. This smacks of bored edtiorial meetings and as we know everyone wanted it to be Helen!

  4. Will we see a Lazarus moment in The Archers? A fatal fall from the roof may not spell the end for Nigel Pargetter.

  5. I'd normally defend the show, but I have to say it's backfired this time.

    We all know EE is grim at the best of times, but this is piling misery on misery. I feel sorry for the press office.

  6. Helen falling into a vat of yogurt would have made my Christmas / New Year period. I suspect it could have been done with a bit more subtlety than Nigel poncing about on the roof talking about dear old Daddy and what wonderful women he'd known.

    Poor bugger. Good scream though, nice work Fella

  7. Eastenders is not pretending that *all* bereaved mothers are mad. Ronnie has had a pretty crappy life, she was raped by her father when she was 14, he made her have the baby then gave it away for adoption but told her that her daughter was dead, and when mother and daughter were finally reunited, her daughter was run over and killed. Her boyfriend had a baby by her sister, he was later shot and for some time was partially paralysed.
    She has always wanted another child, and it's the fact that the baby that she has been praying for for years, died suddenly after birth has sent her over the edge. Fans of the show realise this, and that Ronnie is obviously not thinking straight.

  8. As a parent of just eight months, I've not found this storyline comfortable at all. It is difficult to watch a storyline about a baby passing away but then for it to be sensationalised by what feels like an unrealistic twist is completely wrong.

    I think the exec producers of Eastenders have really made a faux pas on this.

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  10. David,

    I was wondering when you would get around to events in Ambridge. I'm not sure I buy the ratings argument for the Archers. I believe the figures are pretty healthy and if anything this storyline has the potential to lose regular listeners. This story seems to be driven more by the desire on behalf of the production team to be "talked about" and be "relevant in the 21st century."

    And I have to say it worked beautifully. That that funny old radio show was all the rage on twitter. What larks, until, sadly, the story was revealed. Then the collective sucking of teeth and the thought, "Is that it?"

    So now we're saddled with the third grieving widow in twelve months and as a long standing listener I feel it may be time for me to take a sabbatical. I'm not sure how much raw emotion I can take in a year.

    One thing that struck me listening to the repeated episodes on Radio 7 the other week was that although there were plenty of clunky storylines in the old programmes, there was also a certain warmth to it and a story could conclude with a character being happy for another's good fortune. Ambridge could do with rediscovering a bit of that spirit.

    PS. Thanks for the tip off on the Geert Mak book a couple of months back. It's a cracking read.