Don’t fight the cot death controversy with brain death: An open letter to Bryan Kirkwood, executive producer of EastEnders

Dear Bryan, and I don’t say that lightly.

I’ve been a visitor to your television fiefdom for nearly 26 years. Four times a week I go there for half an hour and sometimes I’ll enjoy myself as much as twice. I’ve stayed with the programme’s mockney misery in the face of relentless criticism from peers, and I label them as such with characteristic generosity. My intellect, taste and integrity have been questioned, my enemies invoking the EastEnders name as shorthand for my cultural shortcomings. Privately they use the existence of the soap and my patronage of it as a tool to elevate themselves above me during those moments where they felt threatened and I’d otherwise have bested them.

That’s right Bryan, I’d be lauding it over the peasantry like a Baron were it not for your low brow serial, a shackle that I consciously and proudly wear around my ankle, despite the loss of respect and reverence due to me as a consequence. That’s the cost of fandom and I pay it promptly, despite year on year above inflation increases.

EastEnders fandom isn’t a competitive sport Bryan, but were it so, I’d be ahead of the pack. I’d be a gold medallist. I’ve been there from the beginning, supporting the show and its cast, supporting a troupe billed as actors and in receipt of both equity membership and fees far in excess of minimum union rates, despite many of them playing themselves. I’ve been there, propping up the bar of the Queen Vic, in metaphorical terms, since 1985 and I’ve stayed, remaining loyal despite the writers’ transparent contempt for me and those like me.

I’ve taken the insults and said thank you as your scribes have patronised me time after time, speaking to me indirectly as though my mind was a blob of foam and my eyes were knock offs; defective models incapable of processing nuance or subtlety in a performance.

I don’t mind that plot points are signposted in big capital letters or that no one in Walford has anything that resembles an internal monologue. I freely accept that when the writers of the show imagine their archetypal viewer they see a person of average to low intelligence, who’s probably female, who’s only interested in surface detail, raw emotion, sensation and whimsy, and would be unlikely to recognise anything too complicated or realistic. They’d lose interest, wouldn’t they Bryan? They’d lose interest and switch to one of your rivals. After all, if EastEnders viewers wanted a programme written to the standard of This Life, they’d seek it out wouldn’t they? At least they would if the BBC made anything like it anymore and put it on in primetime on the main channel, but they don’t.

I’m fine with that Bryan, and I’m fine with my hypocrisy, trying to have it both ways by defending the programme I love while simultaneously attempting to construct a narrative in which I cast myself as an ironic viewer whose awareness of the relatively middling quality of the material and its conventions, makes me in some way superior to my fellow viewers, who may, I infer, be watching it without the same degree of critical detachment.

Yes, such is my devotion I don’t care that you add insult to injury with tabloid spin-off programmes on BBC3, that tell me with a certainty that solidifies the blood in my veins, the profile of your viewers as seen by the top brass. I let the all singing, all dancing 2004 EastEnders Christmas Party go, Bryan. That was my cot death nightmare.

You treat us like fools Bryan – imbeciles with misshapen craniums, but we watch the show and we like it. We’re the engine of its success. So why is it that when the shit hits the pumps, you ignore us completely and listen to those that you imagine to be better educated but whom crucially, don’t actually watch the programme they’re criticising? Can one Daily Mail reader really be worth 1,834 of your viewers, Bryan? If that’s my valuation I may have to kill myself but I can’t guarantee I won’t feel obligated to take you with me.

I appreciate this has been a difficult week for you. You’ve had to read the inane ramblings of Anne Diamond, seemingly beyond criticism because of her own cot death experience, and I can only guess at how far your stomach sank when you got a piece of paper with the Mumsnet logo adorning the header, but Anne Diamond isn’t your bread and butter, Bryan. Mumsnet don’t pay the bills; I do – and I need you to focus and pay real attention to me at this critical moment in your tenure.

The New Year baby swap plot was a great idea. No, really, you should be proud of it, though it had nothing to do with you. It’s bold, brave and insane. You’ve inadvertently made watching EastEnders dangerous, and in a world of safe, perfunctory storytelling and repetitive melodrama, built on extra-marital affairs, dull feuds and petty crime, it’s a breath of fresh air. This story has balls Bryan and not only that, it’s a delicious dramatic conceit. This story takes something as natural as nipples, the rearing of a new baby, and recasts it as sinister and psychologically thrilling.

Those that actually watch this thing of terrible beauty week in, week out, know that Ronnie’s actions make a twisted kind of sense when seen in the context of her character’s history. We get it, Bryan. We get it and we’re on your side. This Bryan, is a classic EastEnders slow burner, in which dramatic irony, a commodity that’s rare in these troubled times and rarer still on BBC1 at 7.30pm, can be deployed to devastating effect. Your writers have stumbled, drunk on despair, into a side alley and found a suitcase full of cash. You could spend the money but you’re planning to hand it in and return to destitution. Don’t do it.

As a TV producer you’ll understand that in a show like yours, in which writers aren’t permitted the luxury of a series break or a tight focus on a small set of characters, the precise conditions for a blockbuster plot are analogous to a celestial alignment; it’s a rare and wondrous thing – the right circumstances at the right time with the right stars to make it work. If you shorten this plot to placate a small and disengaged minority, you’ll be like the man who stayed indoors and watched the EastEnders omnibus on the day of a once in a generation solar eclipse. The moment will be lost and you may not see such favourable conditions again for many years.

The people who are complaining about this story are well meaning Bryan, and I say that as a concession to their legitimate desire not to see the serious subject of cot death trivialised in a sensational, tawdry and crass melodrama, as well as their illegitimate desire to maintain ownership of it. However, you’ll know that sensationalism, tawdriness and being crass are what EastEnders is all about. If you can’t celebrate these things in a show that trades in human failure, then where can you?

There’s a flaw in their argument that you may want to consider. The story isn’t about cot death. You’ll agree that’s a bit of a problem for Diamond’s Dollies, no? Sure, cot death is the theme of the story, it’s the inciting incident, but it isn’t the subject of the story – that’s Ronnie Mitchell and the irrational act of a bereaved character in response to the sudden death of her child. The context is that of a woman for whom having a baby meant everything, a woman whose daughter was taken from her as a teenager and later killed after being reunited for just one miserable day. This is a woman whose maternal instincts have been warped by a series of tragedies, many of which have occurred at Easter and Christmas in order to maximise ratings. It’s about her actions and the effect of her moment of madness on a nice, normal couple that are innocent of wrongdoing, unless you count their taste in everything.

These people are self-righteous, Bryan. They’re shrill, hectoring fools with more breast milk than brains. Many of them won’t have seen the allegedly offending episodes, so what we’re dealing with here, and it is us Bryan, you and the show’s fans, is proxy offense – people who’ve read about the story in tabloids complete with key words including “cot death” and “baby swap” and, with little or no interest in the whys or wherefores, reached for the phone or their laptop, instinctively imagining the plot to be wrong, despite the fact that the show is not formally endorsing the swapping of newborn babies with corpses of comparable age.

Many people have babies, Bryan, that’s why we’re all here after all, except for Joe Swash, who was grown in a lab, and I suppose that makes many Mums feel like they have a stake in this story, but they don’t. None of us have any real world stake in a piece of fiction. Only the authors can claim that and they alone should decide how it pans out. We’re free to judge the material but we must never be allowed to shape it.

You mustn’t dignify their fantasy of being arbiters of content by ceding to their demands. Why not point out that they didn’t so much as lactate when your predecessors used murder, rape, AIDS, child molestation and Islamic fascism as raw material for storylines. Many of these horrified Mums might have enjoyed those plots. We didn’t judge them for it and now they shouldn’t judge you because you’re using an unpleasant fact of life that they’re sensitive about.

But for a moment Bryan, let’s assume that every person that has complained about the story, which at the time of writing is 6,000, of which 2,500 complained upon hearing that the other 3,500 had already done so, had seen the episodes. They’d be 6,000 viewers from an estimated hoard of 11,000,000. Wouldn’t it be more logical for you and your writing team to assume, based on this evidence, that 10,994,000 viewers were not sufficiently moved by what they saw, to complain to the BBC? Couldn’t you assume that those viewers therefore condone the choices you’ve made and actively support the plotline, hoping to see how it plays out within its originally planned timescale?

Look Bryan, here’s the deal. There are people out there who will have found the episodes hard going, I mean even more so than usual. I was one of them. The performances were good, the set up was carefully done and the pay off was tough, but we suspended our disbelief, as we always do and we took your hand and said “okay EastEnders, this is going to be a difficult ride but I trust you, mostly, and I’m ready to go wherever you’re prepared to lead me.” The show’s the thing Bryan, and nothing matters except that it’s allowed to play out as the story demands. If it flexes to accommodate our inherent conservatism, then we may as well just switch off and read old books and what kind of world would that be?

The viewers aren’t writers, Bryan – we’re there to consume the material, not choose from a series of possible endings; that’s your job. Please get on with it and forget about these clucking drones. I can take anything you throw at me. I have. Just don’t ask me to watch a programme that’s script edited by Anne fucking Diamond.

Yours four times a week,

Ed

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10 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. For me, it’s a tricky one:

    I like the idea of pushing the boat out but I question whether ‘Eastenders’ is the best place for such a troubling storyline.

    Let’s face it – my sensibilities are hardly delicate but I continue to be amazed by what offends me. I recently hit the roof (metaphorically speaking) when I watched ‘The Human Centerpide’ and Tramadol Nights – I must be getting old.

    • The thing is, even if you hate EastEnders, and many people do, it’s the perfect show to try something like this because it’s the home of the bat shit crazy, clusterfuck firestorm. The crucial point is that the medical part of the cot death story was handled properly, in as much as it didn’t take any liberties with the medical facts surrounding the subject. That isn’t what bothers people. The complainers don’t like the baby swapping madness. Now, the reason that is isn’t a valid criticism is that it works within the context of the show and the featured character. Plus, if you’re not a viewer and therefore have nothing invested in the programme, it’s none of your business. This, in diplomatic terms, is the point the BBC should stress to the lobbying groups that are now getting involved in something they know nothing about.

      • Surely, the medical accuracy is only half the battle – as crucial as it is, I’ve known a few mothers (and dated one or two no less) to understand that while their machinations might seem insane and batshit to childless men such as ourselves, it is of imperative importance to portray such characters with delicacy and sensitivity otherwise what is the point?

      • That’s all fine in the abstract but the point is that it’s just a plot device to set up a piece of melodrama. EastEnders doesn’t have a responsibility to be true to life, in fact any serious commitment to realism would sabotage the show because it is, as mentioned in previous comments, a heightened reality. The producers know it, the viewers know it. Only those that don’t watch it and usually don’t care are unawares and my argument that they shouldn’t concern themselves with the content for just that reason.

        The thing is that they use real world problems as the catalyst for the drama; that’s all that’s happened here. It’s business as usual. Of course the producers of the programme have to maintain the fantasy that there’s some public interest angle to the use of these issues as kindling for the fire, but privately they know and the viewers of the programme understand, that whereas there is some positive benefit to using these issues as the basis for storylines, in as much as it gets people thinking about the issues, their primary function is not education, it’s delivering a compelling narrative. Well, mission accomplished.

        The only reason that EE’s producers can use this line is that there is, somewhat incredibly, evidence that seeing characters on the show go through common or little discussed problems, has an effect on the audience’s awareness of the same. For example, when one teenage character was groomed and later sexed by her pedophiliac step father, several girls allegedly rang the police and reported their own abuse. For reasons I don’t fully understand and I suspect you don’t either, seeing someone they follow and identify with on screen endure it with the absolute moral certainty that it was abuse that television helpfully provides, convinced them to make the call.

        Now, with this storyline, it’s not really an issue of the week plot. As mentioned the cot death aspect was the inciting incident but the story is really about the mental breakdown of a character with child related psychological problems. Within the context of the show it makes sense and with respect to the outraged non-viewer, that’s the only arena where it really needs to make sense. What’s the point? None – it’s compelling viewing. The cot death aspect was done effectively – all the evidence is that millions more people have checked out cot death related information online and visited the websites of related charities and NHS pages than this time two weeks ago. What’s the problem?

        In the meantime I’ve wrote to Anne Diamond and asked her to switch off her television and leave the rest of us to get on with it.

  2. Hey Ed,

    I’m sorry man I can’t agree with you on a couple of things. Firstly the argument that Eastenders is a the place where people go for batshit crazy plots. Dude, it may be where you go for batshit craziness but a lot of people go there because they want realistic drama. Wrong place, I agree, but still that’s what they do. Eastenders takes pride in their ability to deal with real issues, they are still saying that this was “sensitively handled”. They either sensitively handle issues or deal in complete lunacy, dude they can’t profess to do both.

    The other point I can’t agree with is that if you don’t watch it it’s none of your business. That argument is fine for niche entertainment that people seek out, but for mass appeal popcorn like Eastenders that isn’t really a fair thing to say. I’m not a whinging middle-aged mail reading woman who gets pissed at everything. I’m a guy whose baby daughter died last year. I can tell you from experience that people avoid you like the plague when your child has died. Rightly or wrongly people look at soaps as a reflection of real life, Jesus they’ve even begun accosting Samantha Womack over this (utterly reprehensible in my opinion). Neonatal death is rarely covered in the media (I know, I look for it) because as a subject it’s seen as too grim, so to have the one depiction of this showing a bereaved parent as a baby snatching psycho is going to have an impact. I can see your an intelligent guy and you see the fiction in this but not everyone is.

    • Hi Mark,
      I’m so sorry to hear about your loss. You have my deepest sympathies my friend.

      On the subject of the programme and its content, I plead guilty to your first charge. As a life long viewer of the show I appreciate, as many fans do, that one of the pleasures of watching EE is that it isn’t reality, it’s a heightened reality which is utterly contrived and full of insanity. You’re right that the show likes to deal with “real issues” but there’s no suggestion that what you’re watching is a documentary.

      You hear horror stories about people accosting actors from the show in the street and lambasting them for what they’ve done on screen but said people are, putting it generously, mental, and my experience, watching with people on Twitter and communicating with people who watch it who I know personally, is that at no time is it taken too seriously. People understand that its fiction and when you talk about the characters and what they’re doing it’s a game that everyone in the conversation understands they’re playing. That’s part of the pleasure of being involved in the ongoing narrative. You say EE can’t present real world problems and not deal in melodramatic excess. Well, as someone who’s been watching for 26 years I can tell you that they can and they do. That’s the show.

      I’m not sure I accept the central plank of your argument, namely that people look at soaps as a reflection of real life. What’s your evidence for this? It’s a sort of parody of life isn’t it, surely? It can’t be too detached from reality, else people couldn’t identify with the characters, but any viewer that mistakes the on screen shenanigans for what really goes on behind closed doors has a much more exciting life than mine. I concede that’s not difficult.

      The viewers are a lot more intelligent that the BBC gives them credit for, which you’ll see was one of the themes of my post. I think that the notion of soap fans as gossips, detached from reality, is a sort of truism, which like all truisms is exaggerated, if not false.

      I don’t know if you watch the programme but as someone who does I can tell you that the scenes relating to SIDS were very difficult to watch and well performed. I didn’t feel, as a viewer, with admittedly no experience of the awful event being portrayed, that is was being cheapened in any way. Womack was excellent and I thought, utterly convincing. The thing is that had you seen the show you’d understand that Womack’s character is no normal mother and so her actions in this instance, though crazy, made a horrible kind of sense. The writers were also careful to illustrate that she realized pretty quickly the magnitude of what she’d done but was over taken by events and so trapped in the lie as it were. The point is that viewers of the show by and large understand that these are the actions of a damaged character, not the default setting for bereaved Mums. Lobby groups should credit the audience with some intelligence.

      I’m sympathetic to those that don’t watch it and feel aggrieved by the use of cot death as a plot device but, and it is a big but, if you don’t watch it and you accept that the audience aren’t idiots, what’s the problem? You’re not an idiot so why assume that the people who watch EE are? That’s what Anne Diamond and Mumsnet assume and that for me, is the real offence. As I said in my post, SIDS was the catalyst for this plotline but in fact, it isn’t really about that at all.

      Take care and thanks for reading.

  3. I am torn really. Do I think SIDS is an issue that needs more coverage in a sensative manner? Yes. Do I understand fully the whole baby swapping angle? No.

    Most people do understand that soaps are dramatic works of fiction but at the same time they have played a part in general awareness raising in the past. I imagine this is why charaties are happy to work alongside writers in the first place.

    I don’t watch EE anymore because I just fell out of the habit. I can see both sides of the arguement but at the end of the day don’t really understand why people complain about this kind of thing when they can always just make the choice not to watch it.

    It would be interesting to know how many people who have complained have actually did watch it for a start. The newspapers just love whipping this kind of thing up and it is a lazy way to fill column inches. That said they were already shocked and disgusted about it before it had even been aired!

    • I read that traffic to the FSIDS charity that advised the Beeb on the medical aspect of the storyline, which is a very small part indeed, have experienced a 500% increase in traffic to their website since the broadcast, so that can’t be a bad thing.

      • No true enough.

        From what I have read (and I think you mentioned too) the actual factual content around SIDS was correct.

        The rony is for all those banging drums about EE doing this to get better ratings, byt turning it into a ‘story’ in its own right they have done that for the BBC.

  4. I think this storyline has been a disgrace, not doing Eastenders any favours at all, fed up with the Mitchel feuds over Christmas, something different had to be found!
    So what have we learnt about cot deaths ( perhaps not to sleep until your baby has grown up???)
    This has been totally sensationalised just to keep the ratings up!
    I for one will stick to Corrie from now.


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