Watching EastEnders and scenes of Lee Carter’s depression storyline recently proves that when dramatizing real life contemporary issues, the show doesn’t need sensational murders and returns from the dead to create powerful drama. It simply needs to tap into life as it is being lived by its millions of viewers.
For as this and the many other ‘issue based’ storylines have proven in the past, the subtleties of real life are far more complex, fascinating and intriguing than any sensational, bombastic fiction and can draw in millions of viewers who identify with the minutiae and truth of what they are seeing portrayed on screen.
To research this storyline the team of EastEnders have worked with MIND, the Mental Health charity, which is no doubt rubbing its hands with glee as most charities do when working with a TV soap, grateful for the huge rise in profile their ‘issue’ will be getting, as well as the prospect of increased donations and fundraising that this free publicity will bring.
As usual the publicity for this storyline has included the usual gushing template charity press release, which reads exactly the same as every other charity statement released when their issue is being dramatised by a UK TV soap.
"We have a long history of working with EastEnders and are grateful that they are keen once again to tackle mental health in front of such a large audience.
"Mental health problems are very common, affecting around one in four people, and depression is one of the most common conditions. For some viewers, a dramatic portrayal is the first time they may be exposed to mental health problems and when done well soaps can be a tremendous tool in raising awareness, challenging attitudes and helping to dispel myths.
"In research we carried out last year, we even discovered that 25% of respondents had sought professional help for their own mental health after seeing a soap character with similar issues."
This may seem well and good. But I can’t help wondering if when sitting down to do their research, is the first question the storylining team ask: “Can you tell us all the best shouty shouty bits, please?”
Because anyone that’s watched the barrage of issue based storylines unfold on our screens in recent years knows this is what tends to become of these storylines, with a total focus being on the ugly, dramatic crisis moments and very little screen time being devoted to any positive outcome.
Life Is Shit Viewers, Here’s The Evidence
In EastEnders, Stacey Slater’s bipolar plot is yet to reach any positive conclusion, being reactivated whenever the drama seems to be lagging, whilst Lauren Branning’s alcohol rehabilitation and complete recovery several years back took place miraculously off screen.
Carol Jackson’s recent breast cancer storyline is another example of this ‘issue exploitation’, harrowing scenes of the grim effects of chemotherapy being pumped into our living rooms on a daily basis, whilst zero screen time has detailed her recovery process.
In fact the only positive ‘issue based’ storyline that I can think of EastEnders ever delivering is the Mark (I’m HIV Positive) storyline, which showed the never charismatic Fowler son living with HIV on a daily basis - even getting married and fostering a kid - proving that despite having this disease a person can live life to the full. Or as much as one can selling spuds in Albert Square.
My dad had Prostate Cancer several years back and I know from firsthand experience that the ‘issue’ of cancer doesn’t end (as it seems to in Albert Square) once the course of treatment has completed. The emotional side effects of this aggressive illness are long term, and this is something all soaps have chosen to delete in recent years, shying away from realistically showing the long term impact of the life changing events they regularly throw at their characters, being obsessed with concocting the next calamity to throw at their cast.
Regarding the current depression storyline, one only has to look at the forums of media website Digital Spy to see the traumatic impact this story is having on viewers:
“I was bawling. I have moved a fair bit away from home and have been trying to control my depression. I have been lying and trying to hide it from my partner and my mother. Last night, before the episode, a lot came out and after watching the episode I felt so connected. It felt so true to life for me. I raise a glass to these actors!”
These soap storylines powerfully affect millions of viewers, often dredging up painful memories and emotions long buried that viewers have tried to forget. But by simply regurgitating reality and depicting the pain of life that is true to so many, are these programmes really helping viewers and society as a whole, or is this simply a case of blatant ‘issue exploitation’, in an attempt to be seen to be making serious drama to win TV awards and critical acclaim?
“The function of art is to do more than tell it like it is – it’s to imagine what is possible.” Bell Hooks
Because how powerful would the soaps be if they chose to dramatize the problem and then the solution to the social issues they portray, potentially educating millions of viewers in how they too can potentially change their lives for the better?
Imagine, not only would this make the soaps relevant again – because viewing figures for all the soaps have been falling off a cliff for years now – but it would also reactivate the 'public service broadcasting' ethos that was at the very heart of shows such as EastEnders when they were originally born.
Negativity On A Daily Basis
In the modern world the regular viewer is so bombarded with negativity – from TV shows such as Jeremy Kyle to those trashy weekly tabloid magazines such as 'Real Life' and 'Take a Break' which carry stories like 'My Son Raped My Daughter' – that it’s no wonder mental health problems are reaching epidemic proportions. We know that if you force feed a person a diet of junk food that they’ll grow up physically impaired, why has no one made the same correlation to the huge amount of negativity we are pumping into people’s minds?
Socially Progressive Programming
Imagine the positive impact on society and its understanding of mental health issues if the current EastEnders depression storyline dramatized the various drug free solutions and therapies that are proven to cure depression: such as daily meditation, thought management processes, and emotion based CBT techniques. Millions of viewers would be educated in how to manage their own mental health; the millions currently struggling with this issue would be empowered to debate about how they themselves can begin to manage their own rehabilitation; and most importantly of all a message of hope would be delivered to millions of viewers via an extremely popular and powerful television genre.
But this raises the question: with it’s licence fee government ties, is EastEnders and the BBC tied into dramatising only official NHS endorsed depression treatments or is it free to show other alternative solutions that exist in the world today?
I myself rehabilitated myself after suffering 15 years of depression - which manifested as Chronic Fatigue - after sourcing a pioneering positive emotion thought management process, which isn’t available on the NHS. And I set up and ran a charity teaching these techniques to others, getting fanastic results. So alternative solutions are out there.
Or do the producers of the show even care at all, only being interested in picking up such an emotive issue to exploit for all its ‘shouty shouty’ bits before then dropping it like a hot potato? Time will tell.
Taking EastEnders previous ‘issue based’ plot lines, imagine if the following stories were played out on screen:
* Kat Slater and Whitney Dean seeking counselling and therapy and finally overcoming the trauma of their childhood sexual abuse, living life positively to the full
* Nick Cotton receiving drug therapy treatment on screen, showing how he overcame his demons to live a drug free life
I for one think this much more positive perspective would make for powerful, relevant and educational television, which (from a producers point of view) would take the characters storylines to their inevitable conclusions, rather than letting them drift and stagnate for years without direction, which is what seems to have happened to many EastEnders characters in recent years.
Think this is a good idea? This is the story approach that E-Drama will be adopting when it launches in spring 2016, committed to dramatizing both the problem and the solution to the various social issues it will dramatize on screen.
And whilst we’ll be working with various charities and support groups to accurately depict the solution focused outcome of our plots, we’re also reaching out to the audience to share your stories of how you overcame the trials and tribulations of your own lives for the benefit of all.
If you’ve got a story you think is worth telling, log onto www.e-drama.co.uk and send it to us. Be part of the fight against soap froth and help bring the relevance back into soap opera, restoring it to its true power and glory.