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Home > Media

TVJism: The Walford Downs

17 September 2006

is week 'EastEnders' was criticised by the Royal College of Midwives for a storyline about a Down's Syndrome baby, the progeny of Billy and Honey Mitchell. Poor kid - it's bad enough being born with Down's Syndrome, but a bit of mental retardation pales into insignificance with the horrors that await anyone living in Albert Square. In 20 years' time, not only will they be squandering their life working on a market stall or in 'the caff', but they'll be suffering whatever social problem 'EastEnders' has chosen to highlight that month: alcoholism, infertility, date rape, chlamydia, bird flu, or a delicious cocktail of the whole lot.

The RCM's complaint was that the Down's Syndrome plot was unrealistic and would worry expectant couples. True, perhaps, but if you're looking for realism, 'EastEnders' is hardly your first stop, having once been described by Charlie Brooker as 'so realistic it may as well be set on the fucking moon'. In fact, it's amazing that this tired old warhorse of a soap is still on. Quite apart from the badness of the Down's Syndrome plot (of which more in a moment), 'EastEnders' is pretty much bad on every level.

In the absence of memorable characters, the show seems to be pushing rear-echelon 'characters' like Billy Mitchell, Sonya the Moomintroll and 'Minty'. The fixation with crap characters also takes the form of the ongoing travails of Ian Beale, a character who was pretty un-endearing even back in the 80s, and who would save himself and everyone else a lot of grief by just tossing himself in Walford canal and having done. In fact, Ian's life over the past decade has been so fraught with misery that even someone with the strength of character of Nelson Mandela and the survival instincts of Chris Ryan would have long ago run a hot bath, downed a bottle of whisky and cracked open the painkillers and razor blades.

Billy Mitchell, who looks like a rat with a frown, fell off the radar after his own storyline (about being estranged from his family and abusing his nephew Jamie) ran its course many years ago, and is now shouldering the burden of whatever plots the scriptwriters need to allocate to the hapless characters living in their East London world of pain. Let's just hope they don't happen to watch 'A Day in the Death of Joe Egg' one evening, or Billy's going to be contemplating some pretty radical solutions to the problem of bringing up a disabled child...

But to return to the Down's Syndrome plot, the RCM took issue with Honey being refused an epidural when in pain, and being informed that her baby had Down's Syndrome without her partner being present, both things that shouldn't, and usually don't, happen in hospital. The upshot, said the RCM, was that parents-to-be could be unnecessarily alarmed, and that the show did not show contemporary 'best practice' (jargon for 'things being done well') on the part of nurses and doctors, who would have been more supportive.

However, a BBC spokeswoman said the scenes were based on real-life experiences: '"EastEnders" has in fact drawn directly from one particular true-life story... while this may indeed not be best practice, it is worth saying that good drama does not necessarily come from best practice.'

It's a fair point. There probably wouldn't *be* such a thing as drama if characters all acted in accordance with 'best practice'. Hamlet would be pretty dull for a start. Rather than take matters into his own hands, the young prince would contact the appropriate authorities, who would launch a police investigation into the death of his father. Gertrude would probably not have embarked on a relationship with Claudius, because she'd still be attending grief counselling sessions. And there wouldn't be any death of Ophelia - she'd have got access to mental health services and would be able to control her growing madness by taking an appropriate combination of anti-depressant and anti-psychotic drugs.

Of course, there *are* questions about claiming that a show is realistic when it's not, and TV frequently does this. Channel 4's 'No Angels' perfectly summed this up. It claimed to be based on proper research, then lazily regurgitated every stereotype and shaggy dog story about nurses. Even so, you'd have to have been a bit weird to take it at face value. Most people can usually tell the difference between fact, fiction and the things in between. And this is why the RCM really shouldn't get worked up about 'EastEnders'.

And in the case of EastEnders, the fact that it's fiction is amply illustrated by the fact that, dramatically, it is *so fucking bad*. The set up to the baby turning out to have Down's Syndrome was an agonising build-up consisting of Honey repeatedly saying things like:

'I want aah daughter to 'ave a fuchah! I want 'er to be clevah, and become a doctah or a lawyah!'

Yes, just the sort of thing people say immediately after giving birth. Not 'She's beautiful!' but 'I want her to become a GP!'. However, anyone who's familiar with 'EastEnders' is wise to this little ploy, and so millions (actually, probably dozens these days) of viewers must have been just casually waiting for the doctor to say 'I'm sorry, Mrs Mitchell, your child has been born severely brain-damaged', or, better still, 'Your daughter has been born without a head.'

The great thing about 'EastEnders' is that this device is used *constantly*, as though the viewing public is dim enough to be shocked every single time. In fact every time you hear an 'EastEnders' character say words to the effect of 'I think today will be a good day for me!', you're immediately waiting for them to find out they're HIV positive, dying from cancer, not the father of their child, or about to be crushed by a falling wall.

Or a delicious cocktail of the whole lot.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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