Lesley Henderson: Cot death in EastEnders


The current cot death story in BBC soap opera EastEnders has generated numerous complaints to the BBC and regulatory body Ofcom. One of the actors involved is now reportedly leaving the programme after being traumatised by her harrowing scenes and being abused by a member of the public while out walking with her family. Yet sensitive social issues have been dealt with in the past in different soaps and EastEnders in particular is known for bringing gritty hard hitting storylines to pre-watershed audiences. Why has this particular story generated such controversy?

Partly the public reaction may be to do with the timing. Stories like this are potentially difficult to watch as a family and key episodes were screened during the Christmas /New Year break when family groups traditionally gather to watch a soap opera episode. Yet EastEnders was criticised in the past for screening a heavy domestic violence story on Christmas day 2001 (involving characters Little Mo and Trevor), but this was regarded as well researched and so presumably justified.

Those who have complained believe that cot death has not been treated sensitively and shows bereaved mothers as “unhinged “However in the official view of the production team the message was never intended to show that women who experience cot death would potentially seek to replace a dead infant with another. Loyal audiences know that Ronnie Branning has longed to become a mother after losing two children in different circumstances and those who watched the key episode know she tried to seek help, swapped the babies in an impulsive moment and now regrets her actions. The portrayal of Kat Slater, who mistakenly thinks her baby has died, is considered to be accurate and sensitive. This shows that some members of the audience have not viewed this story in the way the production team anticipated and wanted, always a risk with any socially sensitive storyline. In the past EastEnders has misjudged public opinion (examples include a child abduction story screened around the same time as the high profile media reporting of the James Bulger abduction and murder) (1).

This incident is also interesting as it shows the power of internet forums such as mumsnet who have complained on behalf of their members to the BBC on the grounds that the story stigmatises grieving mothers. A few years ago there was no similar outlet for viewer complaints but with mumsnet and digital spy forums buzzing with opinions (quoting from each other to support their mainly opposing views) we can see just how the public can make an impact on media content. Constant updates about the BBCs response to the situation are reported online and tweeted on numerous blogs. We know already that BBC is reportedly cutting the story short and announcing that the story will be resolved “happily.”

As it does with many other storylines, the production team worked with an organisation that can offer advice on the realism of a script. In this case the Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths (FSID) has criticised what they call the “baby swap” story (despite advising on the reaction of Kat Slater). The point here is that a “cot death” story has become a “baby swap” story with drama heaped on drama. This shows how little influence the charities and organisations that work with soaps actually may have (though of course the best known collaboration of this type was Mark Fowler’s HIV storyline with EastEnders working closely with the Terence Higgins Trust).

Liaisons with soaps are crucial for many charities and organisations seeking to increase public awareness of different topics. Indeed BBC drama controller, John Yorke, points out that cot death is now on the public agenda. We know that certain stories have had specific impact on health related behaviour. EastEnders‘ Stacey Slater’s bipolar disorder was a powerful and highly praised story that challenged mental health stigma and resulted in some viewers realising that they also suffered from bipolar disorder. Others have been considered less positive with a dramatic increase in demand for smear tests following the death of Alma Halliwell inCoronation Street from cervical cancer with local laboratories overwhelmed (2). In the current climate, competition for audiences means soaps will always tackle difficult to watch issues (we have already seen male rape and other once taboo storylines featured). Ultimately though 10 000 complaints are significant, the story episodes are reaching 10 million people (possibly with some people watching simply to see what the controversy is about) and it’s very difficult for soaps to attract that many viewers with competition from each other and reality television programmes However the story is resolved, this controversy does demonstrate the power of drama and that even now as 2011 begins it is still possible for television fiction to shock the public.

Lesley Henderson PhD is a senior lecturer in sociology and communications at Brunel University in West London.

(1) Henderson L.  Social issues in television fiction. Edinburgh University Press, 2007.

(2) Howe A, Owen-Smith V,  Richardson J. The impact of a television soap opera on the NHS cervical screening programme in the north west of England. J Public Health Med 2002;24:299-304.