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Dark days in Albert Square

EastEnders is about to run one of its most controversial storylines yet. But is primetime television ready for paedophilia? Aida Edemariam speaks to the producers, writers and actors about how it all came about

The story begins with eyes meeting across a crowded room. It was August 2007 at Barbara Windsor's 70th birthday party, and Diederick Santer, executive producer of EastEnders, kept noticing a woman looking at him. He recognised her as Patsy Palmer, who played Bianca Jackson until, in 1999, she flounced out in the general direction of Manchester. "I mean, we were both with our respective partners," Santer adds quickly, "but I think we both sensed that we were interested in talking to each other." Everything in Santer's corner office at Elstree is in hyper-colour: his deep aqua shirt, the primary red sofas. Group photos of the EastEnders cast from the big-shouldered 80s to hoop-earringed now troop across one wall, and a large TV screen relays cast and extras milling about the market on Albert Square - which is to be found, in all its disconcertingly weathered solidity, just around the corner.

Santer called Palmer a few weeks later. They met for lunch and, "sure enough, she was quite keen to come back". So the very next week they met, along with series consultant Simon Ashdown and story producer Dominic Treadwell-Collins, to talk about how she might achieve it. Where had Bianca been since she left? How many children did she have? Who by? Why might she return? They didn't nail it all down, but the meeting convinced them that Bianca should return.

Four times a year, Santer, John Yorke - controller of BBC drama production - and some senior writers spend a few days just talking through every character on the show. They plan story arcs for the next year, discuss what isn't working, dream up spectaculars. (None of this can they tell anyone else; not friends, not even partners. "It's a badge of honour, really," Yorke says. "No one actually signs anything. It's like the Hippocratic oath.") Luckily for Palmer, the next story conference was in two weeks' time.

As usual, they split into small working groups. Ashdown was sent off with some scriptwriters to think about Bianca. He had just watched a documentary about homeless people and had been especially struck by a woman and child at a bus stop with nowhere to go. What might happen to them? They would be easy prey... What if a paedophile noticed the child, who might be, say, 12, and pretended to be the woman's saviour? She would be too grateful to notice that this was unusual behaviour, that he seemed to have few friends or family... They suggested the idea to the whole group. "It drew a sharp intake of breath," Yorke says.

Which, in soap land, is no bad thing. "Most EastEnders stories that have been good and successful have been the ones that caused the sharp intake of breath," Yorke says, "so they're always the kind of stories you look for" - but it's not enough. "You have to start analysing why are we doing it, can we do it, what's the point?" The issue had, in fact, come up before, and been scuppered by just such questions. "We knew," Santer says, "that something like 16% of under-16s have been sexually abused at some point, but if you can't find a story, it's an issue that sits there, dead, on the show." Given the difficulty of the subject, it was not a risk they were then willing to take.

That, perhaps, is a surprise, given that soaps so often seem to be grim catalogues of beatings, burnings, adultery, murder and general sinfulness, but paedophilia is a place to which soaps - terrestrial TV, in fact - have rarely gone, and even then quite gingerly. EastEnders has tried once: it turned out that Kat Slater was actually her sister Zoe's mother, having been raped by an uncle when she was a teenager. This was reported as having happened in the past. In 2001, Coronation Street had teenage mother Sarah-Louise Platt being groomed by a paedophile over the internet, while Brookside bade farewell to Sinbad by having him charged with abusing a nine-year-old boy; Michael Starke, who played Sinbad, insisted to the programme-makers that the audience, at least, should know that he was innocent, and worried publicly about the possibility of vigilante justice. Last year, Channel 4 aired Rowan Joffe's Secret Life, a gruelling take on the issue from a paroled paedophile's point of view, but that was a one-off, post-watershed drama; EastEnders has an average audience of 9.5 million, nearly one in six of the British population, and goes out at 7.30pm or 8pm on weekday evenings. And so Yorke, who describes his job as being "paid to be permanently anxious", said to Santer afterwards, "I'm not sure about this. You're going to have to go away and do some work to convince me."

"My standpoint has always been that there has to be a good editorial justification," Yorke says. "If it's just entertainment, or just sensation, or just the bogeyman in this case, then I don't think that's a good enough reason." The editorial policy department had to be told, and the NSPCC contacted. Would such a show have a detrimental effect? What message would it be sending out to families who may be in this situation, to young children, and to parents?

At the same time, things were moving fast. A week later, on October 23, Santer met Sid Owen, who had played Ricky, Bianca's husband and then ex-husband, for 14 years, and suggested a return to the show. A week after that, the press office announced that Palmer would be returning to EastEnders; an announcement about Owen's return came the following day. In April, they made their first appearance, at Frank Butcher's funeral. More than 11 million people watched the episode, nearly two million more than normal. It was nothing like the 17.8 million who watched them marry in 1997, but in a multichannel universe, respectable nonetheless. In December casting began for Bianca's children, and just before Christmas 16-year-old Shona McGarty was cast as her eldest stepchild, Whitney. Santer was looking for someone "quite spiky, quite gobby, a bit of an equal to Bianca, and in a way a version of Bianca at that age"; McGarty was perfect.

Characterisation began for McGarty on the ninth day of the new year, which was when she was told that she might be playing a child groomed for sex. Santer didn't ask her for an immediate decision - it was important that she should talk to her parents about it. And if her parents had objected? "If her parents had had an objection, we'd have done something else." (They did object to her doing anything to publicise her part, so I was not allowed to speak either to them or to their daughter.) She started shooting on January 14.

Work on the story began in earnest in March, when researchers Libby Duplock and Cleo Bicat contacted the NSPCC's Tom Narducci, who advises the government about safeguarding children, Jude Toasland, who has spent a lifetime dealing with abused children, and Yvonne Traynor, CEO of the Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Centre. Duplock was particularly struck by a victim statement provided by the latter, which demanded, "How dare you make me like you?" She insisted to the screenwriters that this should be a central element in the character of Tony, a Mancunian who, according to the back story, had one day given Bianca a lift home, three years before her return to Walford, and noticed, standing in the hallway, 12-year-old Whitney in her pyjamas. Because, as Duplock and Bicat soon discovered, it wasn't just that 16% of under-16s have experienced some form of sexual abuse that was interesting - it was how those figures broke down. According to the NSPCC, 11% of children under 16 have experienced sexual abuse by a person known but unrelated to them, often a boyfriend or girlfriend, while only 5% have been interfered with by someone unknown or whom they had just met; 1% by a parent or carer; and fewer than 1% by a professional in a position of trust, such as a teacher.

Duplock was also surprised by the lengths to which paedophiles can go to gain that trust, often targeting a family, or child, years in advance of anything actually happening. So Tony (played by Chris Coghill, a distinctly good-looking man) started by seducing Bianca, who couldn't believe her luck, and then begins laying the groundwork so that Whitney comes to believe that the relationship between the two of them is her own idea. Whitney is now 15. On April 1, Bianca, Ricky, Whitney and her stepbrothers Liam and Morgan, and half-sister Tiffany appeared together on screen, and Tony was mentioned for the first time. When we finally meet him, he's just been released from prison, having served 12 months for beating up a boy who was allegedly bothering Whitney; in reality he was jealous.

"One thing that was quite difficult for me to get right was the idea that she didn't want sex," Duplock says. "It's Whitney's way of keeping him happy. If she lets him do it, then he's nicer to her and he makes her feel special." There seems to have been less trouble with the ways in which Tony lulls her into feeling this; what is most disturbing, watching their first scenes together, is not the sexuality of the situation per se, though that is uncomfortable - it's the subtle blackmail with which he keeps her in line. As it's combined with the emotional manipulation native to soaps, the viewer starts to feel a bit bullied, too.

There was also a great deal of soul-searching about Tony's back story. According to a study in the Lancet, only 12% of abused children go on to abuse other children and, says Duplock, "We felt that to imply on TV that someone who has been abused is going to go on to abuse other people is not a message you want to give out. Those people have been through enough." At the NSPCC, Narducci, in particular, was adamant on this point.

For the NSPCC, what was most important was that it should make children watching the show feel comfortable about asking for help if they felt they needed it. Also, says Narducci, "for the wider community - to recognise the signs and let them know that they can do something about it." This sounds dangerous to me; surely levels of suspicion are high enough as it is? "Helpline numbers will be provided at the end of each show," Narducci says, and counsellors will be instructed to tease out exactly what the problem is; if they feel there is no need for action, he says, they will discourage it. "We're not trying to cause a national panic. This is a responsible effort to try to get over an important story."

Coming up with a plot and characters (or storylining) is only the beginning of a process that takes, on average, five or six months. This particular story gets under way only this week but last spring writers and storyliners were already sending draft episodes to the researchers, who sent them to the NSPCC, who returned them with detailed comments. So, on April 25, Duplock was passing on the NSPCC's objections to the sexuality to be shown on screen - or at least the suddenness with which it becomes apparent; detailing the necessity of making it clear that there has been a lot of grooming, and arguing that part of Whitney's motivation might be competition with Bianca. And "it is important not to make too much of the self-harm, as it is a different issue and will distract". The NSPCC's changes were incorporated (self-harm was dropped) and on May 13 the first draft script arrived on Santer's desk.

It was time to get formal approval. On June 2 Yorke wrote a memo to Jane Tranter, controller of BBC fiction, and Jay Hunt, controller of BBC1, giving them a detailed breakdown of the story, why they wanted to tell it (it would be "a talking point" that could "truly educate and inform"); with whom they'd been working; a summary of the research so far; a character sketch of Tony; and practical issues, such as the fact that they would need action lines.

"I thought it was a fantastically good idea," Tranter says. "The big moments in EastEnders, those iconic pieces of television history, tend to be the things that are incredibly near the knuckle, and are actually quite difficult subjects to raise in the context of a family sitting room." But isn't that precisely the objection they will run into? That they're reaching too far for dubious effect, that the subject is too disconcerting for that time slot, and too serious for the format? Her reply is fierce. "Well, that is the responsibility of soap! For a lot of people, the way they learn, for example, about homosexuality, will be through a soap. Soaps are meant to hold up a mirror to our lives, and sometimes that mirror will show ugly bits, difficult bits, taboo bits. But if a soap doesn't hold up that mirror, then actually, what is it? It will have no depth. And it certainly won't have a public service element." Public service? Surely the first thing people think of when they hear the words BBC and public service is not EastEnders... "Well, that's to the great credit of EastEnders, then, because what it's not doing is wearing its worthiness on its sleeve. You know, we could do an issue drama on something like this and it would appear very 'public service' but actually, how much better is it to place it in the comfort zone of the soap? Youngsters won't watch a searing drama at 10pm. It's the only way to get that particular audience. And it's a really, really important thing to get out in the open."

This argument works both ways. Everyone in this process is keen to stress that no physical sexuality is shown on screen, but for all the care and tastefulness that has gone into the treatment, transgression, however far off-screen, is what this story is about, and transgression - of TV norms, if nothing else - is a good part of why it will be gripping. And being gripping, and as a result raking in the audiences, is the lifeblood of a soap. Yet everyone also denies that they're just ratings-chasing. "No, for that you'd have to blow something up, expose an affair or make it a whodunit," Santer says. "Highest viewing figures ever were about 29 million, Christmas 1986, when Den served Angie divorce papers. My highest was 14.6 million, last Christmas, and in that episode an affair was revealed." In fact, "we may lose people along the way" as happened with the domestic violence strand between Little Mo and Trevor. "A lot of people didn't want to watch it." After a long phone conversation, Tranter gave Yorke the go-ahead.

Casting for Tony began when the final draft of his first episode was finished, on June 9, but there was one more step Yorke wanted to take before an actor was given the part. On June 18, he convened a summit meeting at Elstree. For an hour he threw questions at the editorial policy department, at research, at the story department, at scripts, at casting and at the press office. Were they happy with how the storyline was developing? Were they convinced they could tell the story properly before the watershed? They worried and worried over the first episode. Should Tony and Whitney kiss? There was much concern about the welfare of the actor playing Tony. In a worst-case scenario, could he be removed from the show? What kind of backup would he have?

The next day, Thursday June 19, Chris Coghill arrived for his audition. He had been given no warning as to what the part might be. "If they'd told me first, I might have thought twice," he says, sitting in a meeting room at White City, his arms tightly folded. As it was, he realised only when he was given his audition scenes and told to go outside for 15 minutes and prepare them. "I was able to think it through. I knew by the time I walked into that room that if I was offered the job, I would probably take it." Why? "It's a good part." A risky one, dark... "I thought, 'How many people play murderers?' " But murderers are two a penny on TV. Quite a few are on EastEnders. Not so paedophiles. "It's almost a category of its own. Worryingly we live in a country where a paediatrician's house got attacked..."

Santer thought Coghill had "the right combination of warmth and plausibility, and a lad-next-door quality, with something darker, more menacing"; he and Yorke also liked the fact that Coghill had a high-profile track record on other shows, which would create distance between him and Tony. Coghill was offered the part the next day. Over the weekend, he discussed it with his agent and his wife. "At the end of the day, it's only acting. And if I do it well, I'll continue to be an actor..." He leans back and stares at the ceiling, arms still crossed. "If it gets to the point where things become horrendous for me" - he shoots a half-laughing, half-serious look at the publicist - "the BBC will have to give me a part doing something else, very quickly."

Coghill also underwent a thorough characterisation session - how old Tony liked his girls, why he short-circuited at that particular age, how long he might target them for, what colour socks he favoured. Both the BBC and Coghill are aware that Tony's characterisation requires walking a delicate line between understanding and toleration. "You have to show him confused and conflicted and scared and worried, and all those things invite empathy," Yorke says. "That's OK, but it doesn't mean you condone them. It's important that he's not just a bogeyman." Having said which, he adds, "It would be patronising [to the audience] not to make Tony three-dimensional" - not to mention make mugs of Pat Butcher, Ricky, et al.

They were keen, too, to check whether Coghill could handle the extracurricular side of the job, because the catch-22 is that if he does it well, he'll be convincing, and some people, notes company manager Carolyn Weinstein, "can't always divorce reality from fiction". Mostly it's benign - she tells stories of cheques being sent in to help cash-strapped characters, actors asking which line Walford East station is on when they first report for work - but there have also been death threats. And that's on top of the incomparable amount of attention anyone gets the minute they arrive on Albert Square. A significant portion of Weinstein's job consists of warning actors what this will be like and picking up the pieces when they get it wrong; with Coghill and McGarty, everything has to be geared up several notches.

They will not, for example, be receiving any fan mail directly. The fear with McGarty is that a child may write and ask for help; this will be replied to by Weinstein, with advice about whom to talk to, such as the NSPCC. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, there might be sexually charged fan mail: "That'll go to the police." Coghill has already had a letter from a victim, hoping that the story will be dealt with properly; once he's on screen, he expects a good deal of the opposite, too. And he fully expects to have abuse shouted at him in the street. "I'll just get a very big hat and enormous sunglasses," he jokes.

Weinstein is less sanguine. She has briefed the BBC's security and investigations units who, along with the press office, will be on call to Coghill and his family 24 hours a day, for as long as they're needed - which could be well after the storyline ends. "Yes," says Coghill, "24-hour police protection. Which is reassuring but also quite unnerving."

Shooting began for Coghill on June 30. He and McGarty got over the initial weirdness quite quickly - "Shona doesn't act, or look, like a little child. Which helps," says Coghill feelingly. Far weirder, for him, was walking into Pat Butcher's front hall and being given the once-over by the regulars. "It's Pat Butcher, innit?" he says, slightly incredulously. "Old-school EastEnders that I used to watch as a kid."

Two days later, the storyline was announced to the public. On Monday Tony embarks on his post-prison life with Bianca, her extended family - and Whitney who, to his chagrin and her confusion, no longer looks like "the 12-year-old girl I fell in love with".

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It's like a steam train heading in the wrong direction.

EE is not in the same place it was this time last year. For some reason, Santa has been undoing all of the good work he put in place. This summer was extremely plot-driven, and heavily focused on certain characters. There has been an air of predictability and a sense of laziness with the execution of some stories.

The show has a lot of dead weight, which do nothing more that clutter up the canvas. Billy, Garry, Minty, Heather, Shirley, Vinnie, Darren, Charlie... New characters are really direction-less, and lack a valid point for being in Albert Square - Danielle, Callum, Suzy. The latter pair have family, but still they don't seem to blend in very well. Callum is Vinnie's son, who's leaving anyway, which makes his son's arrival pointless (he's also badly miscast). He's been chucked into a love triangle with Bradley/Stacey (yawn), who BTW, are being forced upon us. At the moment, Eastenders seems to revolve around the Mitchell's and the Branning's, with the Jackson's thrown in for good measure, while Christian, Patrick, Denise, Chelsea, Lucas, The Masood's, continue to languish on the backburner. They killed Jase off, which only serves to isolate Dawn, further. Axed Honey and Yolande, for no good reason, which almost makes their spouses obsolete; It also allows them not to deal with little Janet, and her Downs Syndrome.

So basically, we have the dullness of, Max/Tanya/Jack; Bradley/Stacey/Callum; Archie & Peggy; Archie/Ronnie/Roxy/Sean (which isn't moving very fast), and Bianca/Tony/Whitney (which is all a bit creepy for the timeslot). Oh, and Jane was given a clichéd secret, complete with clichéd dialogue to match.

Overall, it's not good, but it's not bad, either. Just mediocre. And Eastenders can be so much more than mediocre.

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Can I ask? What is Ronnie's beef with Archie?

Is Roxy really Ronnie's daughter a la Kat Slater? :lol: I kid. OK, seriously, why does she hate Sean? Apart from the fact that he's a total slime?

And why is there all this sexual tension everytime Ronnie and Phil "Bulldog" Mitchell have a scene?

Coronation Street seems to get mucho love in the British press.

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I don't watch Hollyoaks, so I won't.

Tricky question. I'd say none of them. Emmerdale still sucks. But Corrie, I suppose is improving, albeit at a slow pace, after an horrendous 2 years.

Ronnie/Archie - this is good. Archie's evil, with a capital 'E'. Ronnie fell pregnant at 14, and when she gave birth, Archie stole her baby and gave it up for adoption. He has this need to control everyone and everything around him. When Ronnie, went to track down Roxy, she found her living with their father. While alone, he callously and coldly revealed in the cruellest way possible that her daughter is now dead. Apparently she drowned in the bath. He made it clear that it was a good thing, as Ronnie didn't deserve to be a mother, and she was never going to get the chance to be one. Ronnie also blames him for driving her mother away.

No, Roxy is not Ronnie's daughter. But new direction-less, Danielle, probably is. She's blonde, right age, etc. Really predictable. If she isn't, then she really does have zero point.

Ronnie hates Sean, because he's a total slime. Isn't that enough? They've been getting on better since Archie descended upon The Vic. Weirdly, the guy owns a mansion, yet settles for living in an overcrowded flat above a pub, in East London. Go figure. Oh, I suppose Sean, is better the devil you know.

Corrie is overrated, especially with the press (it can do no wrong in their eyes). It's slowly picking up, but not fast enough. Small improvements are better than none... If only they could see the light, and get rid of the stereotypical Sean, and the annoying Michelle.

Edited by Ben
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Really. EastEnders gets a lot of criticism when it goes off the rails because it used to be (don't know if it still is) the #1 rated SHOW (nevermind soap). Hardcore calls for its cancellation abounded less than two years ago when I was over there. I'm talking TV hosts, radio shows, newspapers (which play a big part in hyping the soaps). When Corrie struggles, though, it strikes me as being seen to go through "a bad patch" but there is always more faith that the show will pull through.

I think this may also be because EE tends to fall in love with certain characters and feature them heavily -- rather like GH. This engenders huge devotion if the fans love those characters (and hence why EE wins a lot of soap award categories) and massive backlash if they hate them. Like GH, EE also does these big dramatic "sweeps" stories to bring in ratings -- especially around Christmas and New Year.

Whereas Coronation Street seems to be much better at utilizing its canvas. If somebody is not in a SL, the likelihood is that they may well be a few months down the road. At least from what I've seen.

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LOL, oh, come now, Ben. You know Archie moved into the Vic cos he luvs his precious Peg! :lol: Don't all British men over the age of 50 have a boner for Barbara Windsor circa her glorious Carry On days? :P

Wow, that Ronnie/Archie story sounds good. I like Samantha Janus as Ronnie some I'm hoping she dishes out some ass-kicking at some point. Not until Archie's lied/shagged/murdered/cheated/schemed his way around the Square, of course.

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Too true. Corrie has been terrible for the last 2 years, but not once did the press criticise the producer, or the horrendous characters that were introduced. EE, is under the spotlight in a way that other soaps don't get. When it falls from it's perch, it gets bashed. I don't think it helps that it's no longer the #1 rated show. When Corrie was dire, it was still pulling in the ratings.

That's been true of the past, but the 2 years have shown that far from the case. The show became, Conner Street, with anyone who wasn't involved with Liam/Carla/Michelle, backburnered, or dropped to recurring, like, Kelly Crabtree. David and his "devilish" antics also dominated things, as well as the horrible Morton family.

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