I am a lifelong soap devotee and, as regular readers will know, an erstwhile adviser to two of them (Coronation Street and The Archers). However I could watch only a few minutes of Eastenders’ controversial new storyline before switching off.
At the time of writing there have been more than 8,000 complaints about this storyline, in which a newborn baby dies of a cot death. In her traumatised state the mother, Ronnie, swaps her dead child for another baby, causing untold grief to many others in the programme. It is harrowing stuff.
The Eastenders plot has provoked a strong reaction on Mumsnet and in the media. Samantha Womack, the actress who plays Ronnie, has even been verbally abused in public. As she was with her own children at the time, this has caused her great distress. It is reported she is leaving the series, although we have been assured that this is not the result of yet another acutely morbid storyline that she has been asked to carry off.
To my mind soaps are meant to be entertaining, larger than life, and should not always be believable, especially when covering a tragedy. It is otherwise too near the bone and stops being entertainment. Given the sudden, unexplained death of a baby and the deranged mother’s decision to steal another baby, no wonder the public are incensed.
Do mothers of cot death babies behave like this in real life?
Some couples that I know have been affected by cot death. It has affected them terribly and years later, generations later, it still does. In two cases I know of, the strain was too much and the parents divorced. Parents of cot death babies tell me that they never forget, never get over it. The parents have all borne their grief quietly, and with dignity.
However, these mourning couples have also had to cope with the insidious, often unspoken suspicion that has fallen upon them.
That is the speculation on the “real” cause of the babies’ deaths. Were the parents truly innocent? Do babies just simply die in their cots? Or could there be other, more sinister explanations?
Of course, most of us don’t find it hard to accept that parents can love their babies, and would never kill them. Others believe differently. They stoke the fires, sometimes very publicly, fuelling public suspicion and thereafter, anger.
On Friday I was asked to appear on BBC Radio Leeds to discuss the issues raised by the Eastenders storyline and the subsequent public reaction. My involvement in the radio programme stemmed from the voluntary work I did for Sally Clark and her family.
The facts of Sally Clark’s case are well known. Two of her baby sons died from cot death, one at 11 weeks old and one at 7 weeks old. Both babies died at the same time of the year, both asleep in their cots. There had been another male cot death many years before in the mother’s family.
Mrs Clark was prosecuted and subsequently convicted of the babies’ murders in 1999. She was vilified by the public, portrayed insensitively by the press during her trial and first appeal and generally considered guilty by the public and by the judiciary before whom her murder case was first heard.
Microbiological reports, which suggested that one of the babies could have died of natural causes, later came to light. The convictions were overturned and Mrs Clark, now recast as the victim of a notorious miscarriage of justice, was released in 2003.
Four years after winning her freedom, Mrs Clark died. Her family said that she had never been able to come to terms with the trauma of the tragic events in her life, including three years of hell while in prison. The impact of the sudden deaths of two babies for whom she was never able to grieve properly, her treatment in prison and all her suffering would, I am certain, be too hard for many to bear.
Mrs Clark wasn’t alone in being prosecuted and convicted for “murdering” cot death babies. A number of mothers were convicted of similar offences at the time. Following the overturning of Mrs Clark’s convictions, the tide of public and medical opinion turned, and these women were later freed.
My role in Mrs Clark’s case has been well-documented, but it horrifies me to know that even now, there are people who believe these mothers did commit those heinous crimes against their own children. This is despite the passage of time and the production of evidence to the contrary. I am sorry to say that the stigma and suspicion that once surrounded cot death have not disappeared totally.
Isn’t a cot death tragedy enough for Eastenders? In the circumstances, is it appropriate for the scriptwriters to sensationalise events further by having the mother lose her senses and steal another woman’s baby, uncaring of the impact upon an innocent family who are forced to believe that their child is now dead?
I was once consulted by Eastenders in connection with another storyline, although I was unable to help as it wasn’t my field. I was impressed with the great care they took to get the detail and the law spot on. They say they have taken similar care with this storyline, working with the Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths. Even so, I do believe they have gone a step too far. They have shown a cot death mother whose behaviour bears scant resemblance to the bereaved cot death parents I have known. Instead the character has reacted like one of the wicked, albeit deranged women painted in vivid colours by prosecutors and their “expert witnesses”.
The BBC is reported to have shortened the story line in the face of all the complaints that have been received. Given the offence and distress that have been caused, I agree with this decision. The sooner that the Eastenders storyline is brought to an end, for the sake of all those caught up in genuine real life tragedies, the better.