No doubt you’ve heard about the little spot of bother that Eastenders has got into over the past week or so. The BBC1 soap’s cot-death-with-added-baby-swap storyline has got viewers into a bit of a lather. Whipped up by the press as only they know how, there have been complaints to Ofcom in record numbers for the programme. Producers initially stood by the storyline and issued a robust defence of the idea, but eventually, following the exceptional amount of pressure put upon them – including the revelation that Samantha Womack (nee Janus) had resigned from the show, supposedly after her worries about the baby swap were ignored – they bowed to the inevitable and announced that the plotline would be shortened. Apparently it’ll all be over by the end of April, with a HAPPY ENDING.
Chalk one up for democracy, then! Viewer power! Or maybe not. For now, we’ll ignore the media’s spinny spin spin which involved cranking up the heat after they first scented blood. There’s an interesting quote I want to focus on, from an Eastenders source who talked to the Daily Mirror and told them: “It is important that we listen to viewers, because it is their soap after all.”
As a writer, I don’t agree. It’s not the viewers’ soap, any more than the Harry Potter series belonged to Rowling’s readers. They’re involved, sure, riding the rollercoaster of emotions – but they’re the ones strapped into the cars, not in the control booth pushing the levers. You see, writing is – necessarily – a selfish game. Extrapolating out from the quote, it seems that a backlash can now result in a storyline being changed regardless of its merits. I personally think that the baby swap plotline is ill-advised and more than a little bit unrealistic and silly, but that doesn’t mean I think that the viewers should be the ones who decide what does and doesn’t happen in the programme. Creativity is about a vision, whether it’s one person’s (in the case of a novel) or a collaboration (in the case of a soap opera). Behind the scenes, a team of writers are beavering away on the storylines, planning character arcs months in advance. To my mind, they’re the ones who should be making the story decisions, not the viewers. Whenever viewers say what they want to happen, it’s usually bollocks, which is why they don’t write the show. Viewers will want Kat and Alfie to always stay together, for the bad guys to always lose, for the good guys to always win. The job of the people in charge is usually to make that as difficult as possible. It’s what drama is. As soon as viewers start controlling television output, you’ll lose all the surprise (actually, there’s a whole other blog entry here about the business of soap spoilers, but I believe I will postpone), as well as the risk-taking. You’ll end up designing by committee rather than thinking about what’s best creatively. Hell, a lot of television already does this.
Leaving this big issue aside, though, I have to say that I’m a little bit suspicious about the whole “giving the viewers what they want” thing on this occasion. Samantha Womack is apparently leaving in May. Initial reports suggested that the baby swap plot was set to carry on all year, and that it’s now going to end early because of the complaints. Oh really? So… what: the writers were planning to carry on with it for 6 months after the character directly responsible for the incident left the show? Not having all those furtive glances and long looks to camera? What were they going to do? Parachute her in for a couple of episodes at Christmas to wrap it all up? Unlikely. Stretching it out may have been their original plan before Womack resigned, but surely after she announced her intention to leave, everything would have been building towards a rather bloody obvious exit storyline – that her character is found out as having swapped the babies and has to leave Albert Square as a result.
So I’m calling bullshit on this from a story point of view. It seems far more likely to me that this was the plan all along after Womack resigned, and now it’s feeding happily into a PR coup for the show. Think about it: massive ratings for the original swap, the soap in the news for weeks on end, and then the viewers feeling like they’ve made a difference, that they’ve captured their show back from the nasty writer men. It’s not only the media who can spin a good story. Eastenders writers do it for 4 episodes every week.