The switchboard lights at the BBC's complaints centre began to flash even before the closing credits rolled on the New Year's Eve edition of EastEnders. It was not long before the email inbox was filling rapidly as viewers – many of them bereaved mothers and fathers – gave vent to their feelings after the character Ronnie Branning switched her dead baby with Kat Slater's newborn child.
EastEnders, the flagship BBC soap opera renowned for taking on difficult social issues, was tackling sudden infant death syndrome (Sids), or cot death. Its no doubt noble intention to highlight the plight of victims and their parents was quickly subsumed in the wave of complaints from viewers who thought that the show's baby-switching plot was an unnecessary and hurtful over-dramatisation.
Once again the broadcaster found itself in the centre of a media storm and had to backpedal quickly. Unlike its last bruising encounter with the tabloid press, after Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross left an abusive telephone message for the veteran actor Andrew Sachs live on Radio 2, there was no whiff of a media witch hunt fuelled by a moral-minority agenda.
Complaints to the BBC were expected to top 9,000 yesterday, the highest in the history of the soap. There was so much outraged traffic on Mumsnet, the internet forum, that its founder, Justine Roberts, wrote to the BBC's director-general, Mark Thompson. For her pains she and concerned Mumsnetters have been invited to confront EastEnders bosses this Wednesday.
"The people who feel strongest about this on our website are the bereaved mothers and fathers who have gone through this," Ms Roberts said yesterday. "It's not so much that they covered it, it is the way they covered it. Sadly there are 17 cases where parents are bereaved every day in this country. Where are all the baby snatchers? Do you ever hear of them going out and snatching babies? That's the point. This wasn't a witch hunt, it was very much a group of people who felt very strongly about it.
"We will be pleased to go along [to the meeting] with a couple of mums who sadly know more about this than anyone would wish anyone to," she added. "We hope that they can take this sort of storyline a bit more seriously in future and not race for ratings with sensationalist plots that don't make sense, or worse still are unhelpful for people already facing the death of their child."
Although the offending episode was broadcast on New Year's Eve, it wasn't until five days later on Wednesday that the media storm clouds began to gather. The episode had attracted more than 3,500 complaints to the BBC, with 200 unhappy viewers contacting the television watchdog Ofcom.
Furious mothers, many of whom had lost children to sudden infant death syndrome, complained that the plotline portrayed them as potential child snatchers, and that the storyline was "exploitative", "unrealistic" and "hurtful".
The broadcaster Anne Diamond, who lost a baby to Sids, also condemned the plot as "tacky sensationalism", telling ITV1's Daybreak: "I find it amazing that a cot death isn't awful enough for any drama. That they've had to actually make the cot death mother go slightly mad and then do a baby swap is frankly offensive."
The Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths (FSID), which advised the soap's scriptwriters, sought to distance itself from the controversial storyline. "FSID had no involvement in the planning or adoption of the specific baby-swap plotline. The behaviour and actions of Ronnie [Branning] are in no way endorsed by FSID as a typical, or even likely, reaction of a bereaved parent," the charity said.
BBC producers, taken offguard by the backlash, called a crisis meeting over the plotline, which they had intended to run throughout the year until Christmas. One insider said it was "back to the drawing board", with scripts and story boards being torn up.
On Thursday news emerged that the actress Samantha Womack – formerly Samantha Janus – who plays Ronnie Branning, was leaving the show, prompting speculation that she had quit because of the storyline – something the BBC and Womack denied. The BBC said Womack's decision to leave had been made some time ago and the plotline was devised as a way for her character to exit.
By Friday the number of complaints had risen to 6,000 and the BBC announced that it would cut the storyline short, bringing it to a close by Easter and ending it on a "warm and tender" note with Kat Slater, played by Jessie Wallace, reunited with her baby.
A show source said: "We have listened to what people have said and taken on board the complaints and are now rescheduling things and working on the final scripts."
As the news of this climbdown spread last night the number of complaints continued to rise. But the ratings for the show were up too. The controversial episode had pulled in 11.2 million viewers, compared to the soap's 9.5m average.
Bryan Kirkwood, executive producer of the show, felt sufficiently emboldened to defend the storyline, writing on the soap's website: "EastEnders has a long tradition of dealing with social issues in a powerful and dramatic way. In its 25 years it has tackled many taboo subjects from HIV to paedophilia, matching drama with public service in a way that has continually kept it as one of the most talked-about shows on television.
"When we embarked on the story of Ronnie and Kat it was very much with this in mind. We researched extensively to make sure we would be both factually correct and emotionally truthful.
"It's clear that we've managed to do this, and that traffic to the FSID's website has increased by over 500 per cent; but we are also mindful of the fact that in doing so, sections of our audience have found the storyline challenging."
Big issues in Albert Square
Cot death, 1985
The soap was praised for its first attempt at covering a deeply sensitive issue with the demise of baby Hassan.
Teenage pregnancy, 1985
Sixteen-year-old Michelle Fowler becomes pregnant following an affair with "Dirty Den" Watts.
The long decline of Arthur Fowler culminates in his mental breakdown in a Christmas Day episode that pulled in a record 30.1m viewers.
Kathy Beale is raped by her boss, James Wilmott-Brown, and receives hostile treatment from the police.
Mark Fowler is diagnosed HIV-positive and succumbs to an Aids-related illness 13 years later.
Heroin addiction, 1991
Nasty Nick Cotton returns to the soap a drug addict.
Breast cancer, 1996 & 1999
Peggy Mitchell is treated for cancer in 1996, but the tumour returns three years later and she has a mastectomy.
Domestic violence, 2000
Little Mo Slater is beaten by her husband, Trevor, culminating in her almost killing him with an iron.
Zoe Slater spends two months on the streets after running away from home, and is almost forced into prostitution.
Adult literacy, 2004
Keith Miller arrives; when it's revealed he can't read or write, he starts literacy classes.