Alice Jones: Get real about EastEnders. After all, it is just a soap opera

The Saturday Column
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The Independent Online

It's a truly shocking story. A notorious criminal abducts and kills a three-year-old girl and flees the country.

On his flight, he is killed, stabbed to death by a consortium of 12 grieving relatives and friends who have taken it upon themselves to avenge the murder, each with his or her own personal score to settle. The investigators learn the truth and choose to turn a blind eye, averring that justice has already been done.

Hang on, two wrongs don't make a right, do they? Is this not vigilantism of the worst, most dangerous kind? Why isn't the world up in arms? I must write a letter to someone high up immediately. Or at least find an internet message board on which to vent my spleen, to say "down with this sort of thing!" We should rise up... Wait, what's that? (Dusts mince pie crumbs off chin, rubs New Year sleep from reddish eyes.) It's a work of fiction, you say? Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express? Oh, that's OK, then. As you were.

If only. This week the country, or a very vocal portion of it, appears to have been in the grip of a mass delusion, or at least a kind of post-seasonal befuddlement, where fiction has been mistaken for reality. The death of a middle-ranking character on The Archers was afforded as many, if not more, column inches as the assassination of the Pakistani politician Salmaan Taseer. On Tuesday morning, the day that the country supposedly went back to work, the Today programme interviewed Graham Seed about his fictional fall off a ladder in a prime-time slot usually reserved for top-ranking politicians to be grilled on policy and, you know, things that affect real life.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, came The Great EastEnders Controversy of 2011. As always with these controversies, it has taken a good few days for everyone to realise just how offended people really are. Now, a week after the contentious episode first aired, the scandal has puffed up to its full, unmanageable height with resignations, spiralling viewer complaints, public statements and a promise from the BBC to wrap the whole storyline up as quickly as possible.

It is, without doubt, a contentious, not to say horribly distressing storyline. A new mother loses her baby to cot death and, hysterical with grief, decides to swap her dead son for her neighbour's. The scenes of bereavement and despair of the two mothers, and their families, have been difficult to watch. For any viewers who have suffered the earth-shattering tragedy of the death of an infant, it must have been nearly unbearable. One imagines that several will have reached for the remote control and switched off. For, lest we forget, that option is always available, to each and every one of us. As is the choice not to switch on in the first place.

Many, though, have been moved to complain about a storyline they saw as exploitative and sensationalist, a good old-fashioned ratings-booster and to hell with empathy and sensitivity. So far, 6,200 people have called in to register their displeasure – and they are, of course, entitled to do so. Then the actress at the centre of the plot, Samantha Womack, revealed that she was leaving the soap opera, implying that the scenes had been too harrowing to film, that she "couldn't stop crying" and "actually felt ill having to portray it". She has since been abused in the street by angry viewers.

With impeccable timing, Mumsnet, the campaigning mothers' website, then waded in, its founder Justine Roberts writing an open letter to the BBC director-general Mark Thompson in response to an outpouring of feeling from mothers posting on her message boards. The storyline, she suggested, tainted the tragedy of cot death with something far more lurid, causing widespread distress. "Our members are concerned that, as is all too common, a bereaved mother has been portrayed as deranged and unhinged. [It is] at best ... ill-informed, and at worst ... a cynical ploy to make headlines by creating deliberate controversy," she wrote. One wonders how many more mothers may have been distressed by Roberts' own headline-grabbing tactics which have escalated the "crisis", bringing the EastEnders story to a far wider audience than it originally enjoyed, but that's by the by.

There is always a danger of causing offence when dealing with an emotive subject such as cot death. All the more so in a soap opera where immersion in the kitchen-sink realism of the characters' lives four times a week leads viewers to take them to their hearts, even treat them as extended family members. Why else would people be moved to hurl insults at Womack in the street for something that her character, Ronnie Branning, has done?

For this reason, scriptwriters have a responsibility to their viewers, to treat the emotions that they have invested in the show with sensitivity. But they are also writing a drama. Soap operas are called soap operas precisely because they take the everyday lives of "ordinary" folk and amplify them, add in crescendos, make their daily routines sing with artificial highs and lows. No one is suggesting that every bereaved mother behaves like Ronnie Branning, just as no one can write themselves out of real life in the way that soap characters can "leave the Square", never to be seen again.

EastEnders is a work of fiction and should be judged as such. One report has Womack declaring that she is "a mother first, and an actress second", but this is to muddy the waters. Can one judge the success of a drama only if it relates in some way to one's own life? Should childless scriptwriters be banned from ever writing stories about children, in case they offend those who do have families? As a professional actress, Womack ought to be capable of separating fiction from reality – if she isn't, one hopes she is never cast as Phaedra or Lady Macbeth. More than that, she has a duty to nudge her viewers towards understanding that when the camera stops rolling, the drama ends.

One man's torture porn is another's art house

This week I paid £10 to watch a man chiselling through the skin, tendons, muscles and cartilage of his right arm with a blunt multi-tool – in glorious HD. This is 127 Hours, of course, the new film based on the real-life story of Aron Ralston who had to cut off his own limb when he became trapped while canyoneering in the Utah desert. It is the most extraordinarily tense viewing experience – and one of the strangest nights I've spent at the cinema. Having spent a good hour getting worked up about that scene, when the nastiest moment in the film finally arrived, the whole cinema averted their eyes and moaned from behind their handbags or buckets of popcorn.

I wouldn't ordinarily rush to the movies on the promise of gore and bloodshed. In fact, I'm utterly democratic when it comes to wimping out of screen violence, never really daring to investigate the fine line that makes Charlotte Gainsbourg snipping off her own genitalia in Antichrist delicate art-house histrionics while a man hacking his own foot off in Saw is grisly torture porn. So what's the difference here?

The difference is Danny Boyle, who has spent the past 15 years tricking audiences into watching things they'd usually rather not, thank you very much. Think Renton's toilet exploits in Trainspotting or the blinded street kids of Slumdog Millionaire. Now with 127 Hours, the director has made self-mutilation a mainstream box-office winner. And, weirdly, I can't wait to see what he does next.

Lured by the siren call of silly marketing

Would you like an extra shot of hubris with your skinny caramel macchiato, sir? Never mind waking up and smelling the coffee; the news that Starbucks is to ditch its distinctive name and the word coffee from its logo smells strongly of overweening, near Princely, pride. The chain may have enveloped high streets in its bitter-smelling fug, but removing the brand name from the public face is the pompous equivalent of bigwigs who don't introduce themselves because they assume you already know their name. In a piece of over-caffeinated corporatespeak, chief executive Howard Schultz explained: "We've allowed the Siren to come out of the circle in a way that gives us the freedom and flexibility to think beyond coffee." Right. But until they brought it up, had anybody noticed that the world's largest coffee chain promotes itself with a creepy cartoon image of a bare-breasted, two-tailed mythological creature who lures hapless men to their deaths? Perhaps that's the part they should have changed.