Controversial Soap Storylines: Does Eastenders go too far?

by Lynn Connolly

As the Eastenders storyline concerning Tony and Whitney and the issue of paedophilia comes to a head in upcoming episodes, we thought we’d take a look at how our soaps have handled some of their controversial storylines.

We also want to ask whether you think that some of the gritty Eastenders storylines go too far or are they merely reflecting real issues in society?

Eastenders writers and producers are certainly not strangers to controversy and the Tony – Whitney storyline is just the latest in a long line of them. Before this, there was the plotline around Ben being abused by his dad’s psychotic fiancée Stella. Poor Ben was physically, mentally and emotionally abused by the evil Stella before she finally plunged to her death from a rooftop.

Here’s a clip in which Stella burns Ben’s hand with a hot spoon so please don’t watch if you may be upset by the scene.

Other shocking issues tackled by Eastenders have included the rape of Kathy Beale by her boss James Wilmott Brown. Here’s a clip from that episode. Again, this scene may disturb some viewers.

There was also the debacle concerning Mark Fowler’s HIV and how his family found it very difficult to come to terms with it. Here’s a clip in which Arthur won’t eat a meal that Mark cooked because he was frightened of contracting HIV.

And let’s not forget the long running and often frighteningly graphic storyline in which Trevor beat, kidnapped, raped and tried to kill Little Mo. Here’s the scene in which he kidnaps her that ultimately led to him starting a fire to try and kill them both…

Possibly the first of Eastenders notoriously controversial scenes was the one where Colin Russell shared a kiss with his boyfriend Barry. The scene caused uproar bringing hundreds of complaints from viewers. Here’s a related scene in which Barry tells Dot he and Colin share a bed…

Eastenders has never shied away from controversy and other notable storylines have included Arthur’s imprisonment and nervous breakdown, Michelle’s teenage pregnancy, homelessness, drug abuse and murder.

So what about the other two of our top three soaps? Well they’ve tackled shocking storylines too, but perhaps not as graphically as Eastenders, or in as much depth.

For instance, arguably Coronation Street’s two most controversial storylines were the rape of Les Battersby’s daughter Toyah and the physical and emotional abuse of Shelly at the hands of Charlie Stubbs.

There was also the storyline about Sarah Platt becoming pregnant as a teenager which again sparked viewer complaints and more recently, Rosie’s kidnap by deranged ex-lover John.

In Emmerdale, the famous Christmas plane crash attracted controversy when it aired on the fifth anniversary of the Lockerbie disaster. The show’s writers were accused of cashing in on that terrible disaster and using the nation’s horror and shock to boost ratings.

The entire storyline was graphic and harrowing and must indeed have brought back some terrible memories for those who lived through the Lockerbie bombing. Here’s a clip from the episode where the plane explodes over Emmerdale…

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More recently the issue of domestic violence has been raised in the Andy – Jo storyline and now we also have Shane’s attempted rape of Jasmine which resulted in his murder.

But do Corrie and Emmerdale pack a storyline punch in the way that Eastenders does? Personally, I don’t think they do. Eastenders takes a shocking storyline and shows it in all its full-on glory whereas I find that Emmerdale and Corrie tend to sanitise their storylines to the point that they don’t really carry a great deal of weight.

I suspect that one of the reasons is that Corrie and Emmerdale are sponsored by third party companies and the shows producers don’t want to lose that sponsorship by attracting controversy and possibly causing offense.

An example of that happening is when Celebrity Big Brother was involved in the Jade Goody – Shilpa Shetty alleged race row and the mobile phone company who sponsored the show hastily cut all ties with it.

Eastenders however doesn’t have a responsibility to sponsors, only to the BBC and its viewers, so that’s my theory about why they aren’t afraid to ‘offend’ with their plotlines.

What do you think? Does Eastenders go too far and is too graphic or do they have it right and the other soaps should grow a set and be similarly fearless in their approach to ‘unsavoury’ and shocking storylines?


Lynn is an editor and writer here at Unreality TV and is trained psychotherapist and the author of two books. She's addicted to soaps, period drama and reality TV shows such as X Factor, I'm A Celeb and Big Brother.