Emmerdale, assisted suicide and the drama imperative

Picture of Jackson Walsh from Emmerdale in hospital, sitting in a manual wheelchair, with mother standing behind himI don’t plan to watch the Terry Pratchett assisted suicide show that is on tonight, but I did watch the sequence of episodes in Emmerdale in which Jackson Walsh, who sustained a spinal-cord injury in an accident some months ago and is paralysed from the neck down, committed suicide by poisoning himself (drinking from a glass of whatever medication he used, which was held by his boyfriend Aaron; his mother, although she had agreed to assist, backed out at the last minute). Most of the online discussion seems to have been about the Pratchett programme, which is the latest in a series of pro-assisted dying/suicide programmes put out by the BBC and the second with Pratchett’s involvement. I was and remain uncomfortable with the depiction of suicide in that medium, although I do think they made some effort to present a balanced view rather than making it a kind of pro-assisted suicide campaign piece. (Sarah Ismail of Same Difference has an open thread for the Pratchett programme, and he is on Newsnight at 10pm on BBC2, after the end of the programme.)

Geoff Holt, who is a quadriplegic (less severely than Jackson) and is best-known for sailing the Atlantic last year, wrote this on his blog:

Emmerdale. It’s a UK TV soap opera based in Yorkshire watched by millions several times a week. A while ago, one of the characters became quadriplegic after an accident. To cut a long story short the Producer, Stuart Blackburn, decided to write the character Jackson Walsh out of the show by Assisted Suicide on the basis he was “unhappy” being paralysed and “couldn’t cope” with life in a wheelchair. Despite a campaign by the Spinal Injuries Association and outrage amongst the spinally injured community, Blackburn ignored all pleas and went ahead with the storyline last week. No one I have spoken to is against Assisted Suicide providing it is only used in cases of incurable pain and suffering, but not for being “unhappy”. Being scared / worried / unhappy is a natural feeling after a spinal accident, but showing AS as a “way out” if you have a spinal injury is shameful. OK, it’s only a TV drama but what message does that convey to newly injured patients? I can only hope Emmerdale’s irresponsible broadcast does not lead to any copy-cat actions – if it does, I think all concerned will share the responsibility.

I should add that Emmerdale is a Yorkshire village soap; the two other remaining British soaps are Coronation Street, set in Manchester, which is on ITV after Emmerdale, and EastEnders, set in an unconvincing version of east London, which is on BBC1. Jackson is not the first character to use a wheelchair; the youth-oriented soap Hollyoaks has featured a young woman in a wheelchair (who is actually played by a wheelchair-user), EastEnders featured a man in a wheelchair for some time, and Emmerdale already has a blind woman character (played by a blind actress). This is the first time a character has this degree of disability, and it is sad that they choose to write him out with an assisted suicide story. Of course, this is likely to be because the actor wanted out or they did not want to renew his contract — it often is in soap storylines — but there are better ways than this to portray disability. After all, the majority of people who sustain spinal cord injuries do not commit suicide months later — I know that one did, in 2008, but it is irresponsible to dedicate the one opportunity they have to cover this issue to a replication of this very sad, and very extreme, news story.

Emmerdale is on at 7pm, which is well before the 9pm “watershed” hour which is when sexual and violent themes can be aired on TV. Although this did not appear violent, someone did kill himself on screen, at a time when children could have been watching. Many parents do not let their children watch soaps as they cover unsuitable topics for them (mine did not until we were much older), but the idea of a watershed is that subjects like this are covered graphically (rather than in discussion, which can happen at any time of day) only when most children are in bed. However, they made some attempt to balance the story; most characters condemned the action, with Aaron’s family rounding on Hazel (Jackson’s mother) for “turning their son into a murderer”, while the blind character, Lizzie Lakely, told Hazel that she did not know what it was like to live with a disability, and that Jackson was months into life as a quadriplegic and was depressed.

It seems as though the “drama imperative” is what is behind the decision to conclude the story this way: soap directors want to make storylines bite-sized and dramatic, not have it drag along for years and cease to be a story. If Jackson had been kept in the soap as a quadriplegic, there is a danger that the soap could turn into a series about his disability, but a story about someone who sustains a spinal-cord injury (or any other disability) and lives a fairly happy life thereafter ceases to be dramatic: the character has to either die, recover or leave some other way. (Notably, Lizzie Lakely arrived in the soap blind, rather than going blind while in it.) There is also the matter of the equipment — wheelchairs, particularly the type of powered wheelchair required by high-level quadriplegics which can be driven hands-free, along with the specialised seating, are expensive and the production company would have been unwilling to invest in one for the long haul. TV soap and comedy are not a good format for stories which carry on for the long term, because of the need to wrap them up fairly quickly so that people do not get bored, characters (or whole shows) do not have to be totally redefined and newcomers are not left wondering how the story started. Hilary Johnson, in Osler’s Web, notes that the comedy The Golden Girls ran a storyline about “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome” (ME) in the 1980s, which was a fairly accurate portrait (including the unsympathetic doctor) except that the character affected recovered in a very short time, which people with this condition usually do not do. They could not have kept it as a comedy if she had remained ill, let alone severely so.

So, soaps and other drama series (such as Casualty) will persist with this kind of portrayal of disability unless there is some debate about the whole format, because right now realism is being sacrificed to a need for drama and tragedy (of course, often we hear the term “realism” used to mean a gritty urban variety of drama). Currently, producers plead “artistic licence” when running plots which are unrealistic or unfair to people really affected by the situations described; when I recently complained about such an incident in Casualty, the response read that “drama productions like ‘Casualty’ aren’t always best served by meticulous attention to detail and accuracy and a certain amount of dramatic licence can be involved in trying to capture the essence of an issue or profession and then conveying this to an audience”. Fairness and accuracy are just not on the agenda when soaps cover these kinds of issues.

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