The reality of domestic abuse beyond the soap opera

The reality of domestic abuse beyond the soap opera

Domestic abuse is not just a storyline – these stories can help save lives

By Teresa Parker, Head of Media Relations & Communications at Women’s Aid.

Published: 9th September 2020

*This blog includes an EastEnders spoiler

When you work in domestic abuse, as I have for nearly 20 years at Women’s Aid, it is easy to forget that most people are not having daily conversations about domestic abuse. Indeed, not everyone even recognises what domestic abuse is.

Women’s Aid Change That Lasts programme includes a community engagement project called “Ask Me”. This where people, trained to be community ambassadors, can start conversations about what a healthy and unhealthy relationship looks like. And what better way to start a conversation than: “Did you see Coronation Street last night?” or “I can’t believe what’s happening in EastEnders, are you watching it?”. Television programmes, especially soap operas, have the ability like no other medium to bring a subject to life, with characters which millions of viewers care about and who are in their homes several times a week.

This week we discover that Chantelle in BBC’s EastEnders will be killed by her abusive husband, Gray Atkins. This storyline, which I have been working on with the team at EastEnders for the past two years, will be fervently discussed by viewers all over the country. Chantelle’s death was something that the EastEnders team had planned from its inception and we know the reality of domestic abuse is that not everyone survives. For those of us campaigning to end domestic abuse, this provides a platform to let EastEnders viewers know, like Chantelle, three women will be killed in the UK every fortnight, – a statistic that was higher during the recent lockdown.

For those already experiencing domestic abuse, 61% of the women we surveyed told us that the abuse had worsened. Being forced into isolation with an abuser meant a living hell for many of the women who reached out to Women’s Aid through our Live Chat service.

I have also been working with the actors playing Yasmeen and Geoff Metcalfe and scriptwriters on the recent coercive control storyline on ITV’s Coronation Street. This has resonated so strongly with viewers, and on Monday evening, Shelley King was presented with the award of Best Soap Actress at the TV Choice Awards, in recognition of her incredible portrayal of Yasmeen. Women have emailed us saying that, thanks to the storyline, they have now been able to recognise what they are experiencing as coercive control. Heartbreakingly, several told us that they were “sitting next to their own Geoff” while watching the programme. When women who have been watching the domestic abuse episodes tell us that, after being in a relationship with their abusive partner for nearly five decades they are now seeking help, it becomes clear that storylines which raise awareness of domestic abuse can help change lives – and save lives.

On Twitter, a survivor said, “it’s blinking brilliant! You can see it [that they’ve worked with Women’s Aid], they have done a great job”.

Advising on domestic abuse storylines in a long-running series can be time-consuming. When the story is reaching its peak, several scripts are sent over weekly, along with new story “beats”. It is also involves reaching out to survivors and experts for their input, visiting production teams and talking to actors. This takes place amongst all the other demands that our busy communications team juggle. But it is worth it because we know what a huge and positive impact these storylines have. Just reading the comments on social media tells you that they are reaching wide audiences far beyond a charity’s usual reach. Thanks to responsibly executed TV dramas, we raise awareness alongside giving information about how survivors can get lifesaving help and support.

Working closely with the teams across soap operas, you often find incredibly passionate people who want to continue supporting Women’s Aid. Over the summer, Ian Bartholomew, the actor who plays Geoff in Coronation Street, recorded this important message about how to get help and support during the lockdown for survivors. This Facebook post reached over a million viewers (a first), and was shared time and time again by our supporters. Some of the female team also recorded this message for us, which was picked up in the press, reaching a whole new host of people.

Toby Alexander-Smith, who plays Gray in EastEnders, has been so inspired by this storyline that this month he is joining Women’s Aid as an official charity Ambassador. We look forward to working with Toby to fundraise and raise awareness. Toby is in training for the postponed 40th London Marathon to raise vital funds, and will be joining us at our conferences and events next year.

Toby says:

“Taking on the role of Gray Atkins in EastEnders felt like a huge responsibility given how much awareness of domestic abuse it could raise. EastEnders has a history of tackling important issues on screen and I knew as an actor it was important for me to get this storyline right. Women’s Aid has been a vital source of my research in understanding the complexity of a perpetrator’s manipulative and controlling behaviour. I was appalled at the statistics of how many survivors are out there suffering at the hands of their abuser. There is still clearly a lack of education in our society that any form of abuse is unacceptable and this has to change. Women’s Aid life-saving work has inspired me to do more. We need to call out the perpetrators and let them know that their seemingly invisible crime, is in fact, visible to us. I am proud to become an Ambassador and will stand up and support survivors of abuse wherever and whenever I can.”

Survivors and our member organisations are at the heart of what we do at Women’s Aid. Together we are proud to help to tell the stories that make a difference and we believe that this will help to save lives, as together we change what the future looks like.

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