A question of timing

Charles Cowling



It can’t be easy writing episodes for soaps. You have to take over a plot designed by a committee and steer your characters through the storyline as plausibly as you can. Sometimes you have to get rid of them, a procedure known as ‘killing off’. You mostly don’t have to actually do them in, you can just send them miles away. But rather more often than in real life, in order to rule out the prospect of the character’s reappearance under any circs, you have to murder them, often foully.

EastEnders is the soap responsible for killing off more characters than any other – so much so that the cast will soon be joined, appropriately enough, by a full-time undertaker, Les Coker.

A fortnight ago, Holby City killed off a young nurse, Bonnie Wallis. The scriptwriters knocked her down with a lorry. Outrageously implausible, but essential to tell viewers: she ain’t coming back.

The following week the cast was given the invidious task of going through the motions of grieving. Who’d be an actor? Who’d be a scriptwriter?

In the event, they made a good fist of it, especially the scriptwriters. In the non-denom chapel at the hospital a memorial event was led by (who else?) lovely, cuddly Eliot Hope, senior CT surgeon. He began in the appropriate, formal, biographical style:

“Our colleague, our friend, Bonnie Wallis, ermm, was a truly great spirit. She was loved by her family, who tell me she overcame great obstacles—”

He broke off and said this:

“Sorry, um, these are someone else’s words. I suppose I was so afraid of insulting her memory. But, the truth is, it’s too soon – it’s too soon for her to go. Give me a year and I will write her a cracking speech. But right now, how can I possibly talk about her life in the past tense? I keep expecting her to come through that door.”

A little later, sitting on the ‘altar table’, Eliot is seen regaling the mourners with anecdotes about Bonnie:

“I remember one day Bonnie had to give an elderly patient a bath. She’d just removed his gown and he looked down and said, ‘Have you ever seen anything so big?’ So, slightly embarrassed and red-faced, she said, ‘Very impressive.’ And he said, ‘I was talking about my boil.’”

It was well and sensitively done because it identified a problem with funerals and memorial events. Timing. When’s the right time to have a funeral or a memorial service? Most funerals, especially for people who have killed themselves, happen too soon – too soon for anyone to be able to make any sense of what happened, too soon for people still just beginning to get their heads around what happened. The same with tragic, sudden deaths, especially those of young people.

“Give me a year … right now, how can I possibly talk about her life in the past tense?”

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David HolmesNick GandonCharles CowlingCharlesA Celeb Recent comment authors

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David Holmes

What really disappoints me is the character who I see has become Eastenders FD. He’s a stereotype – straight from central casting. Why not a young person, or heaven help us, a woman? The old bloke they have brought in looks straight from central casting – so far always seen in his stripes and uniform too. The dialogue is the usual funeral rubbish and weak stiff jokes. The BBC could and should do better, I may even complain about the lazy producers.

NB I don’t watch it, honest guv’ – my daughter had it on this evening..


I have a feeling that there’s something to be said for separating the disposal from the memorial event, QG – a brief, formal private committal and then, after a period of time, a bigger, fuller, reflective occasion. Would that work, do you think?

People denounce one-size-fits-all funerals (rightly). By the same token, the funeral should not be regarded as the default farewell vehicle for all dead people. IMHO, of course.


I think I’m with you on this one Charles. Especially for the more shocking deaths. When there is advance warning or the death is expected, a funeral is often a natural and timely (and sometimes welcome) punctuation in the process that the family have gone through. Tragic/sudden deaths are a different matter entirely. The tension in the room, the atmosphere at the ceremonies is so very different. And frankly, they are not hearing and neither are they absorbing any of the carefully chosen words we are dishing out to them. Are you advocating that we don’t dispose of the body… Read more »

A Celeb
A Celeb

Or is this just a cop-out?

Kathryn Edwards
Kathryn Edwards

A good point, Charles. Given the shock of a death, have a good delay ahead a half-hour service. Or start straightaway and have a proper grieving-ritual. Three days’-and-nights’-worth, say?