A question of timing

Charles 12 Comments

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?”


  1. Charles

    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?

  2. Charles

    Ooh, I do love a spiky one, A Celeb. My question to you (in my best Gerrie Nel manner) would be: copping out of what? I put it to you, A Celeb, that there can be no point in embarking on a course of action which does not have either a defined nor an achievable outcome. What do you say to that? Eh?

    We have this production line people grief-carrier called a funeral. It pulls up outside your door 2-3 weeks after a dead person has died. It toots its horn and a bloke with a long face says We’re all going on a grief journey. What’s wrong with replying Come back when I’m ready? Or, I’ve got my own vehicle, thank you, go away?

    1. Charles

      Nothing wrong with waiting. Nothing wrong with not having a funeral director. (You know there’s a but coming)… BUT even when the death is shocking and unexpected, most people want to have a funeral with a ceremony with everyone invited NOW, not in a year or so. Not disposing of the body and then having a memorial a year later. Yes, it’s painful and no-one is taking it all in properly. But when everyone is at their most raw, they are receiving acknowledgement and support when they most need it.
      ‘Give me a year and I will write her a cracking speech.’ Yeah, if you can be bothered.

      1. Charles

        I’d be inclined to argue that acknowledgement can be offered by a committal ceremony, A Celeb. I’m not so sure about support if QG (above) is right.

        A religious funeral is a forwards-looking event but a secular funeral is essentially reflective and retrospective — though it looks forward, too: it offers hope and strength for the future derived from a consideration of the life lived by the dead person and their legacy in terms of, especially, example. If this essential work of a funeral cannot be effective until the fog of incredulity has dispelled, then it’s worth waiting. There’s no use expending carefully-chosen words on unhearing ears, surely?

        I think you make a very strong and effective point, actually. It raises another question. If, after a space of time, people have ‘moved on’ and feel little inclination to write that cracking speech, would that really matter? If a funeral is only for the heat of the moment, what does that say?

  3. Charles

    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 until the family are ready Charles or are you suggesting that the all singing all dancing memorial should come later but the disposal should be simply done early on?

    Where would all these ‘waiting’ bodies be stacked up? Ah, the Co-op will have their empty hubs……

  4. Charles

    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.

  5. Charles

    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..

    1. Charles

      David, thank you for this view from the telly. Given the amount of death in them, especially EastEnders, we really need a soap correspondent for the GFG. You wouldn’t like to do this for us, would you?

      If soaps hold up a mirror to contemporary society and show us as we are, they certainly shouldn’t be allowed to get away with worn-out stereotypes. Do write and complain.

      1. Charles

        Soap correspondent? Yes, of course Charles, delighted to accept, subject to my being tipped off by you, bloggers, friends and extended family when a soap death is imminent. I wouldn’t want to watch them all continuously you understand.

        The deaths of major sop characters or those plane-crash/train crash by-pass pile-ups as cast clear-outs, tend to be very well flagged by the tabloids.

        I am of course old enough to recall Ken Barlow’s wife meeting her end in the bath, having clumsily balanced an electric fire on the side to keep warm. It was a long time ago – the fire was powered from the light fitting, those were the days! (Points awarded for her Christian name please guys?) Sighs,yes, that was my first soap death. Sadly since then, nothing much changed. All of these soaps cast an ageing wizened male, he will only ever appear in child-catcher style funeral gear. Presumably so we, the dumb viewer can identify him? Every possible stiff joke is laboured, the hearse frequently crashes, breaks down or the family end up rowing as a major secret is revealed.. Conventionality is the only thing we ever see.

        No-one minds a nice Victorian horse-hearse, but it doesn’t have to be pulled by Belgium Blacks does it? Why not a lone horse pulling a rural cart, think Bert Fry in the Archers.. Now there’s a soap. The pictures are always better on the radio 🙂

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