It only happens on TV or radio. Never with movies, and definitely never with books. Though maybe both will come; apparently people can’t cope with disturbing fictional scenarios without support and counselling any more.
You don’t know what I’m talking about, do you? Sorry. I’ll explain.
It seems that every time I switch on the radio or TV these days, the credits are rolling on one drama or another and the voiceover is telling me the number to call for help if I’ve been affected by the issues covered in the programme. I do watch or listen to some of them, and although I often want to throw something at the screen or shout at the character being affected by the issue to kill the b****** or get out of there right now, I wouldn’t say I’ve been disturbed in any way. Stirred, maybe. Occasionally made furious because the scriptwriters aren’t letting women solve their own problems (I firmly believe TV drama should contain an element of role-modelling), but not disturbed on my own account.
But OK, some people are; I get that. Obviously the helpline numbers are meant for people who watch the show and get upset because characters are facing issues they’ve faced themselves in real life, so I suppose it’s a good thing in some ways. But come on, folks, it’s fiction. It’s not real. And you can switch off.
There’s no doubt it’s the job of TV and radio drama to raise awareness of current real-life issues. That’s what drama is about: crisis, and how people deal with it. Someone once described drama as life with the heat turned up. Someone else described fiction as a charting of moments of change in the characters’ lives. And change and crisis often go hand-in-hand.
There’s an ongoing saga at the moment regarding a long-established radio soap here in the UK. (If you’re not in the UK, read on – you’re probably oblivious to what’s been going on. If you are in the UK, chat among yourselves for a while; you know what I’m talking about, you can hardly have missed it.) This show acquired a new editor a couple of years ago, and since then the heat has hardly fallen below boiling point. Which has had a lot of people up in arms, because that just wasn’t the style of this show. Issues, yes: major agricultural changes and crises (it’s set in a country village, and most of the characters have farming connections), and the occasional extra-marital affair, episode of domestic violence and character dealing with long-term illness. Even a rape, once. But all generally low-key, with nothing to frighten the proverbial horses. But since the new guy took over we’ve had the village threatened with life-changing developments including a catastrophic flood, the threat of a new road straight through one of the farms, a wedding that never happened, a baby with Downs syndrome (though that could have started under the previous regime, I lose track of time), and most significant of all, a tale of domestic coercive abuse which has continued for nearly three years and culminated a few weeks ago in a near-death experience for the abuser. Which had women all over Britain on their feet and cheering!
(And at the end of every episode came the voiceover - ‘If you’ve been affected by issues in this programme...’ I suppose people do tune in by accident, but I can’t help thinking that anyone who had really been upset by the storyline would have stopped listening months ago. And in any case, probably has access to far better support than a radio helpline number.)
So what am I saying here? Certainly not, don’t broadcast the potentially upsetting storylines, especially not when the rules of drama mean everything is going to be OK in the end, which gives out a positive message to anyone still suffering. I think my point is, trust your audience, drama producers. We’re not stupid. If we’re deeply affected by the issue you’re portraying, we know where the off switch is, and we know where to go for help. Just tell the story; don’t apologize for it by offering a generic helpline number. And make sure the good guys win in the end.
And maybe don’t spin the story out for three years. I know that happens in real life; women in abusive relationships soon have all their energy and self-belief drained out of them by the abuser, and lack the strength either to hit back or to walk away. But this is fiction, not documentary. Fiction telescopes real-life situations; it’s one of the ways it holds its audience’s attention.
I’m waiting for the day I open a book and find a helpline number on the copyright page, just in case crime fiction enthusiasts are disturbed by murder. We live in a very careful world.