BBC Accused of Over-Sensationalizing Soap Plotlines

More than 6,000 viewers accuse the BBC of cruelly exploiting the issue of sudden infant death, as actress quits show over storyline.

LONDON -- Seems like there's no getting it right if you're the BBC.

While Brits may have a healthy appetite for the likes of Saw 3D and nightly tune in to bleak urban dramas inspired by The Wire, and while it seems that the intrusion of gritty realism has its place in entertainment, that place is definitely notin the oasis of comfort-zone TV.

In the space of a week, Britain's much-loved broadcaster the BBC has found itself under fire from commentators, charities and thousands of viewers, and all for the heinous crime of "over-sensationalizing" story lines in its most popular shows.

First in the dock is the BBC's top-performing show, EastEnders, -- a soap about a working-class community in London that regularly pulls in more than 11 million viewers.

The show -- think of it as the grumpy lovechild of The Sopranos and The Dukes of Hazzard -- has, over the decades, enjoyed a track record of cartoonish infidelity, murder and betrayal that would shame the residents of Wisteria Lane.

A Christmas-special story line in which a cot-death mother swaps her dead baby for another woman's living child, however, has proved to be a plot twist too far, drawing the wrath of an avalanche of viewers -- 6,000 and counting -- who have accused the BBC of cruelly exploiting the issue of sudden infant death and mothers who have been affected.

Interviewed Thursday on the BBC News as the tidal wave of complaints rose higher, BBC drama boss John Yorke was at pains to explain that the plotline was not intended to be a comment on the general behavior of women who have suffered this tragedy.

It was, he said, the BBC's job to interpret "big social themes through the framework of drama." The abduction story line, he said, was simply intended to show the consequences of a bereaved mother's "moment of madness."

But he did little to quell the rising storm, not least because Samantha Womack, the actress in question, stole his thunder by sensationally quitting the show, claiming -- if tabloid newspaper reports are to be believed -- that she fears a backlash from viewers.

"She saw the story as a mother first and an actress second, which made her realize things had gone too far," a friend helpfully told The Sun newspaper.

The next show to arouse a near-hysterical response from irate listeners was the New Year's edition of The Archers, the Radio 4 rural farming soap (yes, you read that right).

Set among the families of the fictional village of Ambridge, the twice-daily 10-minute show is a British institution, complete with its own Agricultural Story Editor and cast members who have played the same character for more than 30 years.

Such is the tradition of gentle storytelling in this 60-year old radio soap (yes, it really does date from practically the dawn of time), that major story lines have included the vicissitudes of the lambing season, the tribulations of building an organic composter and the annual drama of casting the village pantomime.

But when series producers pledged to give the plot a fillip for the 60th-anniversary edition, they could hardly have predicted that by killing off the long-running character Nigel Pargitter (they had him trip over a roof tile and fall to his death while attempting to take down a Christmas banner), they would have landed themselves in such hot water.

Series editor Vanessa Whitburn has been reviled on bulletin boards, in newspaper columns and on Twitter and other social networks across the land for dispatching such an amiable character simply to sensationalize the plot.

It probably didn't help that she had appeared on the airwaves before the anniversary edition promising a plot line that would "shock Ambridge to the core."

Redoubtable newspaper columnist Allison Pearson wrote in The Telegraph that the callous sacrifice of such a popular character had left fans in "open revolt."

"Thanks to this sensationalist plot line, Archers' listeners, who tune into the show for comfort and entertainment, will, over the coming months, have to endure hushed voices, recriminations and daily sobbing. We can get all that in the real world," she wrote.

That so many viewers can be mobilized into outrage over relatively minor plot transgressions is a message that program execs and broadcasting bosses would do well to pick up on.

Behind the hastily generated outrage -- which to be fair, can be delivered nowadays at the click of a tweet or "send" button -- seems to be a genuine yearning for pockets of entertainment that offer mostly uneventful windows on the world, pockets where the forthcoming lambing season, the goings-on at the cafe and worries over the staff rota at the village shop can be fully and leisurely discussed.

Critically acclaimed writers now tend toward ever more outlandish subjects -- earlier this week Sky announced it has wooed Shameless creator Paul Abbott to a create a new drama featuring a pre-operative transsexual hit man.

And achingly cool new Brit talent like Andrew Garfield and Rebecca Hall grace TV only for outings like last year's relentlessly dark pedophile drama Red Riding.

But the kerfuffle over EastEnders and The Archers should deliver an important message: Mess with the British audience's appetite for the genial, the mundane and the everyday at your peril. After all, it forms the backbone of our longest-running and most popular TV and radio shows.

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