Today is Time to Talk Day in the UK, an initiative by the Time for Change campaign that encourages people to talk about their mental health. It feels an appropriate date, therefore, on which to revisit a recent episode of an iconic British soap that sought to explore the same ground to dramatic effect.
With the recent change in executive producer to Sean O’Connor, at times EastEnders (1985 – ) has felt a little less visceral, with some episodes ending almost sweetly as opposed to the trademark drum-laden cliffhanger. It does, however, still retain its licence to shock with some storylines (not least a recent full-on disaster), and perhaps all the moreso for the increased shades of light and dark.
One recent—and, at time of writing, still ongoing—storyline of note to this blog has been that exploring Lee Carter‘s (Danny-Boy Hatchard) latest period of depression. This represents a type of mental health narrative I still think is too rare on our screens, that of a vulnerable young man. Given Lee’s former career as an army officer, his character feels a good choice for the storyline—what we might perceive as a strong, masculine military type laid bare.
The low ebb at which the start of this particular episode finds Lee is one that has built for some time. His depression has been an ongoing story thread, as have his feelings of inadequacy towards his new wife, and work-related stress from a dead-end job the true nature of which he has kept secret from his nearest and dearest. It is fair to say that sometimes his storylines have rung true, whilst at others they have felt needlessly overblown; his role in setting up a robbery of the family’s pub, that bedrock of life in Albert Square that is The Queen Vic, stands out as a particular low point. Still, this is soapland, and I guess such plots are to be expected.
Lee leaves a handwritten note on the dashboard of his car that simply reads, “I’m sorry”, then strides off to the rooftop edge of a car park to contemplate jumping to his death. It is there that he is interrupted by Karen (Sally Rogers in a deeply affecting guest role), a car park attendant to whom Lee had been rude and aggressive earlier in the day. In spite—or perhaps even because—of his previous behaviour, Karen engages with Lee and begins to get him to open up to her. Initially he is resistant, but soon he begins to speak about his all-too-common plight of a troubled young man struggling to make his way in the modern world:
Karen tries hard to get Lee to talk about his life, reminding him that he has loved ones who will be worried about him, who will miss him if he were to end his life here and now. Ultimately, it is through their open honest conversation and a powerhouse speech, delivered with raw emotion by Rogers, that she is successful in reaching out to him and coaxing him off the ledge:
EastEnders has a good pedigree of working with organisations who can advise on storylines such as Lee’s (as with Stacey Branning’s post partum depression). In this instance, it was the Samaritans—a UK-based charitable organisation offering a confidential helpline for those who need to talk about their problems—that provided advice, blogging for the BBC on their collaboration and on Lee’s plight.
Their work also features explicitly in the episode when it is hinted in how she empathises with Lee that Karen has her own private struggle. She hands him a Samaritans card before they part, indicating that she has had a need to call upon their services and encouraging him to do the same, and the final shot of her character shows her break down next to a photo of an adolescent boy—perhaps her son, perhaps someone she has lost. In a subtle touch for a soap we never find out for certain, but the point is made that so many people have their own mental Achilles’ heel, and that through an empathy strengthened by such struggles we can relate to and find solace in one another.
Most dramas take place in a heightened reality, but EastEnders is to be congratulated for managing—most of the time, at least—to confine that heightened reality to its more far-fetched storylines, yet to root its plotlines in the ongoing lives of characters that can feel only too real.
Hatchard has been announced as set to leave the Square in the near future, and recent turns of events hint that Lee Carter may not get a happy ending. (For those not familiar with the series, these are all too rare in EastEnders.) Nonetheless, in this instance I do hope that the writers and producers offer some optimism to viewers who might relate to Lee’s daily struggles. And, if that is not meant to be, the dramatic heart of this episode at least reminds us that conversations with others when our mental health is at a low ebb really can save lives.