By Anya Reiss
I grew up an EastEnders fan. When I started working on the show I found in an old notebook my letter to the EastEnders team thanking them for bring Jake Moon in to my life via the television screen. It’s a medium that doesn’t just ‘speak’ to people, but gets inside their heads and hearts. Nothing other than soaps, sit in your living room night after night, where you grow up with the characters and know their families and pasts like you would a childhood friend. And just sometimes, like a friend can, they can change your minds. They can open you up to new ideas. They can raise awareness.
When I joined, the boss at the time Dominic Treadwell Collins would speak about the impact of the Whitney Dean grooming storyline, of the men who came out after the Masood/Christian love story and of the women who spoke up after Linda’s rape. EastEnders last night has tackled an issue once again, and I was proud to be asked to write their special that aired on Thursday night, and this was about Ruby Allen and the nature of consent.
In the episode, Ruby, who has reported an alleged rape to the police, enters The Vic with longterm friend Stacey only to see her attackers drinking across the bar with Stacey’s husband Martin. Slowly the pub catches onto the nature of the accusations against Martin’s friend and this sparks a chain reaction where argument and debate rattles round the pub as Walford residents discuss consent and rape, not knowing the situation of Ruby, standing in their midst.
It’s a tricky conversation to get right. Most importantly to me, John Yorke, and the EastEnders team, was for every side of this conversation to be heard. Nothing can turn a viewer away more than feeling attacked or misrepresented. And EastEnders has millions of viewers from every walk of life watching. This can’t be preaching to the converted and above all this has to be real. EastEnders is set in a working class community in London, the people that live there exist, they aren’t mouthpieces for an agenda. You have to write from a place of love for these characters, even when they are saying something that you disagree with. So thank God I grew up with them, thank god I love them, thank god they’re my childhood friends.
We took care not to turn it into a men versus women debate. Jack, with his history in the police, is a surprising supporter of those who have experienced sexual assault. While to Big Mo, stopping rape is pretty simple. But also, this is not just a conversation about rape, but a conversation about consent. Whereas Sharon was one of Linda’s biggest support during her rape ordeal, to Sharon when drink gets involved the lines can be blurred. We tried to make sure that we didn’t use characters to front a side of the argument, or be in the right or be in the wrong. Denise is perhaps the most outspoken in her support of those who have experienced sexual assault, and she then is dismissive of male rape. While Stacey tries to defend Ruby to Martin, she ends up almost exposing and embarrassing her friend.
I hope people can watch the episode and see what we are trying to do. It’s to open the conversation. We want to make the person on the sofa turn to the person next to them and ask what they think. And perhaps to make people think again. To both the Ians and Phils of the world who shrug at the short skirts and dismiss Patrick’s talk of white privilege as racist. But also to the Denises and Staceys ploughing forward with a fight they think they know but not always listening.
But most importantly this episode is for those who have experienced sexual assault. Not just those that have spoken up but for those that haven’t, and for those that maybe never will. Though this debate swirls around the pub, we return and end with Ruby. In research for the episode I heard a lot about the relief felt when you realise you are not alone. I hope this story, helps remind people, that they aren’t alone. And that no one can change your truth.
Anya Reiss is a writer for theatre and TV, including EastEnders and Ackley Bridge