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Monday, 3 February 2014

Eastenders' Epilepsy Storyline: Does it Ring True?


It's fair to say that, since their introduction in December, the Carter family have dominated the majority of the storylines on Eastenders. This past week saw the debuts of both Timothy West and Annette Badland as the senior members of the clan both of whom are concealing various secrets. However, the most interesting story coming out of last week's Eastenders was when it was revealed that the Carters' daughter Nancy has epilepsy.

As an epilepsy sufferer myself I'm always interested when a drama decides one of its characters should have the illness. One particular memory was when the character of Steph on Hollyoaks discovered she was epileptic after being knocked on the head by the village's resident serial killer. In fact, a lot of characters seemed to have developed the illness after a serious head trauma or dramatic event. This wasn't the case with Nancy whose fit came on during a fairly mundane trip to the park where her dog Lady Di ended up frolicking with Dexter's mutt. It later transpired that Nancy had to live with the condition for some time and it had prevented her from living her dream of being a soldier.


I do have to hand it to Eastenders for their portrayal of epilepsy as a condition that most sufferers have to live with. I've been in Nancy's situation a number of times where I've had a fit and the person who finds me on the floor wants to ring for an ambulance straight away. Similarly, Nancy's frustration that her parents make a big deal every time she has a fit is something that I can more than relate with. The one thing that didn't ring true for me was the fact that Nancy was up and about in the pub again within about thirty minutes of fitting. While every form of epilepsy is different, my seizures definitely leave me feeling sore for about an hour and I wouldn't want to be up and about serving the thirsty punters of Walford.

It does seem that the writers are keen to point out that Nancy has learnt to live with her epilepsy like many of us do. What I do like is that they aren't letting her illness define her as a character and instead are continuing to portray her as the headstrong tomboy that we've come to know over the past month. Praise must go to Maddy Hill whose performance throughout these handful of scenes was spot on and I bet I'm not the only epilepsy sufferer who identified with her forthright spirit. Kellie Bright and Danny Dyer also deserve respect for their reaction to the discovery of Nancy's fit which felt equally realistic.

The problem with having a character with epilepsy in a drama series is how to use them going forward. I've read a lot of criticisms about soaps 'forgetting' their characters have epilepsy, but a lot of the time I can go nine or ten months without having one fit. I feel that the best thing to do would be to raise awareness of the key triggers that cause epileptic fits. These include drinking too much, not eating enough and not getting enough sleep; all of which could be fitted into minor storylines in the coming months. For example, it would be easy to imagine a character like Nancy wanting to keep up with her mates' drinking habits on a night out. However, viewers could later be made aware that Nancy's drinking has caused her latest fits and therefore highlight the affect that alcohol has for epileptics.

Like most people, I feel that Eastenders is on the way up again and introducing well-rounded characters like Nancy is one sign that the show is improving. It's great to see epilepsy handled in a realistic manner and that a major soap opera is showing that it's an illness that a lot of people live with quite easily. I'm just hoping that we're reminded of Nancy's condition every so often and that in a month's time we don't see her get a new job as an HGV driver.

Contributed by Matt Donnelly.

EastEnders continues Tonight at 8.00pm on BBC ONE.


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