Emmerdale: why Donna's decline and fall made for great TV

David Brown applauds the ITV soap for the way it portrayed Donna's terminal illness and exit

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Emmerdale: why Donna's decline and fall made for great TV
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David Brown

Soap opera characters and dangerously high ledges have never gone well together. For many years, we’ve watched the best-known faces of serial drama plunge lemming-like to their doom: beware a toppling Bradley Branning! Watch out below for an incoming Tom King! Now Donna Windsor has been added to the list of the fallen - Emmerdale’s bent copper having just sacrificed herself in Breaking Bad style to ensure her daughter’s future.

You’d have thought we’d now be blasé about such things. After all, it’s only been a couple of months since Tina McIntyre made a dent in Coronation Street’s cobbles, the sheer weight of her ginormous hoop earrings having given gravity a helping hand. And yet Donna’s demise was completely heart-rending and affecting despite rooftop falls being ten-a-penny in soapland. Why should that be so? The answer lies in the way Emmerdale has portrayed Donna’s decline since actress Verity Rushworth returned to the show five months ago.

These days, there’s a soap shorthand for the way bad news is broken. Usually, as soon as one character says, “I’ve got something terrible to tell you”, we’ll jump to another scene featuring some less-important action. One minute later, we’ll return to the person who had bad news to break, only to find that everyone now knows what’s going on and are in floods of tears. In short, the dialogue with the actual drama in it gets missed out. Thankfully, no such short cuts were taken when it came to Donna’s cancer.

Last week, for instance, we had a terrifically moving moment in which Donna made a video for her daughter April to watch when she was older. It was a three-minute-long scene, there were excellent performances from both Rushworth and Mark Charnock [who plays Marlon Dingle] and – vitally - the action didn’t shift halfway through to the latest goings-on at the sweetie factory.

For me, it was up there with Dr Greene’s final ER and Debra Winger saying goodbye to her children in Terms of Endearment. And we were trusted to listen to all the lines in full! The need wasn’t felt to give us something else bright and shiny to keep us interested for fear that we might switch over to The One Show. Of course, the pay-off was that Donna’s actual death then packed more of an emotional wallop because we’d been allowed to invest in her plight. It seems so simple, yet it doesn’t happen very often.

EastEnders did do something similar earlier this year when they gave the Beales time to grieve for Lucy. Periods of silence, Ian’s tortured sobbing (OK, this did eventually get a bit much), plus Peter’s funeral speech – all were shown uninterrupted despite our supposedly short attention spans. Viewers adore and remember such scenes for years to come. So let’s see them more often.

I know that our soaps juggle masses of characters and (in the cases of ITV and Channel 4) share screen time with seemingly ever-longer ad slots. But giving breathing space to their main players means that the moments of grand spectacle work much better. Donna’s fall was tense, surprising and a great final twist to her tale. But it would have counted for nought had we not been encouraged to care so much for her in the first place.

Emmerdale continues tomorrow at 7pm on ITV

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