The Child in Time may have received mixed reviews, but it dealt with difficult, sensitive themes. Ian McEwan’s tale – adapted by the BBC – followed a husband and wife two years on from the disappearance of their three-year-old child, and at times was unbearably sad.
Children’s author Stephen Lewis (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) was seen plodding robotically through life, seeing his missing daughter Kate at every turn and coming to terms with a life without her. Running parallel was the storyline of his friend, promising politician Charles (Stephen Campbell Moore), who suffered a breakdown and retreated to the woods where he reverted to a child-like state. By the end of the episode he had committed suicide.
The marriage between television and social media is an important one – and viewers duly took to Twitter to post their mixed reaction to the drama. Tweeting alongside them was the BBC’s official account – nothing unusual there – but rather than sharing posts in step with the sombre tone of the piece, the channel’s social media feed treated the episode like some sort of Benedict Cumberbatch romantic comedy.
For a drama whose subject matter was deemed sensitive enough to warrant a page on the Corporation’s website offering phone numbers for those “affected by any of the issues raised”, it seemed bizarre to see it accompanied by tweets like this:
The scene above saw Stephen chase after a young child he thought might be his missing daughter, only to slip and fall into the mud. He then walked, mucky and rather dejected, to see his wife Julie (Kelly Macdonald) for the first time since their separation in the wake of Kate’s disappearance.
The reunion saw the pair sleep together before stepping into the shower. While there are swathes of the internet who will always delight in a nude Cumberbatch, the moment was designed to be sad and poignant as the once-happy couple reconnected and touched upon the devastating loss they had both suffered.
But BBC’s Twitter saw fit to drum up the Cumber-collective with yet more jovial tweets…
That’s not to say the Child in Time was without its lighter moments. Stephen and Julie fell back into their easy, comfortable rapport and the drama saw them move past the tragedy and reunite with the birth of a new child. This wasn’t a programme solely focused on doom and gloom.
But alongside their narrative ran that of Charles who descended into madness, much to the distress of his wife Thelma and best friend Stephen.
As the drama progressed, so did his manic behaviour as we watched him get rid of his pubic hair and take to the woods to live out a childhood fantasy. Minutes later he was found hanging from a rope tied to a branch – although you’d never have guessed it from the tone of this tweet…
Nowadays, social media is a vital component in drumming up conversations around television, playing a key role in generating that all-important buzz. But while Cumberbatch is a cult figure on the internet, with a fandom the BBC no doubt wanted to take full advantage of, the tone of their tweets felt misjudged. This was not some romantic fairytale to make light of but an honest, and at times searing, account of what it means to lose a child.
“It’s every parent’s worst nightmare”, said Cumberbatch in a video posted on their Twitter account at the end of the broadcast. That much is obvious – but perhaps the BBC’s social media coverage should have better reflected that.
Sign up to the Radio Times newsletter for the latest TV and entertainment news