EastEnders is returning on Monday with the beginning of the end of Chantelle Atkins – later this month she is killed as she tries to escape abusive husband Gray after their relationship disintegrated during their lockdown isolation.
Gray (Toby Alexander Smith) and Chantelle Atkins (Jessica Plummer) arrived in Albert Square in 2019: a thriving solicitor and his beautiful wife, they seemed like a golden couple.
As is often the case, the Atkins’ idyllic, enviable relationship hid a desperate domestic situation. It became gradually apparent to viewers that Chantelle had been subject to years of mental and physical abuse by her violent, controlling husband.
The EastEnders storyline has been hailed for reflecting real life. Refuge, which runs the 24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline, has seen calls and contacts to this life-saving service soar during the pandemic, while Women’s Aid released the sobering statistic that over two-thirds of survivors reported their domestic abuse escalated in lockdown.
Refuge reported that in the first week of July, as lockdown lifted, there was a 54 per cent rise in women contacting its helpline needing refuge emergency accommodation, compared to the last week in June.
The EastEnders audience will see this mirrored in the Atkins’ relationship as she makes the big decision to file for divorce. Chantelle attempts to escape from Gray but fails, and he kills her.
EastEnders stressed that producers, writers and the cast had worked closely with Women’s Aid and Refuge on the storyline.
Women’s Aid spokesperson Teresa Parker said her organisation visited the Elstree studios with a survivor of abuse at the beginning of the storyline.
She said: “[The survivor] spoke to Jessica, which was very emotional and had a huge impact on how she has played the character of Chantelle.”
Plummer said it had been a privilege to play Chantelle and to tell her story, adding that she had known for a while now “it wasn’t going to end well for Chantelle”.
She added: “…although it was a shock to find out her fate, far too many men and women suffer in silence so I hope that by raising awareness we can ultimately save lives. I am so grateful to all the team and my lovely cast members for being so supportive, I’ll miss Albert Square!”
Refuge’s director of communications Lisa King said: “Domestic abuse is the biggest issue affecting our society and millions of women and girls remain trapped with an abusive partner. Sadly, Chantelle’s murder is not an isolated incident – on average, two women a week are killed by a current or former partner in England and Wales.”
EastEnders’ executive producer Jon Sen said that Chantelle’s tragic ending was always planned with the intention of embedding the reality of domestic abuse at the heart of the Atkins family.
He said: “Being able to shed light on the realities of what goes on behind closed doors has never been more crucial given the harrowing statistics as a result of the current pandemic and hopefully Chantelle’s story will encourage people to speak out to someone they trust and get the support that they need.”
He praised Plummer “extraordinary” performance, adding that even in her final scenes, the audience will be moved by Chantelle’s strength.
Plummer’s death will occur sometime in September, while EastEnders returns for four 20-minute episodes per week at 8.05pm on Monday, 7th September.
Refuge urged anyone who had been affected by Chantelle’s story to contact Refuge’s National Domestic Abuse Helpline (0808 2000 247, www.nationaldahelpline.org.uk).
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