Warning: this story contains discussion of domestic abuse which some might find distressing.
EastEnders concluded this evening with the heartbreaking death of Chantelle Atkins (Jessica Plummer) after years of abuse at the hands of her husband, Gray Atkins (Toby-Alexander Smith).
It’s been devastating to watch the storyline unfold and unfortunately it ended in disaster for the hairdresser, who was killed by her own spouse after she finally told him she didn’t love him and wanted to leave him.
RadioTimes.com spoke exclusively to Executive Producer, Jon Sen, about why Chantelle’s life ended this way on screen, especially considering she had already asked for help.
“A criticism is often a worry that we are showing a victim that tries to leave and that backfires on her tremendously – I’d like people to realise that for people in Chantelle’s situation, telling someone what you’re going through is so important,” Sen explained.
“Chantelle thinks she’s doing her children and husband a service by keeping this secret to herself, not wanting to make waves so she carries this secret all on her own so she doesn’t reach out to anyone. She also thinks that she’s not worth the help. She looks at Gray as being someone who is above her – his smart suit, nice job – he’s very middle class.
“In reality, she is worth a million of him because she’s a kinder, better, nicer person. It’s that belief that he’s too good for her that really holds her back. Through Chantelle’s story, we hope to encourage survivors to understand that they are absolutely worth the support and to speak out. It’s through a culture of silence that the atrocities of domestic abuse are able to thrive.”
According to Women’s Aid, Chantelle’s death is harrowingly true to life as they told us: “On average three women every fortnight are killed by current or ex partners in the UK, so what happens to Chantelle is tragically true to life.”
Lisa King from Refuge added: “At least 26 women have been killed by abusive partners during the coronavirus lockdown and Chantelle’s tragic murder reflects the true nature of domestic abuse, which takes lives and ruins lives. The fact remains that domestic abuse can affect anyone, and it is horrific that so many women and girls continue to be killed at such a rate by violent men.”
Chantelle was shown throughout the week trying to get help escaping her abusive husband and made a plan to escape with her children.
Alluding to the abuse she was suffering, she found support from Kheerat Panesar (Jaskiranjit Singh Deol) who was helping her to escape, but to no avail – Gray was always one step further than her.
A final argument ended in Gray pushing Chantelle back and she fell onto the open dishwasher, with a large knife piercing her.
Panicking he’s gone too far, Gray leaves the house and runs some errands – getting himself an alibi – before returning to his wife as she passes away.
So why did Chantelle die? What impact does Sen and the EastEnders team want it to have?
“I want it to be a call to action to anybody who feels trapped in a relationship or suddenly becomes aware that they’re in a coercive or abusive relationship. There is support and people that they can turn to. Action is important because being trapped in a situation like this can have fatal consequences,” Sen said.
EastEnders worked with Refuge, Women’s Aid and Solace on every aspect of the storyline, meeting survivors, and making sure every bit of the script is reflective of real life situations some find themselves in. Recently, Smith became an ambassador for Women’s Aid.
This was crucial for Sen, who continued: “It’s important to reflect the terrifying statistics of domestic violence throughout the country and reflecting the truth of what actually happens. We wanted to tell a story that was the experience of real people that suffer at the hands of their abusers.”
For charities such as Refuge and Women’s Aid, having the exposure of such a tragic storyline is crucial for tackling a hidden problem.
Women’s Aid told us: “Soaps are watched by big audiences, made up of people of all ages and backgrounds, who are really invested in the characters and care about what is happening to them, so you can tell a powerful story about domestic abuse in a soap which has a lasting effect. This is especially important in regard to coercive control, where there is less understanding about this form of domestic abuse, as it is not physical but controlling and coercive behaviour.”
King from Refuge added: “It has been incredible to see the impact of Chantelle’s storyline over the last year. Soaps are a cornerstone of our society and a reflection of what ordinary people experience every day. By showing the insidious and pervasive nature of domestic abuse in real time, EastEnders has highlighted the devastating reality that domestic abuse remains the biggest issue affecting women and children today.”
If you or someone you know has been affected by Chantelle’s storyline, you can find help and support from Refuge and Women’s Aid. You can also contact the National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247 free of charge.