It’s one of the golden rules of soap: if your suit is sharp, your haircut sleek and you carry a briefcase, then you’re obviously not to be trusted. Time and again we’ve seen well-to-do men with enviable lifestyles turn out to be reprehensible, a case in point being a current storyline in EastEnders in which local solicitor Gray Atkins was revealed to be an abuser who physically attacks his wife Chantelle.
The fact that online soap forums have been swirling with suspicion about Gray for weeks proves my point – if you turn up in the neighbourhood with professional qualifications, then it’s only a matter of time before your secret dark side emerges.
So why do shows like EastEnders pick these well-tailored, aspirational characters to be villains?
Well, what I personally feel is that such stereotyping actually comes from a well-meaning place. What the soaps are saying is that crimes such as these are often being committed by the person you’d least expect. Women aren’t necessarily being attacked by a sinister guy waiting down an alleyway in a balaclava, it can often be the seemingly respectable husband next door in the show-home who’s actually raising a fist to their wife or partner. And there’s no denying that the statistics reflect this: the chief executive of Refuge, Sandra Horley, has now commented that one in four women experience domestic abuse within their lifetime.
The trouble is that our continuing dramas have become victims of their own efforts to highlight this “it’s never who you think” argument. Because now, when it comes to potential soap evildoers, it’s always exactly who we think. The abuser is rarely an established salt-of-the-earth family man such as Mick Carter or a monosyllabic hard nut like Phil Mitchell; it’s much more likely to be a well-groomed Slick Rick like Gray or Rob Titchener on The Archers or Emmerdale’s Pierce Harris, all three of whom appeared to have been parachuted into their respective shows to explore this particular issue. The intention of shining a light on a behind-closed-doors crime is commendable, but what has become unoriginal is the choice of perpetrator.
I also feel that, at a subconscious level, this is all to do with class. Soap operas generally feature working-class characters, all of whom are striving towards the utopian ideal of neighbourliness and community. We saw this when Walford came together for a 10k charity fun run. It’s also evident at times of disaster, when everyone rallies in the face of a life-endangering bus smash or tram crash. Again, it’s easy to spot the renegade outliers: they’re usually looking on, like Gray did this evening, with an air of superior disdain. More often than not, they’re also the working-class boy made good who wants to be no part of the life he thought he’d escaped.
The key message in all this – unintentional as it may be – is that money corrupts. And you don’t need to have watched EastEnders in a couple of decades to realise this, the ultimate example of the wealthy predator remaining James Willmott-Brown (beware the double-barrelled surname!), who swept into Albert Square on a mission of gentrification in the late 1980s and ended up raping barmaid Kathy Beale.
At the moment, though, it just so happens that we have two men in the Willmott-Brown mould: Gray, but also smarmy dentist Adam, whose relationship with Honey explores similar themes of power and control.
With a certain level of inevitability of characterisation also comes an expectation of how a plotline will progress. Criminals on soaps usually get their justice in one of two ways: either it’s a ‘pitchforks at the door’ scenario where neighbours rise up and evict an antagonist (we can already see that Mitch kind of has the measure of Gray) or a victim finds the courage to speak out against their persecutor (the textbook line of empowering dialogue being “I’m not scared of you anymore”).
And as soap operas exist in a very moral universe, we naturally expect Gray to eventually get his comeuppance. Indeed, show boss Kate Oates has stated her hope tonight that this story encourages those who “experience violence to seek out the help we know they deserve”, all of which sounds laudable.
My problem, though, is not with the story but with the tools that are being used to tell the tale. EastEnders will no doubt handle the drama with integrity, but my plea for the future is that when the next iteration of Walford villain is created, the show doesn’t feel the need to clad a character of low moral fibre in designer threads.
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