Last Friday night, popular British soap EastEnders did something extraordinary, breaking the fourth wall and for the first time losing some of its soap format, making way for documentary footage, resulting in 30 minutes of half-drama, half-documentary about knife crime.
Over the past few weeks EastEnders has explored the aftermath of the murder of Shakil Kazemi (Shaheen Jafargholi) by being stabbed by a gang after his friend Keegan (Zach Morris) stole their bike. It has looked into the effects knife crime has on those left behind, exploring PTSD and survivor’s guilt through Keegan; Mick Carter’s (Danny Dyer) guilt that he could have done more to save Shakil; and the grief of Shakil’s family, most keenly felt by his mother Carmel (Bonnie Langford), who has delivered an acting powerhouse as Carmel has navigated her son’s loss, attempting suicide and embarking upon a knife amnesty campaign.
On the soap side, Friday’s episode featured Shakil’s funeral, following his friends and brother Kush (Davood Ghadami) as they coped with saying goodbye, while also trying to persuade Carmel to attend the funeral after she refused to show up. This was, unusually so, cut together with inserts of the families of real life stabbing victims, talking directly to the camera on their experiences. Mothers and fathers talked about the children they’d lost to knife violence. This wasn’t a fictional plot devised by the producers, but real life.
It’s something that I initially felt was intrusive – the fade to black at the end of the soap scene before heading into a piece to camera is not something we’re used to seeing – but as the episode progressed it began to feel natural. It was almost the perfect parallel, the fictional story of Carmel struggling to say goodbye to her son whose death was with no justice and a wasted life, combined with the real people who are affected by this issue.
Featured were the stories of Yvonne Lawson, telling of her horror when her 17 year old son Godwin wasn’t picking up the phone; Trish Bergan, telling of the moment a doctor knelt down and held her hands before informing her that her 21 year old son Jerome had died of a knife inury; George Kinsella, telling of how hearing of the death of his 16 year old son Ben – brother of former EastEnders actress Brooke Kinsella, who was awarded an MBE in 2011 for services to the prevention of knife crime, and whom the soap consulted on this storyline – turns “your whole world, you whole life upside down”.
The episode concluded by combining the soap with the real entirely, fully breaking down boundaries and having the families featured in the interviews surround the outside of the church, holding pictures of their departed loved ones, as Shakil’s coffin and funeral procession went towards the grave plot. They’d been fully transported into the soap world – or, perhaps more accurately, the soap had been transported into the real world.
It’s an innovation that went down well with critics: the Daily Telegraph labelled it “relevant and powerful” and “rightfully allow[ed] reality to take focus”, while Digital Spy proclaimed that it was a “groundbreaking first” and “that this is far, far more than a soap story”.
While they’re also known for sensationalising matters, soap operas have always focused on real life social issues, whether it’s Coronation Street shining the light on depression through Steve MacDonald, Hollyoaks breaking down the stigma around being HIV-positive through Ste, or EastEnders looking into the aftermath of a rape attack on Linda Carter.
But, in this case, EastEnders broke down its fictional walls to give a platform and gravitas to its timely, important subject in a way it never has before. It’s unusual for sure – yet all the more powerful for it.