April 2014: A young woman is found dead in East London. Cause of death: blunt head trauma. The ensuing police investigations lasts 18 months trawling through endless suspects. October 2015: A local man, known to have had an affair with the victim, is arrested and charged with the murder based on a false alibi and DNA evidence. He pleaded innocent in court. May 2016: A second attack, on the deceased’s former step-mother, causes the case to be reopened. The attacker was her former step-son, the original victim’s brother. In the following investigation he confesses to murdering his sister. He was eleven years old at the time.
A grizzly, dark and uncomfortable story that reflects humanity’s capacity for violence, even in young children.
Fortunately, none of this is real. It’s a fictional storyline from the BBC’s staple soap opera EastEnders. The victim is Lucy Beale, daughter to Walford’s greatest café-owner-cum-chippie-cum-property-developer-cum-is-there-anything-he-hasn’t-done-in-the-last-thirty-years Ian Beale. The culprit was Ian’s son, Bobby.
Thinking on it, the case becomes more ludicrous: the police investigation went on for how long? There were how many suspects? - twenty-one, if you’re interested – how many people knew the truth but didn’t say? Not to mention the myriad web of secrets, lies and near misses that simmer in the background. Slowly but surely what started as a fairly conventional police procedural anchored in the reality of working-class life in East London descends into absurd, silly, melodramatic froth. A giant exercise in make-believe created by a team of writers tasked with entertaining, titillating and horrifying the viewing public.
And all of this is fine. Froth is great. Times as they are, we could do with more froth in our lives. Not everything has to be austere or profound or realistic... but still, something doesn’t sit right. Something feels uncomfortable in a way that you’re not sure you quite understand. It’s the eleven-year-old boy.
Eliot Carrington, born in 2002, is the fourth actor to play Bobby Beale in EastEnders. In February 2015, for it’s 30th anniversary, aired a live episode revealing Bobby to be his sister’s killer. The whole thing was carefully stage managed to be a moment – and what a moment it was. People couldn’t believe it, only a handful of creatives involved in the show knew the outcome, most of the crew were as shocked as the audiences at home. At a live cast and crew screening of the episode the crowd gasped, screamed and whooped in amazement at the announcement (https://vine.co/v/Ox2viIrBY10). A woman in Hackney screamed so loud at the revelation, the police were called. Eliot was even snapped by paparazzi leaving the studios in a car with his Mum that evening. He was twelve years old at the time.
I’m not accusing the producers of EastEnders or Eliot’s parents of anything. Indeed, executive producer Dominic Treadwell-Collins says he assessed the psychological impact it could have on the child actor; though introducing the story line to Eliot as 'Bobby's going to be a naughty boy', and indeed the underlying threat that if Eliot's father didn't agree to the plotline they would 'have to recast' might raise some questions about how it was handled. (WhatsOnTV)
I'm sure Eliot was kept informed, treated with respect and that the film crew took great care to ensure he wasn't traumatised, to make sure this was a manageable story for a child to portray. And good for him for portraying something so complex and difficult with such expertise.
But, in the film and TV industry, for every good decision made, there are a thousand bad ones. For every child treated with respect and dignity, there is a Dominique Swain, who in the 1997 film of Lolita, aged 15, filmed explicitly sexual scenes with her co-star Jeremy Irons with minimal protections (a cushion here, a body suit there). The final cut of the film had to be edited by lawyers so as to not contravene the Child Pornography Prevention Act, much to the dismay of screenwriter Stephen Schiff, who stated “That’s not a lawyers business…It’s about story-telling and about conveying information and about the filmmaker’s vision.” (Anusha.com)
Linda Blair, who played the possessed Regan in The Exorcist aged 13, said of filming the infamous scene where Regan masturbates with a crucifix: “I didn’t know what we were doing. I didn’t understand the concept.” (Ranker) You’re a thirteen-year-old girl, you’re only just starting to discover your vagina, understanding what it is and how it works, and suddenly you’re being told, with no explanation as to why, to jab a crucifix into a cushion between your legs on the set of a horror film.
The conversations around safeguarding these actors are long and complicated. Whilst it's important to make sure that we are still telling stories about abuse, violence, morality etc. But the conversations around how best to do that, and particularly around how to communicate with children and young adults about these difficult topics are not happening enough.
Nicole Kidman, as an adult, struggled with filming scenes of sexual assault on TV series Big Little Lies, revealing that after shooting she once smashed a window in her hotel room with a rock. (Perez Hilton) If even adults are struggling with the psychological consequences of performing violence or having violence performed onto them, then how are children going to cope?
We Need to Talk About Bobby (off EastEnders) is not about EastEnders, or indeed about Bobby either. It’s about the little boy who is told to stand there and say those words in a certain way so the people at home will enjoy themselves. It’s about the little girl who is told not to worry about what it all means because it’s only pretend.
Bobby is being performed at the King's Head Theatre on the 25th and 26th March. If you want to come and join the conversation tickets can be booked here:
"Eliot Carrington: 'Bobby being the EastEnders Killer is Brilliant"
"Lawyers were forced to cut scenes from Lolita because of Vagueness in Obscenity laws"
"9 Horror Movie Kids Who Had A Blast Playing Creepy And Tormented Characters"
"Those Big Little Lies Abuse Scenes Really Affected Nicole Kidman: "I Went Home And I Threw A Rock Through A Glass Door"