Friday 19 June 2015

Cystic Fibrosis Comes to EastEnders

By now, you've either seen or heard that one of the latest storylines on long-running BBC soap EastEnders involves a young girl with cystic fibrosis.

This is the culmination of months of work between the production team and the Cystic Fibrosis Trust to ensure that cystic fibrosis is represented as accurately as possible on-screen. Our own Engagement Director, Oli Lewington, has been one of the key people in these conversations and having already given some insight into how it all came together on EastEnders blog,  Oli expands on the work for us here too.

Back in November I received a meeting request from our Communications Manager, Paul, to accompany him to a meeting at Elstree Studios. All I knew at the time was that it was the same studio where Eastenders was shot.

When we arrived I was hastily asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement forbidding me from discussing any of the contents of the meeting with anyone outside that room.
Today, of course, you are all well aware of Jade, the new character introduced to Albert Square in Friday night’s “duff duff” moment.

Anyone in the CF community is also well-aware of the traditionally sketchy nature of representations of CF on TV, not another well-watched BBC show, Holby City. You’ll understand, then, our excitement to be involved at such an early stage, some eight months before the character first appeared on screen, helping to shape the direction Jade may travel and ensure decision-making about her health was as correct as possible.

We always have to allow for a little dramatic licence and I like to think that some of those minor details that only we would notice aren’t as important as the fact we have a character on a major UK soap opera with cystic fibrosis. Sometimes you have to pick your battles!

Since that first meeting, the team have been sending through scripts for us to review. Clearly, I can’t go into too much detail about things not yet broadcast, but just one example of their willingness to listen to our perspective and adapt their story came up in Jade’s very first scene.

In the final moments of last Friday’s episode, she appears wearing what was originally scripted to be an oxygen mask, struggling for breath and making the impact all the greater on her grandmother, Shirley, who had already lost her son to CF (off-screen, some years ago).

In subsequent scripts, the activity they had Jade doing would clearly have been beyond someone who was so ill. She would also, obviously, have needed to tote her oxygen around with her everywhere she went.

We called the writers and explained that by having her in an oxygen mask for that opening scene, they were committing themselves to one very strict direction that didn’t leave them with many options going forward.

While not as immediately recognisable to a lay audience as an oxygen mask, we suggested that a nebuliser may be a better approach for that first entrance, which is exactly what viewers saw when they tuned in on Friday night.

We’re so excited to finally have this kind of exposure for what we all know is – relatively speaking – quite a rare disease. And we’re even more pleased that the BBC have shown such commitment to getting it right, and are willing to listen to our feedback to make Jade’s story as real as possible not just for our eagle-eyed community, but for the great British public who may be learning about CF for the first time.

I, for one, can’t wait to see Jade’s story unfold, and to finally be able to talk more about it as it does!

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