The Eastenders child sex abuse case

The NSPCC on their involvement  with the Eastenders paedophilia storyline

I was approached in March this year by two members of the EastEnders research team on behalf of executive producer Diedrick Santer, to say they were thinking of running a ‘grooming’ storyline and asked if I thought this was the sort of thing that needed to be aired. I said, yes, absolutely. It’s a very important issue and of course EastEnders is a hugely popular programme, reaching over nine million homes every week so the message would reach a wide audience.

The writers then gave me the storyline which I was allowed to modify and shortly after that the scripts began arriving. They were very detailed but stuck to the parts which involved the main characters involved in the grooming plot.

There were only two developments which concerned me and one of these involved Whitney – the paedophile’s target – self harming. I asked them to pull that line because although it can often be part of a sex abuse story I felt it needed to be told in its own way and it could have introduced unnecessary complications. I felt it was hard to cover both issues at the same time.

The second area where I asked for changes hinged on Tony- the groomer – never having sex with his girlfriend, Bianca. This is not realistic and might be dangerous because it gives the message that paedophiles do not have sex with adults – and that’s not true.

The scriptwriters immediately changed both of these lines and have been extremely co-operative in all areas. It hasn’t been a case of the NSPCC just being asked to comment now and then. We have been consulted all the way through and treated as partners in a very important project. I’ve been to the EastEnders studios to talk to the production staff and the scriptwriters have spent many hours integrating my suggested changes and even meeting me to make sure they really got under the skin of the main characters.

I’ve worked with the BBC for several years now, ever since I advised on their safeguarding policies for CBBC and the relationship has always been good. In 2007 we helped them develop another major EastEnders storyline involving schoolboy Ben who was being physically and emotionally abused by his step-mother-to-be, Stella.

This time around not only have we helped with the scripts but we also talked to Chris Coghill, who plays Tony, to explain how a paedophile will react emotionally. Sometimes you’ll see Tony sitting alone, looking miserable, feeling guilty. But then his desire will take over and the guilt vanishes as he tries to convince himself what he’s doing is OK.

One of my previous NSPCC roles involved investigating sex offenders so I’ve gained some knowledge of how they behave. Tony is a classic example of how they will target a single, vulnerable mum and burrow their way into the centre of the family, ensuring everyone relies on them.

My colleague, Jude Toasland who has run one of our therapeutic services for abused children, advised Whitney. The main idea was that she should not come across as some highly-sexed young girl. She is being abused by Tony and only consents to sex with him because she wants to keep him happy. Jude also outlined the emotional roller-coaster someone like Whitney would experience, the doubts, insecurities, anger. Both Shona McGarty, who plays Whitney, and Chris have been offered support by the NSPCC, should they need it.

We wanted this to be as realistic as possible to show the damage sex abuse inflicts on the child and family and to encourage people to speak out about it. So far it seems to be working.

Tom Narducci, is an NSPCC senior training consultant

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