Eastenders characters Dinah and Bailey

EastEnders review - we need respect not pity

As someone with multiple sclerosis, I’ve been following EastEnders because of its MS-related storyline.

The experience of watching the story unfold, and reach its conclusion last night, has left me deeply saddened. And that was even before the death of the character with MS, Dinah Baker.

A fair reflection of MS?

However, that’s not to say that the set-up hasn’t been allowed to play out in a sympathetic way. Indeed, the praise being handed down to child actress Kara-Leah Fernandes has been richly deserved. Her portrayal as Bailey caring for her mother has been deeply moving.

The episodes leading up to Thursday night’s “Duff Duffs” have been as thoughtfully written as they have been acted out. 

Dinah’s collapsing on the floor wasn’t sensationalised. It was just as it is for anyone living with MS. It happens, supervised or not, and was a fair reflection for some of us of living with multiple sclerosis.

The soap opera cliché of MS

Yet there was one scene that undid all the good that had been achieved up until that point - when carer Karen Taylor met up with MS support group leader Darren.

It was then I realised how some tropes are just meant to be in a television soap opera: a clichéd image of MS, when Darren was introduced at the Bridge Street café sitting in a wheelchair.

This year’s World MS Day theme is raising awareness of ‘my invisible illness’. Thanks to a lack of attention to detail played out in front of six or seven million viewers, this storyline was doing the exact opposite. This was and is a serious and unacceptable lack of judgement by the BBC.  

We are no longer sufferers

Yet they’re no worse than ITV in the way they remember that sometimes the character with MS Johnny Connor has - well - MS.

He’s fallen twice and got his diagnosis within a week which was good for one dramatic storyline with an MS narrative. Yet given the significance of World MS Day surely that’s a wasted opportunity by Coronation Street for a character with MS to get a scene in an episode. However, unlike tragic Dinah Baker, it wasn’t Johnny’s turn.  

Sadly, it’s been left to the BBC to paint an MS portrait that is only identified by a wheelchair because, apparently, that’s who we are. And this makes me react as if I was listening to fingernails scratching against a chalkboard. 

It grates on me because life has moved on. We are no longer “sufferers”. 

This is the 21st century

No doubt tears will be shed for the death of a character in EastEnders who happens to have MS. Mine, though, will be tears of sadness because of the misrepresentation of an illness with invisible symptoms. It’s done for the ratings, of course, without thinking through the consequences.  

We in the MS community deserve more respect, but without needing the prop of a wheelchair. Instead we must make do with pity, along the lines of a Victorian freak show exhibit. 

This is the 21st century, although you’d never notice in soapland.

Martin is a writer and literary consultant. You can read more of his blogs at martinbaum.co.uk