The BBC soap is breaking new ground to highlight the problem of youth violence, reports Etan Smallman
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In tomorrow’s episode of EastEnders, in a UK first, the testimonies of real-life parents of knife-crime victims will be woven into a storyline featuring the funeral of a fictional character. You may wonder how could the performances of the soap’s actors match up to the heartbreaking appearances of their real-life counterparts? And how could the script ever compare to the relatives’ painfully raw testimony?
Take Caroline Shearer, for example, whose 17-year-old son Jay Whiston was murdered at a house party in Essex in 2012.
“Every day, when I hear somebody else has been stabbed, I think: ‘Oh my God, the parents have got to start at the beginning’,” she says in a cutaway from characters including Kat Slater and Denise Fox.
“I don’t actually remember me before Jay. I don’t remember that life. And I try so hard. But the night stays with me when he was… You know, time is nothing. People say ‘time heals’, ‘one step at a time’ – no, this is something you take with you to the grave.
“And we can spot each other miles off. I call it ‘our special group’. Because it’s so expensive to join. And nobody wants to join our group.”
The storyline coincides with the 10th anniversary of the death of 16-year-old Ben Kinsella, brother of former EastEnders actress Brooke Kinsella, who has served as a script adviser. It also comes in the midst of an epidemic that the actress said has at times made her consider giving up on her campaigning.
More than 50 people have been fatally stabbed in London so far this year and, across England and Wales, knife crime had soared by 22 per cent in 2017.
The soap’s executive consultant, John Yorke, says that when his team had the idea for the plot, Kinsella (inset) and her family “were the very first people we spoke to, to get their blessing”.
“They were incredibly open and opened us to a whole new world. Through them we met the most extraordinary people. We talked to all the people they recommended. And the more we talked, something really fascinating started to evolve, which was an idea that these stories were so powerful by themselves that everyone needed to hear them too.”
Somehow, the two strands converge seamlessly to form a powerful half-hour of drama and documentary that encapsulates the devastation wrought by the blades on our streets. The characters and true-life relatives even appear on screen together for the final, haunting scene.
A screening earlier this week in a central London hotel reduced Kinsella and actors Bonnie Langford and Davood Ghadami to tears.
The performance of Langford, in particular, as grieving Carmel, mother of Shakil Kazemi – who was murdered by a gang in May – packs a sucker punch.
“It’s such a responsibility to have this story in your hands,” she says. To prepare, she printed off articles about young people murdered last year and stuck them up in her dressing room.
The reaction to the episode showing Carmel being told of her son’s death was profound, Langford tells i. “One woman told me the other day she had the telly on, but it was on in the background over dinner. She heard my scream over seeing his body and said: ‘I knew what happened and I hadn’t been watching particularly’. She said: ‘I knew from that scream because my brother ’ I won’t go into the details.”
One of the contributors is Yvonne Lawson, whose 17-year-old son Godwin, a promising footballer, was murdered in London in 2010 when he ran to the aid of his childhood friends.
The founder of the Godwin Lawson Foundation says she was “shocked” by the BBC’s idea initially, but was quickly persuaded of the power of soap. “In the sense that I think the whole discussion that will take place in a family setting is quite important because some parents may never discuss knife crime with their young people. If it’s shown in an episode then they can at least discuss it – and young people may be able to disclose any anxieties that they might be going through.”
She adds: “I feel really honoured and I hope Godwin really is proud as well. This is going to be a very memorable episode and it does mean a lot. To be able to share Godwin’s story to millions is quite a humbling experience for me.”
“Hopefully it can help start something,” says Ghadami, who plays Shakil’s brother. “Even the smallest, most minute thing – someone can think twice about picking up a knife before leaving the house. If it does that, then we’ve done something.”
- The knife-crime episode is on BBC1 at 9.30pm tomorrow