Whether it’s on or off-screen, the COVID-19 pandemic is being depicted in a number of ways. Before television shows started incorporating the pandemic, our only view was through the news.
With increased screen time, viewing habits have shown a split between escapism and information. It’s this need for trusted sources that’s meant public service broadcasters have seen viewing figures like never before. The BBC became the most sought after, seeing 82% of adults using resources in the first week of lockdown.
A number of British programmes have therefore made a conscious efforts to work with the pandemic. But there has been a divide on where responsibility lies, with medical dramas showing harsh realities whilst soaps have taken the focus away from the virus, instead using inventive filming methods.
A first for British drama was ‘Can You Hear Me?’ , Doctors‘ entirely self-shot episode, exploring the lives of frontline workers in the form of remote meetings and evening calls. Commenting on the episode, Peter Lloyd (BBC Studios Series Producer) said, “I wanted to capture the strange times we are experiencing and present it to our audience.” The episode aired in June 2020 and although since, they have flashed forward to a post-COVID world, they continue to show fears and anxieties of healthcare workers dealing with the aftermath.
After three months away from screens, Holby City returned, with Ric Griffin (Hugh Quarshie) waking up from a coma in the midst of the pandemic. We didn’t just see masks and the physical effects of the virus, but the mental effects as well, including stark realities such as a lack of PPE and frontline workers putting their lives at risk. Donna (Jaye Jacobs) notes, “People call it a fight, but that implies we have weapons – we don’t.” Amongst the fast-paced setting, a moment of exhaustion was disrupted by pots and pans coming together for a clap for carers, an activity we all know well that lifted spirits and morale.
Casualty greeted us with an overworked and overwhelmed Connie Beauchamp (Amanda Mealing). As soon as filming resumed, Head of Continuing Drama Kate Oakes commented, “The writers, Casualty teams, cast and crew are back on set with stories that reflect the extraordinary times we are living through.” The episode tackled statistics surrounding BAME and ethnic minority patients, mothers and babies, a deaf character with the challenges of mask wearing, and an already overstretched system.
For soaps, the decision on how much to show of the pandemic has been uncomparable. With the aim to mirror the lives of the audience through storylines and identities, the characters’ lives couldn’t now be more different.
“The power and influence of television has been a contributing factor in terms of audience viewing, however, the balance between harsh reality and ignorance has been a breath of fresh air.”
Eastenders had to adapt the way they filmed, but being off-air meant the schedule was cut down, with episodes from 2008 broadcast instead. When filming resumed, they mirrored outdoor seating and social distancing. One storyline that unfortunately reflected reality concerned Chantelle (Jessica Plummer) and Gray Atkins (Toby Alexander-Smith). This was an important storyline for the soap to cover, with Executive Producer Jon Sen saying, “We all know about the increased incidence of domestic violence during lockdown, and obviously that’s played into an existing storyline we have with Chantelle and Grey,…”
Similarly, Coronation Street has at times given us glimpses of the effects of the coronavirus on it’s residents, seeing the addition of face masks and cafe takeaways, whilst restrictions like social distancing have allowed the series to film safely. Eastenders was one of the first to reveal methods of using acrylic sheets so cast members could stand together, whereas Doctors have used body doubles in cast members’ social bubbles to make the actors appear to be standing close together.
Over the last year we have seen an influx of viewers turning to streaming sites, with 12 million adults in the UK having used a new service. Within specific demographics, 32% of 55-64 year-olds and 15% of over-65 year-olds used subscription services in the first few weeks of lockdown. This rise has come due to a need for escapism. Research suggested 32% of people said “they have come to rely on entertainment subscriptions as a form of escapism during the pandemic”.
For viewer Aimee Dyson, the world we are living in is “dystopian”. Shows like Eastenders showing certain elements of the pandemic such as furlough and lockdown has been frustrating, “I think I’d prefer an all or nothing approach rather than a little ‘oh COVID is a thing’ that they are currently doing. It’s frustrating to watch because the writers are using it to explain why it was off air for a long period but they are using it to their advantage and the characters can do things like go abroad, go to the pub…” Furthermore, “It’s tough because to exclude it would be to create a parallel universe and perhaps in the future it can be used. But while we are living in this nightmare I think it’s best that media stays positive and uplifting…”
Holly Hostettler-Davis comments that it was “inevitable that COVID had to be presented” in hospital and medical dramas. Although she doesn’t think COVID needs to be depicted on every show, she praised “Holby City’s portrayal of the pandemic because it reminds us of the strain on the NHS, puts into perspective what’s happening, and makes us realise the importance of following the rules.” Although it’s not her escapism right now, “I definitely am glad they have mirrored the pandemic, it definitely makes you more aware of the strain on the NHS.”
The future of television is still uncertain. Casualty actress Amanda Mealing has commented on the future of the show, “What we didn’t want to do though was drag everyone week after week through COVID. We all experienced it, we all lived through it, and we acknowledge it – because it is part of our lives now – but I don’t think people want to sit down every Saturday and trawl through that.” Now responsibility has been met, we could see a more relaxed version of events on our screens.
The power and influence of television has been a contributing factor in terms of audience viewing, however, the balance between harsh reality and ignorance has been a breath of fresh air.
Words by Neve Gordon-Farleigh