Watching EastEnders in 2021 is like a journey back in time: with no masks, no bubbles and no social distancing, it’s a vision of what might have been. Last week Dotty held a party – an actual party with laughter and dancing, and no threat of a £800 fine! Entombed within our living rooms, the viewing experience was even more depressing than that time Bradley fell off the roof.
Behind the scenes, however, EastEnders has hardly been unaffected by the pandemic. March 2020’s lockdown put an end to filming, and three months later, for the first time, the BBC’s flagship soap ran out of episodes and temporarily shut down. Several prominent story arcs came out of the show’s break. When it returned in September, we learned that Patrick had contracted Covid; Linda, in inching closer to Max, had perhaps contracted something even worse; and Kush – lovely Kush – had decided to become a gangster. Yet, even that last development wasn’t as unrealistic as the revelation that Bobby Beale has OCD, a storyline that has to date been handled with a huge, if predictable, dearth of insight.
Television has long struggled with its depiction of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), a condition that is believed to affect around 1.2% of the UK’s population. Perhaps TV’s misinterpretation is understandable. OCD is a deeply misunderstood mental illness. Sometimes, in the case of what are known as “contamination themes”, it manifests as hand-washing and other related rituals. There is little trouble depicting that visually. But often, people with the disorder are forced to complete internal, mental ruminations in order to receive respite from the looped misery of intrusive thoughts and distressing images. That is a tougher gig to portray. And one that demands accuracy.
The list of misfires is extensive. Reality shows such as Channel 4’s Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners and A&E’s Hoarders poke and prod sufferers like bacteria on a petri dish. Episodic series The Big Bang Theory and Monk have treated the illness as a personality quirk. And yet there are positive signs of change. Few could have watched Lena Dunham, herself a high-profile figure with OCD, in the scene from Girls where her character Hannah – stuck in a contamination obsession – gets an earbud embedded in her eardrum, and not thought: “That looks like a living hell.”
Positive, too, was Channel 4’s sadly cancelled Pure – a dramedy adapted from journalist Rose Bretécher’s startling 2015 memoir of the same name. It provided a deep dive into formative years plagued by repetitive, insistent, intrusive sexual thoughts. The condition was refracted on screen, too, in the fourth seasons of the TV adaptation of Fargo and Netflix’s animated comedy Big Mouth, whose OCD characters were visualised with great sensitivity and insight. For these characters, the disorder isn’t “useful” – yes, it’s true that people with OCD can be very good at detail – but a stain on their lives.
Then there’s EastEnders. Although Bobby, youngest son of stalwart irritant Ian Beale, showed signs of anxiety – such as frantically washing, then meticulously arranging, crockery – from the moment the show returned to our screens, his OCD was only explicitly referenced after he confessed to the police that it was he who’d attacked his father in the reveal of 2020’s festive whodunnit. Bobby was convinced he was responsible. He was nowhere near the crime physically, but a facet of OCD called “magical thinking” – a term not used in the show – meant he believed his thoughts had real-world consequences.
An intervention ensued. And then … nothing. No treatment. No hospitalisation. Bobby’s Christmas looked perfectly nice. By comparison, at the height of my experience with OCD, I spent a Christmas repeatedly banging my head on to the sink in the hope it would give me some respite from thinking. I’ve had OCD for all my adult life. Recovery is long and arduous. Most believe it can be managed, few that it can ever be cured.
“We weren’t approached by the BBC for advice on the EastEnders storyline,” says Ashley Fulwood, chief executive of OCD-UK, one of the biggest charities related to the disorder. “Our belief is that, if scriptwriters are going to misuse OCD – their thinking seems to be that the term of OCD is misused in society, so it’s OK to be in drama – they also have to take responsibility to educate their viewers.” (In a statement, the BBC said: “EastEnders has a rich history of tackling sensitive issues, and Bobby’s story is one of these. As with all our issue-based storylines we always work alongside organisations and experts in the field to ensure we accurately reflect the issues we cover.”)
And that was that: Bobby Beale had OCD, then he didn’t. The womanising Max Branning could have squeezed in 10 affairs within the same timeframe. I was diagnosed with OCD in 2008. I ignored the diagnosis because I wasn’t what the cliches had showed me a person with OCD was. Ten years of avoidable struggle ensued, until a second diagnosis and treatment in 2018. Misinformation has consequences. It will take time to know whether – as many experts believe – Covid will result in a surge of new OCD diagnoses. A new wave of people are likely to be wrestling with the disorder. Let’s hope that TV learns to depict it in all its complexity.