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How Eastenders injected realism into Peggy Mitchell's death

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Clinical nurse specialist, Dr Victoria Harmer, used her role as an advisor on Eastenders to help the public understand the impact Peggy Mitchell’s breast cancer diagnosis would have in real life

I was delighted to be approached in order to advise for EastEnders once more.

It wasn’t the first time I’d helped ensure storylines reflect real life, I’d had the opportunity to work on the Carol Jackson breast cancer storyline and also on the film ‘Miss You Already’ as well as previously for Coronation Street, Family Affairs and The Archers.

Despite all this, I was a little nervous as I knew this was a huge storyline and one that demanded much respect and sensitivity.

Along with Peggy Mitchell being diagnosed with incurable secondary breast cancer, the producers wished for Sonia Jackson (who carries the BRCA2 gene mutation) to find a breast lump and have investigations for this.

”Advising for media is an appropriate extension to my role as clinical nurse specialist”

Thankfully Sonia’s lump turned out to be nothing and so we concentrated on the last part of Peggy’s life. I think advising for media is an appropriate extension to my role as clinical nurse specialist and one where nursing can greatly assist the general public and add to the robustness of the story unfolding on screen.

The process starts with the researchers scoping out the storyline and then emailing scripts across which are colour-coded showing their readiness to completion.

”Having a qualified cancer nurse on set such as Victoria Harmer have been a great sense of comfort to me as an actress, as approaching such a serious and sensitive health matter is very daunting as you wish to get things right as unfortunately so many people are effected by this awful illness.

”I think it’s imperative that TV, Film and theatre companies continue to seek professional advice and work alongside such people and organisations when dealing with health matters. I will be eternally grateful to Vickki for her guidance.”

- Dame Barbara Windsor

Then there are questions about who delivers the bad news and where, adding in the necessary detail regarding the hospital environment, for example the healthcare professionals being bare below the elbow.

”Breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK and although we have good survival figures, some do get secondary disease and die”

I was then lucky enough to be asked on-set to be a resource during filming if I was needed and liaised with make-up and hair as to how someone may look after chemotherapy. Things that were important to get across for this storyline was the chemotherapy and cancer related fatigue and also correct and lifelike associations of the pain that disseminated disease may bring. The scenes were translated to screen in a sensitive manner respecting the disease and those who may have had experiences of it.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK and although we have good survival figures, some do get secondary disease and die.

It was imperative that this situation was handled in a delicate way as many of the viewers may have been affected by breast cancer in some way or other.

”Watching Dame Barbara Windsor acting as Peggy Mitchell in this gritty role was amazing”

Watching Dame Barbara Windsor acting as Peggy Mitchell in this gritty role was amazing. Her skills are second to none and she is also incredibly kind and wonderful to be around. As a fan of EastEnders it was exciting to be on-set and walk around Albert Square past Beales Plaice, the café, Queen Vic and launderette not to mention it was quite surreal bumping into those well-known actors!

The family dynamics portrayed on the show seemed to be realistic and appropriate, with different members having different reactions to hearing the news of a loved one’s incurable breast cancer.

Many rallied round to see what they could do and of course there were the very touching reminiscing scenes. All in all I think EastEnders has done a fantastic job with this storyline and Dame Barbara Windsor especially.

Bravo – Peggy will be greatly missed!

 

Dr Victoria Harmer is Team Leader/Clinical Nurse Specialist, Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust

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Readers' comments (2)

  • Matthew  Carr

    It was a revolting end to 22 years. Suicide should not be shown in this light. Certainly shouldn't be seen as an option when one has cancer.

    On top of that it virtually echoed Ethel and Dot word for word 16 years ago when Ethel had cancer.

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  • When will the BBC show at least a degree of balance to its programming? Peggy's demise in Eastenders is just the latest in the BBC's apparent dedication to showing suicide as the best option at the end of life. Its recent pro assisted suicide programme about Dignitas revealed a clear need for another view to be portrayed. Many patients, whose time at the end of life is considered precious by themselves and their families, and love life, can be so well managed without the need for assisted suicide. The BBC's negative portrayals of end of life experience need to be balanced by a more positive experience of which there are many. The BBC in portraying repeatedly this creeping, defeatist 'control' of all aspects of life as entitlement, should ponder the staggering statistics on suicide for men under 45 in the UK. As a nurse opposed to euthanasia, it is well known that once assisted suicide is legalised it heralds in euthanasia as the experience in Holland and Belgium testify. Time will tell whether the BBC will decide on a more balanced approach to this serious subject .

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