I didn’t think I’d be doing this again, going off topic. But when something plays on your mind, you need to get it out somehow, and this seems as good a place as any. Especially as you will have seen me link some of my happy theatre experiences to being a Holby City fan, and this is based on my reaction to its latest episode. I am going to warn from the outset that I am going to discuss my experience of stalking, and also abuse and coercion, just in case that is triggering for anyone.
I have felt it coming for a while. Ever since the Spring Holby City trailer came out in March, in fact. I hoped it wasn’t true, but kind of knew it was. Last night I fell out of love with a programme I have followed for decades. I have no other programme I watch as it goes out, every week, but this has been the one that endured. I can’t do it any more.
I’ve had some time to puzzle out why I feel like this, and I have narrowed it down to two things. First is them returning to an abuse storyline that I felt they had done brilliantly and with respect a couple of years ago, with the characters of doctors Dom and Isaac. They were a couple, with the older, more senior Isaac proving to be abusive. Second, linked to this, is bringing the abusive character of Isaac back, and using tired, stereotypical LGBTQI+ tropes in doing so, thereby also ruining some of the most positive representation of gay relationships I have seen in continuing drama.
I have never been in an abusive relationship, thank goodness. I have supported someone escaping one, but that is not my story to tell. What is my story to tell is my experience of being stalked. And I found strong emotional parallels with the story of Dom and Isaac in that experience, along with (weirdly) some comfort in the sensitive and accurate way that Dom’s recovery was written and portrayed.
My stalker was someone I worked with. In the same department. He began by being friendly to me, but it soon crossed a line into harassment. He’d pass this harassment off to others as concern and interest, but it felt hugely threatening. It moved from him calling me ‘lovely’ Clare, to stroking my arm, to creeping up and putting his hands on my shoulders whilst I worked at my pc, to asking what I was doing and about my relationship, to full on following me, looking up my address, keeping a diary on me, and appearing in all circumstances, demanding attention, when I was in all sorts of situations, in and out of work. I reported it at work and he talked his way out of it – I was told I should have mediation with him. I was in my mid twenties and I thought I was at fault. He was much older.
It went on for years and I developed severe anxiety. I knew he was tracking me and he revelled in telling me where and when he had seen me. But supported by my amazing partner and brilliant friends, I coped. Sort of. If you class coping as being constantly anxious and having occasional panic attacks. Finally I told my doctor, who told me to go to the police, and they were brilliant. He has been out of my life for a good six years, I think. It doesn’t stop me having emotional reactions linked to the experience though.
There aren’t great parallels with the story of Dom and Isaac, but there are key similarities. That idea of someone you meet at work turning out to be sinister and controlling was very familiar indeed. The hyper-awareness of your own actions and reactions too. I found an emotional connection regardless of the obvious differences in circumstances. And the joy and relief I felt when an obviously well researched and sympathetic storyline ended with Dom, as a victim of abuse, taking a stand and reporting Isaac was huge.
The refreshing lack of sensationalism made it more impactful. This was enhanced as the past two years have seen Dom slowly rebuild his life and learn to trust again. The focus on Dom, rather than the abuser, was brilliant. The viewer didn’t need to see Isaac again to understand the long-term effects of coercion. Dom was the important one here. It was so refreshing. But then that trailer came along. Isaac returned, right at the end of it, without warning, and when I saw it I felt sick. The notion of an abuser returning to the workplace where it all began, years later, hit me full on.
I was shocked at how much it affected me. And then I became angry. The producers and writers had undone all of the great work and the focus was back on the abuser, I assumed to sensationalise and ratings-grab. But maybe this was just me, and my circumstances made me feel this way. Maybe there was still a positive to this, because, as I said, Dom has been shown to have rebuilt his life. He built a relationship with nurse Lofty. They got married just at Christmas. Maybe this was a way of showing his strength. Last night showed that was, very sadly, not the case. And this links to my second issue with recent storylines.
The story of Dom and Lofty has been absolutely glorious. Two men becoming friends, falling in love, supporting each other through various crises. Neither of them are perfect, but the strength in this gorgeous relationship was a joy to watch. Along with the relationship between Serena and Bernie, there were two LGBTQI+ couples at the heart of a primetime continuing drama that were portrayed without the usual stereotypes. It was just part of normal life. People responded to this. The Berena fans have explained this brilliantly, this blog post by Georgina Turner sums it up better than I ever could, and I watched as similar reactions to Dom and Lofty (or Dofty as we now know them) sprang up on Twitter and Tumblr. Representation matters enormously when your reality is not generally reflected on television. The Holby social media team seemed to encourage this. I was so happy, as an ally, to see my LGBTQI+ friends’ joy at finding this, and I also witnessed brilliant reactions on social media, and I completely bought into and invested in these stories. Finally a continuing drama seemed to be taking positive steps at representation.
It didn’t last. The Berena partnership was shattered with Serena cheating on Bernie. It felt manipulative. The producers and writers had actively courted the LGBTQI+ community’s emotions in gaining attention and ratings, and used social media to encourage them to keep the faith, and then cut them down with a stereotypical cheating storyline. They tried to explain it away by saying Jemma Redgrave, who plays Bernie, couldn’t commit to the show and they needed to break them up somehow. I could kind of buy that, maybe give them a chance, because she did need to be written out somehow, but deep down, I was angry that they had taken an easy way out and manipulated the fandom. It also made me very nervous that this was a new direction for the show and it would continue with Dofty. Last night proved that this was indeed the case.
The device they used to bring back the abusive character of Isaac was by making Lofty cheat on Dom. Twice in the space of six months, bisexual characters cheated on their long-term partners in order to facilitate another storyline. Two characters that I as a viewer would not have said were likely to cheat. Harmful stereotypes abound. Representation shattered. The fandoms manipulated again.
And that is the centre of it. I feel fandoms have been used and then manipulated and exploited. Fandoms that are made of up people crying out for representation and who have faced discrimination in many forms. It’s not right.
I am hoping beyond hope that I am wrong. If I am, I will post that right here. But my days of avidly watching every week are over. I can’t watch the Isaac storyline play out. It brings back too many negative emotions. And I can’t in all conscience call myself an ally if I continue to promote the show after witnessing the hackneyed LGBTQI+ tropes that have been employed since the end of last year.
I say again, I hope I am wrong. Please prove me wrong, and I’ll be back like a shot. At the heart of all this has been years and years of heartfelt and outstanding acting from David Ames, who plays Dom, and I think he is utterly fabulous. I don’t want to lose that. Similarly, I think Lee Mead, who plays Lofty, has been equally engaging in terms of the story of that relationship. They both acted their socks off last night. I don’t want to let go. But, for now, I have to.
Please prove me wrong, Holby City. Please.