So picture it – I still had a week until my payday, I was up to my overdraft limit and I had £2.50 left in my purse. In my cupboard I still had pasta, rice and a couple of onions. I figured if I could pinch some butter, rolls and tea bags from the ward, I would just have enough to get by on macaroni cheese, which would be dinner for two nights, an omelette and bread for the third night. Then chicken soup with rice for the rest of the week. So that was dinner taken care of. Now I only had to find food for breakfast and lunch.
It was 1972 and I was a student nurse, earning a pittance and with no financial support from my family, which some of the younger nurses could count on. It was only by ducking and diving, stealing food from work, and picking up discarded, bruised vegetables from the street in the market, that I managed to get by. Some of my meals were unusual, to say the least. Soup made from an eclectic variety of veggies featured widely.
It is shocking how little things have changed for the current generation of nurses. They are having to resort to food banks to survive. Indeed, it is shocking that we need food banks for the poor in the 21st Century.
But how many of us are aware of the need for food banks, or where a collection point might be sited or how the groceries are distributed?
One of my guilty pleasures is watching ‘EastEnders’. I’m a little embarrassed to be such a devotee because it is a ‘soap’ and because of it’s reputation for gloomy, depressing storylines. Maybe this status is deserved, but there is no doubt that it also brings difficult social issues to the attention of the public.
One such recent plot had Dee, a middle-aged woman, who had fallen on hard times, almost starving. She was too proud to ask for help, having to resort to taking food from bins, stealing food and just getting by.
EastEnders has also tackled issues such as homophobia, hostility and fear of AIDS, bullying, homelessness, prostitution – by choice and girls forced into working the streets. It has covered child abuse, alcoholism, euthanasia, disability. The list goes on, and while these stories are grim, they also educate. They allow the viewer to learn, to empathise, to discuss at the water cooler.
When they introduced the first ever soap HIV/AIDS story in the UK, the Easties production team approached the Terrence Higgins Trust, where I was working, to ask for consultation with the script. That task fell to me. The script only needed a few tweaks to accurately reflect the character’s experience of an HIV diagnosis.
They came to see us at the offices of the Trust, then in a dilapidated grotty building, where we had gradually acquired more rooms to rent as the organisation grew. One of these spaces was being used as counselling room. My colleague had decided, without telling anyone, to decorate it. That was fine, but she had chosen black for all the walls.
Now can you imagine it? Someone with HIV or AIDS coming for counselling, and entering this funereal room, lit only with a couple of uplighter? Blimey. That would cheer you up no end.
However, the EastEnders crew faithfully recreated the room, complete with black walls and the exact same lampshades. No wonder the character, Mark Fowler, got very upset with his counsellor.
But fair play to the producers. They strove for authenticity in all aspects of the story. And they did get it right, even down to the hostility shown to Mark by the landlady of the Queen Vic pub, Peggy Mitchell. This was a particularly brave move, as Peggy (played by Barbara Windsor) was a popular character, and her attitudes reflected those of many of the public. She was heard to utter the immortal words ‘Git outta my pub’ on more than one occasion.
Over time, though, Peggy’s opinions changed. She became more sympathetic to Mark’s situation. And this, I think, had a direct bearing on the move towards acceptance by the man and woman on the street towards people with HIV and AIDS.
The quality of acting in the drama is almost always believable, often emotive and engaging. The characters are fully realised and have depth. By heck, I think I’ve met some of these people in everyday life.
And there is humour in the script, too. Think of Dot and her malapropisms and medicinal sherry, Ian and his pompous ways, Little Willy the dog, and Princess Di, another dog. And now the new family, who put the Shameless family, well, to shame.
The excellent quality of performing, storylines and characterisation is often overlooked by it’s detractors. Perhaps many of these have never actually watched it, or have only done so with their big, fat snobby hat on.
I would contend, though, that any soap that includes the issues of the day, the problems of our wonderful, but flawed society, and which is honest and ground breaking deserves accolades. It doesn’t come up with any answers, no glib solutions, but it sure as hell puts them in our living rooms three times a week.