With Doctor Who once again thrilling and scaring the nation�s youth we spoke to Lance Parkin, Doctor Who novel writer and former Emmerdale storyliner, about viewer responses to sex, violence and swearing on prime time television.
Lance, can you explain how production teams approach the issue of responsibly portraying sexual and violent situations during prime time television?
“When I was at Emmerdale there was always the understanding that you do more the later you were on. We had to move one episode to eight o’clock because there was a murder in it (someone threw Rachel off a cliff). We couldn’t get away with things at 7 that The Bill could at 8 (and we had a couple of writers who’d worked on The Bill who kept telling us that).
It’s common sense – the very young kids who watch TV at five will be in bed by eight thirty, or at the very least their parents will be supervising their viewing. So you can get away with more. It goes from U to PG. If the DVDs are anything other than a U or a PG, I’d be very surprised. They *might* get a 12 for imitable violence, but I doubt it. (I remember an old Skaro article saying ‘with its graphic violence in a domestic setting, Seeds of Doom can only be an 18’ … and it was a U when it did come out).”
The second episode of the new series features a couple of mildly adult comments which some fans have suggested will result in a stream of complaints from concerned parents. What�s your reaction to these concerns?
“One of my jobs [at Emmerdale] was answering viewers’ complaints. I’ve got a pretty good spidey sense of what people will complain about. I’m guessing they’ll get no complaints about ‘prostitute’, one or two objecting to ‘what the hell’ and probably half a dozen saying that their kids had nightmares about the monsters or the world blowing up that night.
To give you an example, we had an episode where someone attacked a character with a rolling pin. No-one objected to the attack, we had two complaints that, in an earlier scene, someone had called another character a ‘rich bitch’, and three letters – all from Belfast – saying that we were going to burn in hell because we had a lesbian character, but if we mended our ways, we’d be saved. Every single time Zoe said she’s a lesbian – and she’s been out for fifteen years – Emmerdale got a letter complaining about it”
That’s pretty interesting – is this due to viewer churn (i.e. new people coming to the show who are shocked) or because people’s attitudes don’t change and the same people who complained in 1990 are still shocked by lesbianism in 2005?
“No, it’s due to some people thinking they’ve read something about lesbians in the Bible which isn’t actually in the Bible, then thinking that it ‘normalises’ lesbianism to mention it or indeed acknowledge lesbians exist. These people never complain about murder, rape, adultery, drunkeness, assault, theft, lying or, indeed, much else.”
Leaving aside the issues of sexuality, and going back to your Emmerdale example, is it usual for ‘cursing’ to be an issue people are upset by during family viewing hours?
“It’s usually the only issue, to be honest. Programme makers and schedulers have a pretty good idea of … well, I was going to say ‘the guidelines’, but it’s not that at all – they’ve got a pretty good idea of what they can and can’t get away with.”
Where do you think viewer sensitivity lies on the issue? Would, for example, you expect ‘bitch’, ‘whore’, ‘slag’, ‘cow’, ‘bastard’ all get the same general level of complaints or would you expect to see them in a ranking order?
“Depends on context, obviously, but ‘bastard’ … I’d be surprised to see that before eight, except as an actual description on a history show (it’s always cut out of Star Trek III).
‘Bitch’ …well, you can get away with it, but it’s pretty strong. ‘slag’ and ‘cow’ I’m pretty sure you could get away with on children’s TV. ‘Whore’ … again, depends on the context, but I imagine that would be possible on Emmerdale, but not Grange Hill.”
Does TV help soften and shape social issues in respect to once taboo subjects? For example, do you think the presence of a long running character like Zoe in Emmerdale has a positive influence in changing attitudes?
“All I know is that the old ladies who like Emmerdale like the characters who’ve been in it a long time, and they love Zoe, and we also got lots of sweet letters that said we should give her a nice, pretty girl to settle down with. If that’s ‘normalisation’, then I can live with that.”
The final regular Eighth Doctor novel, ‘The Gallifrey Chronicles’ by Lance Parkin is published on 6th of June 2005 priced �5.99. It can be pre-ordered at a discounted rate from the BBC Shop.