Bonnie Wallis, Butch Dingle, cancer, Continuing Drama, Death, Emmerdale, Holby City, Jac Naylor, Jonny Maconie, Soap
I realise that I have broken the first rule of blogging by posting once and then leaving it for ages. I could pathetically blame the radiotherapy which has laid me out (it’s that or the medication) or take this opportunity to tell the world about my crimes, and my guilty conscience. I could try to lay low, pull my hat down low and my collar up, but seeing as 4.4million people tuned in last Tuesday 1st April 2014 and collectively gasped (it trended on Twitter for about the length of a gasp) as a regular character was brutally mown down in her nuptial prime, I think the best thing I can do is confess that not only was I the author of the narrative that drove that truck (and not jealous love rival Jac Naylor as some Twitter wags have suggested) but feeling rotten as I was, it cheered me up no end. Which possibly makes me some kind of psychopath – and a serial psychopath at that (Serial? See what I did there?). And like all serial killers I seem to be developing an MO.
I first got the taste for blood back in 2000 when I was asked by Kieran Roberts, the then producer of the itv Yorkshire village soap Emmerdale, to deal Butch Dingle a lethal blow, courtesy of a seventeen ton truck which would conveniently land on top of a minibus full of much loved characters – and Malandra Burrows (NO!! I take that back! Malandra is lovely, just couldn’t resist a cheap gag). Admittedly it was left to my brilliant writer friend Karin Young to dispatch the (very good) actor Paul Loughran unto the great post-soap panto-contract in the sky, but I was the one to give him the deliciously terminal injury. I can’t even argue that it was a crime of passion. No, this character assassination required meticulous planning.
The seventeen ton truck on top of a minibus thing was a given. I was never quite sure why… perhaps there was a job lot of heavy duty stunts available that year. However, having handed me a seventeen ton murder weapon, the production team then revealed that the most obvious bit of road through the exterior Emmerdale lot at Harewood House was unavailable to us because it had been built above a primary water main and because the road was only a pretend road and did not conform to public highway building specs, dropping said truck upon it would most likely fracture the pipes and deprive the north of Leeds of its water supply. And so, a convoluted chain of events, a bit like a plot line out of Final Destination, had to be constructed in order to get the truck and the minibus to interface fatally somewhere vaguely recognisable as our primary location.
The minibus was another problem. Why were all our characters in the minibus in the first place? The story office obliged with a plot line about Alan Turner running a minibus service into the local town (can’t for the life of me remember why) which would have done the trick, apart from it being well established that all the characters had their own cars and rarely used public transport. So, the first half of the episode consisted of a lot of scenes of people complaining about their cars needing to go into the garage.
Back to the truck, whose brakes had failed (What?? It happens!!), which needed to leave the main road and drive around a tight corner at speed (in order not to linger over the water main) in order to leap into the air and then fall upon the unsuspecting Emmerdalians. So a few strategically placed children were all that was needed to encourage the driver – Kirk Smith – to choose the path of destruction rather than the safer one of the main road to Hotten straight ahead though empty fields where he could crash with impunity. ‘Leap into the air…?’ I hear you repeat uncertainly. We all know that trucks do this quite naturally, especially when the load hasn’t been secured properly inside and sways about a bit. Should this happen then the truck will fly over as if a compressed air concrete pile driver has been ejected through a specially pre-fabricated hole in the bottom of the chassis in order to ensure the vehicle tips exactly on cue.
There was only one opportunity to film this, and so five cameras were rolling as the stunt was executed meticulously, and the truck landed as planned on a minibus occupied with suitably attired dummies (insert your own joke there about ‘why didn’t they use a stunt bus?’ – I’m not going to do it!).
It was actually a genuinely exciting stunt to watch, and when the dust had settled a burly technician commented that it was a good job that the bus was full of mannikins because clearly all the characters inside would have been killed instantly. You can see here for yourself:
Later the same year, Kieran met me under a canal bridge at dusk to give me the details of my next hit, Emmerdale farmer’s wife, Sarah Sugden, who was to be having an affair with her toyboy, Richie, in the barn, just as her adopted son, Andy, decided that it would be a good idea to burn the place to the ground in order to collect on the insurance and sort out his adoptive dad’s financial problems. Given this fatal confluence, you would have thought it unwise to leave a LARGE CYLINDER OF ACETYLENE by the door, which, should it explode, would send yet another soap actor hurtling towards panto land…. You can imagine my glee when I heard that the explosion had to be re-shot to make it more explodey!! You can see the final result if you join at about 16 minutes into the episode:
I now had the smell of pink diesel on my hands… and it’s easy to forget that there are real consequences to these joyfully cathartic screen murders. For a start – panto jokes aside – it usually means that someone has lost a steady income stream, which can be a scary thing for an actor, especially if they’ve been on a soap for a long time. Hopefully though it’s a natural end to a contract and they’re happy to go out with a bang. And if they’re iconic enough there’s always the chance that they will return from the dead, like Kim Tate in Emmerdale and Dirty Den in EastEnders. Conversely, they can make the mistake, as one well known (but unnamed) soap actor did, of getting drunk at a party and insulting both me and the series producer, after which he and I looked at each other and said, simultaneously, and without prompting: ‘Over a cliff.’
Fast forward 13 years – and having written regularly for Casualty and Holby City – I’ve seen off countless guest characters who I dispatch with the callous disregard of a drive by shootist – even if I feign sadness for them at the time.
If you stop to think about it, this is majorly dysfunctional behaviour.
But just when you think you’ve killed so much that it has become no more than an itch to scratch (my daughter says that you can always tell when a Holby patient is going to die, because they have the holiday of a lifetime planned, or they’ve just planted something in their garden that’s due to bear fruit next year), someone offers you a contract that truly stirs the blood again. Last year I was commissioned to write Episode 25, Series 16 of Holby City in which love torn senior Nurse, Jonny Maconie would finally prise himself free of icy, damaged cardiothoracic consultant, Jac Naylor, and marry Bonnie Wallis, the nurse who has held a torch for him ever since they met at Nursing College. Just as everyone starts to think that he has jilted her at the register office, Jonny turns up in a taxi, short of a fiver. As Bonnie crosses the road to give him some change, wondering if this is what it’s going to be like for the next forty years…. BAM!
So here’s the interesting thing.
Conventional writing wisdom has it, that to kill a character randomly at the end of a story is a cheat – a deus ex machinae – that will leave the audience frustrated and annoyed. If you’re going to kill them randomly it has to be at the beginning of the story, as an inciting incident, or else their death needs to be earned through a suitable confluence of plot so as to be narratively satisfying. However, in this instance, the good burghers of Holby City editorial team had decided that Bonnie’s demise needed to be a cruel and ironic twist – and most importantly, embargoed to scare the willies out of the audience.
This created a genuine challenge. How to seed the event enough to earn it, but still to have it seemingly come out of a clear blue side road?
The solution seemed to be to suffuse the whole episode with a sense of impending doom… from calling it ‘The Cruellest Month’ (it was transmitted on April Fools Day – irony and a literary reference all in one, folks) to peppering the script with casual references to car crashes and collisions – to building up the expectation that Jonny and Bonnie’s wedding was ill fated from the start. Except that right at the last minute, we solve the problem that has been dogging Jonny throughout and hit the couple with a truck instead. Yes it IS a narrative cheat, but it doesn’t feel like one because the audience have been building up to something for 55 minutes, and so it’s actually both satisfying and surprising when it happens, but not in the way they expect.
The other trick is to make sure that the ‘surprise’ death fulfils the story imperatives of the narrative – e.g. Jonny has been saving up saying ‘I Love You’ to his bride to be until after the wedding, so it’s satisfying that when he finally gets to say it, it is to her dead body – and it becomes an inciting incident for more story.
So in many ways, counter to all my normal instincts, this has to be the most satisfying, least contrived and genuinely shocking death of a TV character I’ve had the privilege to write. I hope the lovely actress who played her, Carlyss Peer, can forgive me.
And much as I resist such cheesy notions, it’s hard to avoid the fact that I wrote the script while going through scans and biopsies for life threatening health condition, so perhaps the idea if being hit from left-field felt more real for me than it ever had done before. Which does go to show, that although, as writers, we play with the lives and deaths of our characters like careless puppeteers, life can play with us just as carelessly.
If you haven’t seen it – Holby City – The Cruellest Month – might possibly still be lurking round on YouTube…
Until next time…. take care crossing the road.