Candid, poignant, and painfully authentic, Friday’s (July 6) EastEnders episode was a tough, but tremendously important watch. Breaking away from its usual house style for Shakil Kazemi’s funeral, the scenes were some of the most emotional in the soap’s history.
Teenager Shakil was tragically murdered in a brutal stabbing back in May, and the show’s team has been working closely with the Ben Kinsella Trust to portray the topical story as sensitively and realistically as possible ever since.
With a rich history of tackling difficult social issues, EastEnders certainly hasn’t held back in its coverage of the hard-hitting plot, but the show took it one step further.
In a groundbreaking first for the soap, this episode deviated from the EastEnders norm to feature real inserts from real people – whose relatives had died in the same abhorrent way as Shakil. As the contributors shared their different, but equally devastating, stories of knife crime, their pain was acute and collective: their lives were never the same again.
Grieving fathers, mothers who’d lost their sons, and accounts from Ben Kinsella’s family as well – these astonishingly brave contributors talked directly to the camera about the grief they’ve endured as a result of this senseless crime.
“This stays with you, this is something you take with you to the grave,” said contributor Caroline Shearer, whose 17-year-old son Jay was murdered in 2012. “I don’t actually remember me before Jay. I don’t remember that life. And I try so hard. Time is nothing. People say ‘time heals’, ‘one step at a time’ – no, this is something you take with you to the grave.”
Yes, this was an undeniably difficult watch. Avoiding the usual drama that often surrounds soap funerals, the episode saw the fictional side of things completely stripped back – rightfully allowing the real-life accounts to be the most powerful focus.
With the harrowing testimonials slotted intermittently between the fiction of Shakil’s sad send-off, the episode culminated in a heartbreakingly poignant moment at the end, where the worlds of the characters and the contributors collide for one scene only.
As the Walford residents followed Shakil’s coffin outside the church, they could be seen walking past real mourners – armed with pictures of their murdered loved ones. This was a tear-jerking, traumatic reminder that knife crime is happening everywhere, in different ways, to different people – and that this is far, far more than a soap story.
The show’s decision to divert from its usual house style was a brave one, as is any attempt at combining art and reality. Do people want to switch on the telly to watch a fictional story, only to be presented with a real one? Does the show need to “raise awareness” of stabbings when they’re in the news every day?
And is EastEnders even the right soap to do something like this? After all, it’s often considered a show that regularly stimulates and sensationalises violence. Arguably, the documentary-style feel of the episode took a bit of getting used to as well, while Bonnie Langford and Davood Ghadami’s perfectly-pitched performances very much took a back seat – as did the the rest of Shakil’s story.
But did any of this really matter? In a word, no. This wasn’t about EastEnders entertaining us; it wasn’t about the actors impressing us, it wasn’t about boosting ratings – it was simply about adding gravitas to an issue happening all around us, all the time. Knife crime rose by 22 per cent in England and Wales in 2017, and there have been more than 50 fatal attacks this year alone. What EastEnders is trying to do here is present us with the aftermath.
We all know that time moves inexorably fast in Soapland and, despite EastEnders‘ best intentions, it’s inevitable that Shakil’s tragic fate won’t be remembered forever. But that doesn’t matter because the real-life contributors told the aftermath for us.
As Bonnie herself pointed out earlier this week, we only usually see the victim’s family in the moment of the crime and just after, often sat in a press conference or outside a court. However, this episode caught up with those people several years later, their pain still as raw as ever, and their grief saying all that needs to be said about knife crime.
Whether you embraced this unconventional episode, or whether you didn’t, it’s certainly hard not to admire EastEnders for trying something different here. It was a powerful ending to a powerful story, which in reality, never really has an end.
EastEnders continues next week on BBC One.
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