For anyone who’s been under a rock of late, this week’s episode of Holby City featured the return of Ben ‘Lofty’ Chiltern, the floppy-haired husband of Dominic Copeland. You remember, they got married the day that Bernie found out that Serena had shagged Leah in the on-call room the week before. During his brief absence, Lofty had, it turned out, cheated on Dom. He was lonely, you see, and Dom had just been… so far away…
Aside from taking script recycling to another level, Holby City has once again shown its queer characters to be incapable of keeping it in their pants and/or maintaining some semblance of a healthy relationship. In case you’re not keeping a running checklist, here are the characters who’ve been involved in infidelity storylines in the past six months of Holby:
Serena – cheated on Bernie (bisexual)
Leah – pursued and bedded Serena; mentioned an ex-girlfriend cheating on her (lesbian)
Bernie – implied she’d been unfaithful while away (lesbian)
Lola – cheated on female partner with ex-husband, Ric (bi)
Lofty – cheated on the man he married six months ago (bi)
Dom – reacted to the news by calling his abusive ex-boyfriend (gay)
You’ll notice the distinct absence of the word ‘straight’ in those character descriptions.
Ofcom, the organisation that regulates broadcasters, including the BBC, has urged them to do better with regards to the portrayal of minorities, including LGBTQ+ people. Recurring queer characters are rare on television (in the case of Holby, Leah and Lola were mere plot devices; Bernie hasn’t been on screen regularly since 2017), and lasting, healthy relationships between them even lesser spotted.
Over the past few years Holby City has made a lot of noise about its representation of sexual and gender minorities, but they’re not living up to their own hype. As if it wasn’t bad enough that queer characters are repeatedly being given cheating storylines, these are their primary, most important storylines – Serena has barely been on screen since she last locked eyes on Leah over a pair of lacy knickers.
Ofcom states that “repeating the same storylines or focusing on the same themes for any one characteristic or background results in limited and inauthentic portrayal.” And it matters, because we all deserve the chance to see ourselves on screen in ways that affirm our sense of identity, and in ways that don’t make real life more difficult. LGBTQ+ hate crime in the UK has risen over the past couple of years, and research in 2018 found that straight people continue to think of queer (particularly bisexual) people as being more promiscuous and less meaningfully attached than heterosexual couples. Holby is reinforcing that stereotype.
A call to arms
In some ways it feels a bit hopeless – they would have been filming these scenes at the same time as the BBC complaints team was dealing with all of our complaints about Berena. If they haven’t learnt by now, will they ever?
Yes, they have to. And we can help that to happen. The Dofty storyline would have been plotted and written before the makers of Holby had witnessed the harm done by the way that Berena ended. It was probably too late to change things when they became aware of our complaints.
The complaints process was incredibly frustrating, and the BBC’s editorial guidelines (not to mention the Ofcom code) have significant loopholes as far as the harm and offence done by revisiting regressive tropes in queer storylines (long post coming on that). But we have to keep complaining and by doing so, raising awareness, if we want this to stop.
I recently spoke to Colin Tregear, head of the BBC’s Executive Complaints Unit. Only at the final stage of the process, after several attempts, does your complaint reach Mr Tregear’s team, but making it that far means that serious conversations are had with programme makers, and institutional perception starts to shift. He said:
“What you’re doing helps, because you’re starting to get people to think; you know, I feel differently about it now. I wouldn’t actually have been aware of the whole issue of the Holby City storyline is you hadn’t raised concerns. Has it made me, my colleagues, and some of the people I’ve spoken to, think a little differently, at least been more aware? Yes, it has. The sense, the mood, the language, the feeling [all] start to filter. By talking to writers and programme makers, and senior managers, and going, ‘this is the issue, let’s talk about it’, that’s one of the things we do that has value.”
Mr Tregear wasn’t speaking officially on behalf of the BBC, but his words offer encouragement to continue to ensure that people there are aware that this keeps happening, and that we deserve better from our foremost public service broadcaster.
“I think what you’re trying to do is important. If it’s important to you, it should be important to us, because we’re publicly accountable. We don’t always get it right. You’ve identified something which we need to be aware of.”
There is advice here if you want to submit a complaint about the Dom and Lofty storyline in the most recent episode – you have 30 working days from when it airs to submit your complaint, either online or by post. And you can always get in touch if need any additional advice or support.