In this guest post, Payal Dhar tries to understand whether Catherine Russell has a case to answer for her part in the Great Fall of Berena.
Never—all right, rarely—has an actor divided a fandom the way that Catherine Russell split the Berenas following the infamous December 2018 episodes. The dedicated fans who won’t hear a word against her have squared up on one side, and on the other are the equally dedicated but disillusioned former fans. To call a spade the blunt gardening instrument it is, CR, once the darling of the fandom, is now the line in the sand forcing the same apart. Meanwhile in Holby-land, matters seem set to move ahead, with rumours that Heather Peace will be back as Alex Dawson, Bernie’s former squeeze. There is no indication yet what the story will be, or if Serena Campbell, CR’s character, will feature in it (wild guess—er, yes!), and only time will tell if Holby City have learnt from the fallout of the fandom rising up in protest. And whether CR has as well.
With some distance since the Berena break-up and a possibility that Serena might move on, now is a good time to examine CR’s role in the entire palaver and whether she should, in all fairness, shoulder any of the blame that has been laid at her feet.
Let’s start with her visibility on social media (which makes her an easy target). Unfortunately, she didn’t do herself any favours by first being very vocal about her role as Serena Campbell and the matter of representing a late-in-life lesbian, and then publicly dismissing and blocking/muting fans who were upset with the character’s action. Neither did certain tweets—“keep the faith” and “wait” come to mind—help her cause in the long run.
On the flip side, despite her ill-advised social media actions, she was—and still is, as far as we know—a tiny cog in the large and disorganised wheel that is Holby City. And her employers were all too happy to leave her in the lurch when Berena went to pot. Moreover, some of the flak she got was based on idle gossip and pure conjecture—such as her professional jealousy of Jemma Redgrave.
What happens behind the scenes at a TV studio that relentlessly produces 52 (or so) hour-long episodes a year is a mystery to me. But it’s hardly much of a reach to assume that it is a bit like an iceberg: there is much more below the surface that we don’t see. In other words, there is a complex interplay of creative, financial, technical, HR and whatever else that eventually come together as what we see on our screens every week. The actors are the visible part of that iceberg. So, months after whatever it was that went down in Holby’s war room when the split was decided, CR was the one that went out there with a target painted on her back.
It has been convenient for the powers-that-be to let her be the shield against the ire of the fandom. Easier than owning up to the fact that they failed in their grand ambitions of being “more than a soap”. It would be too much to expect an apology, even though the BBC CEO Tim Davie’s acknowledgement of our open letter signed by 280 people worldwide means that they know why we are upset. Meanwhile, recent observations may lead one to speculate that CR has been asked to desist from talking about Serena or her storylines on Twitter, but this does not make up for the BBC not having her back and not giving her any support when she was out of her depth.
When the Berena storyline was hale and hearty, CR was definitely an icon of positive WLW representation. She was enthusiastic and outspoken about her delight to be portraying Serena and her story. She was quoted in numerous interviews saying how invisible lesbian and bisexual women are on mainstream television, especially “women of a certain age”, and how important it was to see them there, leading lives just like anyone else. And how she was humbled by the response of the fans, of the realisation that the storyline had had implications for the mental health and personal growth of many. It helped that she’s an articulate speaker and a consummate actor. Her words—whether as herself or as her on-screen persona—were convincing and heartening. Her Serena Campbell against Jemma Redgrave’s Bernie Wolfe was truly a once-in-a-lifetime television pairing, and they played it superlatively.
And we loved it; we lapped it up. So much so that some of us pushed aside the niggling discomfort when she donned her “lesbian” avatar; when she publicly derided a homophobic fan on stage while receiving the Diva Award for the Berena storyline in 2018; when she tried to shut down fans who protested her own homophobic comments about gay men in a reality dance show. Then the Berena split happened, CR took sides, and the lens shifted.
The most significant change was the way she turned from a self-declared ally to the adoring fandom to becoming outrightly dismissive of the same fans now that they were upset and angry. Her words and behaviour implied that the WLW whom she had just months ago gone on stage to defend and promise to represent respectfully were immature for not being able to celebrate the ending of Bernie and Serena. (It might have helped if it had been a more believable break-up, but that’s besides the point, and certainly not on her.) She is a strong personality and vocal about her stand—but she is also steadfastly set in her thinking and doesn’t suffer those who don’t agree with her.
It is difficult not to call this a double standard. She pleads to Brexiters, for example, to engage in conversation about seeing the other side of the issue, about how exiting the EU is not good for the UK. However, she herself doesn’t practise what she preaches. She has never engaged with the Berena fans in any way other than to take the accolades. She has always put her hands up and chanted “I just say the dickies” whenever the brickbats have come her way. She has actively spoken about blocking and muting on Twitter. These options she has herself used on many of us, including the #BerenaDeservedBetter campaigners, and has encouraged her super-fans to do the same. I, for one, remain blocked by people I’ve never even interacted with. She hasn’t considered the sometimes fragile mental health of her Berena fans, among them vulnerable youngsters who had something they relied on for emotional support and a blueprint for a brighter future suddenly snatched away. She has no idea how and why (read my piece about why this is so) it’s not just a story for many of us, across cultures, across ages, across genders, across sexual orientations.
So what now? Can CR herd her lost flock back into the fold? As a friend reminded me recently, just like Catherine wants the government to listen to remainers’ voices, we want her to listen to ours. She’s shown herself to be articulate and involved in the larger fight for representation in the past, there’s no reason she could not do so again.
Meanwhile, now that I’ve calmed down—rather, been able to focus my rage more constructively—I realise that she was never really equipped to be the persona of Berena. It’s possible neither Holby nor she expected the story to become as popular as it did. Plus, I suspect CR’s understanding of identity and representation is quite mainstream. She’s an actor, used to wearing and shedding personalities for a living, and we all made the mistake of assuming that she actually understood the nuances of our differing lived realities. She played the role of ally to perfection, but it was a role and she is an actor. When it started getting hairy in the middle, she was forced to retire hurt. Only, she wasn’t the one who got hurt.
Unfortunately, CR’s outspokenness and her visibility on social media, and her propensity to engage with fans, made her vulnerable in a way she should never have been. But for her, it was always a story she was bringing to life; for us, it was our lives and our deepest hopes. When she—and Holby—promised to handle it with care, we gave them our innermost insecurities and fears for safekeeping, and we all know how that turned out.
She can shrug, block, mute and move on; we can’t.