Three weeks on from that episode of the BBC’s hospital drama, Holby City and I’m still reeling from the amazing response to my blog post and the unexpected bonus of two phone-calls with series producer, Simon Harper. When I penned my heartfelt response to what Mike and I had watched on-screen, I expected to reach a few more than my usual readership and dared to hope that I might beat my previous “top score” of 186 readers in a 24-hour period with my letter to our local hospital. I never dreamed that over 2,000 people across the world would read, comment on and share that plea for responsible portrayal of chronic illness in the mainstream media. As well as sharing my thoughts through my blog, I made a formal complaint to the BBC and, through the wonder of Google, managed to track down Simon Harper and sent him an e-mail, expressing my concerns about the inaccuracies about EGID portrayed in that episode.
I didn’t expect to hear anything back, so you can only imagine my surprise and absolute delight when Simon not only replied to my e-mail, but also offered to pick up the phone and discuss the matter with me. We agreed a day and time to talk and I spent the week making notes and talking to fellow EGID parents through FABED and other on-line forums to get their points of view on what I needed to raise in my conversation. That first phone-call lasted for around 30 minutes and at no point did I feel that Simon was keen to close down the conversation and finish the call, He was genuinely interested in learning more about EGID and understanding why this episode had caused such distress in the on-line community. We spent a long time discussing the difference between “intention” – what the program was trying to portray – and “perception” – what the viewing public understood – when it comes to producing a drama for television viewing and here Simon explains it in his own words:
The intention: “the guest character’s general allergies were a dramatic smoke screen to the actual underlying cause of his pain, neuralgia – but that in no way were those allergies supposed to suggest a condition as specific and, as I now know from talking to you, severe as EGID. In no way was the story supposed to say that EGID was in fact just neuralgia!“.
The perception: “I think it comes down to one scene where Zosia (the doctor) mentions that Nigel’s eosinophils are up – due to his general allergies – and she then goes on to mention “his eosinophilic gastro-enteritis”. What I can see maybe wasn’t clear was that Zosia, excitedly bandying round theories and possible prognoses at this stage of the story, is in fact supposed only to be raising EGID at a possibility at that moment. A possibility that, in fact, turns out not to be the case. But I can see that the phrasing “his” – combined with the fact that dramatically speaking, we never see Zosia rule out EGID (a moment we assume happens off-screen) – could have given the wrong impression. It’s a tough call with medical drama – you never play on-screen every single beat of medical treatment that would happen in real life, choosing the moments which best serve the story, and sometimes rely on the audience’s imagination to assume and deduce. It’s a delicate balance, and there is definitely a lesson to be learned here, because evidently, missing out that moment has in this case given the wrong impression.”
I also mentioned my concerns that a range of inflammatory bowel diseases had appeared to be ruled out through a simple ultrasound, whilst those of us living with this family of illnesses know, from our first-hand experiences, that endoscopies, colonoscopies and biopsies are the only reliable ways to confirm a final diagnosis. The conversation ended with an agreement that Simon would spend time investigating what research was done, talking to the consultant concerned and checking out the ultrasound situation before phoning me back a week later to talk some more. I was struck by his commitment to unpicking where and how things went so wrong and have to confess to being cheeky enough to send another e-mail, thanking him for his honest discussion with me and pointing him in the direction of various EGID websites, so that he could truly understand what our families deal with on a daily basis.
A week later and that second phone-call happened. Another 30 minutes valuably spent clearing up those outstanding points, including his agreement that the discussion regarding the ultrasound came across as far more definitive than was their intention. I have to say I’m impressed with the research into EGID he had done during that week and appreciate that he took the time to properly review the research done originally for the program. Finally, and definitely most importantly, he has sent a huge apology to our EGID family and I truly believe it is a heartfelt one.
“I repeat, I am absolutely aware that despite all this, an upsetting impression was given due to the way EGID was referenced and never ruled out on-screen and there is absolutely a lesson to be learned there for the future. I can’t undo any upset caused, I realise, but do so hope I have been able to reassure you that we take the medical research aspect of HOLBY with the utmost seriousness and that in this instance, it truly was not an instance of inaccuracy, but, I think, a point of clarity that had an unforeseen impact on how the story came across.
I truly have enjoyed our conversations, as not only did I get an education on the condition that your son, you, your family and many others are so courageously living with, but, as a producer, it is always absolutely invaluable to get insights on how our story intentions actually translate to an audience member – that gives us great help in the way we tell our stories for the better to make HOLBY an entertaining but hopefully also stress-free hour! And I do hope that you will continue to watch and enjoy the show.“
A big thank you to Simon Harper for his willingness to be open and honest about the research done for this storyline, the errors of judgement made in the production, to talk to me not just once, but twice and his apology for the upset unintentionally caused. As one of my fellow EGID Mums asked (and I wholeheartedly agree):
“Any chance they’ll get Mr Allergy (grrrrrr) back and do a proper episode on EGID?“
Simon, I wait for your answer!