The following article contains discussion of domestic abuse that some readers may find upsetting.
EastEnders aired some of the most harrowing scenes in its history tonight (September 18), as Chantelle Atkins was killed by her abusive husband Gray.
As previously confirmed, Chantelle lost her life in Friday's devastating episode, when Gray violently pushed her on to an open dishwasher before leaving her to die.
Back in Walford, Chantelle bravely stood up to Gray, telling him that she didn't love him and was leaving him. After horrifyingly injuring Chantelle as a result, Gray took further diabolical steps by eerily making his way around the Square in a bid to secure his alibi.
Jessica Plummer – who plays Chantelle – spoke to Digital Spy prior to her final scenes being aired about her thoughts on her alter-ego's devastating end, and the wider impact the story has had.
"I feel like I've been in a weird limbo," she said. "I've carried this secret for so long and now it's out and everyone knows.
"In terms of how I am going to feel on Friday, I'm not so sure. I am sure I'll be really sad though."
Chantelle and Gray's final showdown played out in the first half of tonight's sinister and cinematic episode.
"We filmed that whole chunk," Jessica said, "from the very first bit where she is unloading the dishwasher, right up to the push, in one take, we didn't stop filming at all.
"Even though there are cutaways to other scenes and other characters, like that phone call with Kheerat, and Karen and Mitch, it was all one take. We didn't want to stop filming as we didn't want to lose the momentum of what was happening.
"Usually on EastEnders, you film for about five minutes at the very most – a scene is rarely longer than that. So to film for over 15 minutes in one go was good and really different, it felt like theatre."
It would be wrong not to mention tonight's astonishing performances by Jessica and Toby [-Alexander Smith, who plays Gray], with them both whole-heartedly stepping up to the plate in those agonising and unforgettable final scenes.
Discussing the immense amount of pressure she put on herself that day, Jessica said: "I remember it was a week in the summer where it really rained.
"We were inside the studio so it was fine but there was a leak in the roof and I wondered if that would delay us doing it. I wanted to film it but then I also wanted to delay it because I knew once I'd filmed it, that was it and there would be no going back.
"I was dreading it because I didn't want to say goodbye to my character and also the pressure I put on myself. I really wanted to do the scenes justice, I wanted to do Chantelle justice and I wanted to do justice for every woman that has been in the situation. I wanted to make sure it was perfect.
"I felt like Chantelle knew that night was the night. I don't think she knew she was going to die necessarily, but she knew it was the night something was going to happen."
As an industry that tasks itself with holding up a mirror to society, soaps and all mainstream television need to be able to reasonably and effectively reflect that society in what they are delivering on screen.
In the UK, a woman is killed every four days by a current or former partner. Recent Women's Aid research also reports that two-thirds of survivors stated their domestic abuse had escalated during lockdown, and three quarters of women living with an abuser said they felt they could not leave or get away.
Refuge later reported a 54% rise in women contacting its helpline in need of emergency accommodation in the first week of July, when compared with the last week in June.
When EastEnders was forced to halt filming back in March, the plans for Chantelle's story inevitably had to change. Upon the show's return earlier this month, we saw the characters emerge from the UK lockdown like the rest of the country, with Chantelle's story gathering momentum to reflect the impact the pandemic had on victims of domestic abuse in the real world.
"Everything changed after lockdown," Jessica said. "I found out just before Christmas, and originally, I was meant to stop filming in around April/May time for it to air at the beginning of July. I was told that it wasn't planned from the start and I definitely didn't know from the start.
"In the end, I got to hang on a bit longer than I was supposed to. But the story changed so much from what we were planning to do. We actually shot scenes, but because we didn't finish the episode, it couldn't go out. But on the back of the statistics being so high, it was a good time to raise awareness of that. We didn't film the actual lockdown obviously but we showed the impact that lockdown had on Chantelle and Gray's relationship moving forward."
It's no secret that EastEnders has covered domestic abuse stories before. From Little Mo and Trevor's story, to Tina's ordeal with Tosh a few years ago, we've seen it explored through many eyes, through different dynamics and different relationships. But Jessica believes that EastEnders found a space for Chantelle's story that hasn't been spotlighted before – not just because of the story's ending, but because of the dynamic of the Atkins' marriage throughout.
Defending the show's reasons for ending the story like this, she said: "As much as it isn't nice for viewers to see, this is real life and this is sometimes how it ends for people. There needs to be an awareness around that.
"I also think it's important to see a different dynamic in Gray and Chantelle – both as a relationship and individually. She is strong, she's independent, she earns her own money – from the outside looking in, they are the perfect couple."
EastEnders is hoping that Chantelle's story gives people the courage to speak out before it's too late and to know that there are services out there to help. There is, however, another side to the argument here which it would be wrong not to mention.
Since announcing Chantelle's death last week, the storyline has naturally generated a lot of discussion on social media.
While most people seem to be praising the show for taking this brave direction and telling an important story, some viewers have reasonably and respectfully expressed concerns that the tragic ending could send out the wrong message, or even discourage people from trying to leave an abusive relationship.
Addressing this, Head of Communications at Women's Aid, Teresa Parker, told Digital Spy: "Chantelle’s story is true to life. We talked about this with both the researchers and the actors, and a huge amount of research has gone into this storyline.
"We know that the awareness created by this storyline will make a massive difference to public understanding of domestic abuse, and some women will identify with what they have seen happening to Chantelle.
"The storyline is shocking but it is encouraging important conversations about domestic abuse all over the country, and it means that more people know that support is out there for them. The awareness from this storyline will help to save lives, and I am really proud to have worked closely with the team at EastEnders on the development of this story."
It's important to mention here that EastEnders did indeed announce Chantelle's tragic fate ahead of time for safety purposes – a move often taken when story content could be triggering for some.
Digital Spy understands that there are no explicit requirements in Ofcom's broadcasting rules about publicising potentially upsetting or offensive storylines in advance. However, broadcasters must ensure that content in programmes is, among other things, appropriately scheduled and always complies with the Ofcom rules on harm and offence.
This means that it's at the broadcaster's discretion how they provide adequate protection for their viewers and a pre-transmission warning may be a method they choose to use to address that.
Despite this, the show's decision still led to a few inevitable complaints from some disgruntled fans, who felt that the announcement had ruined the 'surprise element' for them.
"I don't think it takes away from anything that is happening on screen," Jess said. "There are some people who are going to be too triggered to watch. Ultimately though, this issue is more important than people's entertainment. It doesn't take anything away from the episode. People knew the Titanic was going to sink and the film still won awards."
Jessica also shared that she feels sad about the happier ending Chantelle didn't get with Kheerat, saying: "He would have been perfect for her. But who knows?"
All eyes will be on Gray over the coming weeks as viewers desperately await his comeuppance – with Jessica among them.
"I definitely hope he will [be punished]. Abusers should never get away with what they are doing to people and no murderer should get away with that," she insisted. "No human naturally wakes up and thinks 'I want to murder someone today,' regardless of whatever trauma they have been through themselves. There is no excuse. So I can't wait to see it all unfold. I have purposefully told everyone at work not to tell me anything. I'm going to watch as a viewer."
And after 18 months of working on such a challenging and emotional storyline, it's no surprise that Jessica is enjoying some much-needed time off.
"I don't want to put too much pressure on myself. I've got a four-year old and she's just started reception," she explained.
"Right now, I am really enjoying getting that time back. Being a mum is the thing I am most looking forward to. In terms of future career, I would like to do something a bit happier maybe, like a comedy. "
EastEnders airs the fallout of Chantelle's devastating death on Monday, September 21 at 8.05pm on BBC One.
Readers who are affected by the issues raised in this story are encouraged to contact Refuge (www.refuge.org.uk) or Women's Aid (www.womensaid.org.uk). The 24-hour, freephone National Domestic Abuse Helpline can be reached on 0808 2000 247. The US National Domestic Violence Hotline is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).
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