TV portrayals of disability in ‘Unforgotten’, ‘Emmerdale’ and ‘Line of Duty’

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Emmeline Burdett takes an analytical eye to recent portrayals of people with learning difficulties in the historical crime drama ‘Unforgotten’, the soap ‘Emmerdale’ and the crime drama ‘Line of Duty’. This article contains some spoliers.

headshot of a white, male actor

ANDY NYMAN as Dean Barton in Unforgotten. Image © ITV PLC

Unforgotten is an ITV drama about a team of CID officers, led by Cass Stewart (Nicola Walker) and Sunny Khan (Sanjeev Bhaskar), who every series, investigate a different ‘cold case’. This series focuses on four suspects, one of whom discovered that the child his partner was expecting was likely to have Down’s syndrome (a diagnosis that was confirmed during the course of the storyline). Another suspect, Dean (played by Andy Nyman) has a charity named after his disabled son, Jack. He is presented as clearly having something to hide, giving rise to the suspicion that all his charity work is being carried out as some kind of atonement for an as-yet-unknown crime.

The other character with disability connections, Ram Sidhu (played by Phaldut Sharma) appears to demonstrate an unusual degree of understanding in his relaxed attitude to the information that his unborn child might have learning difficulties. His partner is initially devastated by this diagnosis, and it is this dichotomy which is one of the most important differences between this and the portrayal of Down’s syndrome in another ITV soap Emmerdale, which (at least according to its critics) made it appear that termination was the only reasonable course of action in such a situation.

The Emmerdale storyline centres on regular characters Laurel and Jai, who make the decision to terminate Laurel’s pregnancy after discovering that her unborn baby was going to have Down’s syndrome. The storyline ran over several episodes, and constituted quite a thorough examination of the questions involved. Despite this, people found the storyline unpleasant and inaccurate, and it attracted over 400 complaints to the regulator Ofcom, and over 300,000 people signed an online petition calling for the storyline to be dropped.

Two actors sit on swings in a children's play park - a man of south asian heritage next to a white woman

CHRIS BISSON as Jai Sharma and CHARLOTTE BELLAMY as Laurel Thomas in Emmerdale. Image © ITV PLC

Laurel and Jai’s decision to go ahead with the termination of Laurel’s pregnancy seemed to cancel out the research that the couple had done (for example, Laurel had discussed parenting a child with Down’s with another character, Rhona, whose nine-year-old son Leo has the condition), and also to ignore the important role that a soap has as an opinion-former. This was compounded by the claims of the cast and the production team that the soap was just reflecting real-life decisions: many people argued that it was increasing the stigma around Down’s syndrome, when it could have, at least, suggested that termination was not the only course of action. Those involved in the storyline, pointed out, however, that Leo’s existence meant that the soap was obviously not suggesting that termination was the only course of action.

In marked contrast to the Emmerdale storyline Ram Sidhu and his partner in Unforgotten ultimately decide to keep their baby, agonising over what they should do, but, without, apparently, doing any research, or meeting any disabled people or their parents. It was particularly surprising that the script didn’t go down this avenue, bearing in mind the other character, Dean has a disabled son, Jack. Maybe the difference was that Ram and Dean simply didn’t have the kind of relationship that would have enabled them to discuss it, but even so, it seemed like a bit of a missed opportunity, as although Jack didn’t actually have Down’s syndrome, there would have been points of similarity which were worth discussing. Having said that, I really did appreciate the way that the Unforgotten storyline eschewed stereotypes, and one of the ways it did this was in the way that, at the end of one episode, Dean’s disabled son was very ill, and I assumed that he would conveniently die, as disabled characters so often do. But he didn’t!

The inclusion of a disabled character in the crime drama Line of Duty (Terry Boyle, played by Tommy Jessop in series 5 and 6, but by Elliot Rosen in Series 1) is, in a sense, quite different, because, while Emmerdale and Unforgotten debated the question of whether or not a person with Down’s syndrome should be born, Terry Boyle was a young man in his late twenties. However, there are points of comparison between the three programmes, and these can be found by looking at how the rest of society is depicted in Line of Duty. Series 1, for example, shows Terry Boyle becoming a victim of ‘mate’ crime, when his trusting nature is exploited by the Organised Crime Group, who use the freezer in his flat, to store the body of murder victim Jackie Laverty. This is significant, because when Boyle rings the police to report the ‘mate’ crime, the two officers sent to his flat to investigate become frustrated by his inability to explain what happened and leave, pretending that they have received an urgent call. Thus, they entirely miss the fact that the victim’s body is stored just feet away from them. It is no exaggeration to say that, had they not been so negligent, they might have uncovered the whole crime enterprise or at least found Laverty’s body.

After this, little was heard of Boyle until series six, in which Terry Boyle was interviewed in connection with the murder of the journalist Gail Vella. The police soon realised that Boyle was not their man, but initially suspected him of having murdered Vella because he was perceived as ‘inadequate’, because it was dicovered that he wanted to have a relationship with her. This was essentially the reason why the police wrongly suspected Barry George of the real-life 1999 murder of Jill Dando. Another Barry George connection is that Ted Hastings, the head of police anti-corruption unit AC12 in Line of Duty, referred to Boyle as “the local oddball”. This received over 300 complaints, with some people pointing out that the episode in which the phrase was used was aired on World Down’s Syndrome Day, making it particularly inappropriate. This criticism can, however, be regarded as a case of shooting the messenger, because the show has a long (and, I would argue, laudable) record of portraying human imperfection – in this case by showing ‘mate’ crime rather than trying to pretend that it doesn’t exist. Storylines also show police officers losing patience with a vulnerable person and thereby missing important clues.

Barry George (who spent eight years in prison) praised the ‘oddball’ comment, saying that it “highlights what the police do”. On the other hand, Ted Hastings, who, as the head of AC12, is portrayed as unimpeachably moral. Following the complaints about Hastings’ comment, it was pointed out that he had made them before meeting Boyle. However, this did suggest that there are certain types of people (including those with learning difficulties) about whom it is acceptable to have preconceived ideas, and other types of people who are entitled to be seen as individuals.

More specifically, Hastings was shocked to hear of the racist conduct of the police officers responsible for the death of another character Lawrence Christopher. Christopher was a black architect referred to, but not actually seen, in the Line of Duty storyline. He had been seriously injured in a racist attack, and subsequently arrested as his injuries had made him behave strangely. Once he arrived at the police station, the obvious thing would have been to get him medical attention, but instead the police offers made monkey noises while he pleaded for help. Not surprisingly, Christopher died. If we use the reasoning applied to Hastings’ ‘oddball’ comment aimed at Boyle, the fact that Hastings had never seen Christopher should have meant that, whilst he could condemn the latter’s death, he may well have not considered the level of racism manifest in the police officers’ behaviour.

Hastings’ dismissive attitude manifest in his ‘oddball’ comment, sent a message to the audience that, whilst racism is not acceptable, disablism is fine, especially when expressed in a light-hearted way. This was particularly the case as Hastings appeared in some ways more shocked by the monkey noises than by the death, suggesting that he recognised that the idea that racist attitudes were a prerequisite for the attack on Christopher, and for the monkey noises, and for the police officers’ failure to get Lawrence medical attention.

This being so, it was striking that he did not appear to notice or care that an environment in which a senior officer refers to someone he has never met as an ‘oddball’, is exactly the sort of environment in which nobody will think that failing to investigate a case of ‘mate’ crime because the victim is unable to express himself eloquently is in any way wrong – even though it obviously entails a perception that the victim is inferior, and that the crime does not matter. I would suggest, though, that the most significant difference was that Christopher was an architect – a professional, independent, articulate person who would be unlikely to mistake the police for social workers, join a gang, or do anything else likely to cause extra paperwork. Terry Boyle had no such advantages, and was thus much easier to make assumptions about.

So, what did the Emmerdale and Unforgotten disability storylines tell us? It’s inevitable that they were different from that in Line of Duty, as a disabled adult has more interaction with the rest of society than an unborn baby could have. The disability studies scholar Colin Barnes has written (in Disabling Imagery and the Media) about how one of the ‘tropes’ of disability is presenting a disabled person as a burden – and as such is best disposed of as quickly as possible.

Whilst it is right to draw attention to this perception, I would argue that, unless it is more nuanced, merely drawing attention to it is not necessarily very helpful. The Unforgotten storyline did a good job of acknowledging this tension – one of the reasons why Ram and his partner considered aborting their baby was that they did not know how much support he or she would need, or what would happen later in life. These are not empty concerns, and I would argue that the way forward is to normalise these questions (and thus their answers), is not to kick them into the long grass as the current Conservative government appears intent on doing, or to make people afraid to ask them. Everyone needs support, and people who need additional support are members of society like everyone else. This should not need to be demonstrated, but as it obviously does, actors like Tommy Jessop are excellent ambassadors. For a fuller exploration of these issues, we also need more disabled writers, artists and directors, but, most crucially, more attention paid to those who already exist.


Unforgotten and Emmerdale are available on catch-up on ITV Hub

Line of Duty is available on iPlayer