More anguish in soap-land as EastEnders comes under fire

It's 15 years ago since Anna Friel set some hearts racing and Channel 4's complaint line buzzing with that infamous lesbian kiss on Brookside.

Since then viewers have registered their distaste about everything from littering (EastEnders' chain-smoking Dot Cotton) to anti-Christian remarks (Ken Barlow in a fit of peak during a Easter edition of Coronation Street).

Most grumbles have been little more than a storm in a teacup, but the furore over recent events in Albert Square are unlikely to go away so quickly. By last night almost 6,000 complaints had been received by the BBC over the soap's handling of controversial cot death storyline, which saw character Ronnie Branning, swap her dead baby for Kat and Alfie Moon's newborn.

While statements were hurriedly issued apologising for any distress, it was too late. Mumsnet, the increasingly influential website, had written to Director General Mark Thompson, accusing the show of sacrificing the chance to highlight a serious subject in favour of sensationalism. Not for the first time the soap had found itself in the eye of a storm.

"There's no doubting the cot death storyline was well written and acted, but I do think you have to question the timing," says Leeds scriptwriter Lisa Holdsworth, who has previously worked on Emmerdale. "I've been in a number of script meetings where a storyline involving the death of a child has been put forward and nine times out of 10 you draw back, because you have to be absolutely sure that it is right. It's not a subject that anyone tackles lightly.

"Script meetings can initially be quite gladiatorial, but generally there is a second wave of discussion about the likely effect on the audience and whether something is appropriate. Had EastEnders chosen to run with this story in April I have no doubt there would have been far fewer complaints. The fact they chose to focus on a subject which has touched so many people and which will inevitably open incredibly raw wounds at Christmas seems a little insensitive.

"I don't have any children, but I can absolutely see why some viewers would find it upsetting. You can't help feeling that when they made the decision they might have had one eye on the Baftas."

The cot death storyline has become one of the most complained about in EastEnders' history, second only to that of the sudden death of Ronnie's daughter Danielle in a car crash in April 2009. However, those who did bother to call or email are still only a tiny minority of the 10 million viewers who tuned in over the festive period.

The resulting publicity is unlikely to have much impact on the ratings, but as soaps have shown before too much controversy can be a dangerous thing.

"Normally soaps like to have a major storyline starting at the end of September or the beginning of October," says Lisa, who is now working on New Tricks. "Everyone is back from holidays, the schools have gone back and it's a good time to get people watching again.

"However, if you ask most scriptwriters what their favourite soap moment is, it tends not to be the big catastrophe or the scene where they killed off a popular character, but a little cute story or a brief moment of humour. For me it's the time Emmerdale's Chastity Dingle threw a pregnancy test at Chloe Atkinson with the immortal line: 'Pee on the stick bitch'.

"A smattering of big events or controversial storylines is fine and sometimes like the Emmerdale plane crash it's a way of reinventing a programme, but too many and the audience will switch off. Brookside is the ultimate cautionary tale. In the early days it had some fantastic storylines like the lesbian kiss and the body under the patio grabbed viewers' attention.

"But then things got silly. There was a siege involving a religious cult, an incestuous brother and sister and a mystery virus which saw The Close quarantined and helicopters hovering nearby. As soon as you've got helicopters you know you've gone too far."

EastEnders knows its audience too well, but according to Lisa it still may live to rue its New Year storyline.

"Kat and Alfie bring some much needed humour to EastEnders and they are now in a tricky position," she says. "After going through something like this, how long do you leave it before they can start delivering the sharp one-liners again? But what do I know? Maybe that was the plan. As ever with soaps, me and the rest of viewers will just have to wait and see."