It’s not often that I watch linear television, least of all those shows built to accommodate the bright promises of commercials and their interminable happy families/pets/banks. Sitting down to an episode of ITV’s Cold Feet this week was therefore an odd experience, made even odder by the advance warning: “Contains scenes which some viewers may find upsetting”.
As series five had included a road death, I guessed we might be in for a drowning, a suicide, maybe some sexual violence. A physically nasty scenario that would take us by surprise and severely disturb us at nine o’clock on a Monday night. What the episode actually contained was Jenny’s dismay at her breast cancer diagnosis. At least, I’m guessing this is what the announcement referred to, because I doubt it was to Adam’s drama therapy sessions.
Receiving such results is one hell of a hard moment in anyone’s life - but do we now have to be warned of its inclusion in a fictional TV drama? What about the maimings in Peaky Blinders, the infant deaths in Call The Midwife, the torture in Little Drummer Girl? Maybe these count for less because their stories are in the past, with its strange manners and funny cigarettes.
Television is crowded with harsh material, but to allow adult audiences the option of ‘enjoying’ it we have the OfCom watershed and our own commonsense. To be additionally warned about distressing material seems excessive, and to a certain extent ruins the viewing experience. I hunched my shoulders and anticipated something atrocious for the full sixty minutes, but perhaps this was the broadcaster’s point.
It chose to give the same caution to the audience as it would for abuse or murder. Since I believe this to be unnecessary, does that mean I don’t take mental issues seriously enough? Why would I think that a dramatic rendition of a positive cancer test and subsequent psychological torment doesn’t deserve equal billing with say, physical mutilation? Because to me, the latter is not an everyday occurrence which is culturally acceptable, so I’m likely to be upset and might choose not to watch. But to receive bad news and react to it is surely a part of life, and it’s hearing the stories of others that helps us cope when it’s our own turn. After all, we watch dramas for their insights into human happiness and heartache so why warn us they may contain some?
Perhaps the warning was given because ITV executives assume that after seven series of Cold Feet, we now view this group of contemporary characters as our friends, people whose agonies we also endure. When we are shown a mother’s misery following a stillbirth in Midwife, the pain is more detached from real life, rooted as it is in the 1960s with a retro soundtrack, and bookended by Vanessa Redgrave’s mellifluous voiceover. There are no pre-programme warnings about rickets, polio or diptheria, all pretty disastrous in the drama’s post-war era, but as vintage-sounding to us now as novitiate midwives on bicycles.
Where should the line be drawn? If Casualty is prefaced each week with warnings about that episode’s medical conditions and emergencies, will it help those who have suffered the same? How much can we not bear? The reasoning behind these media sensitivities appears to be that no customer should be unexpectedly disturbed by their entertainment choices. I don’t see the same logic applied to novels: rather than simply showing us horrific images as TV does, a good book forces us to generate them ourselves. Should we be warned that we can never unsee these, too?
Of course, those who watch the catch-up version of Cold Feet will be denied both the notification and the helpline. Streaming does not transform us into tougher people yet we are treated differently online: the on-air regulations don’t have to be applied, so we view at our own risk. If the broadcaster was really bothered, it could embed some advisory text in the first few frames of the online version. However, at this more ‘private’ level of consumption there is little fear of retribution from the mob when guidance is lacking. It seems only when we view en masse that extra care must be seen to be taken.