Silent Witness is the latest piece of BBC content to receive complaints from the more sensitive members of the British public. According to comments submitted to the broadcaster’s website, they felt the two-part story Redhill veered too close to ‘torture-porn’ for their liking.
Of course, the Daily Mail has published a piece describing the situation as a ‘viewer backlash’. I’m usually quite cynical about these so-called backlashes. Last year, I wrote an article for The Edge about another alleged fuss about a BBC programme: Eastenders. Apparently, audiences were in ‘uproar’ (the Daily Mail’s word, not mine) because two men shared a bed in one scene. Marrying together irrelevance with homophobia in one baffling piece, they made this claim on the basis of around 75 complaints. The percentage of people who watched the U-certificate worthy scene of homosexual affection and felt the need to complain was around 0.002 percent. Hardly an uproar.
Now, with this week’s Silent Witness ‘backlash’, one has to admit that the percentage of complaints is higher. The first instalment of the two-part story was the offending episode. It had an audience of 6.1 million viewers, and has brought in around 500 complaints. That’s a percentage of 0.008. It is comforting that, when compared with the Eastenders ‘uproar’, on this basis more people are anti-violence than anti-gay.
But the thing that most interests me about this little flurry of panic over violence in television is my own reaction to the episode. I was one of the 6.1 million viewers who tuned into watch the first episode of this past week’s two parter (although admittedly I was watching on BBC One HD, so I don’t know if the HD crowd get counted or not). Silent Witness has a fairly predictable formula. A forensic scientist, by some incredible coincidence, stumbles upon a violent incident then gets tangled up in the whole gruesome affair. Somewhere within the hour several shots of body gore splash across the screen as they perform the showy autopsies, then everything gets hysterical, heading for a series of even more ridiculous coincidences involving pathologists behaving like police detectives. But in the midst of all this, at the end of episode one on Sunday night, there was a brutal scene of sexual violence that had even me feeling sick.
I am not usually one to feel nauseous at violence. I don’t derive pleasure from seeing gore, but I am an experienced horror viewer, and have sat through the many Hostels and Saws of this world. With those films you know what to expect, as is the case with Silent Witness. But I think the reason for my reaction on this occasion was down to the way the scene (which was presented as a sudden flashback to a previous incident within the story) crept up on the viewer. The rest of the episode had been the typical mixture of grimness and ridiculousness, but surprisingly talking and rather tame. But the last couple of minutes of Redhill Part 1 were unexpected and, for that reason, rather shocking.
For those of you who are interested in the gory details, I will contextualise the scene in question. In the episode there had been mention of an inmate in a prison who had been brutally beaten and raped. A few pictures of his body were shown to us briefly. At the end of the episode, we see this attack played out. It involved a prison officer brutalising the aforementioned inmate in a toilet cubical. We see very little of the attack, but from the sounds and the images we get afterwards, it is strongly implied that the man is being raped with the officer’s baton.
It is not necessarily the violence that is important in the scene, but rather who witnesses it and stands back doing nothing. The scene is motivated by character development, not gratuitous violence. The BBC has apologised for the scene in a statement today, but also made it clear to the viewers who were upset that, as well as warnings about ‘upsetting scenes’ made before the programme aired, their reason for showing it was ‘rooted in character’ rather than ‘an attempt to gratuitously shock the audience’.
It is important for viewers to complain about things on TV that they feel are wrong or offensive. I understand why this episode prompted complaints. But in this instance, I have to side with the BBC when they say that the ‘show is known for tackling challenging stories and exploring adult themes’ and that, after 15 series, the content of the episode should not have gone past audience expectations. I was also shocked and surprised by the scene, but I don’t necessarily consider this a bad thing. Although Silent Witness is preposterous, it is well-made and tells a story in a compelling, if a little predictable, way. The offending scene packed a punch – not just because it was disturbing, but because of the implications made within the story. In this instance, the powerful narrative effect this scene had made it appropriate and acceptable. I didn’t enjoy seeing it, and I won’t watch that part again in a hurry, but in some ways it was an excellently divisive moment of drama that sent ripples throughout the whole two-part story. The BBC were brave to air it, but they were right not to censor it.
As a final thought, I think it’s worth adding that this episode has been awarded a 15 certificate by the British Board of Film Classification for DVD release in the UK. It is interesting that there seems to be a small (but notable) disagreement between the content viewers feel is acceptable to be seen by adults, and the content the BBFC is happy being shown to 15 year-old minors. I suspect this debate will continue when the next piece of controversial violent content makes its way onto our screens.