First, Do No Harm

I’ve been working on a research project with fans of Holby City’s Berena for almost two years now, and in that time I’ve had the opportunity to get to know a global network of viewers who have found something special in this rare onscreen romance between two older, professional women. I’ve written about the way that women talk about the impact of this storyline on their mental health and wellbeing here. We’ve also worked together to produce a zine about these experiences, which you can read online too. For a number of people, the Berena storyline has been life-changing. Though we have often been talking about dark moments in our lives, this project has been an overwhelmingly positive experience, with a community of women who are funny and argumentative as well as extraordinarily caring and tender. 

Spending the last several weeks seeing many of them in anguish, sometimes withdrawing from their social media accounts to try and protect themselves, sometimes finding ‘real world’ interaction at work or at home difficult or impossible, has been harrowing. In last Tuesday night’s episode, Bernie and Serena broke up, Bernie leaving the show for what appears to be the final time. In the preceding weeks, Serena began an affair with a junior doctor, a turn of events that many fans had felt confident would be avoided. The uncertainty over the future of the couple, the manner in which the episodes were promoted by the BBC, and the way the break-up was manufactured, all proved to be emotive (though of course, not for all viewers, or even for all Berena fans). Perhaps there is a positive tale to be spun from the ways in which fans have pulled together, offering help and support, kind words and a shoulder to cry on, but I’m too well aware of the real mental and physical damage done, to spin it. I know that those of us who have been checking in, sometimes daily, with our most vulnerable friends, acquaintances, and perfect strangers would never begrudge them that most simple of gestures of care, but it should not have been necessary. 

In this post, I want to talk about what’s happened, and think about how it could perhaps have been avoided. 

Berena: the back story 
For those who have been watching, feel free to skip ahead. For the uninitiated: Bernie (Jemma Redgrave) and Serena (Catherine Russell), two surgeons working at Holby City Hospital, met on screen in March 2016. Over the following six months they became friends and then lovers in a slow-burn love story that charmed queer as well as straight viewers. Their time as an on-screen couple was limited, however: in January 2017 Serena’s daughter was killed off, Serena’s grief sending her spiralling before, in April 2017, she took a sabbatical. Though the status of their relationship was left uncertain – Serena saying she ‘hoped’ that they would be together in future – when Bernie left Holby in August that year, she was heading to see Serena in France. In February 2018, Serena returned to Holby, ostensibly to help out for a brief spell before joining Bernie at a hospital in Nairobi, but soon decided to stay put. In June 2018, Bernie visited Holby to make plans for Serena’s move to Nairobi, and they realised that their ideas about the future were now quite different. After deciding that their relationship would no longer work, Serena chased a departing Bernie and they made up, with Serena suggesting she would eventually move to Nairobi because she couldn’t imagine a life without Bernie. “You’ll wait?” she asked. “For eternity,” Bernie replied. 

November 2018: teasing Bernie’s return
Since Bernie returned to Nairobi saying she’d “be back soon enough”, most viewers anticipated seeing the character again at or around Christmas. This was confirmed in mid-November, when a new promotional still appeared, showing Bernie and Serena in each other’s arms. After months of tweets featuring the hashtag #BringBernieBack, now #BernieIsBack appeared. Some fans began counting down the days and weeks (and seconds, and minutes, and hours) until her return episode aired on 4 December. 

On screen, a new junior doctor, Leah Faulkner, had arrived at Holby at the start of October and immediately made a pass at Serena. Shortly before the new Berena photo appeared, television guides published an episode synopsis for 4 December describing Serena as having a terrible secret. It soon became evident, from officially released spoiler photos and episode trailers, that Serena and Leah would share at least a kiss before Bernie arrived. 

How did we get here?
There has been a considerable amount of criticism of the storylines that brought Serena and Leah together and pulled Serena and Bernie apart, some of which I will touch upon, where they are relevant, in the sections below. Primarily, however, my concern is with how it is that a not inconsiderable number of (but of coursenot all) fans have come to feel let down by a show that has (rightly) been lauded for this storyline and what it did for queer women over the past two-and-a-half years and more. Besides the emotional trauma of narrative events themselves, this fracture has been surprising, and I expect those viewers and many involved in making Holby City feel stung by it. In the post below, I look at what I consider to be key aspects of the relationship between LGBTQ audiences and programme makers in an attempt to highlight their specificities, where things may have gone wrong in this instance, and how this might be avoided in future. The point is not simply to haul Holby City over the coals, though there are people who will feel it ought to be. I will not shy away from criticising the BBC. But the executive producers as well as others at Holby City have repeatedly stated their investment in and love of the Berena storyline in the context of the importance of LGBTQ representation since 2016 right up until recently, and if that did not reflect the way things actually were it would be the grossest deception; we cannot have this conversation without taking them to be sincere. Thus, I make these observations hoping that they might be taken on board even where they smart a little, and that they will also be of use to anyone involved in making television who wants to be an ally to the LGBTQ community.

*In this post, I use ‘LGBTQ’ and ‘queer’ interchangeably. Apologies to anyone who does not consider them to be synonymous. 

I’m posting the TL;DR version at the top of the page for ease of reference:
LGBTQ audiences are hungry for representation and are dedicated viewers, and are likely to have a higher prevalence of mental health problems than heterosexual viewers; programme makers need to make an awareness of this part of their decision-making process.

An understanding of the history (and current state) of LGBTQ representation, as well as common (hurtful) stereotypes should be as much a part of producers’ thinking as the norms and conventions of the series. Hire LGBTQ staff at all levels.

The mechanisms of making television that seem obvious to crew are often opaque to viewers – especially when it comes to conversations about the future directions of a storyline. This needs to be taken into account. 

Broadcasters can help (LGBTQ) audiences to deal with unhappy endings by avoiding misleading spoilers (‘foilers’). They have a duty of care in this regard, especially by a non-commercial broadcaster such as the BBC.

LGBTQ audiences are not impossible to please.

This can and should be a learning moment.

The vulnerabilities of LGBTQ audiences 
Presumably part of a programme maker’s interest in including non-heterosexual love is that it has historically been hugely under-represented, and often relied on negative or dangerous stereotypes, such as the predatory lesbian. There is clearly scope to mine under-explored territory. Queer love is still not consistently visible and well played. In this context – which has been called a ‘representational desert’ – LGBTQ viewers are starved of having their stories told on screen, and often bring this hunger to their engagement with queer storylines and shows. Of course, not everyone is the same: the importance of their sexual identity to their sense of self won’t be fixed, nor the importance of media representation to that identity, besides a host of other variables. But research as well as anecdotal evidence strongly supports the notion that media representation is important to and sought after by queer audiences of all ages. Media content is a big part of queer women’s culture, and our dedication is such that there are still fan events for the ITV series Bad Girls, which featured a number of lesbian storylines, 12 years after it finished.

Studios and broadcasters (particularly of continuing dramas) may think in terms of viewers rather than fans, perhaps underestimating this investment. By their own admission, the success of Berena took Holby City by surprise. The intense interest of what I imagine is, in the scheme of things, a small portion of the show’s viewers is unlikely to alter the patterns of production on a tight shooting schedule – there was no retake earlier this year, for instance, when Catherine Russell, who plays Serena, had forgotten to take off her wedding ring, leading to excitement among Berena fans who spotted it in the trailer for the episode following Serena’s trip to see Bernie. This may be the first time that Holby City has had a group of viewers likely to subject each episode and its associated paratexts to such scrutiny. 

The impact of seeing oneself on screen on mental health and wellbeing is, at least for younger viewers, well documented in the academic literature, but my work with Berena fans shows that age is not necessarily a predictor for mental health impacts. This is especially important because a number of mental health problems have been found to be more prevalent in the LGBTQ population, thanks largely to the isolation and stress that can be caused by prejudice and discrimination. The rhetoric of public discourse in countries such as the UK would have us believe that not being straight no longer presents any social obstacles, particularly since same-sex marriage became legal in Great Britain, but between 2013 and 2017, homophobic hate crime in the UK rose by almost 80%, and attacks or abuse often take place in public spaces. According to Stonewall, rates of depression and anxiety in the LGBTQ community are more than three times the estimates for the general UK population. 

It should be evident by now that there is a duty of care for anyone making content for LGBTQ viewers (and whether it is intended or not, this kind of storyline fits that description). Thanks to the hundreds if not thousands of letters sent in over the past two-and-a-half years, the LGBT Series/Storyline award that the show received at this year’s DIVA Awards (organised by the UK’s best-known publication for queer women), as well as the viewer voices in my research and the zine, the BBC is well aware not just of what the Berena storyline meant to viewers, but of the impact it has had on them, very often discussed in terms of mental health and wellbeing. 

I don’t doubt that everyone involved in creating Holby City cared about this as much as they said they did. The point here is that even with such care, things can go wrong. It may be the case that translating care and concern into plotting and scripting a 52-weeks-a-year continuing drama is difficult, and requires that the outcomes for LGBTQ viewers be made more of a priority than is actually possible. Or it may be the case that the show’s makers believed that they had managed to craft an ending that the LGBTQ audience would be happy with. (And of course, some of them were.) 

I mentioned shooting schedules above, but it goes without saying that any television series will have its own requirements and constraints – points at which pragmatism, whether for reasons of cost or other resources, will win out. I would argue that this should never knowingly be done at the expense of a marginalised audience (again, this is not what I am saying happened here), but where it ends up that minority audiences might be adversely affected despite best efforts, care can and should still be afforded to them. It is already the case that programme makers and broadcasters pay heed to audience needs and sensitivities. For instance, when a storyline is considered to have the potential to cause distress, the transmission will typically close with information about help and support services for those affected. I am not suggesting that LGBTQ content needs routinely to provide mental health resources. Rather, this is evidence that care for the audience can readily be made part of the mechanisms of television, even post-production.

If it is too much to hope that the BBC would respond to the evident distress of some Berena fans in November by reaching out online and providing contacts to mental health and support, the lack of any apparent recognition of the experiences of viewers since last Tuesday night is disappointing nonetheless. It is impossible to claim that no one is aware of those viewers who have been struggling with the end of this storyline when the Holby City  Twitter and Instagram accounts have been tagged in numerous comments. If those accounts are run by individual(s) outside of the production office or on an internship, this is something that could be addressed, to ensure that those with the power and resources to respond are aware of the impact of individual episodes or storylines in real time (or as close to that as possible). 

Sharing a few links to mental health organisations may sound like a small, perhaps token gesture, but one of the most common things that women have said over the course of the past week is that they feel ashamed of how much they are hurting, and embarrassed by their pain – it could be incredibly validating to have the BBC recognise their distress in a sympathetic way. A sharp contrast to the effect of a Twitter exchange between two Holby City writers on the day of broadcast, which appeared to jovially anticipate the reaction from fans, but only as a backlash to be suffered by the episode writer.

When challenged, the writer responded with great cordiality to say that he was very fond of the fandom. Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine how these tweets could relate to anything other than the expected reaction from Berena fans after seeing the episode; even if they related to something else, a number of fans felt mocked by the comments, which only added to the emotions they experienced after the episode. Viewers are extremely grateful to be able to hear from and interact with people who work on their favourite television shows, and fandom would be poorer for their loss, and as you will find below, this writer has engaged with fans and been open to negative feedback since the episode aired, as well. I think it’s important though to highlight how something that might seem perfectly innocent and collegial can have unforeseen effects. Twitter is a public forum and the decision to have this kind of conversation in tweets rather than direct messages (where no one else would see them) looks misjudged.   

The ‘relevant’ context extends beyond the show in question
Programme makers know their product intimately, and no doubt know what its competitors are, viewing motivations in their scheduled slot, and so on. Inevitably, producers’ expertise as regards television, genre, production etc. far outstrips that of their audience. Unless producers and writers identify as a member of a minority audience, however, they don’t know what they don’t know about minorities as viewers – which renders even the best of intentions redundant. 

When viewers reacted badly to the death of Kate in Last Tango in Halifax, the writer Sally Wainwright insisted that it was a “narrative decision” to sacrifice Kate in order to bring her partner Caroline, and Caroline’s mother Celia, closer together. GLAAD figures from 2016 show that while lesbians and bi women accounted for around 2% of regular cast characters on (American) television, they accounted for 10% of character deaths, often being killed to drive the narrative for cishet characters – yet Wainwright had considered the dead lesbians trope [cw: link contains spoilers] to be a myth. She has since spoken of her regret over the storyline, and at the 2016 Edinburgh International Television Festival she told gay screenwriter Russell T Davies that she wished he had shared with her his concerns about the reaction that killing off Kate would provoke, so that she could have made a different choice. 

Some Berena fans have expressed disappointment at the fact that Serena, considered by many to be bisexual (Bernie was the first woman she had a sexual relationship with), was given a cheating storyline, given the age-old stereotype of bisexual promiscuity. If that sounds antiquated, research published earlier this year found that straight people think bisexual women are less likely to be monogamous than others, and that the prominence of this assumption is exacerbated by the relative invisibility of bisexual women. The implication at the end of the episode that Bernie, too, may have been unfaithful during their six months apart, plays in to conservative heterosexual stereotypes of non-heterosexual relationships lacking commitment (historically, straight people were found to believe that same-sex couples were ‘less in love’). The dialogue at this point has been interpreted a number of different ways, but some viewers have described it as a disappointingly ambiguous note on which to end a relationship that was described on screen by Serena as “the one great love affair of my life” only six months ago.  

That Serena had an affair with a new character (Leah) who appeared in relatively few episodes, being given dialogue almost exclusively with or about Serena, and who leaves the show within a week of Bernie and Serena breaking up, is also problematic. Despite the casting of an excellent actress (Hannah Daniel) to play her, Leah has been more of a plot device than a character, and queers have more than served their time as the foils for others’ narratives.    

Those at Holby have talked about the show’s reputation for splitting up couples, and thinking only in terms of the norms of Holby City, this kind of unhappy ending is par for the course. But I would suggest that producers thinking in broader terms, setting plans against the tropes and stereotypes that have and continue to run through LGBTQ representation, would be helpful. Hire more LGBTQ writers. The BBC has already made a commitment to diversity its workforce, so this is in line with the corporation’s own goals. Let lesbians and bi women write and script storylines featuring lesbians and bi women – at least have them consult on these parts of the show. It’s standard practice to hire consultants to attend to elements of a story-world that producers do not have an appropriate level of first-hand knowledge of – for Holby there are medical consultants, just as The Archers employs agricultural consultants.

LGBTQ viewers (and especially lesbians and bi women) have been burned many times, and they carry those scars whether programme makers like it or not. In my research, I heard from women who were or had been reluctant to trust Holby City with their feelings (especially in light of what happened in the case of Last Tango in Halifax, also a BBC production), but that hesitance had usually been overcome because of the language of care and understanding used. Programmes need to be made by people with a solid sense of what some LGBTQ viewers might bring to their engagement with a storyline. Story editors are, of course, entitled to make their own decisions, but I would suggest that Wainwright’s experience, and subsequent rethink, is worth considering. At the very least, producers might fare better in anticipating (and subsequently helping with) the potential impact on LGBTQ viewers of a narrative that suits the formula of the show but could be otherwise difficult for them.

The mechanisms of television-making may not be as transparent as they seem
Just as it seems obvious to a lesbian or bi woman that their storylines have frequently been ill-fated and/or stereotyped, the realities of the television world are taken for granted by those who work in it. As well as words to the effect of ‘no one gets a happy ending at Holby’, which I tried to address in the section above, in responses online to fans expressing their upset at the way Bernie and Serena broke up, we’ve seen variations of ‘everybody is just doing their job’. In this light, Holby City is a vast machine, and everyone in it merely a cog. Contracts are short and constantly up for renewal; lots of things can change except for the need to turn out 52 hours of television a year. In this light, fans recognise the risk they take by investing emotionally in characters, relationships, and outcomes in a way that they did not before. And I don’t think anyone could deny that they were encouraged to invest.

Again, to be clear, I’m not accusing anyone involved in Holby City of being dishonest in the way that they’ve talked about the future of this storyline. But it is evident now that a considerable number of Berena fans felt that they had been promised something that hasn’t been delivered, which has left a sour taste. I think it is that, and not a misplaced sense of entitlement (which has been the accusation from some quarters), that has done much of the damage. Some feel unable to enjoy their fandom the way that they used to, by re-watching old scenes, or engaging with fan-created media. Some are deleting the digital content they’ve treasured for the past two years and more, and binning the more tangible mementos they’ve acquired along the way. Some have said they no longer feel able to watch Holby City, such is their sense of having been led on. This is evidently not the outcome any programme maker wants.  

Clearly there has been some kind of disconnect between what the producers and so on thought they were saying to Berena fans, and what was understood by Berena fans. I’m going to mention a couple of instances of potential miscommunication – not to implicate the individuals concerned, but to highlight where there are opportunities for this disconnect to develop. 

Early on in the Berena story, when Serena first told Bernie that she was falling in love with her, Bernie panicked and took a secondment to Ukraine, which took her off-screen for two months. During that time, fans anxious about when, if, and how she would return used Twitter to voice their concerns and ask questions of Catherine Russell. Her reassuring response was:

I need immediately to say that I am not criticising Russell for tweeting. I think it’s obvious that her openness with fans via Twitter (and often in person) has been a significant part of the Berena experience for a great number of people. She has been extremely generous in the time and energy she devotes to interacting with fans, as well as taking up fights with the bigots who occasionally find their way into the conversation. I include this tweet only to illustrate how these things can be interpreted, and also how – particularly where there’s a neat hashtag – they take on a life of their own: it’s been more than 18 months since Russell herself used #keepthefaith. It was probably intended only to refer to short term outcomes, like their reunion when Bernie returned from Kiev, but it has been used consistently by fans ever since, typically as a response to doubts about the couple’s future. In fact, it was still being used in tweets a couple of days after Bernie left the show, by fans looking to offer hope that she might eventually come back. 

For those involved in television, this probably looks like a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t situation, and perhaps it is; Twitter is not always the ideal platform to accommodate setting out the parameters of what you’re saying. One thing is clear, though: pointing out after the fact that there are caveats does not go down well.  

Similarly, with both Serena and Bernie off-screen in 2017, Kate Hall told Digital Spy

“I can promise there’s no way I’d work so hard to create something I believe in so fundamentally and then just kick it into the gutter. 
“I’m overwhelmed and really gratified by the reaction that story has received, because I’m very proud of it. Of course we will return to it as and when the actors feel ready to return, but suffice to say, that’s a love story that remains.”

You’d have a hard time getting a forensic linguist to commit to this statement being a hard and fast promise of a happy ending – the meaning of ‘just kick it into the gutter’ is too vague. Since Hall was also talking about giving both actors a break, her idea of what it meant was probably something along the lines of not getting one or both of them back at all, or not picking up the story when one of them returned. ‘A love story that remains’ is also not as concrete as it might seem at first glance – remains at that point in time, while both characters are away from the hospital? Remains forever? What matters is that enough fans understood this to mean that there was no rush to end the Berena story, and that if and when it did end, it would end happily. 

Spoilers, not foilers
Despite the name, the weight of evidence from research on spoilers and their impact on (television) viewers suggests that they tend to have a positive impact on the experience of watching the episode when it airs. In research published earlier this year in Psychology of Popular Media CultureMorgan E. Ellithorpe and Sarah E. Brookes refer to a number of previous studies (often, though not always, by psychologists) to have found that spoilers can increase enjoyment. One explanation is that advance knowledge of events makes it easier for viewers to process them as they watch: any sacrifice in surprise is compensated for by pleasure taken in other elements, such as aesthetics, characterisation, and so on. Essentially, the emphasis, in viewing, is on the experience rather than on keeping up with the narrative thrust. This won’t be the case with foilers – tidbits of false information that lead viewers to expect something that isn’t actually going to happen. 

Ellithorpe and Brookes discuss ‘mental models’: viewer’s mental representations of a show’s story-world. The more someone watches a series, the more developed their ideas about characters, locations, relationships and so on. This mental model will be central in shaping that viewer’s expectations of what will happen as a television series progresses, as they use their understanding of the show as they have experienced it so far to predict what is likely to happen, how characters will react, and so on. Previous research has suggested that where the on-screen narrative doesn’t fit with viewers’ mental models, the disruption reduces enjoyment. A rethink is required. The Ellithorpe and Brookes study adds weight to this idea, finding that exposure to (accurate) spoilers, and fan theories, increases viewing enjoyment.

The reason I took particular interest in their research, however, was because they also talk about ‘parasocial relationships’ between viewers and characters. (As the pin badge on my rucksack says, my best friends are fictional.) These relationships aren’t a replacement for real-life relationships (i.e. this isn’t simply pseudo-friendship for the socially inept), but in addition to them. Specifically, Ellithorpe and Brookes look at ‘parasocial breakups’ – what happens when a character leaves a show, or the series ends. They theorised that viewers who were able to see a preview of the ‘breakup’ might find it easier to deal with, and suffer less distress as a result; their findings supported that hypothesis. 

“Exposure to spoilers and fan theories prior to the parasocial breakup can help to lessen the blow,” they suggest, “possibly by allowing fans to better prepare for the breakup”. Jonathan Gray and Jason Mittell also suggest that spoilers function as a kind of “narrative insulation”, allowing viewers to come to terms with less desirable events in a less emotional environment than while watching the show itself. 

The past month or so has been a painful illustration of how this works, with spoilers first revealing Serena’s infidelity and then teasing both positive and negative outcomes for her and Bernie. In light of what’s been said about the vulnerability to mental health problems such as anxiety of LGBTQ people generally, and about the entanglement of the Berena storyline with a number of fans’ own mental health, it isn’t surprising that this caused a lot of anguish, and fans have discussed what they consider to be the thoughtlessness of this strategy. It might be business as usual for Holby City, which regularly releases spoilers and foilers, as well as quarterly series trailers, but it didn’t play well with the audience most concerned with this storyline. Few seem to have felt that they needed such inducement to tune in to the episodes concerned. 

The nature of the more positive teasers was, it seems from some of the reactions prompted, a particular misjudgement. Two couples on the show have been planning their weddings: Serena’s nephew Jason and his partner Greta, as well as registrar Dom and his partner Lofty. But it was more than hinted that Bernie and Serena might end up being wed. The official synopsis for the 11 December episode was:

“A wedding is planned – and the happy couple need a Reverend to officiate the ceremony. Can Serena and Bernie overcome their issues? With their plan in chaos, what’s next for Jason and Greta? And when Dom realises he must fight for his relationship, will a grand gesture be enough to win Lofty back?”

Plus, Simon Harper was quoted in the Radio Times saying:

“After a dark year for the hospital, Holby is now revving up for Christmas and 2019 in this joyous episode celebrating love and commitment in all their diverse forms. As to which Holby couple ends up actually tying the knot, I couldn’t possibly divulge…”

Berena fans have been talking about a wedding almost as long as the pair have been an item, and this was certainly not a conversation that remained amongst the fandom only. Clearly these teasers make no promises, but they dangle the possibility. During Bernie’s return in June 2018, Greta called her “Serena’s wife”, to which Bernie’s response was “No not quite; not yet, anyway.” Within moments this was taken up in fan conversations online as being a clue. In one of their final and most emotional conversations in June, Bernie’s line – “I love you, Serena Wendy Campbell” – was evocative of a wedding vow, and was read as another sign that the much-wanted wedding was coming. The teasers played into that.

Though their relationship was clearly going to suffer from what had happened between Serena and Leah, shortly before the 4 December episode aired, the official BBC Holby City twitter account posted this:

It seems here that we’re being encouraged to think that things will work out, and is especially convincing since the question comes from an official account, where the outcome is known. This question is not neutral, it’s a ‘positive polar question’ – that is, it offers the proposition that Berena can work things out as the most likely answer. To imply that this is less likely, it would have to be formulated along the lines of: ‘Can Berena work things out or not?’ (i.e. including the negative proposition).

By the end of the 4 December episode, Bernie had decided to resign her post in Nairobi and “come home”, prompting this post:

That is not to say that fans were somehow duped – intentionally or otherwise – by Holby City, but in the context of all that I’ve said here, and seeing the 11 December episode described as being ‘joyous’, they certainly were not given the “narrative insulation” that might have helped them to process the end of Bernie and Serena’s relationship. Of course the extent to which viewers have struggled to cope with what happened varies, and no broadcaster can be held responsible for the mental health of individuals, but I think there is a need for the BBC to reflect on how well it took these fans into account here. Holby City spoilers have often focused on Berena to an extent that is disproportionate to how central they are to that episode, so it would be hard to argue that the couple has not been used to ‘sell’ the show to social media users. Foilers are typically the bread and butter of mysteries and thrillers, and of pre-recorded reality competitions, where large amounts of money might depend on keeping things under wraps until they’re aired. Holby City does not have that defence, and being publicly funded, the BBC should be dependable in its willingness to put the wellbeing of its viewers ahead of other concerns. It is in the context of its status as a public service broadcaster that the teasing of the past month or so, which has caused such a lot of distress, looks so misjudged. 

It’s not impossible to please LGBTQ viewers
It might be argued that these reactions were unavoidable – that some Berena fans were always going to react this way to the final episodes, but I think that does a huge disservice, certainly to the fans that I have engaged with. Yes, there were a few who liked to imagine that as long as Holby continued, so would Berena, but the vast majority of fans I have encountered, acknowledged that the storyline could not go on forever. Many braced for a break-up when Bernie returned in June, and indeed we watched them end their relationship, in tears on the floor of a hospital corridor, only to be given a last-minute reprieve. The promises they made to each other at the end of the episode bolstered some fans’ belief that Berena were indeed ‘end game’.

The executive producer Simon Harper’s recent comments about the pressure from fans were disappointing, because I would argue that Berena fans have been extraordinarily accommodating over the past couple of years. A couple of examples, from several more, to illustrate:

In late 2016/early 2017, many fans wanted Serena’s daughter to survive the accident that killed her, so that Bernie and Serena wouldn’t be plunged into a (depressingly familiar) tragic situation almost immediately after beginning their relationship; though I know of some viewers who stopped watching after Elinor died, most adjusted to the new reality and even talked about how having this tragedy to overcome would bring the couple closer together. When what we saw on screen was Serena’s loss pushing them apart, again there was evident emotional and mental labour in online fan spaces to find a less painful way to parse this, to imbue it with meaning that preserved the strength of Bernie and Serena’s feelings for one another. 

More recently, when advance publicity teased the possibility that Serena would become involved with Leah (and caused the first wave of distress), fans reassured one another that, because of her back story since 2012, cheating was something that Serena would never do. In some cases, fans even chastised others for believing the spoilers, so convinced were they that it couldn’t happen. When it did happen, again we saw a willingness and an effort among fans to provide narrative understandings of why Serena would do something so out of character, and so at odds with their expectations for Berena. 

This is a fandom that has shown on a number of occasions that it can and will roll with the punches. So how have we ended up at a point where a noticeable contingent of its members feel they’ve been so badly let down – worse still, lied to? Several of the discussions I’ve been involved in about this since last Tuesday have included fans who feel that the ending was so contrary to what had gone before, and to what they felt they’d been told to expect, that they wonder if it was intended to upset them to this degree. Why else, they ask, would the show save the relationship at the last second in June, only to break it apart for real the next time Bernie appeared, and right before Christmas, already one of the harder times of year for many LGBTQ people? Fans have suffered through crass dark-and-light juxtapositions before: Elinor’s fatal collapse was spliced between scenes from a happy (heterosexual) wedding. Now having watched Bernie and Serena split up at the reception of a double wedding, having watched Serena catch the bouquet just as Bernie walks out of the door, they worry that this is some kind of punishment for the pressure that Harper referred to. (Not helped by the speed with which the Holby Instagram page posted a BTS photo of Serena with Leah and Bernie.) The notion is hurtful for fans and, I don’t doubt, for those who brought Berena to our screens. 

Starting points
This is the closing section, but I think it’s better to talk in terms of where we go from here than conclusions. Essentially, we have two sets of people with their own versions of normal, their own understanding of what’s realistic, of what can be expected to happen when two women fall in love at Holby City Hospital. For some fans, the answer will be not to watch again, while for the producers, there may be a temptation to avoid this kind of storyline for a time; either would be a shame, I think, given all the good that Berena has brought on both sides over the past couple of years. 

We want more, not fewer, Sapphic love stories on our screens, from the BBC and everybody else. 

By now it probably sounds like a bit of an effort, and for a group looking for special treatment. Yes, it is, and yes, we are. There is no neutral starting point here: behind us all there are decades of invisibility and misrepresentation, of miserable endings, and middles, and beginnings. We have been and continue to be hurt, in ‘the real world’ and the unreal. Yes, we’re hungry for any representation, grateful even, but we cannot afford to be beholden, to be cowed by the threat of being labelled ungrateful when harm is done. And harm has been done in recent weeks. Speak to any of the fans who have kept an eye on friends and asked strangers to promise them they’re safe. 

Throughout this piece I have not accused the BBC of anything more sinister than naivety and the thoughtlessness that such naivety breeds. The producers of Holby City had no idea what they were starting when they brought Berena to life; most of this is mishap rather than misdemeanour. But if this post can be part of some kind of intervention, a response that helps Holby, the BBC, whoever, to do better, well then the past week of sleepless nights and painful conversations will at least have done something. And, given that it has been suggested that viewers were supposed to find the ending hopeful of a Berena reunion in the long term, we have to ensure that fans hurt this time around feel able – safe – to engage should this ever transpire, and that Holby City can indeed invite them to.

On Saturday, the writer of the 11 December episode tweeted about how he felt about the (not entirely, but largely) negative reaction he’d seen: “I’m bummed out to see everyone so bummed out,” he said. It must be incredibly difficult to be tasked with writing a breakup for a popular couple, do the best you can with it, and then see fans saying they can’t even bear to think about it. As someone who has written for a living, I know how much even a simple “it was okay” can bash the ego. I’ve made pretty strong criticisms of the episode on Twitter and I stand by them, but I have a huge amount of respect for a writer who was prepared to engage with me and others on the topic, and talk about the criticism as a learning experience when his first instinct (as it would be anyone’s) was to be defensive. It gives me hope that the BBC will be receptive to constructive criticism, and to the idea that for some viewers at least, it got things wrong. If programme makers are not prepared to think about the sorts of things that I’ve discussed here, to build the needs of LGBTQ audiences into their thinking from the get-go, then who and what are they doing it for? 

My thanks to the Berena fans, lawyers and one stray social psychologist who helped me to think about and draft this very, very long post. Some things are missing because it was just getting to such a monstrous length, but if you’d like to add anything, please feel free to leave a comment. As I said, this is a starting point.

16 thoughts on “First, Do No Harm

  1. Just commenting again! So much of what you said have been my thoughts for so long. It's great to see you amongst others putting forward intelligent responses. I hope all involved get a chance to read this, I for one won't just get a grip


  2. Interesting, well-researched, and well written article ; there are a few things I don't agree with – in the It’s not impossible to please LGBTQ viewers part mostly – it's always tricky not to slip from \”a majority of the fans\” to \”the fans\” but I think that even though this is a strong fandom, there are some diverging opinions. Otherwise, congratulations and thank you for all your work on Berena


  3. Thank you for expressing how I feel. Berena started for me as two professional friends who managed to put their egos aside and work together in a way rarely seen in real life or on TV. Then the romance grew and it was beautiful. Of course nothing lasts forever in TV land but this could have lasted longer or ended differently without causing such distress to the fandom . The June episodes seemed to promise us more and better Berena content in the future and this has added to the hurt and disappointment felt by fans who have waited to see a couple get their happy ending. The anxiety caused by the spoilers shows a lack of regard to the fandom and I hope that something can be learnt from that in the future


  4. Nail. Head. Perfect. We were tempted out of our shells with promises, we supported them – so much so that the show was being talked about in places it never had been. The profile of the show was raised – they received plaudits and kudos, not to mention Awards. Of course the relationship would probably end – but there were a great deal of \”Berena is endgame\” comments – enough that those of us bitten before actually believed them. If they ended it in June – that would have been accepted, I believe, by the majority of fandom. They didn't though – they once again made promises – we had \”for eternity\” mentioned on screen. Then a tawdry and unprofessional \”affair\” (which was apparently forgiven – trust me…that's not an easy thing to forgive) and suddenly it was over. It was the baiting from the official account, the obvious rubbish spouted by producers in interviews, the teasing – they went too far. Crossed the line. We've been battered enough – thanks for sticking the knife in, Holby City. And thank YOU, for such a wonderfully written and researched article.


  5. Yes I really dislike this idea that people ought just to 'get over it'. Rather easier said than done, and that sort of comment shows the gulf that exists between our understanding of this experience, and others' sense of it.


  6. Thanks Sandra. As I've said on Twitter, I don't think it can be emphasised enough how much more easily people might have coped with things ending in June. It's such a shame that people are left feeling like this, instead, and I think it would have been entirely predictable to anyone with a sense of wlw storylines historically.


  7. (Damn, my original comment seems to have fallen into the special black hole reserved for vanishing blog comments and single socks. Let's see if I can recreate it…) Thanks, Georgina, for this incredibly well-researched piece on the impact of the story line. They had so much going for them in this storyline, but seem to have badly lost their way somewhere. I strongly believe this underlines the need to have diversity in creative/production teams, because, clearly, Holby thought they were doing a great job with the representation, including how the story has ended (so far; I think we are going to have more). I feel so badly let down, after allowing myself to become emotionally invested. When stories are upbeat, we harp on about how fiction reflects the human condition, and the power stories have, but when things go the other way, we are told \”it's just a story, get a grip\”. Doesn't work both ways, guys!


  8. An excellent account. The foilers in the lead up to the episode were cynical in the extreme. How Holby can simultaneously claim to be bearers of representation who understand the vulnerabilities of this minority audience, whilst also at the same time pumping out false information designed to raise people’s hopes is beyond me. Completely irresponsible behaviour, and now they see fit to just wash their hands of it all. They ought to be ashamed.


  9. When LGBTQ representation become more prevalent on tv in recent decades (as with disability), initially the character was a 'gay character'. That was their thing. That has, quite rightly evolved, so that a gay character, is a character in their own right, who just happens to be gay. And as an aspect of who they are, can be part of their storylines. For me, its regressive to expect that LGBTQ characters get special treatment, where they don't break up (relationships break up a lot in soaps!) , don't cheat on each other etc (this happens a lot in soaps) – they do, just as about every other soap character will.Drama is based on conflict, so there's unlikely to be many/any 'live happily ever after' stories.And I don't think its right to attempt to restrict creative drama writers, by seeking to dictate what they can and cant do with characters or storylines. The 'baiting'/teasing stuff, I think only exists in some people's minds. With respect, I don't think anyone can justifiably claim to be traumatised by the break up of a fictional relationship, between two fictional characters, on a soap opera.


    1. I agree with you to the extent that I don’t think we should need to be giving advice to writers on how to handle queer characters – but evidently we do, since they keep doing such a bad job of it. In the space of a month, Holby City had four queer women on screen: Serena, Leah, Bernie, and Lola. In that month, all four women were seen cheating, admitted to cheating, or spoke in such a way as to suggest they had been sexually promiscuous. Does that seem like fair or representative treatment? According to Ofcom, which now regulates BBC content, the repeated use of the same storyline for characters identified in the same way constitutes ‘inauthentic portrayal’. I don’t think it needs to be the case that every viewer, or every queer woman, finds this offensive for it to be a matter for the BBC to pause and reflect. And I respectfully disagree about trauma: I know of at least half a dozen women who are speaking to a therapist about the impact of this. One person was, unfortunately, hospitalised. For a considerable number of people, Berena was a safe space, a respite from the world, and the way the storyline ended has robbed them of that.


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