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Last Updated: Sunday, 3 April, 2005, 22:59 GMT 23:59 UK
How well does TV and film tackle disease?
By Nick Triggle
BBC News health reporter

Johnny Briggs, who plays Mike Baldwin
Mike Baldwin is set to get Alzheimer's disease
A leading character in Coronation Street is going to get Alzheimer's Disease.

Mike Baldwin, played by 69-year-old Johnny Briggs, will begin to suffer the first signs of the disorder later this year.

Bosses at the ITV1 soap promise that it will be handled sensitively.

But what sort of track record does TV and the film industry have when it comes do the portrayal of illnesses?


When it comes to heart disease, TV and films are obsessed with one thing - heart attacks.

The stereotype is of someone collapsing from an attack and dying immediately.

But campaigners say about half of people who have heart attacks survive.

We all know television rarely reflects life perfectly, and it will always put drama ahead of truth
David Barker, of the British Heart Foundation

And the plight of the millions of people living with the debilitating effects of heart disease are also ignored, they say.

Jane Landon, associate director of the National Heart Forum, said: "On TV, heart disease is typically portrayed as a fatal heart attack which strikes without warning.

"This can happen but isn't consistent with the reality for many people."

She also said heart disease was commonly portrayed as a male affliction when more than 1m women in the UK were affected.

However, Ms Landon said one example of when the issue was well covered was in Coronation Street during Jack Duckworth's struggle with the fear and anxiety of having a heart attack, and the lifestyle changes needed.

David Barker, of the British Heart Foundation (BHF) said considering it was the single biggest killer in the UK, the condition was "woefully underrepresented".

"We all know television rarely reflects life perfectly, and it will always put drama ahead of truth."


Jim Broadbent and Dame Judi Dench
Iris was praised for the way it portrayed Alzheimer's disease

Coronation Street may be turning its attention to Alzheimer's Disease, but it is not the first time it has hit the screen.

The most famous example was the film Iris where Dame Judi Dench played writer Iris Murdoch, who developed the condition.

Julia Cream, of the Alzheimer's Society, said TV and films had a mixed history of using the condition in storylines.

She said: "It is very different for every individual. So a film like Iris which was well received did not ring true with everyone."

She said the 400,000 Britons with Alzheimer's and their carers were often most offended when the condition was poked fun at.

"In some programmes you have elderly characters who are forgetful and become comedy figures.

"The condition is never diagnosed as dementia or Alzheimer's, but the damage is still done."

She cited the character played by Stephanie Cole in the BBC sitcom Keeping Mum as an example of such treatment.

In the two series broadcast in 1997 and 1998, Cole played a ageing mother who, unable to look after herself, forced her son to stay at home to look after her.

Neither the producer, Stephen McCrum, or executive producer, Geoffrey Perkins, were available for comment.

But a BBC spokeswoman said shows always consulted with the relevant bodies when covering such topics.


The way Coronation Street handled the death of Alma Sedgewick in 2002 was typical of the way cancer is treated by scriptwriters, Cancer Research UK said.

The character, played by Amanda Barrie, died within a few months of being diagnosed and without contracting any of the symptoms.

"It happened too quickly," said Julia Frater, a cancer information nurse at the charity.

think if more effort was put in drama could both entertain and inform
Julia Frater, of Cancer Research UK

She said the problem was that writers almost always tried to fit the disease round the plot, rather than the plot round the disease.

"This does not really help us or people with cancer. I think if more effort was put in, drama could both entertain and inform."

A Coronation Street spokesman defended the portrayal, saying the cancer progressed so quickly as she had missed a smear test.

He also said it prompted many people to get smear tests, although a British Medical Journal paper two years ago warned it could have unduly worried audiences and placed a burden on the NHS.

Ms Frater also said another common problem was that the treatment people received could be unrealistic, but the public was fooled into thinking this is what they could expect.

In the Peggy Mitchell breast cancer storyline in EastEnders, the character was able to get her diagnosis back within days.

An EastEnders spokeswoman said writers and researchers were aware of the influence of the show.

"We try to make sure all the issues we cover are as close to real life as possible. EastEnders is watched by 11m people, so the reach is huge."


HIV and Aids have perhaps being one of the most popular conditions for films and TV to tackle.

The Mark Fowler storyline in EastEnders was widely applauded for the way it handled the plot.

Mark contracted HIV in 1991 and throughout the following 13 years until his death, the scriptwriters explored issues from antiretroviral drugs, safe sex and prejudice.

Tom Hanks
Tom Hanks' film Philadelphia helped to raise awareness about HIV

The storyline was so successful in raising awareness that in 1999 survey by the National Aids Trust found teenagers got most of their information about HIV from the soap.

But that does not mean it could not have been better, campaigners say.

Lisa Power, head of policy at the Terrence Higgins Trust, said in some ways the storyline was not reflective of what was happening at the time as the condition was more common among the gay community.

She also said he was perhaps killed off too early as advancements in drugs are helping people live for much longer.

"Saying that, one decent soap episode is worth a thousand leaflets in schools.

"That is why we would always go out of our way to help scriptwriters. TV and films can be very powerful."

Keith Winestein, campaigns manager at the National Aids Trust agrees. "The media is very powerful. When Tom Hanks won the Oscar for Philadelphia, it brought HIV, and, in particular, discrimination onto the international stage. How else can you do that?"

But Mr Winestein said sexual health in comparison had been largely ignored.

"I would like to see programmes send out a safe sex message. In sex scenes we could have a shot of condoms by the bed."


TV and films, similar to much of society, have a misguided impression of mental health, a leading charity says.

Andy Bell, of the Sainsbury Centre on Mental Health, said producers were obsessed with the dangers schizophrenia patients presented.

"Portrayals of mental health often focus on schizophrenia and the stereotype of a person who is in a hopeless situation.

"Death features heavily, whether it is suicide or killing another person.

"The US sitcoms are the worst, we still see terms like mad, psycho, loony and nutter used.

"When you consider that to how the handling of gay or black people has changed, mental health is way behind."

Mr Bell said the recent example to break the mould was the way in which EastEnders handled Joe Wicks, played by Paul Nicholls, developing schizophrenia.

At the time, the show's bosses worked closely with experts from the National Schizophrenia Fellowship to make the plot as accurate as possible.

Record audiences watched as the character slowly developed signs of mental illness, during which he plastered the walls of rooms with tinfoil.

Mr Bell said: "It was an excellent storyline, and, importantly for us, was very well-handled."

Iris, Alzheimer's and us
28 Mar 02 |  UK

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