Case study: Making a drama out of a disorder

Eating disorder charity Beat has built a relationship with the Hollyoaks team.

It is becoming increasingly common for charities to work with the producers of soaps to influence storylines, but Beat, the charity for people with eating disorders, has taken its partnership with the team responsible for Hollyoaks onto another level.

The charity has been in regular contact with the producers of the Channel 4 series for more than a year to advise them on a dramatic storyline that will result in one of the main characters starving herself to death - a first for a soap.

"We have long-standing relationships with a number of television producers," says Susan Ringwood, chief executive of Beat.

"We have worked hard to make sure we are helpful and provide case studies so that we are people's first port of call if they are doing anything on eating disorders. But it's taken a few years to get to this point.

"We feel that it's important to be cooperative because there are so many myths about eating disorders."

Beat has worked with the Hollyoaks producers before. This time, the soap approached the charity with the idea of having two characters in the series become competitive dieters.

"We have been in talks with them for more than a year, and discussions became more detailed over time," explains Ringwood.

"We were very impressed by Hollyoaks' attention to detail. They've developed a very strong storyline that ends with the death of one of the characters.

"Many people don't realise that 20 per cent of people who have eating disorders end up dying prematurely. Eating disorders have the highest death rate of any mental illness. That's an important message to get out there."

There is a link on the Hollyoaks website to Beat's site, where the charity has been conducting an online survey about body image. In the first week of the storyline, the questionnaire was downloaded 10,000 times.

Although the experience has undoubtedly been a positive one for Beat, Ringwood advises other charities to think carefully before embarking on similar projects.

"You must make sure you have the resources to get involved with something like this so that you don't feel overwhelmed," she says. "Things might go very quiet for a while, then suddenly the production team needs everything instantly. You need to be clear about your message, and don't be swayed to make things more sensationalist for entertainment purposes."

The charity does not receive a mention in the programme credits, but Ringwood insists that isn't an issue.

"In an ideal world, we would get our name mentioned," she says. "But if people search the internet for 'eating disorders', we know that our name will come up.

"What's most important is getting our message to exactly the right group of people - young people who might have issues about body image."

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