Spoilers: EastEnders boss reveals Gray's future after he kills Chantelle

Chantelle Atkins (Jessica Plummer) is tragically killed by violent husband Gray (Toby-Alexander Smith) in EastEnders tonight (September 18).

Chantelle has been attempting to escape her abuser since the BBC One soap returned to screens on September 7.

The solicitor evidently became more abusive during lockdown, and thus Chantelle orchestrated an escape plan when the restrictions were lifted.

However, Gray has thwarted her escape at every opportunity, and in last night’s episode (September 17), he forced to return to No. 1 Albert Square.

Tonight, she is tragically killed at the hands of the abuser.

Ahead of tonight’s episode, Metro.co.uk spoke to EastEnders’ Executive Producer Jon Sen about Chantelle’s tragic end, the reason why it’s important for soaps to reflect the horrifying reality of domestic violence, and what the future holds for Gray.

Why did you decide to go down this specific route of domestic violence – where the victim doesn’t escape or find future happiness?

It’s important to reflect the terrifying statistics of domestic violence throughout the country and reflecting the truth of what actually happens. We wanted to tell a story that was the experience of real people that suffer at the hands of their abusers. 

The storyline was initially sparked by a Women’s Hour documentary that talked about the number of women who are killed by their partners. It struck us that we had seen so many storylines about domestic violence, it’s not a new subject for a soap to tackle, but we’d never seen that ending before.

When you hear the statistics you’re aware in the back of your mind that most women who are murdered are killed by their partner or someone close to them and yet we hadn’t seen that reflected in a serial drama – why was that?

It was about trying to reflect that sobering statistic and make people realise that it’s the awful reality for so many people who are subjected to domestic violence.

How do you prep the cast for storylines for this – before and during?

We take our research really seriously, Jess and Toby knew about the territory of the storyline before they joined so they knew the situation between Chantelle and Gray. We do a huge amount of research working with charities such as Women’s Aid, Refuge and Solace, as well as experts in the sector to make sure that we are reflecting issues accurately.

The charities also consult on not only the storylines but also the scripts to check that we’re giving a truthful reflection of the experience of people actually in those situations. 

We have a duty of care to the actors as well – not just Jessica who is having to go on a journey with her character which involves digging deep emotionally, but also to Toby. 

People often conflate the actor with the character and so we are very conscious of our duty of care to him as well. Making sure that he had the freedom to throw himself into the role whilst also being reassured that it wasn’t going to have any adverse effect on him. 

It was always our intention to introduce the characters, from the audience’s perspective, as the perfect couple – ‘instagram friendly’, no filter needed. If you saw them across the street you’d think ‘wow I want to be them!’

Their life looks so shiny and perfect but behind closed doors it was a much darker story. Both Jess and Toby knew that and their audition scenes were very focused on that subject matter so they were aware of what they were coming into from the outset.

When exploring the storyline – what did you have to consider in terms of the impact it would have going forward on the characters left behind?

There’s the aftermath for the Taylor family to deal with, when someone dies in these circumstances questions are asked, depending on how the characters feel about Gray and questions about whether they believe his story or not. 

We were also really keen to show complexity in Gray’s psychology going forward. He’s a man who is violent towards his wife and we’ve showed him having regret and shame about that.  

Reflecting the complexities behind a character like him,  rather than portray him as purely evil, because in trying to humanise it, it stops it feeling too othering for the audience. We wanted to be very clear that domestic violence like this exists on a sliding scale, the characters and their personalities are much more common than anyone would have you believe – they live amongst us. 

Why is it so important for charities and real victims to be involved in the development of storylines like this?

It’s important because we want to be accurate in our portrayal of an issue like domestic violence and there are key nuances and subtleties involved when you find out about the actual lived experience of someone who has been subjected to domestic abuse, things that you’d never be able to understand unless you talk to real survivors.

In order for us to be as authentic as possible, we get that information through research and talking to survivors in detail, enriching our understanding of their circumstances too. Otherwise you have to rely on cliché and it’s important to move away from that. 

EastEnders domestic violence – get support

Two thirds of women who were experiencing abuse from their partner/ex-partner in June told a Women’s Aid study that their abuser had started using lockdown restrictions or the Covid-19 virus and its consequences as part of the abuse.  (66.7% of those answering question – Women’s Aid Survivor Survey, June 2020).

At the height of lockdown over three quarters of women living with an abuser said they felt they could not leave or get away because of the pandemic. (78.6% of those answering question – Women’s Aid Survivor Survey, April 2020).

You can get support and information from Women’s Aid by visiting the website or contacting the free instant messaging service.

You can get support and information from Refuge – which holds a comprehensive and detailed guide to seeking help on the website.

With Gray for instance, I’ve been really strong about wanting to paint him as a 3D character, because the temptation is always to show good vs evil in these circumstances.

I wanted the character we wrote and Toby’s portrayal to echo amongst a broad range of the audience who might recognise some elements of that anger within themselves or people they know. Rather than painting him as an outright abuser, working with the charities has allowed us to get an insight into how those characters really exist in the world and that informed the storyline.

 What has the audience response to this particular storyline been?

In general it’s been passionate, engaged – people have been incredibly moved by what they’ve seen. I think that’s a credit to the writers and the actors.

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Our decision to culminate Chantelle’s story in the way that we are has caused comment and divided opinion, it’s really important that we discuss these issues and why we’ve chosen to go down this route.

We believe it will have the most beneficial affect for victims and it will shine a light onto the story in a way in which the traditional ‘ending’ simply wouldn’t have done.

EastEnders continues Friday September 18 at 8:30pm on BBC One.

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