Fans of Emmerdale this week were horrified to see character Paul Ashdale attack his son Vinny in a heated argument over Paul’s gambling addiction.
When Vinny told Paul to tell his new fiance about his gambling problem, Paul turned violent, knocking his son to the ground with a garden trellis and kicking him repeatedly in the back.
When Vinny came to, Paul had calmed down, saying: “I’m sorry but you did push me… I’ll tell her. I’ll tell her everything I’ve done – all of it. But not now the mood she’s in, I can’t. I’ll tell her tomorrow…”
Many viewers were disgusted by the scene’s violence, with some writing complaints, concerned that it aired two hours before the 9 pm watershed.
Like most climactic scenes in soaps, it was dramatic. But was it a fair representation of gambling addiction? What does a scene like this tell viewers at home about how a gambling addiction looks and the shame it warrants?
Problem gambling is a real and unfortunately common issue in Britain, affecting up to 2.7% of adults – nearly 1.4 million people – according to a 2020 YouGov study.
It comes with devastating effects, often causing people to turn to desperate measures. We’ve all seen sensational headlines about the tragic outcomes of problem gambling, including just last week when we learned of former Love Island contestant Scott Thomas, whose addiction drove him to go through his gran’s handbag for money.
Soaps have every right to include the good and ugly of the human experience into their storylines. To bring in viewers, it makes total sense to pack as much shock action into an hour of programming as possible.
But I worry for the people at home grappling with a problem similar to Paul’s. Seeing this ‘baddie’ character so ashamed of his problem that he would rather attack his son than admit his problem to a loved one sends a severe message about the abhorrence of addiction.
There’s a level of care television broadcasters are obliged to use when dealing with all scopes of social issues, such as cancer, domestic abuse, racial and religious injustice. It’s the voice over the credits who says: “If you’ve been affected by what you’ve seen in today’s programming, call…”
But that message will likely fall on deaf ears if the programme has conflated gambling addiction with extreme, aggressive behaviour. This unrelatable character will do nothing to help those suffering recognise their problem, nor make them feel comfortable enough to face it.
Soaps could handle gambling addiction more responsibly by showing how subtly it starts, how it can affect families and, eventually, how it can be controlled. A more realistic take on serious problem gambling has the power to do more good than this pantomimed over-exaggeration.
Using addiction as a contrived plot device is dismissive of the people really suffering. When a society chooses to point-and-shame rather than understand and support, there is far less hope for rehabilitation.
If you or somebody you know is struggling with problem gambling, you can gain more information by reading our responsible gambling guide, or learning how to take a break or control your spending.