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Jacqueline Jossa & Andrew Langford on Portraying Alcoholism on Screen

Sarah M

We've been working hard on Lauren's current storyline, as we show her dark descent into alcoholism.  It's such an important issue, and one which affects many people's lives at an increasingly young age, so we were determined to get it right. From the make up to the script to Lauren's physical symptoms, we consulted charities with a wealth of experience at every step along the way. Here Jacqueline Jossa and Andrew Langford from The British Liver Trust explain what it was like to tackle this storyline.  

Jacqueline Jossa: 

When I was first told about Lauren’s storyline, I was really excited - but also wanted to do it justice as it is an important issue that many people face. I really didn't want to let anyone down.

The writers did a huge amount of research and I was given a lot of information about the issue. I also watched documentaries to get a greater understanding of the problems people faced. I looked at how other actors portrayed being drunk to see what I could learn. The in-depth research EastEnders did with the charities really helped, as did the fact that I have such great people to work with.

Although filming was at times difficult, as an actress, it was a great experience.  It was quite sad to have to take the character so low, as you really feel for Lauren. At the start there were some funny moments where I had to be willing to completely embarrass myself, but as the story moved on it became more intense.  Portraying Lauren drunk was hard because every person acts differently when they've been drinking. I had to decide how she would act, and how that would change at different stages.

If Lauren was my friend I would have tried to have been there for her, calm her down, told her mum and dad that something is not right and that she needed help. There were clear signs a long time ago, yet not only did Lauren often cover up what she was doing, other people just stayed back and let her go about her business, getting worse and worse.  Tanya is the one who realises she needs to do something drastic to help Lauren and she manages to convince Max to agree, but they could have been a lot more involved and helped her from the beginning. When they took her to the doctor a year ago they should have been watching her more and protecting her from the train wreck of their family.

It wasn't one thing that drove Lauren to drink, it was a number. She drank to forget so when things weren't going great, she would drink. When she had a problem with Joey, she confided in the bottle. When she had fights with Whitney and Lucy, she found a new friend in the alcohol - and then started to depend on it. And, obviously, she has always had problems with the family and secrets she has had to keep.

Andrew Langford from The British Liver Trust:

At what stage were you brought into the process with EastEnders on this storyline?

It has been amazing just how professional everyone at EastEnders has been – the desire for accuracy has been outstanding from everyone.  The EastEnders production team involved us initially in the early scripting stages and then in the actual filming too, which enabled us to support them in making the storyline as factual and accurate as possible.

How did your experience and advice help influence Jacqueline Jossa and Jo Joyner’s portrayals?
Teenage alcoholism is a very personal and emotive issue – through working together, we created a very honest and believable set of scenes that show the effects on a young person with a drinking problem and all those around them. Jacqueline is amazing in her portrayal, and as her liver begins to fail she gets it so right in how someone would feel and behave; right down to the persistent scratching due to her liver not working properly and the build-up of bile salts within the body. The make-up team were also very attentive and fully understood the need to make Lauren’s skin and eyes jaundiced.

I am most proud of the way in which Tanya, as a mum, has reacted to Lauren’s illness – the scene made me cry, especially as it dawned on her that her daughter may be dying. If Jo Joyner doesn’t win awards for this there is no justice (well not in TV land anyway!)

What are the tell-tale signs to look out for in someone you know who may have a problem with alcohol?

As Jacqueline has shown, the signs are varied ranging from mood swings, increased lethargy and depression, through to the socioeconomic problems of begging, borrowing or stealing to get funds to buy more alcohol.

What are the main symptoms of liver disease?

Unfortunately, liver disease can be a 'silent killer', because often there are no signs or symptoms until the liver is severely diseased. Signs to look out for are abdominal pains, especially below the ribs on the right hand side, darker urine, floating fatty poo and any 'jaundice' / yellowing of the skin or eye balls. For some there maybe changes in mood, memory loss or a general 'fogginess' in their thoughts.

Did you have any concerns that EastEnders might glorify underage drinking?

Any concerns were allayed once I'd read the draft scripts. There is nothing to glorify about teenage alcoholism or any liver disease. We have to remember that people die of alcohol-related liver disease and unfortunately more and more are dying every year. Liver disease in the UK is the fifth biggest killer disease and the only one that is increasing year on year. Because so many are dying young, the average age now of someone dying of a liver disease is 57.

How are underage drinkers getting hold of alcohol, and why is it proving so dangerous?

There are many ways in which the young are getting their hands on alcohol – at home, through poor surveillance in shops and supermarkets and for some they can even get it delivered to their home using either their own debit card or their parent’s credit cards. Young people also have a very good knowledge of what’s best to drink to get drunk and how to enhance the effect of alcohol, e.g. energy drinks.

Recent evidence shows that children as young as nine are being treated in hospital for alcohol-related illnesses. Figures from Lancashire Teaching Hospitals also revealed during 2012/13 a total of 60 teenagers aged between 13 and 15 attended the emergency department with alcohol-related conditions – this is not unique to Lancashire and reflects the sorry state of affairs throughout the country.

Why is it important for this issue to be shown on screen and what are your hopes for the storyline?

Having this storyline on a major British soap allows us to get a message across to millions – I hope teenagers themselves take notice and reflect on their own drinking habits. I think there will be a huge reaction from parents of teenagers who recognise some of Lauren’s drinking habits from their own children. With either group I hope it will result in action.

Help and Information

If you've been affected by the issues in EastEnders, check here to find what further resources are available.

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