Thank You For Not Smoking (on film and TV sets)

June Brown (Dot) in Eastenders lights up in memory of Jim. Photo: Jack Barnes/BBC
Matthew Hemley
Matt is news editor for The Stage, having started as the newspaper’s broadcast reporter. He covers all areas of the industry in his role, but has a particular interest in musical theatre. Matt studied acting at Bretton Hall and presents a monthly theatre news round up on BBC London Radio.
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Imagine, if you will, these scenes I’ve penned for EastEnders…

Scene One: Interior of the Queen Vic.Chain-smoker extraordinaire Dot Branning is sitting at a table, about to light a cigarette. Peggy Mitchell, aka Barbara Windsor, pops up from behind the bar.

Peggy: Sorry Dot darling, you can’t smoke that in here. Smoking ban an’ all that. You’ll have to take it outside or do it in the comfort of your own home. Now put it down or gerrout my pub!

Dot: Really? Blimey, things have changed, Peggy. I remember when everybody loved a smoky bar. Suppose I’ll have to wait until I get home.

Scene Two: A short while later. Dot is in her lounge, about to light up. Peggy, aka Barbara Windsor, pops up from behind the sofa.

Peggy: Actually, you can’t smoke that here either. This isn’t real life, it’s a film set, and smoking is prohibited in all enclosed public spaces or work places – including your fake lounge. Sorry love.

Fortunately for us, I’m not a screenwriter and, as it happens, Dot would be allowed to light up in her ‘fake lounge’ as EastEnders is filmed in England, and the law here allows performers to smoke on stage and screen for artistic reasons.

In Scotland and Wales however the smoking ban does not include an exemption for film sets.

[pullquote]I think it’s a shame at a time the BBC has decided to make Cardiff a drama hub – a centre of excellence – that something such as filming an actor smoking in character is putting its own productions at risk[/pullquote]

In Wales moves are afoot to address that, with Welsh Assembly members preparing to vote on an exemption that would allow performers to light up a cigarette on film sets where “the artistic integrity of the performance makes it appropriate for the performer to smoke”.

Those in favour of the exemption, including producers’ body PACT, have argued that companies are being put off filming dramas in Wales because of the current ban. This, they claim, is bad for the Welsh economy.

Meanwhile, BBC Wales has argued that there should be an exemption because it is costing them money to film smoking scenes for its own productions in England.

I think it’s a shame at a time the BBC has decided to make Cardiff a drama hub – a centre of excellence – that something such as filming an actor smoking in character is putting its own productions at risk and under increased financial pressure. It seems ludicrous that they should have to consider going to Bristol to film some scenes, probably no more than a few minutes’ long, just to avoid breaking the law.

I understand there are concerns, with critics claiming that bringing an exemption in could be bad for actors’ health. Cancer Research has given evidence suggesting actors could become “pressurised into smoking and run the risk of becoming addicted”.

But I would hope that producers and actors would discuss whether a character absolutely needs to smoke, and that any actor who doesn’t want to would be supported in their decision. If it is essential for a scene, then I would hope a non-smoking actor would be given an alternative to a real cigarette, though I am aware that this is not always great for authenticity and that CGI is expensive.

I should add I am not a smoker, and I don’t like the habit. But I wouldn’t want to not see it on television, as it’s part of everyday life, and like anything else should be depicted. It would be bizarre if we didn’t see it at all.

And at a time when Equity is trying to encourage more productions to be written and made in the nations and regions, an exemption in Wales could be very welcome indeed.