Seven of EastEnders’ most controversial storylines

From Ronnie Mitchell's baby swap storyline to Whitney Dean being groomed

eastenders controversial storylines

by Brooke Pollock |
Updated on

In the 38 years that EastEnders has been on our screens, there have been a lot of storylines that have ruffled feathers, with some even gaining thousands of Ofcom complaints.

With the show being on our screens for almost four decades, we thought it was time we took a look back at character hardships that probably gave BBC bosses a right headache.

Ronnie Mitchell baby swap storyline

eastenders ronnie mitchell baby swap
ronnie swaped her baby with kat slater's ©BBC

In 2011, Ronnie Mitchell [Samantha Womack], and her then-husband Jack Branning [Scott Maslen] had a baby named James. However, their happiness was short-lived as within days of being born, their baby died from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

Devastated, Ronnie swapped James with Kat Slater’s [Jessie Wallace] newborn Tommy Moon. She immediately regretted her decision and struggled to bond with the swapped child. However, it was too late to return Tommy to Kat as James had been found, and Jack returned from a business trip and met Tommy believing him to be his son.

Due to her mental state, Ronnie was banned from attending Kat and Alfie's 'son's' funeral, but she ignored their wishes and went anyway. Ronnie finally admits to what she did and is sentenced to a few years in prison, with Kat eventually forgiving her.

The storyline received over 13,000 complaints.

Jack Branning tortured by Phil Mitchell

eastenders jack branning
jack getting tortured by phil ©BBC

After Phil Mitchell [Steve McFadden] found out from Mel Owen [Tamzin Outhwaite] that his wife Sharon [Letitia Dean] had been having an affair with Keanu Taylor [Danny Walters], he went on a wild rampage to try and find out who her side piece was.

After Mel’s funeral (she died while in a car chase with none other than Sharon), a highly suspicious Phil watched Jack comfort Sharon and became convinced that Jack was the other man.

Jack was then kidnapped by Phil, taken to the Arches, badly beaten and doused in petrol. Before anything fatal could happen, Phil’s son Ben [Max Bowden] and his future son-in-law Keanu arrived and luckily, Phil let Jack go.

He later found out that his daughter Louise’s [Tilly Keeper] flame was the culprit.

Ofcom received over 100 complaints.

Whitney Dean groomed by Tony King

eastenders bianca tony whitney
tony had been abusing an underage whitney ©BBC

In 2008, Bianca Jackson [Patsy Palmer] reunited with Tony King [Chris Coghill], who was newly released from prison. He continued his relationship with Bianca’s underage daughter Whitney Dean [Shona McGarty].

However, after many twists and turns, including Whitney getting jealous that her mum and Tony are engaged and Tony punching Peter Beale [then played by Thomas Law], Bianca finally found out what her scummy fiancé has been up to on Whitney’s 16th birthday when she confesses everything.

The storyline received 200 complaints between September and December 2009.

Kathy Beale rape storyline

eastenders kathy beale
kathy beale on eastenders ©BBC

In EastEnders’ early history, Walford legend Kathy [Gillian Taylforth] was raped by James Willmott [William Boyde].

Kathy was employed by James at his pub The Dagmar - a rival pub to the Vic - as a barmaid and the two became friends, to the displeasure of her then-husband Pete Beale [Peter Dean] who could see that James was interested in her.

After arguing with Pete during one episode, her boss offered her a glass of wine back at his house, which she accepted. However, after a drink, James made unwanted advances towards Kathy but he wouldn’t take no for an answer and led to him sexually assaulting her.

However, when Kathy bravely reported the incident, she was not believed by a police officer.

In real life, this caused complaints from the police who said in a statement, "After all the work the police have done to reassure the public that rape victims will receive a sympathetic and understanding response, it's disappointing to see the police portrayed in a way that is certainly not accurate and which will do nothing to encourage the reporting of this despicable crime.

"If we gave evidence which was at least 10 years out of date, we would be rightly criticised. This programme has done nothing to help victims, public or police combating rapists."

A spokesman for the BBC then said, "The storyline is continued in Thursday's episode and we would ask people to draw their conclusions afterwards. We hope they will then agree that the subject has been handled responsibly."

Max Branning buried alive

eastenders tanya max
tanya and max on eastenders ©BBC

Max Branning [Jake Wood] was buried alive by his wife Tanya [Jo Joyner] after she discovered that he had been having an affair with his soon-to-be daughter-in-law Stacey Branning [Lacey Turner].

In the two-episode saga, viewers saw Tanya drug Max’s drink before she drove him to Epping Forest with Sean Slater [Robert Kazinsky] and burying her husband in a coffin while he was very much still alive.

Max eventually woke up and realised what Tanya had done. Luckily, she had a change of heart, set him free, was strangled by him but then they brushed it off.

However viewers didn’t think Tanya's actions were fine as there were over 700 complaints made to both the BBC and Ofcom.

Ben Mitchell rape storyline

eastenders ben mitchell
ben and lewis on eastenders ©BBC

The rape storyline surrounding Ben Mitchell [Max Bowden] was an important but very controversial storyline when it aired in 2022.

After Ben had an argument with his husband Callum Highway [Tony Clay], he went for a drink with his friend Lewis Butler [Aidan O’Callaghan] and was raped. Ben struggled to deal with his ordeal and viewers saw his trauma unfold on our screens.

The BBC received 353 complaints.

All Black cast episode

eastenders patrick denise libby and lucas
patrick, denise, libby and lucas on eastenders ©BBC

In 2009, the soap did an episode that explored the background and story of Patrick Trueman [Rudolph Walker], who is one of the Square's longest-running characters.

In the episode, Patrick discussed being a young Black man in 1950s Britain and mentioned the Notting Hill race riots that took place in 1958.

The riots being spoken about were one of the biggest issues, the BBC confirmed, with the episode receiving nearly 2000 complaints.

The BBC defended its use of an all Black cast saying, “It is not unusual for EastEnders to devote a whole episode to a single storyline or set of characters, and this episode was one of these occasions.

"This was an opportunity to explore in some depth the background and experiences of Patrick Trueman, one of EastEnders' longest-standing and most popular characters."

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