The Power of Soap Opera

Corrie fan or not, open up STV player right now. Those of you who didn’t flock to your TV and computer screens to say your last goodbyes to Hayley Cropper last week: it’s not too late, and you won’t regret it. Hayley’s death, broadcast on Monday 20th January, formed a controversial and masterfully handled episode which showcased soap opera’s staggering ability to deliver gritty, serious storylines.

It’s certainly not the first time a soap has tackled a hard-hitting subject featuring in the social limelight. In fact, it happens all the time. Whether they’re catalysing debates about sexuality, disability, infidelity, surrogacy, adoption, or crime, soaps have got it covered. Soap opera is arguably a progressive art form. In 1989, Eastenders broadcast the first gay kiss on television to an outraged audience which, in 2010, hardly batted an eyelid at Sian and Sophie’s open lesbian relationship on the Street. Similarly, sixteen years ago, Julie Hesmondhalgh walked onto the cobbles as Hayley, the first ever transgender woman on television. She lost her job and battled for acceptance on the Street, but by 2014, Hesmondhalgh’s sympathetic portrayal of Hayley has made her a well-loved character. She is now a patron of two transgender pressure groups, and has transformed attitudes towards gender in the make-believe suburbs of Manchester and beyond.

Music, art, and film have made radical gestures in subjects of social taboo for decades, even centuries. So what gave Coronation Street the power to draw an audience of 10,000,000 and prompt not only 8,000 tweets per minute during airing on Monday but a rough 30% rise in calls to Samaritans?

Most British Soaps have got a hardcore following. Growing up before the birth of Channel 4 + 1, we all knew that if you turned the TV on after six thirty, you’d missed The Simpsons and were about to get a dose of Hollyoaks and Emmerdale. Love soaps? You’re probably addicted. Hate soaps? You’ve probably sat through enough episodes to know you don’t want to get addicted. Whether it’s in the street, on the subway, or at work, most people know about the big Soap stories whether they care or not. In a sense, it’s like we’re all included. Coronation Street specialises in creating unpretentious characters to whom we can relate. The script ranges from chit-chat and farcical comedy to bitchy gossip sessions and pub brawls which mirror our own, albeit slightly more boring, lives. Thus, where Corrie is involved, it’s as if everyone becomes a big dysfunctional family, united by the profound enjoyment we experience when Norris sticks his nose in, Steve gets remarried, or Underworld secures an important order. But most importantly, everyone loves a domestic tragedy. This is where Hayley comes in.

We have grown up knowing Hayley. Not only can we imagine what how she feels, we think we know how she feels. The chronological, ‘real time’, nature of the soap opera allowed us to experience the onset of Hayley’s cancer, her struggle, her decision, and the action itself. We heard both sides of the ‘Right To Die’ debate, manifested in Roy’s stubborn rationalism and love for Hayley which made him desperate to dissuade her from her suicide plan.

Hayley’s death scene contrasted many others of its kind. Film and television often presents suicide as a sensationalised event; sometimes shocking, sudden or gory without the everyday details which are so inherent to soaps. In fact, so sensitive was the handling of Hayley’s death that some anti-suicide groups expressed concern that the death might provoke a series of “copy-cat” suicides in vulnerable people. Coronation Street stressed that it felt it was important that they did not “sentimentalise” suicide but it’s certainly true that in some ways, the predictability and familiarity of Hayley and Roy’s characters made the death somewhat more comfortable. Hayley was on top form, admitting “I can’t pretend I’m not scared” but retaining her usual positive attitude which made her unwavering willingness to die seem almost heroic or martyr-like. When Anna and Carla’s discovery of Hayley in the arms of Roy happily coincided with the last soaring note of Vaughan William’s The Lark Ascending, I have to admit I questioned the plausibility of such a dramatically effective coincidence.

Having said this, Hayley’s suicide was far from a pretty affair. I don’t believe anyone watched her choke on that frothing, lethal concoction of drugs without cringing. Her goodbye to Roy was surprisingly less cringe worthy; the couple’s performances were heartfelt but elegant. Controversial and shocking as the episode may have been, Coronation Street has once again sparked an important debate amongst the public on a serious moral issue which has religious, cultural, and international nuances.

I for one doff my cap to the ITV Empire for reminding us what soaps are really capable of.

Chin up, Roy.

[Florence Glanfield]

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