Emma Cowing: TV soaps getting serious

Transgender suicide Hayley Cropper (Julie Hesmondhalgh) with husband Roy (David Neilson). Picture: ITV
Transgender suicide Hayley Cropper (Julie Hesmondhalgh) with husband Roy (David Neilson). Picture: ITV
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Hayley Cropper’s suicide is only the latest example of soaps getting serious – with plots so traumatic they carry a public helpline alert

THE scene will be peaceful, under­stated. Tomorrow night, in front of millions of viewers, Coronation Street’s Hayley ­Cropper will get into bed, grasp her ­husband Roy’s hand and take her own life.

It is one of the most controversial ­storylines ever tackled by a British soap opera. A “helpline” episode – so-called because of the message that must follow afterwards providing a telephone number for anyone “affected by any issues in this programme” – in which a terminally ill cancer patient will kill ­herself.

Viewers and audiences alike have ­reacted strongly to the portrayal of euthanasia on a show that is on long before the watershed, when children are likely to be watching and some viewers simply prefer their storylines a little less, well, serious.

But Julie Hesmondhalgh, the actress who plays Cropper opposite David Neilson as Roy, says a positive ­message can be drawn from the plot. “It’s been absolutely brilliant that it’s started this conversation about the ‘right to die’ bill and so on,” she said last week. “I couldn’t be more pleased about that. That’s all that you can hope for – that people talk about these things in a real way, in a new way. It’s been ­wonderful.”

Of course, sensational plotlines are hardly new in the dramatic and dastardly world of soap operas. Indeed, Cropper, the soap’s first major transgender character, is familiar with them herself. So if it makes people talk about things “in a real way, in a new way”, is it worth it?

Here we look at ten pivotal moments where the soaps got serious.


Some plotlines never lose their ability to shock. When it was revealed in 1990 that Mark Fowler, played by the actor Todd Carty, had contracted HIV, some viewers felt it was a step too far in a society that still woefully misunderstood, and was hugely frightened by AIDS and HIV. Now however, looking back at a storyline where his parents reacted with horrified revulsion to his news – his father Arthur (Bill Treacher) in one famous scene refusing to eat food cooked by his son – it is their response that is shocking, accurately reflecting the prejudices of the time. Mark, although initially reluctant, received beneficial counselling at the Terrence Higgins Trust, and went on to portray just how possible it was to live a normal life with HIV, the storyline gave the charity, and HIV/AIDS awareness in general, a huge boost.


It was the smooch that launched Anna Friel’s career, and made Brookie (briefly) telly’s most popular soap. The kiss between Beth, played by Friel, and girlfriend Margaret (Nicola Stephenson) was TV’s first pre-watershed lesbian kiss when it aired in 1994, and although such things are now ten a penny on the box, at the time it caused such a stooshie that the offending smacker was removed from the omnibus edition. Sadly, theirs was not a love that would last, as Beth ended up in jail after murdering her violent and abusive father in a similarly controversial domestic abuse plotline and burying his body under the patio. She later died of a heart condition, and Friel got the call from Hollywood.


How do you top the ratings gold of a lesbian kiss? For the makers of Brookside, it seemed obvious: introduce some incest. Brother and sister Nat and Georgia Simpson (played by John Sandford and Helen Grace, above) conducted a torrid and passionate affair on-screen in 1996, despite knowing full well that they were siblings. While the viewers were in on the action from the start, it was only discovered by the rest of the family when the pair’s younger brother walked in on the couple in bed together. But if producers were trying to spice up the action, the racy storyline didn’t quite have the desired affect. Viewers left the series in droves, appalled by the tacky, Flowers in the Attic vibe, and the Simpson family departed Brookside Close soon after. Phil Redmond, creator of the show, later admitted: “We got it wrong.”


Scheduling a plane crash on a small town with the fifth anniversary of the Lockerbie bombing was always going to raise eyebrows and create headlines. The “Beckindale air disaster”, screened on 30 December 1993, killed four of the villagers in a dramatic episode that stretched the Emmerdale special-effects budget to breaking point. It also spun out a glacially-paced storyline over whether or not Eric Pollard (Chris Chittell) murdered his wife Elizabeth (Kate Dove) – who was about to report him for cheque fraud – that night. It was eventually revealed, 17 years later, that had been his plan. Thanks to the plane crash though, he didn’t have to go through with it. At the time of the original episode, ITV received a huge number of complaints about the insensitivity of the timing of the crash, while Emmerdale producers were accused of cashing in on the nation’s grief. The crash is still occasionally referred to in the soap, most recently in 2011.


Some plotlines are considered so controversial that they never actually make it to air. So it was with the child killing storyline in Hollyoaks, where two of the female characters admitted to murdering a child when they were 12 years old, a tale with too many similarities to the horrific murder in 1993 of the toddler Jamie Bulger. Bulger’s mother Denise Fergus was so upset by the revelation that she spoke out, suggesting the relating episodes be axed. Hollyoaks producers acquiesced, and the scenes were never transmitted. While soaps should undoubtedly reflect real life, this was one lesson in knowing where to draw the line.


It was the most complained-about story in EastEnders’ history: Ronnie Branning, played by Samantha Womack (below), swapped her dead baby for another child, drawing a massive 13,400 complaints by the BBC. The plot was also criticised by the Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (Sids) awareness campaigners, while Mumsnet complained that “as is all too common, a bereaved mother has been portrayed as deranged and unhinged”. The story concluded when baby Tommy was returned to his natural mother, Kat Moon (Jessie Wallace), and Ronnie was jailed for child abduction. Despite an avalanche of complaints, the plot was cleared by Ofcom, which ruled the scenes were not “unduly disturbing or graphic”.


“Farmageddon” as it became known – when Ruth Archer (Felicity Finch) and David Archer ( Timothy Bentinck)were the subjects of a brutal arson attack and had some of their livestock mutilated – caused an outcry among The Archers’ sedate audience. Indeed, it was part of a backlash that Radio 4 received over The Archers’ “sexed up storylines” in the summer of 2012. Where were the gentle moos and quacks of life in sleepy Ambridge, listeners wanted to know? The sensational narratives – there was also a hit and run that left someone in a coma, and witness intimidation – sparked a campaign by angry listeners, while producers said they wanted to reflect modern rural life and make their storylines “bigger and darker”. They’ve kept to their promise too, with a number of racy extra-marital “farmaffairs” in recent months.


At first, her mother thought it was an eating disorder. Even Sarah Louise Platt (Tina O’Brien, above), all of 13 years old in 2000, didn’t know what was up with her. But when it was revealed the teenager was pregnant, her family were shocked – as were viewers. Allegations that she was glamorising teen pregnancy were dismissed by the show, which pulled no punches when it came to showing what happened next. Platt, who gave birth to a baby girl, Bethany, was portrayed as an utterly miserable teenage mother, stuck at home while her friends went partying, while she stayed home to care for the baby and live off her parents. Bethany’s father died not long afterwards, and Platt then had a second teen pregnancy at the age of 16, a storyline made even more awkward by the fact that her mother Gail (Helen Worth) was pregnant at the same time. Oh, and then her boyfriend came out as gay, and the baby died. Talk about a cautionary tale.


Scotland’s very own soap opera has had its fair share of drama over the years, not least this particular plotline, which saw Robbie Fraser (Gary Lamont) become the victim of domestic violence from his partner Will Cooper (Scott Ryan Vickers) when he is pinned up against a wall by his boyfriend moments after proposing. Lamont, who is gay, said he hoped the tale would be taken seriously in both the straight and gay communities. “I hope a storyline like this opens up a dialogue for people if they need it. It could become a catalyst for conversation. People tell me they watch River City with their mums, a lot of guys especially.”


We’re back to Corrie again, not because introducing a Muslim family is controversial, but because it has taken them until 2014 to do it. The first Muslim characters to appear in Walford were Saeed Jeffery (Andrew Johnson), the original owner of the First til Last grocery store, and his wife Naima (Shreela Ghosh), Bengali Muslims trapped in an unhappy arranged marriage. They were part of the original EastEnders’ line-up back in the mid-1980s, purposefully written into the soap to try to redress a hitherto under-represented minority on TV. So why has it taken Corrie so long to move a Muslim family onto the street? No-one’s really sure. Even Coronation Street producer Stuart Blackburn seemed stumped when announcing the move last week. “It’ll be the first Muslim family that Corrie’s ever had. Bizarre isn’t it?” Indeed.