Soap’s power to fight prejudice

From RTS Magazine – September 2017

British soaps have made huge strides in portraying the lives and loves of gay characters since the genre’s first on-screen kiss in EastEnders three decades ago.

But the fight against preju­dice is not yet won, argued a panel of experts at an RTS early-evening event earlier this summer. The panel – which brought together actors, writers and producers from Coronation StreetEastEndersEmmerdale and Hollyoaks – was chaired by TV presenter June Sarpong. Recently, she has appeared on the weekly Sky News discussion show The Pledge.

“Soaps are incredibly powerful in terms of being able to get a message out and in changing people’s perceptions,” said Daniel Brocklebank, who plays gay vicar Billy Mayhew in Coronation Street.

We don’t set out to shock; we set out to entertain, because, ultimately, we are a soap and we want to be good TV

Brocklebank recalled being one half of the first gay snog in another ITV soap, Emmerdale, 12 years ago. “Now, as I’m playing a vicar, the reaction predominately comes from very religious people who don’t believe the clergy can be gay – whereas the reaction before was about the fact that it was two boys kissing.

“So we’ve definitely moved [forward] in that time – but not far enough, [going by] the negative responses that we’ve had about Corrie.”

A scene last year, involving Mayhew and Todd Grimshaw kissing on a bed, provoked a “huge homophobic response” after the show aired, said Brocklebank. “Michael Cashman, who gave the first gay kiss [in a British soap, in 1987, as Colin in EastEnders] messaged me that night and said, ‘I can’t believe you’re having to put up with the same shit that I was putting up with 30 years ago.’”

Pete Lawson, a writer on EastEnders since 2008, discussed the storylines he has created for the BBC One soap. “I’m always looking for what hasn’t been shown and what hasn’t been told,” he said.

“We don’t set out to shock; we set out to entertain, because, ultimately, we are a soap and we want to be good TV. But we want to show the reality of the world that we all live in.”

Oliver Kent, head of continuing drama series at BBC Studios, agreed, adding: “It’s hugely important that we tell stories about contemporary Britain as it really looks, and that includes characters of every sexual persuasion.

“If we set out to shock, we’d fall on our arse,” he went on. The stories had to “come from character first. We’re on telly four, five nights a week all year round, and we can tell stories slowly in a way that seeps into people’s consciousness.

“If it ever feels like we’re pushing an agenda, it will feel bogus and the audience can tell straight away. It’s about authenticity and truth.”

Bryan Kirkwood, executive producer of Channel 4’s Hollyoaks, noted that it was part of his channel’s remit “to deliver shows for a minority audience”, adding: “I think it is our responsibility to deliver storylines for a young LGBT audience [so they can] see themselves reflected [on TV] for the first time.”

Hollyoaks is well known for tackling difficult and sensitive issues. “The reason we get away with so much is because nobody has ever told us to stop,” he said to audience laughter.

“We’ve got a broad diversity of LGBT characters,” continued Kirkwood, “but with every character [in the soap] their sexuality should be the fifth- or sixth-most interesting thing about them.” This was true of Hollyoaks character Sally St Claire, played by Annie Wallace.

“She’s a headmistress, who nurtures her kids and really cares about her job,” said the actor. “Most of my storylines are school-based, and I like it that she is destigmatised. It’s really important that she’s [seen on the soap] being a success.”

Emmerdale series producer Iain MacLeod discussed his soap’s gay couple, Aaron Dingle and Robert Sugden, arguing that they “entirely transcend people’s conceptions of sexuality. The way they’ve been taken to the audience’s heart is like nothing I’ve ever encountered before. It’s purely down to it being a love story.”

Nevertheless, he added, gay story­lines still lead “an unpleasantly large minority of viewers” to complain.

Are there any limits to the types of stories soaps can portray? “Most things that occur in the world can be played in soap,” concluded MacLeod, “albeit it with some delicacy.”

 

Before she landed the role of Sally St Claire in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks, Annie Wallace worked on ITV’s Coronation Street as a consultant on the storyline featuring Roy and Hayley Cropper, the first transgender character in a British soap.

Her advice, ­Wallace said at the RTS event, involved ‘giving [the producers] my own life. I told them things that had happened to me; things I had come up against that had affected me emotionally’.

In 2015, Wallace became the first transgender actor to play a regular transgender character in a British soap. “It was a closing of the circle –I was there helping with the first trans character, and then to be the first [trans actor] in soap was an honour and a privilege,” she said.

“As a trans person, to play this role is very important to me because it’s reality within fiction. There are young people who have approached or messaged me who are getting a lot from Sally and are seeing her as a role model, not just as a trans role model, but as a teacher.”

Wallace discussed whether transgender roles should be reserved for trans actors. “There’s a big argument for that,” she said, but conceded that it was also a ‘grey area’.

One example was Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of the trans artist Lili Elbe in the film The Danish Girl. “For most of the film, he played the character of Einar Wegener, who became Lili. I think there is a case for non-trans actors to play the story of transition – that’s valid,” said Wallace.

“If you were to ask a trans person to play their pre-transition self, that would be difficult and a bit odd, although I’m not saying it would be impossible.

“But if you are writing a post-transition trans character, I think there’s a duty now for casting directors to cast their net [widely].

“Until a few years ago, we weren’t visible, either because nobody was interested in talking to us or because, like myself, we kept our heads down and didn’t come out.

“More and more trans performers are coming out of the woodwork,” she continued, “and are having the confidence to say, ‘I am a trans actor.'”

 

‘LGBTQ in soap: job done?’ was held in partnership with ITV and Pride in the City at The Hospital Club in central London on 12 July. The event was produced by Angela Ferreira and Jonathan Simon.