This week Coronation Street said a much anticipated ‘goodbye’ to one of its long-term characters. The on screen death (or slightly off-screen death, as it was) of Hayley Cropper has been talked about and trailed for a long time now, ever since the decision of the actor that plays her, Julie Hedsmondhalgh, to leave the soap after 16 years, was announced early last year.
Hard to believe that that character has been on our screens for that long. I actually remember discussing her up-coming arrival on the long-running soap back in high school; sat with our A-level Media Studies and Drama Teacher in one of our many ‘enjoyable-because-this-doesn’t-seem-like-school’ conversations.
The conversation centred on our disbelief that Corrie was about to have a transsexual character when, in the whole almost 40 years to date, they had not had one openly gay male or female character. This we also found incredulous as Tony Warren, the show’s creator, was an openly gay man himself. We surmised it as a gimmick; a blatant attempt at a ratings grabber, given that Brookside had already ‘shocked the nation to its core’ with the whole Beth Jordache/Ginger-curly-haired woman, full-frontal, girl-on-girl, lesbian kiss; EastEnders had just done the Tony and Simon thing (who? I hear you say…Tiff’s brother and the son of the woman that was in The Bill and sister was in My family); and even kids-teen-soap/Grange-Hill rip-off, Byker Grove, had had a stab at a gay storyline. Corrie couldn’t suddenly have a gay or lesbian character as it would seem like they were jumping on the bandwagon, arriving at the party late, which of course they would’ve been!
In fact, I think it was probably worse than just a ratings grabber. The initial introduction of the character was as a source of ‘comedy’, or in reality, ridicule; she was actually meant to be an ill-fated date for the Street’s odd ball character, Roy Cropper. The punch line being… she’s wasn’t a real woman. This crude, and offensive, approach reared its head a few times in the early years of the character’s life on the soap. I guess it depended on the executive producer and writing team of the day, but I remember more than one occasion, around the Les Battersby era, where Hayley and her gender was the butt of a few jokes. This did get a mention in the last episodes when Hayley regaled the success her and Roy had had in enduring the vileness of the likes of Tracey Barlow and ‘bigots like Les Battersby’. However, I can’t help but feel that that was today’s writers rewriting the show’s own touch of bigotry in those early days. None-the-less, it is true that Corrie did elect to keep the character and over time develop her more fully and help weave her into the fabric of our nation’s popular culture.
The sheer volume of tweets that occurred Monday night, during the screening of the two final episodes, shows just how successful this weaving (or maybe ‘knicker-stitching’ would be more apt) has been. At one point, I believe, over 8000 tweets per second were being made. Of course, there’s no way of knowing (without reading them all) how many of these were negative… there were several in my own timeline that were comically asking ‘Is Hayley Cropper dead yet?’ , or bluntly declaring ‘I couldn’t give a fuck about Hayley Cropper!’. I can imagine it wouldn’t have been too hard to find some that were less comical and more vitriolic in their bigotry towards this transgendered character.
However, there were many tweets that talked warmly about her and about how far we’ve come as a nation – which can only be a good thing.
Myself, I’ve never really liked the character, as much as I have liked what she has represented for all these years. I found the character too bland, dull and quite annoying in her niceness; and I can’t help but feel that this was a deliberate choice by the writers, done so as not to upset and enrage the Daily Mail-esque viewers. Much like gay men on TV, for years and years, had to be camp and asexual to make us likeable and palatable to middle England (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). Had Hayley been bolshie, opinionated and, heaven-forbid, even remotely sexual, I don’t believe her acceptance, and longevity, on prime-time tele would have been possible; nor do I think if she had been played by a transgendered actor would the right-wing press and its many blind followers have tolerated her at the start or warmed to her by the end. So I think the real test, as to how much we have changed as a nation, will come if and when the next major character in a TV show is played by someone transgendered… and isn’t so nice, inoffensive and easy to ‘like’.
It is interesting to note that recently Emmerdale had to issue a statement and an apology after a transgender-actor complained that a scene she had just filmed for the soap was offensive – a scene where she had been the butt of a joke in an upcoming scene set in a gay bar. The scene has been cut and the soap claims it was hastily written on the day, when they realised they were under running, and therefore had not undergone the normal scrutiny from the writing team and executive producer – which all sounds like utter-codswallop if you can hear it under the screeching of frightened press office back-peddaling.
The whole topic of transsexuality, or gender realignment, or sex-changes, or being transgender (I’ve heard all of these terms used over the years) is one that is still very much misunderstood. I include myself as one of those that does not know much about it, but I do know someone, someone I worked with not so long ago, who has undergone the process. So perhaps I know a little bit more than absolutely nothing. What I can imagine is, if coming out and being gay is hard, with the hatred that still exists, then it must almost seem easy in comparison to coming to terms with, and undergoing extensive surgery, just to be able to be who you are.
That being said and my soap-box put away for a moment, the final scenes between actors, David Neilson and Julie Hedsmondhalgh, were both touching and well played. The awkwardness, which the character Roy is famous for, made this sad storyline all the more uncomfortable. His anguish and torment at having to say ‘goodbye’ to one the person in his life who has understood him and loved him regardless of his emotional ineptitude was hard to watch. However, since we’ve known about Hayley’s suicide for quite some time, the writer in me wanted a twist; and the bleak British writer in me wanted an even more tragic, love-story-style ending. I’d have had Roy kill himself too, distraught at the idea of life without his soul-mate. So I’m pretty sure David Neilson is glad I don’t write for show (yet!).
Theirs is a love story that has endured against adversity, and has played out on our screens for 16 years, and with the writing in mind, I recall something Roy said, when (after a law change that had taken place in the real world) they were legally allowed to ‘marry’ a few years ago; that they had not changed, but simply stood still whilst the world had turned to meet them.
(It was a while ago so I paraphrase, but you get the gist). I think a true and quite beautiful thought; and may the world continue to turn!
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