Is Hayley's suicide on Coronation Street a bid to boost ratings?
Next week one of the ITV soap's best-loved characters, who has terminal cancer, will take her own life. Lindy McDowell argues the plot raises an important issue, but Malachi O'Doherty says it's a turn-off
Published 17/01/2014 | 11:30
For fans of Coronation Street, the last few months have not made for easy viewing. They have tuned in to watch one of the ITV soap's best-loved characters, Hayley Cropper, fight a losing battle with pancreatic cancer.
But on Monday night an even more dramatic plot twist will be played out when Hayley, played by Julie Hesmondhalgh, kills herself rather than fight the illness anymore.
Her final scenes in the soap – which air at 7.30pm, well before the watershed – will show her drinking a cocktail of drugs before dying in bed, lovingly cradled by husband Roy.
Hayley concocts the deadly drink herself and warns Roy not to handle the glass so that he will not be incriminated in her death.
Undoubtedly, the storyline will make make for powerful television.
But even before it has been broadcast, the storyline has provoked a storm of protest from campaigners who warn it could lead to copycat suicides.
Hesmondhalgh, a member of the British Humanist Association, is in favour of assisted dying.
But the anti-euthanasia group Care Not Killing said it was "irresponsible" to screen the scenes before the 9pm watershed.
And Mediawatch UK director Vivienne Pattison said: "Putting it before a 9pm watershed, we can assume fairly safely that there are going to be children watching it.
"They do not consume media in the same critical way that adults do and are far more likely to take on as gospel truth what they have seen."
And then, of course, there is the wider issue of whether a TV soap is the right format for tackling a subject of such a contentious and sensitive issue.
In a climate where old-style politically committed single dramas such as Play for Today no longer exist, is it still better that such issues get aired on prime time than not at all?
Or, despite the helplines broadcast at the end of such shows, is this essentially all about driving ratings in the soap wars?
Overleaf, two writers with very different views join the debate.
Is Hayley's tragic last act suitable for a soap?
Yes: let's get talking about it, says Lindy McDowell
She was soap's first transsexual arriving on the famous Corrie cobbles in a swathe of controversy and the over-sized red anorak that was to become her trademark. Now Hayley Cropper leaves amid controversy too. Suffering from terminal cancer, the character takes her own life in an episode to be screened on Monday evening.
To call it a challenging, powerful plot (a line routinely trotted out by TV drama publicists) is, for once, something of an understatement.
Soaps pride themselves on tackling the "difficult" issues but even amid the usual grim fare of adultery, unwanted pregnancy, wrongful incarceration and serial murder, this story stretches the genre "popular serial drama" to a whole new level. Yet not necessarily a bad one I believe.
For, thus far, actress Julie Hesmondhalgh's portrayal of Hayley's last months has been sensitive, touching and utterly convincing. A beautifully written script, a brilliant actress and her equally skilled fellow actor David Neilson, as Hayley's anguished husband Roy, have delivered scenes of heartbreak nuanced with gentle humour.
And those of us who have lost someone very close to that awful disease recognise that see-sawing turmoil of emotion. Watching such scenes has been harrowing at times – unbearable surely for some viewers – but undeniably, deftly handled.
Hayley and Roy are a rarity in soap land. A devoted, happy couple. Like the Street's now departed Duckworths, the duo have been stalwarts of the show and massively popular with viewers. Unlike the warring Jack and Vera however, theirs has been a placid union – Hayley an always-cheery foil to the more introspective Roy.
Together they are both odd and ordinary and totally believable and had Ms Hesmondhalgh not chosen to leave the show for theatre, this couple, as constant and comfortable as Hayley's anorak, were surely set for many further years service behind the counter of Roy's Rolls.
The problem for scriptwriters was that for Hayley to leave Roy would be unthinkable given the character's back story. Illness was, then, inevitable.
The programme makers do have previous experience of a storyline featuring a character battling cancer. A few years back Sally Webster developed breast cancer. By dark coincidence Sally Whittaker, the actress who plays her, was diagnosed in real life with the same disease at around the same time.
As with the Sally's storyline, the depiction of Hayley's illness has been carefully balanced. The script writers have avoided mawkishness. They have also, to their credit, resisted what must have been a temptation to time Hayley's death scene to boost Christmas ratings.
It is the nature of her death that is most controversial.
Hayley has signalled from very early on that she intends to take her own life. Roy is adamantly opposed. The twist is that Hayley fears becoming confused under medication and reverting (in her mind) to becoming a man again. The storyline is that she wants to take control. To die as a woman.
Understandably the dramatisation of suicide (particularly in a show with top ratings figures) raises justifiable concerns. But the programme makers have liaised with experts to ensure they get it right.
The Samaritans have issued a guarded statement pointing out: "We were pleased that Coronation Street came to us for guidance on their storyline of character Hayley ending her life as a result of her terminal illness. Our role was to help them to cover this as safely as possible, not to approve their decision to run the story at all."
Importantly the spokeswoman also adds: "Samaritans believes that shutting down coverage of suicide is unhelpful as this could drive discussion underground and deter people from talking about their problems."
Like the character Roy in the show, I think I too would be opposed to Hayley's choice. (It's one of those terrible dilemmas which, please God, you and I will never have to face.) But an important subject for debate? Yes, absolutely. And a fitting subject for coverage in a soap? Without a doubt. Let's be honest, aside from the totally legitimate concerns about how this most sensitive of subjects should be handled, there is also a certain snobby lobby that would suggest mass audience soaps are not a fitting forum for such big issues. That they trivialise and sensationalise them.
Euthanasia may be deemed a suitable subject for "serious" drama but slotted in between Peter Barlow's latest infidelity and the everyday dysfunction of the family Platt? There will be those who will definitely think not.
And yet in this instance, the Coronation Street writers and actors have, to date anyway, produced masterly drama without demeaning the subject matter – or the debate.
There is no reason to think that Monday evening's conclusion to this saddest of stories won't be handled with similar sensitivity.
No: it's a dangerous message, says Malachi O'Doherty
A cancer nurse tells me that there is no way you can know how you will react to a terminal diagnosis until you get one. Next week Coronation Street will be playing out the drama of Hayley's end stage pancreatic cancer. On Monday, Hayley will end her life and spare herself and her friends the agony of a protracted and ugly death.
That's a legitimate story line; for there will be some in the real world who will do the same. Though there is an implausibility for me in Hayley's condition. She still seems robust and fit.
But, leaving her aside, for a moment; what might the calculations be for someone who has no chance of survival beyond a few weeks?
I have known a few people in that circumstance.
One found support in the church and remained active to the end, even spoke on the media about coping, using his experience to advise others, mainly men, to get themselves checked.
One devoted his last year to writing political articles and got married to his long-term partner. He said he felt he was in a better position than a neighbour who had dropped dead with a heart attack without having had a chance to prepare his family for the shock, or perhaps even to say where the insurance polices were.
Hayley will step out of life by her own timing, taking some initiative in a situation that leaves her little. And who can say she is wrong?
If she died now, suddenly, with no hope ahead anyway, even her closest friends would say it is better that way, a mercy. Isn't that the kind of thing we hear said all the time at funerals? So why shouldn't she exercise the same mercy on herself?
Yet others try to wring the last drop out of life.
Nuala O Faolain, knowing it was all over, took her friends for weekends in European capitals, grasped at the little bit of excitement still available to her.
The blogger Kate Granger is a cancer nurse herself with a terminal diagnosis in her 30s. She reports daily on her moods and her treatment. She wants to educate medical staff about cancer from the inside and she also wants to be part of the widest possible discussion on cancer and the imminence of death.
So, admitting that the nurse I met is right and that I can't really know what I would want to do if the sword was hanging over my head, isn't there a danger that a soap opera which offers suicide as the appropriate exit for one with so little hope is crushing that hope for others?
How many people watching this storyline are themselves terminally ill, have friends and relations who know that they only have a few weeks or months. Thousands upon thousands.
How are they going to respond to this storyline? Will some be inspired to go the same way? Some may be so shocked by the grief Hayley will have left behind that they will want to spare their families that to the very end.
Whichever, there is a responsibility for writers working on stories like this that isn't there to the same degree when the theme is, say, teenage pregnancy or mortgage default.
In Brookside, Mick Johnson the chippie, had his mother dying at home and, finished her off as mercifully as he could.
But there was outrage about that because many felt that the story ignored the prospect of palliative care.
It made a good story to have an old woman over a chip shop writhing in agony but the medical profession was saying that there was no need for that.
Another recent case is that of the journalist Simon Hoggart, who died this month of pancreatic cancer.
He was a public figure who wrote from his life experience and, according to his daughter now, worried that he was being unfair to readers by not sharing with them the story of his terminal cancer.
But Hoggart believed that enough had been said already about these problems and considerations. With a writer like Kate Granger keeping in touch with a twitter following and with wonderful writers like John Diamond, the first husband of Nigellas Lawson, there was simply no need for him to engage in a public discussion about how to manage the end of a rapidly shortening life.
Maybe he is right.
And maybe he understood what the cancer nurse told me, that no amount of discussion or dramatisation of terminal illness and decline can prepare you, can inform you of how you should deal with it when the finger points at you.
So, that's what makes me feel queasy about Hayley and her prime time suicide. It isn't much use to us.
The only audience that will really be placed to take in what is happening will be the terminally ill themselves.
And who would want to be putting before them a reflection of their fears and experiences and to get it wrong?
That's not to say that this storyline should never have been developed. But if the cancer nurse is right when she says you can't know what you would want, then all that is left for us is questions, not pat resolutions like suicide.
Her time on the cobbles
The first transgender character to appear in a British soap opera, Hayley Patterson first appeared on Coronation Street in January 1998. She strikes up a strong friendship with Roy Cropper.
Hayley then departs for Amsterdam to have her gender reassignment surgery.
On her return to the street Hayley gets a job working as a machinist in the lingerie factory Underworld. Hayley's secret is discovered as is her real name, Harold Patterson. She is fired by Mike Baldwin and taunted by the neighbours. Eventually the neighbours start to accept her, and she gets her job back.
In 2001 Roy and Hayley become foster parents, first to Fiz Brown and next to Wayne Hayes. Roy goes on the run with Wayne to protect him from his abusive stepfather and is charged with kidnapping. Although the charges are dropped after a statement from Wayne's mother, Hayley and Roy can no longer foster children.
In 2007 Hayley discovers she has a son, Christian, from her days living as a man and tracks him down although he does not take the news of her true identity well. Hayley leaves the street for a year to work as a volunteer in Mozambique.
After Hayley is held hostage by escaped killer Tony Gordon, Roy proposes and they are married in 2010.
In 2013 Hayley is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. During a major operation surgeons discover that her condition is terminal. She is given between six and 12 months to live.