Belfast Telegraph

Friday 25 July 2014

Hayley and Roy's last moment was a tearjerker, fit to sit beside any classic TV series

Coronation Street's Hayley remains the only transgendered stock character in any long-running series

Hayley was exquisitely acted by Julie Hesmondhalgh

We could focus on other matters, but in the week that is in it would be wrong not to write about Hayley and Roy. We could examine and analyse the gallery of gargoyles who gathered around Ian Paisley's political deathbed. But some of them may be figments of malign imagination, whereas Hayley and Roy were for real.

The scene which will linger longest with me was of the pair of them in Blackpool's bright-lit, gold-leafed Tower Ballroom, a cathedral of memories for Hayley, where they had the floor to themselves as they glided and swirled in a widening circle, Bacharach/David's Close To Me pumping from the Wurlitzer.

There's been chatter as to whether assisted suicide is a suitable subject for a soap, and murmurings that Hayley should have looked closer to death's door, which is to miss the point by miles.

The first thing that needs said is that this was great British television drama, fit to sit alongside any Play for Today, or classic adaptation, scripted and filmed with the surest of touches and exquisitely acted by Julie Hesmondhalgh and David Neilson.

Hayley first appeared in January 1998 as a pre-op trans-sexual, "real" name Harold, set up for a laugh on a date with Roy. But Roy was, is, a man of unshiftable integrity. Hayley had reassignment surgery in Holland.

Roy realised he loved her. They married in the cafe, and have lived in one another's lives ever since, until now.

We don't think of soaps as being ahead of the curve when it comes to liberation from sexual stereotypes.

But Hayley remains the only transgendered stock character in any long-running TV series anywhere.

Hayley chose suicide, not because she had wasted away to skeletal fragility, or because of the pain and indignity that comes with cancer's advance, but on account of terror than her physical decline might erode her identity.

Hayley's transgender status has been taken for granted, rarely referred to, never disparaged.

Her fear that the person she once was, Harold, might loom through the confusion of the palliative drugs as she faded, that at the end she might not be the person who had spread love all around her and been loved in return, but somebody else entirely, a stranger to her own self, it was this which determined that she must take control and end her life in her own chosen time.

One of the reasons the storyline sustained itself for so long had to do with the glowing performance of Julie Hesmondhalgh, full of self-deprecation, strength of will, sense of mischief and pure decency.

You have to trust the audience to offer a story such as this over 15 years and build it to a conclusion that would take tears from a stone.

The last image, of Roy alongside her in their rumpled bed moments after she had died, her body gathered in by his arm across her to comfort himself, was perfect in its composition and colour, in the way it was framed and how it was lit, in its richness, its beauty and ineffable sadness.

Her last words for him, their eyes inches apart, his face cuddled in her hands, said it all: "I am so glad I met you, Roy. Thank you, thank you for all of it. I have been so lucky. I would not swap any of the years we have had for a thousand of anybody else's, because I have known what it is to be loved, truly loved, and I hope you do, too. I am so sorry I have to go."

The story did what all good drama should, ensnaring the viewer in the emotions of the characters while raising profound questions about human relations.

Had it not been set in a mere soap, it would more widely be recognised already both as a flawless gem of popular culture and a formidable piece of high art.

They are only fictional characters, of course, made up by writers, impersonated by actors. There are flesh-and-blood tragedies and death all around us to be dealt with.

But is there not something true, too, in the comfort you might find from dancing in your dreams with whomever it was gave meaning to your life?

"On the day that you were born the angels got together/And decided to create a dream come true/So they sprinkled moon dust in your hair/Of golden starlight in your eyes of blue./Why do birds suddenly appear/Every time you are near?/Just like me, they long to be/Close to you.''

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