Shayne Ward as Aidan Connor on Coronation Street
Shayne Ward as Aidan Connor on Coronation Street

TV

Don’t dismiss soaps – often, they tell the most important stories

Soaps have always led important and difficult conversations. It’s time to appreciate them for what they are, says Emily Baker – sensitive, clever and, most importantly, relatable

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By Emily Baker on

In the space between Monday’s episode of Coronation Street and Wednesday's hour-long special, Aidan Connor died. While it’s not unusual for a soap to kill off characters, it was strange for it not to show how Connor died. But this death had to be different, because it wasn’t a grisly murder or a freak accident. In the reality of Coronation Street, after months of mental-health struggles, Monday’s episode ended with Connor – played brilliantly and sensitively by Shayne Ward – crying on the sofa, having spent his last moments with his loved ones. Off-screen, he killed himself.

Suicide is the single biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK – three quarters of all deaths are attributed to male victims and suicide rates are around three times higher than for women. A cause for the disparity can’t be exactly pinpointed, as the reasons that lead a man to die by suicide are as intricate and varied as the victims themselves, but mental-health charity Samaritans do point out some high-risk factors: relationship breakdowns, unemployment, drug or alcohol misuse, loneliness and isolation. Research also indicates that, thanks to male stereotypes of masculinity, men are less likely to talk about the mental-health issues they are facing.

“I don't think there's anyone working on the programme or anyone in Britain who isn't affected by suicide in some way,” says the creative director of serial dramas at ITV, John Whiston. “People at Coronation Street feel very strongly about highlighting a story like Aidan’s.” And producers were intent on presenting Aidan’s story in a respectable, responsible way. Writers followed the Samaritans’ media reporting guidelines to the letter – we don’t see and aren’t told how Connor killed himself; we don’t see his body – and producers worked closely with the charity’s representatives to make sure they were getting it right. During filming, counsellors were on set to speak to any of the cast and crew affected by the storyline, and in the months leading up to this week, ITV’s team made sure the circumstances of Connor’s death were well publicised, to warn viewers it was coming.

Soaps are sometimes dismissed by critics (the Daily Mail recently branded Corrie’s recent spate of storylines “outlandish” and “sickeningly violent”), and some might deem this as snobbery – an elitist view of a medium made for the working class. But this view fundamentally misunderstands the audience on the other side of the screen – working-class men are 10 times more likely to take their own life than their wealthier peers. And Whiston has noticed. “A lot is happening out there in the world of normal, regular, working-class people, that isn't looked at by regular six-part dramas,” he says. “Because of our history, soaps can deal with issues that affect real people, such as when they don't have much money, or when they don't have strong support systems and living on the edge of society. This brings us into a territory that can be more raw than other dramas are allowed to be, but it also brings around the idea that you can turn to your community – that they can help and can get people through things.” These narratives are playing out on a huge platform, too – Monday’s episode gained ITV six million viewers – and to ignore them would be to ignore the important and often hidden stories told.

For example, Hayley Cropper, who first appeared in the soap in 1998, was the first permanent transgender character in a serialised drama. And the fact that Cropper was a trans woman didn’t have to be the entire crux of her characterisation – as well as being one of the most loved characters in Corrie’s history, she was the guardian of another important storyline, as towards the end of her life on the street she developed terminal pancreatic cancer. With a diminishing quality of life, like Connor, Cropper also took her own life, sparking a national conversation about palliative care and the right to die.

A lot is happening out there in the world of normal, regular, working-class people, that isn't looked at by regular six-part dramas

There are countless other cases of rare but powerful stories in all soaps – Hannah Ashworth suffered from anorexia and bulimia on Hollyoaks, partly encouraged by her model friend Melissa who became the first soap character to die of an eating-disorder related illness; though many would argue it doesn’t go far enough for a soap set in east London, Eastenders has a long history of ethnic-minority representation, featuring an Asian family on its first ever episode in 1985; back on Coronation Street, born-again Christian Sophie Webster came out as gay and embarked on a loving relationship with Sian, a girl from her bible-study group, all while raising a conversation about the potential religious intolerance of homosexuality in the real world. The diversity of stories continues today, too – Corrie regular Craig is educating viewers about his OCD compulsions, and there are rumours that Emmerdale’s Liv will soon come out as asexual.

Following Samaritans guidelines, which advise that “a sensitive piece that explores the emotional devastation of a suicide on family and friends may prompt people with suicidal thoughts to reconsider or to seek help,” it was last night’s hour-long episode of Corrie that really drove home the devastation of suicide. On soaps, life quite literally goes on, and so Coronation Street was in a position to give viewers a glimpse at the aftermath of suicide. People question themselves, they become angry, they blame others – Corrie’s wide-ranging representation of reactions reassures us that there is no “right” way to respond to such a tragedy. In fact, another important outcome of the storyline is the conversations Coronation Street writers will have to address in the wake of Aidan’s death – in a future episode, Peter Barlow will speak to his teenage son about suicide, and the importance of not bottling up his emotions. David Platt spoke on his rape for the first time, explaining that he knew he would “end up like Aidan” if he didn’t. “It’s going to take characters on the street a long time to become ‘normal’ after the suicide storyline, or to put it where they need to put it to keep on functioning,” says Whiston. “One thing that soaps can do really well is show how ‘life changing’ an event really is – we go on and on and on.”

As reflectors of real life, writers and producers of soaps owe it to their viewers not to shy away from difficult stories. Samaritans say they do receive calls related to things people have watched on television. ITV executives often see a similar reaction, and received an incredible amount of response to a Corrie grooming storyline earlier this year. “We had teachers come to us saying they’ve been able to speak about grooming in the classroom for the first time ever,” explained Whiston. “We had a letter saying from a woman who was watching with her 12-year-old daughter, who said to her, ‘I think that might be happening to me, Mummy’.” It’s feedback like this that proves these stories are worth telling on soaps, even if the intended message – you are not alone – gets through to just one person.

Like many, I grew up watching Coronation Street and learnt everything there was to know from its residents. I knew there were bad men who might want to drive their family into a canal, but that there were also sweet, brave old ladies like Emily Bishop, who would protest a rise in council tax to pay for an unnecessarily expensive memorial fountain. They weren’t like the men on the news, or the women on glitzy chat shows. They spoke like I did, they looked like people I knew and had jobs I could relate to in real life – a mechanic, a waitress, a hairdresser. They also had problems like me, like my parents, like my friends. The residents of Weatherfield, including Aidan, are my family as much as they are each other’s, and chances are, they’re yours, too. In the aftermath of his suicide, hopefully those who relate to Aidan’s fight with mental illness will seek the help they need, be it from charities like Samaritans or finding solace in their loved ones. Others will identify with the moving speech delivered by Gail Platt in last night’s episode: “I hope I’d’ve listened, if he ever wanted to speak to me … I reckon we’ve all been sleeping, mam.”

If you or anyone you know has been affected by the issues raised by Aidan's story, please contact Samaritans on 116 123.

@emilyrbakes

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Shayne Ward as Aidan Connor on Coronation Street
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