Hollyoaks, the glossy, Chester-set soap is turning 20. Even if you’ve never seen the programme on one of its five outings a week, some storylines might have made it onto your radar. Executive producer Bryan Kirkwood calls them the “big, mad ‘it could only happen in Hollyoaks’ stories”. Cue Channel 4’s slick advert for “Killer Week”, next week’s run of anniversary episodes, which sees the return of the village’s “Gloved Hand” murderer amid a Hollyoaks Pride jamboree. He/she has already bumped off six people at the local hospital and three more are reportedly doomed in the name of celebration.
Alongside this heightened-reality silliness, we shouldn’t forget the work the Lime Pictures’ show has done with its issues-led storylines. Over the years, it’s covered the likes of teen pregnancy, substance abuse, eating disorders, male rape (twice), mental health problems, HIV, body dysmorphia and LBGT issues, often pairing with charities and government bodies to make sure the portrayals are as accurate as possible .
Kirkwood picks out gay school teacher John Paul McQueen’s (John Sutton) rape by one of his male pupils as the plot he’s most proud of. Survivors Manchester, who were consultants on the story, used it to successfully lobby for a fund to help male victims of sexual violence. “It has been used to train police officers and made saying the words the ‘male rape’ palatable amongst a young audience,” Kirkwood told The Independent. Charities that Hollyoaks worked with also reported a huge increase in helpline calls after the storyline was shown. When Sutton appeared on The Wright Stuff, a caller phoned in saying it was the first time they had told anyone about their abuse.
Getting people talking is the aim of Hollyoaks’ game, such as over Ste Hay’s HIV diagnosis as part #HollyoaksYearOfSafeSex campaign. His is the first gay character in a soap with HIV and the storyline was developed due to the rise in cases. “I am not suggesting Hollyoaks can fill the woeful lack of sex education for young gay men but we still are in a position to educate as we have a younger audience who care about the characters,” says Kirkwood.
That youthful audience is also extremely active on social media. The soap’s Facebook page has 1.8 million likes and it was the first soap to join Snapchat (@HelloHollyoaks has 300,000 followers). But Kirkwood insists that they don't ignore older viewers. “What happens to our teenage characters affects their parents and grand-parents.” This was exemplified when a suicide-attempt storyline was used in a government report as an example of how to talk to young people around the issue.
Next up, Kirkwood says are plots on homelessness and the fall-out from drink and drug driving, as well as the introduction of trans actor Annie Wallace to the cast, whose storylines Kirkwood says will focus on her day-to-day life as “a parent and teacher first and transgender second”. He calls the casting an “antidote” to the media circus surrounding reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner’s coming-out as trans, complete with glossy magazine shoots to show off her reconstructed face. He says that Wallace’s character will represent those trans people “for whom there is no Vanity Fair cover”.
Of course, there is a danger of it taking itself too seriously – this is the soap that once had a cameo from Bonnie Tyler during a dream sequence in a late night spin-off, after all – but I think we should raise a glass to more of this stuff - both the hard-hitting and the hilarious.
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