Wednesday, March 15, 2000 by

Channel 4 played a game this week with regular viewers of its teen-orientated soapHollyoaks. They simultaneously encouraged a certain demographic to tune in for this special late night not-in-front-of-the-kids extended episode, while endeavouring to convince another opposing age group that no such programme actually existed.

Established conventions as to what can and cannot be shown on national television at certain hours forced the station to embark on such bizarre, torturous behaviour: because Phil Redmond’s normally bland and anodyne series was tackling (and breaking) one of the last remaining taboo’s of British TV: male rape, and was going to do so in as graphic, overwhelming and unequivocal way as possible.

So, wisely the normal 6.30pm time-slot was abandoned; with it, the kind of restrictive narrative such an early evening time slot permits and expects. Instead, a late night scheduling afforded the programme makers and writer Neil Jones scope to show the correct tension, atmosphere and visual realism to carry this important landmark television event off. And it was a very worthwhile, engaging and affecting piece of drama – deftly and convincingly handled, and above all endearingly acted.

Perhaps it was the nature of the occasion, the knowledge of the gravity of the context within which they were performing, but the cast of Hollyoaks, admittedly not renowned for emotional depth and subtle characterisation, were by and large superb. Special mention must above all go to Gary Lucy playing Luke Morgan, victim of a long-term bullying campaign orchestrated by rival football team players that reached its terrible resolution here on a rusty car bonnet. Crucially, Luke was not and never has been depicted in this series as a weak, ineffectual, stereotyped “victim” – if anything, the reverse, a bluff and quietly dominating presence on screen. So to watch his gradual disintegration and protracted slide into confusion and terror was all the more powerful and shocking. Lucy, required to move from brazen self-confidence to complete trauma in the space of one hour, gave a commendable performance throughout that will stick in the memory for a long time.

Other supposedly “risky” secondary storylines also involved sex, but inverted so the act resembled the unfettered pursuit of pleasure and emotional release – a carthatic, open-air consummation on the one hand, an embarrassing first-time fumble on the other. There was also something wonderfully refreshing in having characters swear when they’re in trouble, rather than using pathetically tame, mild profanity. Hearing the first “shit” was like letting fresh air into a stuffy room.

The key question will be when and how the series tackles the after-effects of the rape, most pertinently the manner in which Luke is seen to “deal” with the attack, express/confide in other characters and so on; for it is likely that, unless space is made for another late-night one-off, or – better – a short mini-series is planned to bring this storyline to some sort of half-closure, a 6.30pm timeslot will not allowed for the degree of intimacy and vital realism that kind of post-mortem needs and which I am sure the relevant cast members of Hollyoaks could provide.


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