Thursday, May 25, 2000 by

For quite a while now, Hollyoaks has been the best soap opera on TV.

Through a deft combining of convention – tragedy, farce, melodrama, comedy, misunderstanding and spite – with quality scripts and performances, it’s far and away the freshest, most involving, most relevant and exciting continuing contemporary serial on television.Hollyoaks is on a roll – better than it’s ever been in its four and a half year existence; and such a supremacy has been secured thanks to the careful development of a number of highly visceral plotlines, chief of which has been the graphic presentation of the rape of one of the male characters, Luke Morgan (played exceptionally well by Gary Lucy).

As noted elsewhere, the occasion of this British TV first was afforded a late-night one-off timeslot to allow a level of imagery and language vital for such an act to be rendered convincingly on the small screen. At the time, I applauded almost unreservedly the whole late-night episode, only tempering my comments with a nagging concern as to how the consequences to such a significant event could be played out at Hollyoaks‘ normal 6.30pm hour. Surely such a early evening slot would preclude even the vaguest talk of “male rape”, let alone permit adequate license for an in-depth consideration of the aftermath?

I’ve had my doubts assuaged; over the course of last week’s three episodes – all at 6.30pm – Luke at last admitted publicly for the first time he had been raped; in a number of superbly played sequences with his older brother Adam (David Brown), Luke recounted the circumstances in which he had been attacked, prompting moments of such tenderness, overwhelming emotion and catharsis as to make for some of the most moving and affecting scenes in Hollyoaks ever. Both characters’ behaviour and reactions were wholly convincing and finely acted; Adam’s responses – “I want to be near you” – not in the slightest bit over the top or corny. Absolutely engrossing television.

There had been a very slow but controlled build up to this admission, testing the patience of the long-term viewer as Luke became increasingly isolated within his own predicament and semi-coherent world. While at times it was frustrating that the programme makers seemed destined almost never to resolve this storyline, in retrospect it all made sense: each week, they’d either take something away from Luke’s life (his place in the football team; his girlfriend; his drivers’ license; his best friend; his chance to pass his A Levels) or add something worse to it (his parents squabbling; his best friend hooking up with his ex; his younger sister both pestering him and running amok at school). This then culminated in Luke attempting suicide; and the circumstances he then found himself in – trapped in a hospital bed, conscious of having pulled back from death at the last second, his brother desperate to know what happened – now providing the right moment for a tearful revelation.

Last week’s writers – all female (Lucy Gough, Anna McHugh and Deborah Wain) advanced this particular storyline in just the right manner at just the right time – crucially, just before its potency began to decline. They’ve now set up a dynamic and tantalising new set of possibilities (will Luke’s Dad accept the truth of what happened, now that he and the whole family know? Where to go from here?)

With Luke’s face set in an unflinching scowl for the last eight weeks, and the grim mood compounded by other similarly downbeat storylines such as a couple trying (and failing) to come to terms with an unplanned pregnancy, it is to Hollyoaks laudable credit that it has continued to counterpoise such evisceration with a wonderfully endearing and unashamedly natural sense of humour. Though the series has some rather obvious comic character creations, they are possessive of a level of self-deprecation, irony and above all a knowing awareness which surpasses anything to be found elsewhere in a British soap.

Chief protagonists here are best friends Max and OB; sixth-formers in the mould of a post-1990s Grange Hill Ziggy and Robbie, engaged in the pursuit of pleasure (via their recently acquired “passion wagon”, a decrepit orange camper van) and money (a series of ludicrous schemes) via a fine line in witty banter (mostly centreing on each other’s sexual experience, or lack of it: “The thought of you bonking outside my house doesn’t fill me with much confidence.”) Their comic interludes throw the more serious scenes into even sharper relief; but neither of these contrasts are less convincing or relevant as the other – both are just as important to sustaining the delicate shape of Hollyoaks‘ narrative.

It is beholden, then, of Phil Redmond and his team to prolong this period of greatness for as long as they can. Reviewing both the short term evidence – this week’s fine episodes – and that of the long term – the careful dramatic arc of the series’ last few months – suggests that Hollyoaks could and should remain one of the best, if not the best, soaps showing this year.


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