Thursday, October 26, 2000 by

Three years ago, the fictional residents of Hollyoaks had their aimless lives thrown into turnoil when local hero Kurt Benson was prosecuted for deliberately pushing a fellow labourer off some scaffolding on a building site. His “trial” was screened on five successive nights on Channel 4 in a desperate attempt to inject some tension into this crucial occasion. Would justice prevail? Would our hero emerge triumphant? The whole thing was actually pathetic and not in the least bit gripping, concluding lamely when Kurt – easily the worst character in the show’s history – was let off. It was the programme’s lowest point to date.

From that moment onwards things have so improved that Hollyoaks continues to be the best soap opera on telly at the moment. The daily episode trick was repeated again this week to mark the trial of the three male youths who had raped one of the show’s principal characters, Luke Morgan, back in March of this year. With a keen eye for continuity, the same court judge – played by Colin Baker – turned up again to preside over affairs, but what followed was a world away from the lightweight laughable showdown of a few years back; this time round, complex characterisations, divided loyalties and meticulously plotted storylines combined to make this week one of the best in the soap’s history.

Since the moment Luke first admitted to his brother that he had been raped, Hollyoaks moved into unknown territory. Not only was this a dramatic dilemma unique to British telly but it was to be explored and played out in a programme aimed squarely at teenage viewers (though clearly watched by a much larger age group). After resorting to a one-off late-night special to depict the rape itself, the series had switched straight back to its usual 6.30pm slot, but mercifully made virtually no compromises – the rape was discussed, openly, in detail, and in incredibly emotional scenes.

The weeks following Luke’s admission were gruelling viewing: relentlessly downbeat, with little humour to be found to leaven the mood. Then the show entered a weird period of a couple of months when, after deciding to press charges against his attackers, Luke disappeared off on holiday to France (to “prepare” for the forthcoming trial). Hollyoaks suddenly became dangerously dull and more importantly extremely unfunny. Even at its darkest moments the show had still found space for bleak humour or earthy farce, mostly provided by the resident clowns Max and OB. But after Max faked his A-Level results they ran off to Blackpool, leaving behind more shallow, objectionable characters such as the irritating cluster of lazy students who’d somehow all collectively decided to stay in Hollyoaks over the college holidays rather than go back home. How convenient for the series that storylines were found to allow them to stay in Chester (and avoid having the cast drop by a half in size). How grim for viewers, however, that the storylines were so tenuous and far-fetched – resorting at one point to that stock cliché, the “visiting film crew” who’ve suddenly decided to drop by and shoot a major movie right in their neighbourhood.

Still, there were some memorable moments during the summer – one character necking a potency pill and walking around for four hours hiding his hard-on behind a heart-shaped cushion; a funeral ending up in farce when an undertaker hit the vicar on the back of his head with the coffin; and best of all, a Carry On style run-around the Blackpool seafront when Max’s Dad came looking for revenge.

Once Luke re-appeared the show regained its momentum, and built slowly, carefully and grimly to a climax. The trial ran over the course of the week, with each day featuring a key stage of proceedings (Luke’s evidence, the cross-examination of his attacker, and so on). All these courtroom scenes avoided the usual lazy devices – emotional hysterics from the witnesses, shock revelations, painfully unconvincing climaxes to accompany the end of each episode. Instead, we had Luke and his family trying to work through their own set of differences inside and outside the court – in particular, Luke’s father persisting in believing his son had no chance of winning and trying to persuade him to drop the case. Without solid support from anyone save his brother Adam and ex-girlfriend Mandy, Luke had to internalise all his aggression while still trying to face cross-examination from the obligatory mean and nasty defence lawyer.

When the verdict came, it was handled with subtlety and inspiration. We saw the defendants sent down, but there was no moment of triumph for Luke, no valediction, no punching the air. Instead he sat in silence, almost in incomprehension, crying to himself, and afterwards had to take himself away from his family to get his head round what had happened. His father’s lack of faith in him seems to have left a deep scar, almost as visceral as that of the rape itself; all credit, once more, to the actor playing Luke – Gary Lucy – for his incredible performance, plus those around him in his family and friends.

A mark of the imagination and skill of Hollyoaks‘ production team, not least this week’s trio of writers (Anna Clements, Chris Parker and Neil Jones) is their concern for sketching out storylines over the long-term. Occasional incidents that initially appear trivial slowly take on a coherence and significance that builds up to a terrific climax. So it was this week; for not only did all the simmering anger, insecurity and fear of both Luke and his divided family explode with the commencement of the trial; but a web of various plots and incidents neatly came together to provide a parallel dénouement. This centred around the night-club Lewis and Finn had slaved to set up for many months. Drug dealings, betrayal, blackmail, violence and sex conspired to make this the site for just as much action, fun and intrigue as events in the Chester courtrooms. Another mark of the show’s brilliance has been the way Lewis, nominally an all-round good guy and affable character, has gradually lost all control of his life so as to reach the stage where he ends up lashing out and physically beating his partner Ruth. If Lewis had been deliberately presented as essentially “bad”, a rotten apple, the obvious villain of the piece, his attacks on Ruth would be more easy for the viewer to rationalise and confront – of course he’s beating her up, he would do, he’s that sort of bloke. Except he’s not – and we’re made to watch one of the nicest residents of Hollyoaks suddenly snap and defy all expectations, swapping engaging banter for evil battering.

Throughout this week, these two deeply serious and involving storylines were – in typical Hollyoaks style – contrasted with some shameless bawdy fun: a chaotic “naturist” party being held at the college by two students out to get an eyeful of naked females parading en mass in front of their twitching libidos. This sort of obvious, in your face, inescapably amusing set-up – of the kind that remarkably still only ever seem to happen in soap operas – was just the right tonic to allow the other sombre, sober storylines to be appreciated all the more.

It’s clear the series is not going to just forget about the rape now a sentence has been passed and continue as if all’s right with the world (no short-termist resolutions here, as in the recent Coronation Street special). Luke’s life has been fundamentally, irrevocably, changed; the trial and its verdict only one small part of the process of coming to terms with the future. It is this, above all, that marks Hollyoaks out as something really special, something almost unique, on British TV: this persistent acknowledgement of how “real time” works, how crises and breakdowns and traumas ebb and flow, and how they don’t blow in, blow up and blow out at breakneck speed. Phil Redmond redefined kids’ television in the 1970s with Grange Hill; adult soap opera in the 1980s with Brookside; and now (at last) with Hollyoaks he’s done something magical once again.


Comments are closed.