Events on ITV1 unfold tonight with a sense of horrible inevitability - Frank Foster, a man whose predatory personality has already caused concern, is jilted on the eve of his wedding by fiancée Carla Connor and exacts his revenge in the worst way imaginable. Frank is undoubtedly a monstrous figure (a virtual prerequisite for any businessman in Weatherfield these days), but what do his actions say about those in creative control of the Street?
Corrie has, of course, played out a rape plotline before, but the attack on Toyah Battersby back in 2001 was felt to be an insensitive misstep. Arriving soon after one of EastEnders’s biggest-ever ratings winners – the “Who Shot Phil?” saga – the show unwisely chose to reduce Toyah’s sexual assault to the level of a whodunnit.
As the finger of suspicion was pointed at various residents (Toyah herself had suffered memory loss), there was the overall impression on the part of viewers that an emotive and disturbing topic was being manipulated to tawdry ends.
Some lessons appear to have been learned over the last decade and Carla’s plight is certainly treated with more care. Although the rape comes as a result of several long-running story strands (Maria’s narrow escape and the feelings that Carla harbours for Peter), the ordeal is not swallowed whole by the demands of producing the soap’s continuing narrative. However, the fact that it’s Carla who’s the one being raped does raise important issues.
She may have only featured in Coronation Street for five years, but the Underworld queen has, in this relatively short space of time, become a classic heroine, the type for whom adversity and a poor childhood has bred backbone and a nice line in telling comment. With her stoicism and well-concealed soft centre, she could even be the true inheritor of Elsie Tanner’s crown.
But could we have reached a tipping point where the amount of heartache she experiences is becoming perverse? Since 2006, Carla has had two husbands die on her, seen her lover murdered, been held hostage, battled alcoholism, almost lost the object of her affection in a tram crash and smashed a car into the front window of Barlow’s Bookies, narrowly avoiding killing Stella in the process.
By having Carla undergo a vicious violation like rape, it begins to feel that she’s being systematically targeted by the storyliners. There’s no denying that the scenes in this evening’s double bill are powerfully acted by Alison King, but there seems to be an underlying mission to crack open Carla’s carapace and expose her vulnerability.
In the wider world, rapists often choose their targets regardless of the victim’s circumstance, so there’s no saying that Carla wouldn’t suffer an assault of this sort. But, in a fictional setting, it does begin to look cruel when so much anguish is piled onto one person’s shoulders.
What’s also worrying is the situation’s subtext: when Maria made her original accusations against Frank, Carla sided with her business partner over her PA because he held the purse strings. Are we supposed to feel that this is Carla’s punishment for putting career before friendship? It’s a queasy connotation buried deep beneath the layers of Frank’s obvious villainy but just because it’s not explicit doesn’t mean that it isn’t intended.
In the weeks to come, we’ll see Carla being driven to levels of despair, but let’s hope that the decision to put her through the emotional wringer doesn’t leave us with a completely broken character. Surely everyone agrees that Carla, the finest factory boss since the era when Mike Baldwin ruled the roost, has suffered enough.