There’s a shattering moment in Monday’s second episode of Broadchurch when sex attack victim Trish Winterman looks desolate as she tells a support worker: “I feel so ashamed, I wish he’d just killed me.” Julie Hesmondhalgh, who plays Trish, is riveting as the woman at the heart of writer Chris Chibnall’s story.
Trish’s life is broken by the brutal assault after a friend’s boozy 50th birthday party, and by the impact of the lingering, powerful trauma. Her trust in others, too, is trampled after the attack, where she was knocked unconscious and her hands tied. Because someone in that little seaside town is her assailant. But who?
The suspects are legion. Hesmondhalgh, who played transgender Hayley Cropper in Coronation Street for 16 years, is sparky, funny and without vanity. As Trish she is filmed in piercing, unforgiving close-up from the first moment we see her on screen, mute and terrified.
At the Broadchurch press launch she declared herself an “ordinary looking middle-aged woman” and praised Chibnall for placing someone like her at the centre of something so dark, tough and controversial.
When we talk later Hesmondhalgh expands on the theme, her mind leaping forward to how the attack on her character will be seen in the wider world. With withering honesty she says, “It’s a kind of internalised misogyny, with me thinking how people will receive [Trish’s rape]. Will people say, ‘Why would someone rape her?’”
As the series unfolds it’s clear that Trish, who is separated from her husband, doesn’t live like a nun. “I thought again, ‘Are viewers going to buy that someone like me would have that kind of life?’ It’s not because I don’t think that someone like me would because obviously I would and I could and everyone can and does, it’s just that you’re not used to seeing that on telly.”
Hesmondhalgh, who is married to actor and writer Ian Kershaw, with whom she has two children, happily waves the flag for more “ordinary” people on television. “Though we’re pretty good in this country – we’re a long way off America, where someone who is supposed to be plain would be considered a real beauty here.
“But I think that art and culture should be representing diversity in programmes, and that diversity should be showing ordinary bodies and ordinary faces, big bellies, big arses, big noses and everything else that we come with.”
Unsurprisingly, for someone who for years was one of the heartbeats in a northern, working-class soap, Hesmondhalgh wants to see a broader reflection in television dramas of the working class. “Generally on telly we are a bit at risk sometimes of being very white and very posh and I have absolutely nothing against posh white men, I am the biggest Sherlock fan!
“But when I watched The Moorside [BBC1’s drama about the aftermath of the faked kidnapping of Shannon Matthews] I was taken by how real it was. It was absolutely amazing. We’re just not used to seeing these people on television. We are used to our version of what working class is, but to see real people who live on an estate like that leading a drama was off the scale.”
Hesmondhalgh also has firm views on the portrayal of violence, and particularly sexual violence, against women in television dramas. The attack on Trish in Broadchurch is not seen; instead we are taken, with Trish, detectives Alec Hardy and Ellie Miller, and her support worker Beth Latimer (David Tennant, Olivia Colman and Jodie Whittaker), through the consequences and hellish aftermath.
Olivia Colman as D.S. Ellie Miller, David Tennant as D.I. Alec Hardy and Julie Hesmondhalgh as Trish
Chibnall consulted volunteers at the Dorset Rape Crisis Support Centre at an early stage of the script about the treatment and support for women who report a rape, and personnel from the charity advised throughout the filming. They were on hand, with Broadchurch’s police procedure advisor, as Hesmondhalgh filmed this week’s particularly harrowing scene, when Trish makes a videoed statement about the attack. “Just having them on set gave it an atmosphere that was very respectful and kind to me, which was great.”
She’s weary of dramas that feature what’s now become a disturbing cliché, “the chasing of a young woman through the woods; she has no agency and no life, it’s just her fear that is entertainment. The next minute she’s dead on a slab. I find all of that incredibly uncomfortable. It’s not that I think dramas shouldn’t be about difficult subjects, it’s just the representation you give people going through it.”
Since leaving Coronation Street three years ago, after a controversial assisted dying storyline, Hesmondhalgh had a small but crucial role in Sally Wainwright’s second series of Happy Valley, and appeared in Russell T Davies’s Cucumber. But she’s still remembered fondly as Hayley, of course, and was an unwitting trailblazer, playing a transgender character in a mainstream soap.
“Me playing Hayley now would be an anachronism” – we both agree that if cast today the role would surely go to a transgender actor – “but I’m really proud of the strides that have since been taken in the transgender community. “Though I’m not going to take credit for changing society, I think having a character like Hayley at the centre of a soap like Corrie definitely helped. Though there’s still a long way to go – there are still hate crimes and prejudice against transgender people.”
Hesmondhalgh loves Manchester’s cultural scene, where she helps to run the Take Back Theatre collective. “It’s an unpaid fringe thing we do, political and social theatre created by a community of actors who have something to say about the world. We put on these immediate responses to what’s happening. It takes up most of my time, apart from my kids.”
This probably makes Hesmondhalgh sound like a bleakly po-faced agit-prop bore, but she isn’t. She laughs about watching Cold Feet with her husband, and its chic middle-class Manchester backdrops. “We’d be saying to each other, ‘Where the hell’s that?’”