Broadchurch’s Julie Hesmondhalgh: “Liar has turned from a whodunnit into something more important”

The Coronation Street star says the drama has opened up an important conversation

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We need to talk about rape. There are around 85,000 rapes of adult women in England and Wales every year, 12,000 adult male rapes, and nearly half a million reported sexual assaults.

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Read those figures again. We are talking about a problem of almost epidemic proportions.

And as the drama Liar concludes this week, once again the debate rages over whether TV is an appropriate arena to explore the area of sexual violence, and whether or not rape should be used as a form of entertainment. I would say, emphatically, yes.

When I was offered the role of Trish Winterman in the third series of Broadchurch, and when I learned what the central storyline was going to be, I was wary. Too often we’ve seen rape portrayed onscreen in a titillating way: young women being pursued by unseen predators through dark alleys and woods; the graphic depiction of the act itself; gratuitous images of naked and brutalised female bodies.

But in casting myself, an ordinary-looking middle-aged woman, as the survivor of rape, it was clear that Chris Chibnall, the writer of Broadchurch, was hoping to take a different look at the issue. Rape is not an act of sexual desire, it’s an act of violence.

There have been huge strides made in the treatment of those who report sexual assault, and although intimate examinations and scrutiny are by necessity invasive and clinical, there are now guidelines in place to ensure the sensitive treatment of victims by the police. And, crucially, training is now in place so that everyone who deals with a rape victim, from the first point of contact onwards, starts from the point of view that the victim is telling the truth.

These changes have come from years of campaigning by people working in the field and Broadchurch was keen to explore this in the hope that those who have been affected might be emboldened to come forward.

The makers of Liar had, like the makers of Broadchurch, clearly worked closely with the police, Sexual Assault Referral Centres (SARCs) and Independent Sexual Violence Advisors to ensure they portrayed these procedures responsibly and sensitively. But the programme makers also encouraged us to take a long hard look at society’s reluctance to believe that women, and it is overwhelming women, are being raped and assaulted in terrifying numbers daily. Often by men they know.

Only about six per cent of rape trials secure a conviction, and that’s not because men, women and children are lying about what has happened to them. Years of hostile treatment by the police and in court has left victims reluctant to press charges and put themselves through intense levels of scrutiny.

Television at its best should be a mirror that we hold up to see ourselves, see where we’re at as a society. Criticising Liar for using rape in its plot misses the point that some viewers of Liar were still questioning Laura’s version of events even after having watched her, deeply traumatised, being examined in a SARC.

Those viewers just couldn’t believe that nice surgeon Andrew Earlham could have done it. But in revealing that Earlham was a serial rapist mid-series, the show turned from a whodunnit into something more important, and sparked, I’m sure, a thousand conversations around these issues, and our own expectations and beliefs. Which, for me, is what TV drama should do.

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Liar concludes on Monday at 9.00pm on ITV