Sometimes soaps are accused of sensationalism, and sometimes justifiably. There’s little harm in this when ludicrous lurches occur only in stories with little resonance in the wider world, but when controversial or complex issues are addressed, flights of fancy are less forgivable.
Hence soaps now do copious amounts of research to ensure that they have a foundation of facts on which to build these stories, whether they are tales of a gay Muslim struggling with his faith and sexuality (EastEnders’ Syed) or the assisted suicide of a quadriplegic man (Emmerdale’s Jackson).
Most of the time nowadays, soaps take seriously what in business circles is called “social responsibility”.
Coronation Street’s Carla
So when Corrie decided to embark on its story of Carla’s rape, it turned to the country’s foremost sexual assault referral centre. Since it opened in 1986, St Mary’s Centre, on the sprawling campus of Manchester’s Royal Infirmary, has dealt with over 15,500 cases of sexual assault.
It offers a range of services from support immediately following an assault to forensic medical examination and longer-term counselling – victims are under no obligation to report their attack to the police – it’s entirely dedicated to supporting victims of sexual assault whether they are men, women or children.
“We had meetings with producers, writers, directors and the actors from very early on in the development of the story,” explains Bernie Ryan, manager of St Mary’s since 2003. “They sent us the scripts, which we advised on and amended, and then when they filmed their scenes at the sexual assault referral centre, we were on set to advise on those, too.”
So was Ryan ever worried that the demands of drama might distort factual accuracy? “Of course we held our breath when the episode went out and while we didn’t advise on aspects such as the police response, we were happy with the result. When someone attends here, the process takes three hours, but they have to condense it into three minutes. We understand that; it’s a drama.”
St Mary’s also advised Hollyoaks on its recent rape storyline involving Jacqui McQueen and Gilly Roach, and Ryan says that in general she is pleased that soap highlights that rape takes place as long as they don’t perpetuate myths and stereotypes.
“The further that we move away from the notion that rape happens in a dark alley by a stranger, the better,” she says. “Those rapes do occur, but it’s far more common that the perpetrator is known to the victim, whether that’s from a previous or current relationship, as an acquaintance or someone they’ve met in a bar or had a few dates with.”
Visiting St Mary’s is, as you would expect, a challenging experience, not least when you learn that the youngest victim helped was three weeks old and the oldest 96. But it’s also humbling when you consider the incredible work its staff do. So what’s it like working there?
“For people who aren’t involved, the realisation that we see over 1,000 cases can be shocking, but it’s a fantastic service to work for,” says Ryan. “That people can recover from something so negative keeps me inspired. At the end of the counselling process, someone might say they got something positive out of it and being part of that is a real privilege.”
This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 22 November 2011.