Are soaps sending out the right message about rape?

Is Frank's murder in Coronation Street a convenient way to have justice done, or a cop-out?

Frank Foster’s murder in Coronation Street (tonight, 7:30pm/8:30pm, ITV1) marks a compelling development in Carla’s rape storyline – and not just because it provides the soap with that most powerful of plot propellants: the whodunnit. Rather, and more significantly, it raises the difficult question of just how soaps resolve rape storylines satisfactorily.

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Judging from the Radio Times postbag following Frank’s acquittal of raping Carla, viewers rounded on Coronation Street for the verdict. One reader wrote: “I am disgusted… What sort of message does that give to any woman that finds herself in this awful position?”

But in acquitting Frank, Coronation Street simply reflects the shocking fact that only six per cent of reported rapes eventually result in a conviction. Had the soap convicted Frank, it could have been criticised for presenting an unrealistic outcome.

Torn over whether to be mirrors, reflecting the way the world is, or lamps that show how life should be, soaps are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. So is Frank’s murder a convenient way to have justice done – soaps exist in a very moral universe, after all – or is it a last resort, a cop-out to cauterise the story?

“I don’t think it’s a last resort at all,” says Coronation Street assistant producer Louise Sutton, “but a way for the story to spin-off in another direction. We thought long and hard about every aspect of our story. We know it’s a huge responsibility. We don’t want to frighten people. We want to be truthful.”

Certainly in its research for Carla’s story, Coronation Street involved the likes of Manchester’s St Mary’s Centre, the country’s leading sexual assault referral clinic, to advise on the scenes in which Carla is examined after the rape. For the courtroom scenes, Sutton says, “We had lawyers pore over them to ensure that they were watertight and absolutely authentic.”

So what did Bernie Ryan, manager of St Mary’s Centre, think of the story’s development? “Do you participate and risk criticism for the outcome of the storyline or any false steps along the way?” she says. “Or do you let the programmes plough on without our participation or the knowledge we can bring? My feeling is that it’s better to be involved and advise on the bits you can.”

Ryan doesn’t take issue with the verdict but does have concerns over the scenes following the verdict, when Carla came into contact with a triumphant Frank. “That wouldn’t happen in reality as there are special entrances and suites that victims can use to avoid contact with the accused. Those scenes caused some anxiety for victims, according to independent sexual violence advisers we’ve spoken to.”

On the whole, though, Ryan says that, irrespective of melodramatic lurches into murder, Carla’s story “created debate and discussion, and that can only be a good thing”. This is soap’s enduring challenge – to address social issues properly while providing what is, in essence, entertainment.

Tackling subjects such as rape, treading that fine line is tricky indeed – and one wrong step would be for Carla to be Frank’s killer. From time immemorial, stories have given us closure, resolutions and happy-ever-afters precisely because they are so rare in real life. In the case of Carla’s rape, perhaps it isn’t soap that’s at fault but our own justice system and society’s attitude towards women.

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This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 28 February 2012.