Coronation Street to tackle racism – but can it do justice to the issue?

As firefighter Paul sparks controversy in an upcoming plotline, David Brown looks at race relations in soaps

This summer will see Coronation Street introduce a racism plotline as firefighter Paul Kershaw (Tony Hirst) will be overheard by cab driver Lloyd Mullaney (Craig Charles) using the phrase “playing the white man”. The show’s boss Stuart Blackburn has said that “it’s one of those modern stories that will get everyone talking”. But how effectively can a show like Corrie tackle an incendiary topic like race?

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There are obvious limitations for soaps when they try to deal with racism. For a start, prejudice goes against the community ideals that these dramas present. These are neverworlds where neighbourliness is prioritised over family and people gather in the local pub of an evening rather in their living rooms around a TV set. Petty criminality and philandering is tolerated (even encouraged to provide a talking point for local gossips), but out-and-out bigotry can never be. It’s too immoral a standpoint – and soaps inhabit a very moral universe.

Therefore, racism has to be individual rather than institutional and there are only three options when it comes to dealing with characters who espouse such views: removal, reproval or rehabilitation.

Soap’s most long-standing racist, Nick Cotton of EastEnders, has been ejected time and again for his objectionable behaviour. Over on Coronation Street, Alf Roberts found himself with opprobrium heaped upon him by moral guardian Emily Bishop when he objected to Curly Watts having Shirley Armitage – the show’s first major black character – move into the flat above the corner shop. Jim Branning, a habitual racist when he first appeared in Albert Square, was made to see the error of his ways and became best friends with Patrick Trueman. In real life, people can be hatefully, incorrigibly racist. But on soaps, it’s always a problem that can somehow be solved.

Here, it looks as though Coronation Street will be taking the first option by getting rid of the character at the centre of the storyline. It was announced back in February that actor Tony Hirst, who has played Paul since December 2010, will be leaving later this year at the end of his current contract.

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Now this is only a guess based on past performance, but with racism being presented once again as a problem of individual prejudice, it can only be a matter of time before the image of Weatherfield as an oasis of harmony is restored. There’s no denying that part of Corrie’s appeal lies in its cosy atmosphere, but if it promotes a sense of essential decency in this instance, isn’t there a worry that it will somehow sell the issue of racism short?