It is 2pm on a Friday and I’m sitting in a press room filled with people who are crying. This has to be the most unusual media event I’ve ever attended. We’ve just watched Hayley Cropper die on Coronation Street and now everyone is upset. The journalists are crying, the cast is crying and the press officers are crying.
As the lights come up, I dab my own eyes and think back to previous times when dramas have resulted in me making a show of myself. There was Debra Winger saying goodbye to her children in Terms of Endearment. Debra Winger dying in Shadowlands. Basically, anything involving Debra Winger.
But before I can indulge myself further, Corrie’s publicity manager, Alison, comes to the front of the room, sniffs, throws a tissue in the bin and takes a deep breath. This isn’t a preview screening, I realise. It’s a wake. We’re now expected to do the usual round of interviews with the actors involved, but as our names are read aloud and we file out, the only thing missing is the tolling of a death knell.
And then I see the actress Julie Hesmondhalgh. She’s only just arrived, having travelled over from the Royal Exchange theatre in the centre of Manchester, where she’s rehearsing her new play, Blindsided.
She’s sitting in the bar that adjoins the screening room and as I catch her eye, she gives me a lovely smile and wave. I’ve just seen you die on a cinema-sized screen, I think. And yet here you are, looking awfully well: red lipstick, bleached blonde hair and a smart shift dress that’s a world away from Hayley’s trademark anorak.
I’ve interviewed Julie a few times in the past, the first occasion being back in November 2010. I’d just started writing about soaps at the time and, as we’d sat talking in the green room at Granada, I’d been impressed by how welcoming and candid she was. Three-and-a-bit years on, she’s reassuringly the same.
“Me and my husband watched it last night on DVD,” she says now, referring to her emotional final ever appearance on the ITV soap. “It was like a scene of carnage at our house by the end. Loads of screwed-up kitchen roll and empty bottles of whiskey.”
It’s no secret that Hayley breathes her last in the episode set to air on Monday 20 January. We’ve already seen the diagnosis of inoperable pancreatic cancer and the recent admission from doctors that she had just weeks left to live.
But what will surprise viewers is the starkness of Hayley’s dying moments: there’s none of the soft-focus camerawork that you get in those Debra Winger movies I mentioned. What we see is brutal and traumatic. A woman ravaged by illness ending her life at the time of her choosing and against the wishes of her husband.
“We wanted to make it as unbeautiful as we could,” admits Julie. “It has to be awkward and difficult between Hayley and Roy because he doesn’t agree with her decision. And those feelings are there right until the end. She almost railroads him into it because it’s becoming too painful. I thought that came across strongly – she’s driving the bus and he can’t get off.”
Constancy is a rare thing in soap relationships. Usually, bust-ups are ten-a-penny and infidelity widespread, but for the last 15 years Roy and Hayley Cropper have stood united, anoraks against the world. And even though there is a major fault line between them when it comes to her death, this is still a love story about the small strategies that partners employ to make their lives more bearable.
For instance, in Hayley’s final hours, she irons the shirt she wants Roy to wear to her funeral – an act that’s also a fine example of how this whole plotline has stayed true to the Croppers’ quirks and foibles while also saying something universal about suffering and loss.
“What’s surprised me most is that I thought more people would have switched off, if I’m honest with you,” says the actress. “I thought it would be too much for people. But the majority of viewers I’ve spoken to have said that they’ve found some kind of solace from seeing loss depicted in that way. It has felt like it’s connected with people.”
Yet there’s no doubting that loyal viewers will find the episode’s closing scenes almost unbearably raw and upsetting. We follow soap opera characters over years and sometimes decades, which means that the genre has always been geared towards depicting life and death. But the fact that Hayley is such a bastion of kindness and decency makes her passing especially sombre and unfair.
I find some solace of my own by looking through the floor-to-ceiling windows in this seventh floor press room on the banks of the Manchester Ship Canal. On the opposite side, I can see the new Coronation Street set upon which the cast began filming only last week. It’s reassuring evidence that life will go on in Weatherfield following the death of Hayley and that, when it comes down to it, the true star of Corrie is actually the Street itself.
But then I pick out its landmarks: the Underworld knicker factory, the kebab shop and – oh no – Roy’s Rolls. All of which begs the big question: just what will become of Roy? Can Julie ever envisage a day when her screen husband is paired up with somebody else?
“My God, I’m not even buried yet!” she says, roaring with laughter. “In reality, I don’t think he’d ever be with anyone else. But this is continuing drama and there have to be relationships between people. I think the writers will have a lot of fun finding someone for him. And he has Hayley’s blessing.”
Yet despite the possibility of there one day in the future being another woman in Roy’s life, for a generation of viewers there will only ever be one true Mrs Cropper. Corrie characters may come and go but Hayley’s steadfastness and goodness ensure that she’ll linger long in the memory.
Julie Hesmondhalgh’s final episodes of Coronation Street will be broadcast on Monday 20 January on ITV