What a year. I feel like I’m finally catching my breath, when another wave comes and flattens me… the Christmas episode of Corrie, a forwarded letter from someone who is losing a loved one to cancer, the painful hours spent ruthlessly clearing my Granada dressing room of 16 years’ worth of memories.
It was during that long afternoon a few weeks ago, surrounded by stripped and pin-scarred corkboards and binbags full of cards and photographs, that I discovered a neatly annotated essay written by 28-year-old me after my first year in Coronation Street as Hayley. It loftily begins with a Julie Burchill quotation: “No sort of revolutionary ever goes into the entertainment business, because entertainment is there to divert us from the reality of our lives”, and goes on to attempt to disprove this statement, by arguing (not completely without humour, but with a cringe-inducing, pseudy turn of phrase) how much of a revolutionary I actually am:
“I’ve played Hayley for a year (soap’s first transsexual, don’t you know!), a few elderly viewers have expressed fondness for her (in spite of her being a transsexual!), we got praised in Parliament (I’m in Hansard, for goodness’ sake, that’s how revolutionary I am!). I AM CLEARLY CHANGING THE WORLD, BURCHILL!
Ah, the chutzpah of youth. I was, unbelievably, 27 when I got the role of Hayley in 1998. It was a bit of a joke. Roy was to have a series of disastrous dates, the first being with Hayley, who was to turn out to be a pre-op trans-woman. In a bit of casting that would now be classed as pretty much the equivalent of “blacking up”, I was brought in. David Neilson and I “clicked”, Roy and Hayley “worked”, I got to stay.
We worked to make Hayley as real and rounded as we could, belatedly taking advice and help from within the trans “community”. Hayley became essentially the Friendly, Non-Threatening Face of 21st-century Transgender, like Colin on EastEnders did for gay men in the 1980s.
Eventually, she (and I) merged into the fabric of Weatherfield, occasionally breaking out to go on the run with a beaten child or to discover a son she didn’t know she had etc, before melting back into cozy Corrie-ness.
At the end of 2012 I decided to leave. I’d taken some time off to do a play about Sophie Lancaster, a young Lancashire woman murdered because of the way she looked and dressed. Being on stage again, and being part of a story that mattered to me, one I felt needed to be told, stirred something in me that had long retired… that little bit of youthful belief that you can change the world (even if only a tiny corner of it) through entertainment – or dare I say it, art.
I wanted to be part of the world again, part of the telling of other stories. Perhaps Hayley had said all she had to say.
As soon as I told our producer Stuart Blackburn that I was planning to leave, it became clear that Hayley would have to die. For her to leave Roy and one of the most steadfast and long-lasting soap relationships ever (revolutionary in itself!) would be a betrayal of everything they’d been through together; only death could part them.
I think we all felt that a dramatic, explosive death would also be doing them a disservice. So it was decided that Hayley would be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, an illness I knew very little about at the time, but subsequently discovered has a shockingly low survival rate that has not improved at all in 40 years, receives a tiny percentage of government research money and of which there is practically no public awareness.
Through the dedication of the research storyline team, and an almost reverent chronicling by the writers of a marriage torn apart by cancer, pancreatic cancer started to make headlines. An e-petition calling for more funding, stuck at around 5,000 signatures, rocketed to nearly 20,000 in months. Tweets and letters poured in from people who thought they wouldn’t be able to watch, but who ended up, somehow, and to their own surprise, finding solace in the ups and downs of the Croppers’ cancer story.
In October, an episode by Jan McVerry aired in which Hayley told Roy that, when the time came, she wanted to take her own life. Cleverly tying up so many loose ends, the writers connected her fears of a medicated and confused last few days to her terror of mixing up her present with her dark, pre-transition past. The whole episode was a painful exploration of the issues around the Right to Die agenda, with Roy arguing virulently against, and Hayley pleading for his blessing to take control of her death.
It was about as uncozy as you can get – a real departure for two characters known for their devotion to each other, as they steamed and stormed from location to location, unable to convince the other of their point of view. The episode featured on Gogglebox and it was a privilege to see the immediate effect of the story on regular viewers, and the deep and unlikely existential conversations that it triggered.
Hayley’s death airs this week. It isn’t beautiful; it’s necessarily agonising, because of her steely determination to end her own life and Roy’s continued, deep ambivalence about her choice. As the Assisted Dying Bill awaits more parliamentary time, this seems timely and appropriate.
There are no easy answers, but it goes without saying that the part of the proposed bill that talks about patients with terminal illnesses having personal autonomy is deeply relevant to Hayley’s continued struggle to own her own body. It puts the emphasis not for the first time in her life on the issue of what a life is, on who that life belongs to, on the value of a well mind making informed choices about a body that is letting the side down. This is a conversation that needs to be had.
At the Croppers’ second legally recognised wedding, Roy made the observation: “We have remained the same; the world has turned to meet us.” Perhaps the world will turn to meet this unlikely pair of cardiganed agenda setters again. If we can stir people in their living rooms and encourage thought and debate about something affecting real people every day, then I believe it’s a higher purpose for telly that transcends any market forces or need for diversion. I think my 28-year-old revolutionary heart would burst with pride at what Hayley has managed to achieve, and what she may yet help to achieve. Thank you, Mrs Cropper, for all of it.
Julie Hesmondhalgh is appearing at the Royal Exchange in Manchester in Blindsided (until 15 February), then in Black Roses: the Killing of Sophie Lancaster at the Royal Festival Hall in London (24—28 March)