For Kym Marsh, this has been a year on Coronation Street like no other. Sure, there have been the usual fights and fiery showdowns that are the diet of all soap heroines. But there was also a storyline as unique as it was traumatic: the death of pregnant Michelle’s son Ruairi at 23 weeks.
The reason for it being so unusual was, of course, because it used Marsh’s real-life experience as a source of inspiration. “I totally understood why they wanted to do it,” says the actress who, as was widely reported at the time, lost her son Archie at a similar stage of pregnancy in 2009. “And I was told in no uncertain terms that I didn’t have to be involved. But I felt in my heart that it was the best way to educate and help people.”
Five months on, she’s still getting stopped by those affected by powerful scenes that saw Michelle break down as she and husband Steve cradled their lifeless baby. “I wasn’t prepared for how big the impact was going to be,” Marsh admits. “It exceeded our expectations and we were all taken aback. I think people appreciated that we touched on that subject because it is such a taboo. It’s uncomfortable talking about the loss of babies; nobody knows what to say and they think it’ll get better if they don’t discuss it. But it was opening up as a family and speaking about it that got us through what happened to me.”
Perhaps another reason why it’s lingered long in the memory of Corrie fans is because the show has wisely provided time for Michelle to mourn the loss of Ruairi. This week’s episodes, for instance, see Michelle confront Steve as the day of their son’s due date dawns.
“It would have been unrealistic if she’d suddenly been OK. There’s a part of her that’s missing,” Marsh agrees. “It does take its toll on you. You go through that grieving process, but you don’t ever get over it. It’s about learning to accept what’s happened and then living with it. I have a happy life and my children have a great time, but there’s always a little part of me that belongs to Archie. But Michelle’s not quite at that stage yet – she has, of course, also found out that Steve fathered another child with Leanne, so it has been a bit of a double whammy.”
This latest state of affairs as regards Steve may be devastating for Michelle, but it also serves as a marker for what I feel is the soap’s renaissance under the stewardship of Kate Oates. The producer’s flair for spinning storylines in unexpected directions worked wonders over the Pennines on Emmerdale and she’s now putting some much-needed pep back into Corrie’s step:
“I think the show’s been brilliant since Kate’s come on board. The way the stories are all interlinked reminds me of that movie Crash; everyone’s lives are intertwined and we’re seeing such great drama coming from that. The writing has been wonderful and the subject matter feels very current – look at Bethany’s grooming and Sally’s trolling; these are issues that affect real people.”
Marsh is naturally a staunch advocate for the show she’s loyally served for 11 years (when I ask why it should win at this year’s British Soap Awards, she replies – with a laugh: “Because we’re the best!”). But her own nomination for Best Actress is no fluke. Strip away the fact that art has mirrored life when it comes to Michelle’s baby loss and it’s still a powerhouse performance that elevates her to the ranks of Corrie icons such as Elsie Tanner and Liz McDonald. And don’t take my word for it, just ask Madame Tussauds in Blackpool, who are currently making a waxwork of Marsh as Michelle.
“I’ve seen the head and it’s freaky,” she says of her doppelganger. “When they’re doing the research, they draw on you and put stickers all over you, just so they can get the measurements right. But I’m absolutely thrilled to bits. Though I did tell one of my friends and she said she was going to deface it and put a moustache on it.”
When it comes to Michelle’s future, I wonder whether she ought to now be carving out an independent path away from estranged husband Steve and current love interest Robert. Surely the character needn’t be defined by her relationship to a Weatherfield fella? “Well, Steve is selling his share of the Rovers, so it’d nice if Michelle could use that money to do something for herself. And not have to rely on anybody else. We are seeing a more feisty side to her. And there is a very dramatic summer ahead – it’s certainly not going to be all easy going for her and Robert.”
The one person missing from this scenario, though, is Michelle’s relative and confidante Carla, absent from the Street since May 2016. Knowing how close Marsh and actress Alison King are, I suggest that Carla could return and team up with Michelle to wrest Underworld away from a power-crazed Jenny Bradley, who seems destined to seize control of the knicker factory. “Wouldn’t that be a wonderful plot,” she enthuses. “Well, the Connors might well let her buy into the factory, so who knows?”
Thankfully, life behind the scenes is far less tumultuous for Marsh. She turned 40 in June last year and says that both life and career couldn’t be going better. “When I reached 40, it certainly wasn’t the crisis I thought it would be. I just accepted it. I’m actually in a really good place – if life wasn’t as good as it is now, I’d have been a bit more worried about it. I’m fitter than I ever have been and I look after myself much more than I ever did. I’m settled and happy and I think that’s a good place to be at 40.
“And Coronation Street is also in really good shape. There’s a lot to be excited about. We’ve come out fighting and that in itself is a cause for celebration.”
You can watch a 60-second rundown of next week’s episodes of Coronation Street below.