Hollyoaks has aired a special episode focusing on Alfie Nightingale’s mental health struggles which saw the troubled teenager spiral into a breakdown, resulting in him standing perilously high atop the city wall archway convinced he could fly – with big brother James pulling him back from the edge before Alfie was admitted to hospital and diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder.
Alfie’s struggle has been building for months, starting with erratic behaviour before he began to regularly hear a sinister voice feeding his paranoia and anxiety, and eventually leading to vivid delusions and hallucinations. The soap had previously announced the ‘single-strand’ edition which transmitted tonight, Wednesday 6 June, on E4 would be devoted to the storyline and show the character reach rock bottom before finally getting professional help and beginning his recovery.
In a powerful episode peppered with stylistic tricks to put the audience literally inside Alfie’s troubled mind, the scale and effect of the character’s condition was brought into sharp focus as his family and friends reeled to see the extent of his illness.
RadioTimes.com spoke to Richard Linnell, whose intelligent and heartbreaking portrayal of Alfie contributed to the episode being one of the soap highlights of 2018 thus far, about the special instalment and the long-term fallout for his character.
What were the main differences between filming this and a regular episode?
The sheer volume of content it involved. Normally where a number of different plots play out in a single episode you’ll be in four or five scenes – this episode had 30 scenes all but one of which I was in, so it was a lot to prepare for. A lot of them were long with lots of dialogue, so it became more like a theatre piece, particularly the stuff at the Cunninghams’ at the beginning. It was a different beast to a regular episode and as I’d done mainly theatre before Hollyoaks it was nice to go back to that approach.
How did you react when you knew you’d have an episode devoted to Alfie’s storyline? As we saw with Ross Adams and his amazing win for Best Dramatic Performance for his single strand last year, he had a 15-minute monologue which was utterly incredible, so I wondered if I’d have to do that! That’s a sheer testament to Ross’s memory! I felt I had more input than usual, there were multiple meetings in pre-production to discuss any questions I had, they really wanted me involved which was great to have a hand in crafting it.
Was it physically demanding to show how Alfie’s condition manifested itself in his behaviour?
It was probably the most physical thing I’ve done on the show. The anxiety and paranoia which comes with schizoaffective disorder, tightness of breath, hunching of shoulders, changes in speech pattern and breathing, tensing up your body – doing that for hours on end was really exhausting. I got so much from the research and speaking to media volunteers, the mental health campaigner Jonny Benjamin, a guy I spoke to described those physical symptoms of anxiety which I noted down and knew I could use in the performance. As an actor I have to physicalise the thought processes described in the script, which is the key to selling it as truthful to the audience. You almost have to make your body reverse-engineer those feelings – so if you make yourself cry you’ll feel sad, and if you tense up your body you’ll feel tense and anxious which helps the performance.
Were you scared filming the scene with Alfie almost falling off the top of the arch? I didn’t need to reverse engineer the fear – it was very high! Your body tenses up as an instinctive reaction. Most of the time I was stood on a platform behind the edge of the wall which you couldn’t see, and I had a harness, but felt completely safe at all times thanks to our incredible crew and safety guys.
What happens now for Alfie, and how do his family react to the diagnosis?
Next week Alfie is in a psychiatric ward of a hospital, which after a mental health crisis is quite normal that they’d keep you in for observation. He still has the symptoms as they’ve yet to start treatment so Alfie is still very paranoid. As is common in these situations where you’re in an institutionalised environment he feels people are out to get him and trying to poison him, so unfortunately he refuses to take his medication. Marnie is having a very difficult time processing this and is in denial, not acknowledging there is quite a serious problem. And while Alfie will get better it needs to be accepted he has the condition and it needs to be treated.
What about his biological mum Cindy, who herself has battled bipolar? Marnie raised Alfie so she’s hostile towards Cindy coming in and doesn’t want her seeing him. Eventually Cindy does make her way in and we have a beautiful scene together where she opens up about her personal experiences. As you saw in tonight’s episode, Cindy was the only one who calmed him down. The scene in the psychiatric ward was lovely to shoot with Steph Waring – Cindy convinces Alfie by connecting with him in a visceral way to start taking the medication. It’s a nice moment between them, and I hope they become closer after it.
Finally, what can we expect as Alfie recovers and adapts after his diagnosis?
A key part of this storyline is the recovery and it’s a long road ahead. We’ve explored the symptoms and progression of the condition, but now we’ll see how the correct treatment is different per person and per their experience, plus there’s the possible side effects of treatment. The research team and organisations like Mind have been great, it’s amazing to be able to show your life does go on, the condition becomes a part of your life but it doesn’t control you. Its like a modifier on your personality, you are still you – it doesn’t define you. That’s the message.
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