Hollyoaks: inside Cleo and Joel’s dramatic wedding day

Hard-hitting episode focuses on consequences of Cleo's eating disorder

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Hollyoaks‘ Cleo McQueen prepares to tie the knot with Joel Dexter in tonight’s E4 episode (Tuesday 9 October), but it’s far from a fairy-tale wedding – even by soap standards.

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To mark World Mental Health Day on Wednesday 10 October, and continuing Hollyoaks’ tradition of dealing with difficult issues through daring, audacious story-telling, the soap has created an experimental single-strand episode showing the big day from three different perspectives, giving a unique and tragic insight into the psychological impact of Cleo’s ongoing eating disorder.

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“Our producer Bryan Kirkwood whispered in my ear at the Bafta awards in May that there was this exciting, special episode coming up centred on Cleo’s bulimia,” Nadine Mulkerrin told RadioTimes.com on location during the filming of her alter ego’s nuptials. “I spoke to the writer, Roanne Bardsley, and she talked me through it.

“It sounded amazing, especially tying it in with World Mental Health day as the crescendo of the storyline. Hollyoaks always treat these big, issue-led plots with such sensitive.”

The non-linear, unusual episode structure is a brave departure from the norm, as Mulkerrin explains. “It’s all different stages of reveal, you won’t really know where the characters are at certain points. There are three version of the day being told, three different perceptions. Basically Cleo is in total denial about her eating disorder and everything she’s been through.”

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In almost four years on the show, Cleo has been at the heart of some of Hollyoaks’ most memorably hard-hitting moments, notably the child abuse plot in which she was groomed and abused by stepdad Pete Buchanan, which was conceived with the backing of the NSPCC and earned deserved praise for Mulkerrin’s sensitive, subtle performance. Subsequently Cleo has succumbed to drug addiction and seen her relationship with food take a worrying turn.

“The bulimia story started last year, it was New Year’s Eve the first time you saw her bingeing and purging,” continues the actress. “They’ve taken it quite slowly. I’ve always been lucky with the storylines I’ve been given, but this has been a particular slow-burn and has been in the background all year. When the McQueens were in Magaluf in the summer Cleo made excuses as to why she wasn’t wearing a bikini as she’s ashamed of her body but doesn’t want to let on – there have been subtle references to it dotted around.”

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Battling bulimia is the latest manifestation of Cleo’s recovery from the childhood abuse ordeal Pete put her through, as Nicole Barber-Lane, aka McQueen matriarch Myra, explains during our set visit. “Cleo wanting control over food stems from all the things she went through with Pete, which are still there because it’s not ever been dealt with. Cleo reaches out to Joel as her guiding light, but the message is she’s got look inside – and she’s not. She isn’t verbalising how she’s feeling, she’s hiding it from everyone.

“Cleo should be happy, it’s her wedding day, but deep down she’s not and doesn’t understand why. That’s another reason she can’t talk about her real feelings.”

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Playing the groom, and being Mulkerrin’s real life partner, Rory Douglas-Speed has an added layer of perspective on the emotional episode, and why the show is choosing to break from the usual format. “It gives more of an insight into Cleo’s mind and sheds light on a realistic side of her illness. There are many misconceptions of bulimia, but the script really delves into the depths it affects people. For Joel, it taps into his saviour complex – he wants to save everyone, but if he learns the extent Cleo has been hiding her bulimia it will be difficult for him. He will feel like he’s failed her.

“Nadine has worked closely with Beat, the eating disorder charity. Hollyoaks works hard to get these things right and treated with respect, which can be difficult in the timeslot. This is probably one of the best issue stories they’ve done in terms of realising. It’s incredibly emotional – the audience loves Cleo and to see her go through such a rough time is going to be really sad. This episode is definitely a game-changer for Cleo and Joel’s relationship.”

Cleo and Joel’s special wedding episode airs on E4 on Tuesday 9 October at 7pm, and on Channel 4 on Wednesday 10 October – World Mental Health Day – at 6.30pm.

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