Uh-oh, hang on to your hat and button up your cardie, it’s time for an “issue”. In last week’s RT, Coronation Street producer Kate Oates unveiled another controversial storyline, the rape of David Platt.
I like Kate Oates a lot and have huge respect for her. I’ve known her for years, since she worked on The Archers; she’s clever, talented and highly capable. But I don’t like “issues” in dramas.
The idea behind the male rape story is, Kate Oates explained in her column, to “raise awareness of an important issue”. But it’s not the job of dramas to raise awareness of anything. Dramas have one duty – to entertain. Anything else is hectoring.
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Besides, is there any well-balanced human being in Britain who flops into a chair at 7.30pm in eager anticipation of a story about a brutal sexual assault on a character in a mainstream soap opera? (And there’s a whole other column to be written about the coarsening of Britain’s soaps and the misanthropy that runs through them like a bitter seam. Who wants to watch this stuff? I’d be happier wrapped in a blanket doing jigsaws.)
Only comparatively recently Coronation Street ran into a wall of protest after a protracted story about the grooming of Bethany Platt, who was sexually exploited and raped. This, too, felt like another “issue”, another stab at “raising awareness”, as if we didn’t know already. I watch the news, I know what’s going on.
Kate Oates touched on this particular controversy when she told RT: “I realise that… Corrie is divisive and I will quite happily accept that it’s darker.” But I don’t think that’s up to Kate Oates or anyone else among Coronation Street’s top brass. It’s no one’s job to divide an audience (and a big audience at that) or to upset that audience by twisting the tone of Britain’s longest-running television drama. That happy acceptance sounds like an airy dismissal of the worries of your bedrock fans, and these are people who shouldn’t be messed with.
Now, I’m sure the Platt story is being handled with sensitivity and various charities and groups are involved and there will be helpline numbers. But I worry about a male rape story as much as I worry about plots involving sexual assaults on female characters. My big concern is that such attacks are used when writers run out of ideas for long-serving characters (Anna in Downton Abbey, for instance) and the dead end is swerved by subjecting the character to this most horrible, life-altering experience.
Consider David Platt: he’s a walking, talking catalogue of disasters. He was driven into a canal by Richard Hillman, he pushed his mum Gail down the stairs, he engineered a car crash that left his brother, Nick, brain damaged, he trashed the street… he’s also had his murdered wife die in his arms. So what else can happen to him? Ah yes, I know…
But, more generally, when we know an “issue” is looming then surely that prompts a certain tasteless relish in some viewers, who’ll be on the tips of their seats, knowing that something ghastly is coming.
The problem is that if you clearly flag something up as an awareness-raising “issue” then it feels artificial, grafted-on and false. Something that’s sprung out of nowhere, fully-formed, an evil entity leaping from a box marked “Important Issues”.
I don’t think this teaches anyone about anything. It’s just rubbernecking.