With plots about homophobic bullying, suicide attempts and male rape, Hollyoaks has often gone where other tea-time soaps wouldn’t dare. And now, as its child abuse storyline unfolds, the Channel 4 show is again treading on controversial yet highly relevant ground.
The plot, which will continue to gather momentum well into next year, centres around the McQueen family, a staple of the soap and one of the most popular clans in the village, who are slowly being torn apart by mum Reenie’s (Zoe Lucker) boyfriend Pete (Kai Owen). He seems like the charming, warm dad the McQueen daughters never had, but in reality he’s a paedophile who has already abused Porsche (Twinnie-Lee Moore) and is now grooming Cleo (Nadine Mulkerrin). None of the sisters have confided in each other about their experiences, and so the cycle of abuse continues.
Speaking to RadioTimes.com and others at a press day at the Lime Pictures set in Liverpool, Owen and Lucker, who are at the heart of the storyline, are clearly passionate about the plot and hope it might help to prevent further child abuse.
“It happens so regularly with a member of the family who does do what Pete does, who grooms them, who makes everybody love them, makes everyone feel safe,” says Lucker.
“He does it to Reenie, all his family and all his friends. And that’s when it’s so dangerous because children… don’t know it’s necessarily wrong, what these people are doing, because they’re so very, very clever, so manipulative and so calculating.
“And thats what we’re trying to put across here, it’s not just the high profile stories [in the news] that go on, it’s happening all the time. It’s the grooming part of things that people know so little about.”
Hollyoaks show bosses and cast have teamed up with the NSPCC to write the plot, getting every line approved so that it’s both realistic, sensitively handled and educational.
Bryan Kirkwood, the show’s executive producer, says that he wants the plot’s title No More Secrets to have an effect on young fans who might not have realised they are in the McQueen’s situation. “Cleo doesn’t think she’s been sexually abused, she think she’s the legitimate equal partner of her step father. It was really important we got someone who can light up a room like Kai does and doesn’t play the archetypal, slightly pantomime version [of a paedophile].”
But however much Pete is fooling his partner Reenie that he’s a hero, fans know better and they’re expressing their fury and frustration on Twitter. Although they’ve been complimentary about Owen’s acting, many have tweeted that his character’s actions make them want to scream at the TV. “They’re hating Pete,” says Owen. “They hate him, they hate him, they hate him. He’s scum, they want him killed, they want him out of there.”
He also adds that he’s had moving and worrying messages from young people saying that the storyline is very close to home, and that they have experienced what Cleo is currently facing.
So what’s it actually like, playing the very worst kind of predator society can possibly imagine?
“I have to remember I’m just acting and thank the lord, I’m nothing like Pete,” says Owen. “I was very similar to Rhys in Torchwood [Owen played a lead part in the Doctor Who spin-off], I am a loveable Welsh bloke who likes his food and beer… but with this part I can feel the difference.”
Also an experienced actor (EastEnders, Footballers Wives), Lucker says she has forced herself to leave the traumatic plot at work. “Having worked on many different characters on many different shows, I’ve learnt that you have to or you’ll go mad.”
And while Reenie is not being sexually abused herself, the writers are keen to show she is also a victim. Groomed into thinking Pete is innocent, she is unable to believe her daughter Porsche (below) when she reveals what Pete’s done to her in the past.
“She has not got a clue that there’s anything going on with Cleo,” Lucker says when asked whether Reenie is just in denial about the situation. “Heaven knows what would happen when she finds out.”
As part of their partnership with the NSPCC, the cast spent the day with survivors of sexual abuse, and are visibly shocked and inspired by what they heard.
“I just feel passionate about telling the story,” says Owen. “Because if it helps anybody come out of a hell that they are in then we’ve done our job.”