Hollyoaks: Behind-the-scenes at soap's groundbreaking disability-focused episode
Hollyoaks will air a special episode which will tell the stories of disabled people.
Soap fans have come to associate advertised special episodes with explosions, death, destruction... So, on a notepad, before a Zoom call with the writer of Hollyoaks’ upcoming special ‘What’s Your Normal?’, I had simply scrawled, “no stunt (?)”. No. This is different.
Hollyoaks is dedicating an entire episode to the lives of disabled people – showing their intimate, ordinary and staring-you-right-in-the-face experiences. This episode has been part of a process undertaken by the actors, writers and production team to craft a broader narrative around disability to unravel some truths – and some untruths – away from stunts and sensationalism. It was written by Jonathan Boam, who is neurodivergent, and directed by Bim Ajadi, who is deaf.
When I spoke with actors and production behind-the-scenes of the special, it was clear they wanted it to be an up-close, personal experience. They have skin in the game, as illustrated by Rory Douglas-Speed’s experience of having diabetes.
Douglas-Speed recalls: “I actually flagged up a few years ago [when Joel had a drug addiction]. I thought, ‘OK, it may tie in quite nicely’, because when you have diabetes, obviously you take insulin to live every day. And when he was a heroin addict, he was almost taking something to die every day.”
The idea didn’t get picked up until later; as he tells the story, his excitement is palpable, “I went in for a meeting this time. And I’m told, ‘Oh, we’re making Joel diabetic.’ I was buzzing.”
In the episode, Joel has been feeling unwell for a while and after collapsing, is diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. He struggles to come to terms with it and doesn’t want to be seen differently by his friends and family. So, he keeps it a secret.
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For both the writer and actor, it was important to capture that transition, show the vulnerability and the effort of acceptance, and show why he needs that layer of secrecy – and protection – as he goes through it.
The actor reflects: “So many things can be misconstrued, or there are extremes. And I think, ‘How accurate is the information out there?’ But what we can bring to the table is the real life of it.”
The importance of this realism is later unmistakable on set when someone suggests ways to appear as if he is injecting insulin. With a hint of amusement, he instinctively responds: “I know what I’m doing.”
With all this life experience that Rory has, it feels like he can take everything he is and has been and put it into this character. “I was on death’s door half the time. I experienced some crazy things when I was younger, but as part of the learning curve, because I was eight years old when I was diagnosed.”
For many disabled people, this simple, restrained account will be familiar: quietly accepting and at times yelling, screaming and fighting our way through.
“It was a lot, to be honest. I sort of took it all on board easy enough. It did have a huge impact... I had to sort of shift my mentality from being a child to then, I suppose, having ownership on what I’m doing with my life because every decision I made was key to whether I live or die, essentially.”
Other small details that make up a disabled life can be written into scripts, those moments from direct experience – some of the in-jokes and culture of our community: “If Joel and Leela were to go upstairs, and do what they need to do, you’re coming back downstairs and getting some Lucozade or whatever. Like, that’s just a little authentic thing. Only people with diabetes will know what’s going on.”
Sitting down with Annabelle Davis at a time when it often feels like, as a disabled woman, you don’t get the final say in your identity is a reassurance. She has a distinctive vision of how she wants to present herself, her body, her voice and perspective in character, while representing the views and experiences of so many others.
When it came to reshaping the early ideas for her character, Lacey, she was committed to fleshing her out, making her a woman other disabled women would see themselves in.
“We had a few meetings discussing the character, and we’ve had to tweak it a bit. I wanted it to be different.” She was keen for Lacey to be a professional: “Little people in certain professions, you don’t see it, and you don’t think it and see that on screen. ‘It’s like, Oh, wow. Yeah, of course. Why? Why not?’”
Part of her vision for her character is to embody a sense of ordinariness. “Part of my discussion with the disability episode is that with soaps, every storyline is a little bit more sensationalised. But when doing some of the disabled storylines, it brings it back, really, to that kind of ground base level – and it works.”
In scenes from the episode, Minnie Minniver (Eva Lorente), who has Down’s Syndrome, is not allowed to join in with swimming lessons, so her mum Maxine Minniver (Nikki Sanderson) seeks legal advice.
Paralegal Lacey helps Maxine and takes her to the leisure centre to help educate them and represent the case, having faced similar problems herself growing up as a disabled person. This storyline echoes that of Shauna Hogan, who has since become a Special Olympian and appears in the episode.
By stripping back these simple moments and echoing reality, the focus is placed on the core of humanity, staring you right in the face and highlighting the profound impact of discrimination and stigma. Maxine’s wish to take legal action against the leisure centre resonates as a human response to discrimination.
At the same time, Yazz Cunningham (Haiesha Mistry) struggles with her hearing and is reluctant to use a hearing aid because a bad joke makes her uneasy. It’s an unflinching account of the raw emotions and self-consciousness which are a day-to-day reality for many – every day, as a community, we text and tweet about the ignorance and cruelty we experience.
But the importance of shared experience, and community, is also seen in how Oscar Osborne (Noah Holdsworth) recognises and understands her difficulties and works with Brooke Hathaway (Tylan Grant) to help encourage Yazz to admit she is struggling. Brooke shares how their autism can make people feel awkward, and Yazz is encouraged to wear her hearing aids again.
Annabelle’s message to writers? “Hey, you, you don’t need to come up with stories. There are so many that are and have been lived and authentic, and are probably even wilder than anything you can imagine – you just need to talk to people.”
The episode relies on personal experience and authenticity, carefully and thoughtfully fleshed out and stripped back. By incorporating the lived experiences of disabled actors and writers, there’s a directness, an unflinching, staring-you-right-in-the-face honesty about intimate aspects of disability and ordinary disabled lives.
Dr Kirsty Liddiard from the University of Sheffield concludes: “Disabled actors and writers can bring a sense of understanding and an important lived perspective to the role. Lived experience can, and should, bring authenticity.”
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‘What’s Your Normal?’ episode can be seen on Friday 30th June on E4 and on Channel 4 on Monday 3rd July. Hollyoaks is available to stream on All4 and airs every weeknight at 6:30pm on Channel 4 and 7pm on E4.
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