Hollyoaks Favourites throws us back to the year 2000 and the rape of Luke Morgan (Gary Lucy), focusing in particular on the trial of Mark Gibbs who sexually assaulted the footballer after their rivalry on the pitch escalated into a terrifying intimidation campaign.
It remains one of the show’s most important storylines to this day, and was the moment Hollyoaks went from being perceived as a fluffy drama about pretty teens to a brave, modern soap willing to tackle hard-hitting topics other shows were too afraid of.
Male rape had never been dealt with in a UK soap before, and wouldn’t be again for almost 20 years. For this alone, Luke’s story is a watershed moment in British TV.
Five years after it’s launch, Hollyoaks was upping its game by 2000 to be more relevant to its demanding young audience with edgier plots addressing contemporary issues, such as drug abuse and teenage pregnancy, and risky format-busting experiments such as the late-night specials.
Breaking Boundaries, aired in March 2000, was an early example of using a post-10pm slot to explore a story deemed too inappropriate for teatime. But this wasn’t just an excuse for a spot of gratuitous nudity or light swearing, it was a chance to unflinchingly explore male sexual violence in a way that sparked debate, raised awareness and set the bar for how to handle such a sensitive issue in a continuing drama.
The landmark episode certainly earned it’s ‘Breaking Boundaries’ title.
The established feud between swaggering footie heart-throb Luke and bullying bad boy Mark came to a horrifying head. Mark blamed his rival for ending his dreams of pursuing a professional career after a tackle accidentally caused a serious injury.
His simmering resentment led to Luke being viciously beaten in the changing rooms after a match, then raped by menacing Mr Gibbs after his terrifying temper took hold and he lost control.
Initially keeping quiet about his ordeal as he was consumed by feelings of shame and trauma, Luke contemplated suicide before finally opening up about his ordeal to brother Adam. Bravely reporting the incident led to the court case that saw Gibbs sentenced to eight years in prison.
The storyline became a national talking point and made the industry take Hollyoaks more seriously than it perhaps had done up to that point, as well as earning the show their first ever British Soap Award for Lucy’s incredible performance that saw him named Best Newcomer in 2000.
The actor left in 2001 and went on to appear in a string of hit shows including Footballers’ Wives and EastEnders, thanks to the high-profile Hollyoaks launchpad, but returned back in 2017 to revisit the rape storyline and its impact on Luke as he approached his 40s.
“Our producer Bryan Kirkwood’s idea was to play out the damage done to Luke by him not facing up to what happened,” Lucy exclusively told RadioTimes.com at the time of his comeback. “He’s become an alcoholic, the basis of which was that he hasn’t dealt with the past and has been running away from it.
“What Luke went through is not the kind of thing that ever leaves you. It’s a long-term thing. If you don’t face it properly what implications are there?”
Luke tracked down and confronted Gibbs, now released from prison, and embarked on the next chapter of his recovery as he continued to wrestle with his demons as a family man with responsibilities, still emotionally scarred from that fateful night in 2000.
Hollyoaks revisited the subject in 2014 when teacher John Paul McQueen was raped by violent pupil Finn O’Connor. Survivors Manchester, the victim support charity who acted as story consultants, attributed the 91 per cent rise in visitors to their website at the time to the impact of the powerful plot. The Ministry of Justice later pledged £500,000 funding for victims of male sexual assault as a result of the reaction to the storyline.
Despite Hollyoaks previously boundary-breaking episodes, Coronation Street’s decision to tackle male rape in 2018 was still greeted by initial controversy and outrage from some quarters, who felt it was a taboo too far for the nation’s longest-running soap. Ofcom even investigated 200 viewer complaints.
But producers admirably stuck to their guns and the storyline ended up widely praised as it unfolded, winning awards for Jack P Shepherd for his portrayal of David Platt’s ordeal and seeing huge spikes in calls to male rape charity helplines, admirably combatting the culture of silence around male sexual assault in British society.
None of which would have happened without Hollyoaks taking such a big risk 20 years ago.
Hollyoaks Favourites airs episodes from Luke Morgan’s rape trial from Wednesday 8th-Friday 10th July at 7.00pm on E4. Visit our dedicated Hollyoaks page for all the latest news, interviews and spoilers. If you’re looking for more to watch check out our TV guide.