“I escaped the far right - society has to accept people can change” – the ‘real’ Ste speaks out on Hollyoaks extremism story
Ste's radicalisation was based on the true-life experiences of Nigel Bromage
Hollyoaks' radicalisation storyline reached a dramatic climax as Ste Hay (Kieron Richardson) finally escaped the sinister far right group that has been grooming him for the last year.
In E4's special hour-long episode on Friday 15th November, Ste and Sami Maalik (Rishi Nair) were kidnapped by the organisation and driven to a clifftop. A violent showdown ended with evil extremist leader Stuart Sumner (Chris Simmons) pushed off a cliff by his own son, Sid Sumner (Billy Price), and Jonny Baxter (Ray Quinn) apprehended by the police.
To ensure an accurate portrayal of a subject so sensitive it had never been tackled on a continuing drama, Hollyoaks consulted with many organisations, support groups and experts on the story, including Prevent, the Home Office's counter-terrorism initiative.
Among those advising was Nigel Bromage, founder of Small Steps and Exit UK, who help vulnerable people escape from the far right and reintegrate into society. Bromage's own real-life experience of being groomed into extremism as a teenager, and his eventual move into helping others reject the ideology, provided the basis for Ste's storyline.
RadioTimes.com spoke exclusively to Bromage about the impact of the groundbreaking plot, and how it felt to see his past played out through Ste's terrifying, but ultimately redemptive, journey.
How did the process work of advising on the storyline?
There was a lot of communication and things just developed organically. We would get the scripts, go through them and explain what was true to life, and anything that maybe wasn't. The Hollyoaks team were amazing and took it all on board, obviously it's TV so they had to adapt it in certain ways but they gave it as realistic an approach as possible. What reached the screen was what we wanted to portray.
Were Hollyoaks, or Channel 4, nervous about taking on the subject?
At the very beginning, yes. We were approached by Hollyoaks and they wanted us involved. Initially at the very first meeting when we explained the process of how far right activists groom vulnerable young people into extremism there was a definite nervousness from Kieron (Richardson, aka Ste). But the whole team knew it was an important issue to raise and really embraced that.
Was it difficult seeing your own story played out on screen?
For myself and other team members who are formers, it was emotional to watch. You can see how vulnerable Ste is and recognise that in yourself which is really difficult. At the time you don't feel vulnerable, you're made to feel like you're joining a family who will look after, help and support you. In reality you are being used, vulnerabilities within your own personal story are manipulated, and the movement is everything.
Were you concerned how long it took for Ste to realise he'd been manipulated and try to escape?
The storyline built up over a long period which is what we wanted, we didn't want to rush it as we wanted to show how much intense work the far right put into recruiting and moving people through the ranks. Then that pinnacle moment arrives where you question what you're doing there – is my involvement going to achieve what I believe, or is it harming me or my family's lives? It was important to see the penny drop for Ste.
What impact has the storyline had?
It's massively increased our enquiry rate and there is a greater awareness of the recruiting process. Not only that, but via the storyline we have been contacted by radicalised people, and their family members, who have left and tried to deal with the aftermath of rebuilding their lives. We've been able to provide support and help integrate them back into society. If Hollyoaks hadn't been as brave as they were to show this they'd still be out there needing help.
Have you used the storyline to educate on the dangers of extremism?
Yes, we do sessions in schools and refer to Ste's story to show the process of recruiting, and explain and encourage young people how to fight extremism. It could damage their education, future and employment prospects. We give counter-narratives so if they are approached online or face to face they feel they can reject it and come away, and report it so we can identify if a group is recruiting in their area.
Why are soaps a good platform for raising awareness?
Young people know these shows so well already and you can put a message over via the entertainment aspect. They relate to characters like Ste and can see he's a vulnerable target, and understand someone like Jonny is calculating and not to be trusted.
Will it be hard to show Ste's redemption going forward?
This is what our organisation pushes – society has to accept people can change. People say 'once a Nazi, always a Nazi', but it's important to get the message out there that you can come out of these organisations – you just need support. Groups like Prevent, Small Steps and Exit UK are there to safeguard individuals. I always make the point that, as a society we protect young people and vulnerable adults from getting involved with drugs and gangs, why aren't we protecting them from extremism? It's changed from when I set up Small Steps a few years ago – no one took the far right threat seriously, but there is now more understanding about the dangers of how it's affecting our society.
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