Hollyoaks airs a special episode next week devoted to the radicalisation storyline in which Ste Hay (Kieron Richardson) is introduced to Jonny Baxter's (Ray Quinn) group of friends unaware they are dangerous far right extremists intent on grooming him.
Vulnerable Ste has been befriended by Jonny, who falsely claims to be his half-brother and has exploited the vendetta against Dr Misbah Maalik (Harvey Virdi) who Ste mistakenly blames for the tragic death of his sister Tegan Lomax. On Wednesday 13 March on E4, Jonny takes Ste to meet his boss Stuart Sumner (Chris Simmons) and their mates at a football match. Viewers will see the group subtly fuel Ste's hatred for Misbah, while their true sinister agenda is confirmed as they secretly organising a racially-motivated attack on a local Muslim man.
The episode intercuts with a light-hearted, traditional family meal at the Maaliks as Liberty Savage (Jessamy Stoddart) learns about boyfriend Sami Maalik's (Rishi Nair) culture and background as a British Muslim. Oblivious Ste's grooming will continue in the coming months as the community battles racism and radicalisation in a storyline that is brave and dark new territory for a UK soap. Hollyoaks are working with the Home Office in light of their recent increased funding into initiatives in major cities to counter anti-immigrant and anti-islamic sentiments.
Kieron Richardson is at the centre of the plot as damaged, disenfranchised Ste - here he tells RadioTimes.com about tackling what could be soap's most disturbing story ever told:
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What was your reaction when you were told about the storyline?
I was in my little bubble and had never heard of radicalisation. Since doing the research, I've been shocked at what these organisations get up to and the hate they portray. It's shocking. I'm quite defensive of my character, so I also had the realisation this would be one of the first times I'm not going to like Ste as he starts to say hateful things. Honestly, I was quite wary at first, but when you first hear about something you start seeing it everywhere, I didn't realise how big a deal it was. I watched the documentary Sleeping With the Far Right on Channel 4 last week - this is really happening, and it's believable Ste is the perfect candidate for someone to be radicalised.
How do these groups start to manipulate people like Ste?
It's so subliminal, and Ste is unaware at this point that it is even happening to him. It shows it can easily happen to kids. There are small subtle things in starting the grooming process, mimicking things the person likes before getting in with the harder stuff and the politics later down the line.
Ste has been through a lot in the last six months, what makes him a target?
On the day of the storm last October Ste found out his true love Harry cheated on their wedding day, and later that same day his sister Tegan died, for which he blames Misbah. From that moment on Ste's had hate for what he believes she did to Tegan, nothing to do with race or religion, and Jonny and his group have seized on that. Hate breeds hate, Jonny has turned Ste's feelings for Misbah into a new kind of hate.
What can you tell us about next week's special episode where the group's agenda is revealed?
It’s setting up the story and showing both sides. We see the community and the family with Liberty at the Maaliks, and Ste being alone and accepted by these new friends but with a sinister undertone which he is unaware of. By the end of the episode you are screaming for Ste to open his eyes. The audience will understand exactly what the group are doing and what their aim is.
Do you think this storyline is going to push boundaries?
We need to push the boundaries, this has never been done in a soap before. I want us to go for it a million percent. Hollyoaks are renowned for issue stories this one is so raw so we should go for it. It needs to be shocking to tell the audience how bad this issue is.
Are you nervous about the reaction?
I don’t want people to think I'm a racist - these are not my views, I am an actor playing a part. But if they don't hate Ste at times through this it would be weird. People generally love Ste and feel sorry for him, now I'm experiencing a different reaction and getting a bit of abuse but I've got to take it as a good thing, it means we're portraying it properly. As Ste gets radicalised the things he says are so alien it's like he's a different character, which shows how much he is being manipulated.
What are Jonny's friends offering that Ste is drawn to?
He’s looking for someone to listen to him. Ste has harped on for months about Misbah killing Tegan, the only people listening is Jonny and, as we'll see from next week, Stuart. Tony hasn’t been around much so he’s had no one to talk to, these guys seem to be on the same page as him. But that’s what they want him to think, that they are his only friends.
Who will be Ste's saviour and extricate him from the group when he realises he's been brainwashed?
I want Ste to open his own eyes. He’s always getting saved by someone else, this is going to be the biggest thing that’s ever going to happen in his life, it's so serious that I want him to be the one who grows up and realises, for his children’s sake, it is wrong. I want Ste to be the one who saves himself.
What do Hollyoaks hope to achieve by tackling such a difficult topic?
To educate. I didn't have a clue about any of this, so if we can get kids watching and start conversations in the classaroom and highlight things that aren’t right, then that is good. We are show about equality and about love over hate, and ultimately by the end of it that is the message – love over hate.
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