Hollyoaks' radicalisation of Ste Hay (Kieron Richardson) has been in sharp focus as the far right extremist group finally initiated their victim into their world.
Stuart Sumner (Chris Simmons) and Jonny Baxter (Ray Quinn) began to target disenfranchised, angry Ste months ago, manipulating his vendetta against Muslim doctor Misbah Maalik (Harvey Virdi) who he blames for the tragic death of his sister Tegan.
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Now their sinister, subtle grip has tightened to the point where Ste is consumed with hatred, has turned against his family and isolated himself from the community, indoctrinated into repeating the group's anti-Islamic ideology as he falls further under their spell.
Hollyoaks is working with organisations including Exit UK to raise awareness on how far right extremist groups identify, groom and operate as the Home Office increases funding into initiatives to counter anti-immigration and anti-Islamic sentiments in major cities, where young, white, working class males such as Ste are prime targets.
RadioTimes.com spoke to Richardson, Quinn and Kirsty-Leigh Porter, who plays Ste's sister Leela Lomax, to discuss what's next for soap's most chilling and audacious storyline of 2019.
Redemption is coming - but it's a long way off
The audience has forgiven Ste for many transgressions, but can he be redeemed after this? "When I took on the story I knew redemption would be hard," admits Richardson, who has taken the brunt of an extreme reaction from some sections of the audience online. "People are getting the character confused with me but these are not my views and Ste is being brainwashed into saying these things, so I've come off Twitter as I don't need to see those comments. I get why people aren't liking Ste, and it means we're doing a good job of portraying it. This should be uncomfortable to watch as we're highlighting a deep, dark issue to get people talking."
Executive producer Bryan Kirkwood has assured viewers the scales will fall from Ste's eyes and he will attempt to extricate himself, but Quinn is urging patience before that point: "There is lots more to come. Jonny and Stuart's mission to get Ste under their spell continues - he will be their puppet on a string, and the strings are only going to get longer because that puppet is going to keep dancing…"
Ste's ex Harry will be drawn in
Richardson revealed Ste's estranged husband Harry Thompson (Parry Glasspool) is to become embroiled in the plot in the coming months. “Harry is going to come into play. Him and Ste have a lot of catching up to do, and Harry has to work out whether he likes the new Ste. Jonny, Stuart and the far right group see Harry as a threat, a link to the ‘old Ste’ in the way Tony and Leela were, so they will want to put some distance between them. Then another new character is thrown in who might have something to do with Harry and also the brotherhood, and them wanting to keep Ste and Harry apart…”
This also draws Harry's current love interest James Nightingale (Gregory Finnegan) into the fray. "Harry’s part in the storyline will open up other avenues which also involve James, as well as this new character. It adds new dimensions to the story…”
It's dark - but it could've been even darker
There was a sharp intake of breath in November 2018 when Hollyoaks announced it would be tackling such a hot potato of a topic, one that has never been explored in any other UK soap. But while it's undoubtedly dark territory for a daily teatime drama, it could've been darker still as Richardson explains:
"We actually filmed a lot darker material than what went out on screen in the initiation ceremony. In that process in real life more things happen that we shot that didn't make the episode. We shoot stuff to make it as real as possible but because of the time slot some things don't end up on screen. The scene was sinister enough."
The real stories of those who have survived radicalisation inevitably are much more disturbing than Ste's journey. "As awful as it is to see what's happening to Ste, people would be gobsmacked by what really goes on, I've met people first hand and listened to their stories and it's a lot heaver, much darker things happen."
There is hope for a positive ending
Among those Richardson met in his research was the founder of Exit UK, a group working with the government to help people remove themselves from far right groups safely. "He set up Exit UK to help de-radicalise people and get them away from these groups. That's beyond turning your life around and apologising, it's stopping others going down the same path. He came out the other side and I'm hoping the same can happen for Ste."
Quinn reiterates the importance of collaborating with Exit UK: "Lads like Ste find it difficult to leave and they give them opportunities to get out, take positive steps and protect them. It's terrifying how the grooming process works, it can take up to five years and before you know it you're in too deep. It really is scary."
Leela is ready to save Ste's kids
One of the most impactful moments so far in the storyline was Leela's impassioned speech after crashing a far right meeting at Ste's house and her utter devastation as she tried, and failed, to make her brother realise he was being manipulated. "That scene was everything the audience had been thinking and wanted to say," confesses Porter. "It got a big response from the audience. It was overwhelming and intimidating for Leela to overhear all this hatred, and was emotional to film as you know it's happening in real life.
"Seeing Ste so vulnerable and for him to turn on Leeela like he did was very hard. We'll continue to see the effect radicalisation has on the family, Leela feels she can't get through to Ste any more and feels she has no choice but to leave him to it, but I think she'll always be there for him. When it comes to his kids, Leah and Lucas, she has to play it quite clever.
"If it was up to her she'd take them off Ste, but she's torn as they love their dad and kids should be with their parents at the end of the day. Leah is always a lioness with her cubs, and if she can't help Ste she will certainly be watching out for the children."
A big revelation about Jonny could change everything
Ste's niece Peri Lomax (Ruby O'Donnell) and best mate Yazz Maalik (Haiesha Mistry) are on the case trying to get DNA proof that Jonny is lying about being Ste's brother - viewers have known for months, but if Ste learns the truth could this be the beginning of his deprogramming? "Leela's not happy the girls are breaking the law to get evidence," says Porter, "but then the results come in…"
"Jonny is ready for this," teases Quinn. "He always maintained to Ste there was only a possibility they were biologically related. Since they met he's planted that connection with Ste they are brothers, are they too far down the line now for Ste to reject him if he finds out he's been lying? Jonny reckons he's proved himself and knows how to influence Ste…"
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