Lime Pictures’ youth soap Hollyoaks has broken important new ground with the far-right radicalisation of one of its best-loved characters.
Executive producer Bryan Kirkwood heralded the storyline as “a bold departure for Hollyoaks and for British soap… taking an unflinching look at how extremists prey on the vulnerable and the disenfranchised… and how Britain’s communities are under threat from increasingly polarised views.”
A capacity audience at the University of Salford watched a screening of the storyline’s powerful climactic week, at a special event in mid-September organised by Lime Pictures and RTS North West, in association with Channel 4 and the campaign Love Music Hate Racism.
BBC Radio 5 Live’s Nihal Arthanayake, who hosted the panel discussion, asked Kirkwood about his decision to tackle this sensitive subject. “Real world issues, where the viewers see themselves reflected on television, [are one of the] key ways in which the show engages with its audience,” Kirkwood replied. The idea was “relevant – it mattered to our audience and it had never been told before”.
Chief Superintendent Nik Adams – the national co-ordinator of the government’s counter-terrorism strategy Prevent – revealed that “25% of our investigations are into far- and extreme-right wing [groups]” and that “one in five Prevent referrals [are] right-wing-related”.
Kieron Richardson who plays Ste Hay, the white working-class lad groomed by extremists, confessed to being wary at the outset. “Would they think I was racist in real life? “ he said. “If we showed [the far right] in a bad light, would they come after us?”
Feedback initially was negative, but Rishi Nair [Sami Maalik in the soap] said: “We wanted it to be a hard watch – racism is hard.” However, as the storyline progressed, social media comments became positive “with people feeling their story was being represented, their voices being heard”.
Harvey Virdi [Misbah Maalik] added: “How can we change [racism] if we don’t talk about it?”
Writer Jayshree Patel highlighted another challenge: “The show airs at 6:30pm, so telling a story… involving… a terrorist attack and meeting pre-watershed requirements was difficult.”
She drew on her former experience as a teacher to understand, although not justify, Ste’s flawed choices: “Ste is basically one of my kids… [They feel] society’s turned its back on them… That’s why they end up so vulnerable.”
Can Ste be redeemed? No spoilers, but Kirkwood underlined Hollyoaks’ values of love, and family and community rallying round. “Hope is all important [for our viewers],” he said.