Hazel McHaffie

Going gently into that good night

Until this week I have to admit that I’ve never watched the soap, Coronation Street. But there was so much hype about Monday’s double bill featuring the suicide of a character called Hayley Cropper, that I felt compelled to see it. After all, exploring real moral questions through fiction is what I’m all about.

For those of you who don’t know, (as I understand it) Hayley (once Harold) is a transgender person who survived local prejudice, married cafe owner Roy, and developed pancreatic cancer. Monday was the day she had resolved to end her suffering by taking a self-administered (don’t even touch the glass, Roy) cocktail of drugs. Cocktail of drugsRoy is hoping against hope that when it comes to it she’ll change her mind and they’ll have longer together. ‘There’s still joy to be had.

I came to this my first episode without any emotional attachments to the Croppers, but the whole scene was handled so gently and sensitively that the millions of viewers for whom this represented a personal tragedy must have found it harrowing. It felt as if we were in that flat with them. The touching last conversations … Hayley’s struggle to iron Roy’s best shirt so he turns up respectably clad for her funeral … Roy’s decision not to have a ‘special’ on the cafe menu on this terrible day … the anxiety and concern of the neighbours … all provided heart-wrenching pathos to the last hours of this desperately sick woman. I haven’t been party to her struggles over the past few months but I have seen other real people die of this horrible illness, and in a way their suffering overlaid Hayley’s for me. Seeing her quiet smile as the music of Vaughn Williams’ The Lark Ascending stole through the room, listening to her settled resolution, watching her determined drinking of that fatal cocktail, the peaceful waiting – I was willing all the assorted well-wishers not to disturb their precious last hours together. This was a moment for absolute privacy and solemnity. And from where I sat, ITV got most of it right.

Whatever we think of the issue of assisted dying, or suicide, or the right to die, this programme provided a useful vehicle to promote discussion. Of the tragic situations for which there are no good options. Of the emotional and physical impact of terrible diseases. Of our responses, our prejudices, our beliefs. Of the current law.

And indeed, Lord Falconer, the former Lord Chancellor, is currently working towards launching another bid in real life to legalise assisted dying under certain clearly specified conditions which will reopen the hornets’ nest for sure. So, hats off to another screenwriter and to ITV for bravely raising the issue in such a way as to get ordinary people thinking about these vexed issues for themselves. If you cared about Hayley’s plight, if you were angry with her for doing what she did, if you threw things at the TV, if you wrote to ITV complaining about their depiction of a suicide … then spare a thought for those for whom such dramas are lived realities. What would your answer be?

A safe distance away I might share another such challenging film production – but that’s for another time. Today belongs to Coronation Street.

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2 Responses to “Going gently into that good night”

  • I was very interested to read your view of Hayley’s suicide. I’ve been watching Coronation Street for many years and some storylines are better than others. It’s good to know that you thought ITV got most of it right. Now I’m wondering how Roy is going to deal with it because he didn’t think it was the right thing to do and I’m also wondering if you’re going to watch any more episodes.

    I often wonder when I watch TV programmes that feature illness how much they get right or wrong, particularly programmes like Holby City and Casualty. I can only assess it when it’s something I or a family member have experienced and I was particularly puzzled when Holby City showed someone having radiotherapy – in a bed with a drip in her arm – strange radiotherapy I thought, not like mine at all!

    • Hazel says:

      I haven’t actually watched any more episodes, I’m afraid, Margaret, (not really my kind of viewing) although I too wonder how Roy will cope and how long it will take for people to put two and two together and start stirring up trouble. We all have to be selective about how we prioritise and spend our time, and at this moment I can’t justify watching Coronation Street just to pick up this thread. I was commenting on that single episode in my blog, and for me it felt emotionally true and logistically plausible (goodness, that sounds far too analytical and serious! but I think you’ll know what I’m trying to convey.) But you’re right, so many programmes don’t depict the reality of illness. I cringe when patients inthe ones you mention are examined publicly in open wards or corridors, and whisked to theatre within minutes of diagnosis, and wide awake having hysterics as soon as they come round from an anaesthetic etc etc. But I also recognise that the slow humdrum pace of life in hospital wouldn’t make good drama. Police work, court procedure, forensic examinations … they all suffer the same fate on TV. Thanks for your comment though; a very valid one.

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