Coronation Street: The Advisor's Tale
Hayley Patterson, January 1998
In early 1998, the tabloids started to leak a story about a new character who was soon to join a leading British soap opera. Nothing new in that. It happens every month or so. But this character was different; it was going to break a mould in a way that no other drama serial had done before, and what made it all the more unusual was the fact the it was the grand old lady of soaps, Coronation Street that was going to do it.
Because Hayley Cropper is a transsexual woman.
When Brian Park took over the reigns of Coronation Street at Granada Television, he had a tough remit; he had to revive the ailing soap’s fortunes and put it back where it belonged – top of the ratings. To do that he realised he had to make some pretty unpopular, but ultimately important changes. Several of the leading characters were sacked over the next year, and new, younger cast members introduced to widen its appeal. This had the unfortunate side-effect of alienating many of the show’s long-term, and mostly older, viewers. He introduced the “family from hell”, the Battersbys, in 1997 and gave some of the existing incidental characters a higher profile.
One of those was Roy Cropper (played by the superb David Neilson). From his early beginnings as a rather odd and scary loner living in a block of flats beside Deirdre Rachid (Anne Kirkbride), his character was gradually enhanced to involve him in the lives of other characters. Remarkably intelligent, but socially naïve, Roy was everyone’s stereotypical idea of an “anorak”. But he was no-one’s fool, and often helped the other Street members out of a bad spot. His purchase of a half-share in the Café in summer 1997, (changing it’s name to Roy’s Rolls!) opened the way for a more permanent role in the show. It was decided that Roy needed a girlfriend, but what kind of woman would go for Roy, or vice-versa? Ideally, she would have to be a female mirror image of himself. So the character started development and Hayley Patterson, as was her maiden name, was created.
But then someone suggested something; what if she had a dark secret? What if she was transsexual!? Hayley being Harry, in her past life. After some argument and hard thinking, the idea stuck. It was a very controversial move for the long-running show. EastEnders had done AIDS, Brookside had done… well, everything! But Corrie had never gone this far.
Hayley was not initially envisaged to be a long-term character. She was there for two reasons - Firstly, to boost the ratings with a very different storyline and secondly, to act as a foil for Roy; to bring him out of himself a bit and show another side to the man. Originally, she was only contracted for two months.
In great secrecy, a suitable actor was sought. Many transsexual people later criticised the show for not having a trans actress to play Hayley, but Granada were looking for a type of person who suited the character as written on the page. Hayley was, when first seen, living and working normally; her past unknown and unsuspected to her fellow supermarket workers. She was also had to be believeable enough to allow Roy to fall for her. Of the very few transsexual Equity card holders, none seemed to be “right” for the role, and so, never once considering the idea that a man should play the role in drag, they started looking for a woman to play the part.
Julie Hesmondhalgh was in “Much Ado About Nothing” at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester when she was spotted by the production team. After an initial audition, she was asked back for a second and soon after offered the role. She threw herself into research for the role but couldn’t talk to anyone directly due to the high level of secrecy surrounding the storyline. She read a few books, including Jan Morris’ “Conundrum”, which inspired her greatly. When she started recording her first scenes in early January 1998, even the long-term cast in the show did not know her secret. It was only when the story broke in mid-January that the cat was out of the bag, and the debate started.
The transgender community were in turns curious, hostile, concerned and delighted. The criticisms started to fly as soon as the news was out, because of the choice of actress; Julie is NOT a trans woman! There were also accusations of sensationalism, which Granada were keen to refute, maintaining that the story was character-driven, not issue-led. Groups such as Press for Change and the Gender Trust were concerned at the lack of consultation or research which seemed to have gone into the role. And this was all before she even hit the screen!!
When she did, it was not received well, initially. She was a rather mousy, nervous and clingy person, with a penchant for neckscarves and polonecks to hide her Adams Apple. In true style, she had a red anorak which she took almost everywhere and was to become her trademark. She won a good many fans and supporters too, of course, simply because it was good to see an “ordinary” trans character on British telly for the first time, and in a high-profile storyline. Granada started to get feedback. Initially it was hostility from the transgender community, but at the weeks passed and story progressed, the mailbags started filling up with praise. Not just from a few trans people, but from hundreds of members of the general public, who loved the character, regardless of her “secret”.
When Hayley finally told Roy her dark secret, over a candlelit meal in the café, almost half an entire episode was set aside for the pain-ridden scenes in which Hayley told Roy of her condition, and her unhappy life prior to her transition. It shocked many, who somehow managed to avoid the previews and spoilers in the papers. Many complained about it, but far more sympathised.
Well of course anyone who watched it knows what happened after that … he was crushed, rejected her, she persisted, Roy came round, they made up, sort of …
And so the time came for her to leave for her surgery.
That was originally going to be that…. Hayley leaves Weatherfield for her new life and Roy , whilst disappointed, comes out of it a wiser man.
But things had moved on.
The immense popularity of Hayley, and of the unmistakeable chemistry between the two characters had persuaded Granada to take Hayley back as a long term cast member.
Hayley Patterson and Roy Cropper, July 1998
When Granada took that step, they also made another important decision. Press for Change had been volunteering to help the producers since January and it was now that they turned to PFC to find someone who would help them progress Hayley Patterson’s character and generally consult on matters personal and political.
PFC asked me to help in early April and I contacted the researcher by phone for a quick chat. He thought an interview would be appropriate and so, three days later, I was at Granada Studios.
We had a two-hour interview in which just about everything was discussed. Future plans for the character, her background and story ideas. Some things were obvious. We discussed her appearance and her manner, and so she got a bit of a makeover for her reappearance abroad. My own past was gone into extensively and it was all put down on tape.This tape was later transcribed for use by the scriptwriters. We got on very well, and when we parted, we agreed to keep in touch and I was made aware that any ideas or input I wished to contribute would be very welcome.
When I got back home I got to work and wrote some more ideas and detail. This was forwarded to my contact and I just sat back and waited for things to happen.
Julie Hesmondhalgh was unaware of this contact as she was away on her 8-week tour of Latin America! When she returned she was only back a week or so before being whisked off to Amsterdam to film her return to Weatherfield. When she got back, there was a letter waiting for her from me, and she wrote a lovely letter back immediately. Due to mutual work commitments, however, it would be a while before we would actually meet, although we kept in touch in mail. We finally got together in late July 1998, and we spent a good deal of time getting to know each other. We’re now very good friends, and she’s an absolutely fabulous woman; very motivated and very passionate about her role.
My relationship with Granada those first eighteen months was very fulfilling. I gave them as much emotion, detail and events from my past to use as they will, and they took what they needed, but I’m not going into what is real and what isn’t. From time to time, but less so these days, purely by the nature of the fact that there’s only so much information you can give, we make contact and have a chat; discussing possible developments. My place is never to push, nor to be “political”. I’m always there when they need to talk to someone real, and get the real feelings and the real situations. What have I got from this? Some unique experiences, some very good friends at GTV, but not kudos nor ego, because I wish to remain anonymous. One of my biggest rewards is to see the public’s eyes opened a little more and to see the pleasure people get from a character I’m very fond of, but certainly didn’t create.
All photos © 1998 Granada Television.