Me and my vote: Julie Hesmondhalgh
As New Labour gets soap stars to back its election campaign, Julie Hesmondhalgh - Coronation Street's Hayley - reckons 'there are so many reasons to NOT vote New Labour'.
‘How would I describe Blair? I keep thinking “presidential” but I don’t want to sound like bloody Sophie Rhys-Jones. I would say he is pseudo-presidential, egomaniacal and quite flippin’ scary.’
Coronation Street might win Tony Blair’s vote as ‘one of his favourite TV programmes’ and a ‘great British institution’ – but he won’t be winning Corrie star Julie Hesmondhalgh’s vote at the general election. Hesmondhalgh plays Hayley, the transsexual factory worker whose arrival on ‘the Street’ three years ago shocked its older, blue-rinse viewers, but who has since become one of the soap’s most popular characters. And no matter how much Blair sucks up to Corrie, says Hesmondhalgh, she just can’t bring herself to vote for him.
‘There are so many reasons to not vote New Labour: increased privatisation; moving further and further away from socialist values; abandoning traditional Labour values. Their foreign policy is astonishingly bad and I’m really ashamed of it. They say their interventions in places like Kosovo and Iraq are humanitarian but I don’t believe it for a second. Especially Iraq and the sanctions, which just disgust and astound me.’
Hesmondhalgh will be voting Socialist Alliance – because she has the ‘luxury’ of living in a ‘safe Labour seat’: ‘If I was in an unsafe seat, I wouldn’t jeopardise Labour’s vote and risk the Tories getting the seat back. But seeing as it’s a safe seat, I see this very much as a protest vote.’ As for whether a protest vote is a wasted vote, Hesmondhalgh wonders if every vote isn’t a wasted vote under New Labour:
‘There is very little choice now. There is just this assumption that we are a capitalist society and that’s it, like it or lump it. There is no questioning at all, and I find the notion that there is no alternative very frustrating. Until we have a proper democratic system where votes count, then you have to ask how much power a vote has.’
Maybe the lack of a ‘proper democratic system’ is one reason why Hesmondhalgh’s area of work – TV soaps – has become so popular with government ministers. Who could forget Blair’s support for the ‘Free Deidre’ campaign, when Corrie favourite Deirdre Barlow was banged up for fraud? (1) Or the suggestions that soaps could be used to educate viewers and raise awareness about sensitive issues like racism, AIDS and homophobia?
Even Hesmondhalgh’s transsexual storyline influenced government policy, when in April 1999 the government set up ‘a working group to consider discrimination against transsexuals, [following] a campaign by Labour MP Lynne Jones and a plot-line in the soap opera Coronation Street about a transsexual factory worker’. (2) And as reported in The Times this week, ‘The Home Office is teaming up with Coronation Street to warn parents about the dangers of paedophiles who use internet chatrooms to find children’ (3).
Who needs a ‘proper democratic system’ when you can have government by soap opera?
‘It’s all so naff, isn’t it?’ says Hesmondhalgh, ‘politicians clamouring to be associated with Coronation Street. It’s the common touch thing – let’s make out we’re just like ordinary folk because we watch Corrie, too. And it’s also a nice distraction method: it’s like, get everybody fired up about freeing Deirdre, then they’ll all be more interested in what’s going on in Weatherfield than what’s going on in Westminster – or Iraq.’
Even royalty has descended on the Rover’s Return – no doubt hoping that a bit of the ‘common touch thing’ will rub off – with Prince Charles himself making a guest appearance in the fortieth anniversary live episode in December 2000.
‘Yeah, I met Charles, but of course I didn’t bow’, says Hesmondhalgh. ‘I just ambled over to him and said “Hiya, y’alright?”. Again, it’s just his attempt to say “I’m normal, I watch Cornonation Street four times a week with a cup of cocoa, just like the rest of you, blah blah blah”. And it helps to take away from what the royal family really is and what they represent. That’s another area today where there’s no debate. Discussions of the monarchy don’t even consist of whether it should be scrapped anymore – it’s all about whether they should be a Scandinavian-type monarchy or how good they are for tourism, and the anti-democratic element just goes by the board. People say, “But the monarchy hasn’t got any power, it’s just like Mickey Mouse now”, and I’m like, “That means we’re Mickey Mouse’s subjects! Come on, people, where’s your self-worth?!”. Turning up at the Rover’s helps the royals look more like “people’s royals”, which is a stupid idea anyway.’
But does Hesmondhalgh think that soaps can be used to ‘communicate a message’ and ‘raise awareness’? After all, Hayley’s storyline as the much-maligned transsexual who is eventually accepted by the initially prejudiced local community was hailed by one government working group as helping to ‘tackle discrimination against transsexuals’.
‘I think soap operas can definitely raise awareness about a subject’, says Hesmondhalgh, ‘as I think Hayley’s story illustrated. My character deals with a subject – not in a particularly realistic way I have to say! – but in a sympathetic manner, and it might have made some people who normally have bigoted views see things differently. It’s the familiarity of having a character in your living room four times a week, and if you like that character then the issues around them become less important.’
But Hesmondhalgh worries that ‘realism’ and ‘good character development’ – what soaps are all about – suffer when there is too much emphasis on ‘addressing taboos or inserting new fancy plot-lines just to raise awareness’. ‘I used to be a real fan of issue-led soaps, but now I’m a bit wary of it. Now it’s not about character, it’s just about plot-line – so it’s like, let’s just throw this latest taboo into the pot, which means there’s no continuity.’
One example is Coronation Street’s recent rape storyline, slammed by the press as a desperate attempt to grab more viewers. ‘Sometimes it’s about throwing in an issue’, says Hesmondhalgh, ‘and that means it’s sometimes not very realistic. If someone has been through a violent rape, that stays with them for a very long time, and you can’t reflect that in a soap, even though it might be well-written and well-acted. Within weeks, they’ll take the actress playing rape victim Toyah out for a few weeks, and she’ll come back and be completely okay again – there’ll be a few references to it a couple of times a year or something. But that’s the disappointing thing about it – it’s an issue, a taboo thrown in, rather than being a character-driven storyline.’
And if the government was to get involved in raising awareness through soaps, says Hesmondhalgh – as has been the case in the USA and increasingly over here, too – things would really fall apart. ‘I just think things wouldn’t be worth watching then. It’s bad enough now sometimes, but that would make it into bloody propaganda.’
But there is one ‘taboo’ that even New Labour’s favourite soap couldn’t cope with: pregnant transsexuals. ‘Yes, I’m pregnant’, says Hesmondhalgh, ‘and of course people like Hayley can’t get pregnant, so there’s a problem…! We’re hiding it at the moment – my belly and my arse, that is – but I don’t quite know how. There’s a lot of covering up with Hayley’s anorak.’
So could this be Coronation Street’s first miracle storyline? ‘No’, laughs Hesmondhalgh. ‘I’m going to do a Daphne of Frasier and have a bit of an overeating storyline….
‘Hey, overeating! That’s another taboo plot-line for them!’
Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.
Read more Me and my vote interviews.
(1) See PM supports Weatherfield One, BBC Online, 31 March 1998
(2) See Working group to consider transsexuals, BBC Online, 15 April 1999
(3) The Times (London), 14 May 2001
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