It might have once been easy to dismiss soaps as light entertainment fodder, but in the past 12 months alone, ‘EastEnders’, ‘Coronation Street’, ‘Emmerdale’ and ‘Hollyoaks’ have shone a light on drug abuse, child grooming, acid attacks, consent and HIV, sparking conversations on a national level.
On Friday (16 March) night, ‘Coronation Street’ will kickstart another important discussion, when David Platt is raped by Josh Tucker, a man he considers to be a friend. The groundwork for the storyline has been carefully laid in recent weeks, and 7.5 million viewers have seen David, a character they’ve followed since he was born, build a friendship with Josh.
David will be the third male character in a British soap to be raped, and the first for ‘Coronation Street’.
For storylines that carry this much weight, the writers’ room door does not remain closed. Instead, the producers, storyliners, writers - and later, the actors themselves - meet with experts and organisations, whose guidance plays a vital part in making sure every aspect of the storyline is something the show can be proud of.
For months, Duncan Craig, the founder and chief executive of Survivors Manchester, an organisation that supports boys and men affected by sexual abuse, rape and sexual exploitation across the city and the North West, has been helping the ‘Coronation Street’ team.
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“[Producer] Kate Oates, she got in contact, I went over and met them, and they basically said they had this story they wanted to tell about a younger member of the cast,” Duncan tells HuffPost UK. “They wanted to make sure that they were going to do it properly. They knew about the ‘Hollyoaks’ work and asked if I’d be interested in working with them on the story.”
The ‘Hollyoaks’ work Duncan refers to took place in 2014, when he collaborated with the Channel 4 soap on their John Paul McQueen storyline, which saw John Paul, a teacher, raped by one of his students, 16-year-old Finn Connor. After the ‘Hollyoaks’ episodes aired, Survivors Manchester lobbied and worked with the government.
“The outcome of that piece of work was that the government launched the male rape support fund,” Duncan says. “[It was] the first time the government had ring fenced money specifically for the support of male victims.”
Although it’s easy to see the similarities between Hollyoaks’ storyline and Coronation Street’s one, Duncan points out that there are crucial differences.
“It’s two very different audiences and characters,” he says. “John Paul is a gay man, David is a straight man, so we’re tackling masculinity in a very different way.
“I’ve not quite worked it out yet but it feels like steps, we’re taking steps now. Maybe we’re on the second step and John Paul was the first step. And then maybe later on, there will be another step.
“Maybe, without ‘Hollyoaks’ doing the John Paul storyline, we wouldn’t be able to have the ‘Coronation Street’ story.”
When ‘Coronation Street’ came calling, Duncan told producer Kate Oates what he would need, asking to see scripts, and speak with writers, directors, actors and “anyone who is involved in the story”.
“I said, ‘I want them to try their hardest to understand what it’s like as a male survivor and what its like to see things on television that are exaggerated and how that makes them feel’. Straight away Kate said, ‘Yes, we want to do this properly’.
“My priority is the man that’s sat at home watching this on the television, or listening to the radio, who is a silent survivor. I need to make sure he understands that there is help and support out there.”
Duncan was then involved “practically everyday”, going through sections of scripts, line-by-line, attending “four or five” writers’ room days, meeting cast members and even advising ITV on which helpline numbers and websites to feature at the end of the episodes.
A Survivors Manchester ambassador, Sam, has also worked with the ‘Coronation Street’ team, speaking to Vicky Thomas, who directed Friday’s episode, during which the assault takes place.
“Vicky was talking with Sam and some of the story has been influenced by my own story and Sam’s story as well,” he says. “She rang Sam a couple of times and would say, ‘We’re thinking of doing this, would that be OK?’. They were able to talk through things.”
Before ‘Coronation Street’ officially announced the storyline, news of it leaked in the press, coincidentally, at the same time as numerous footballers who had been sexually abused by coach Barry Bennell were coming forward and giving interviews. Duncan is understandably keen to point out their immeasurable contribution to the conversation.
“We absolutely have to acknowledge Steve Walters, Chris Unsworth, Andy Woodward, the footballers that came out and stood up on ‘The Victoria Derbyshire Show’. They stood up and said, ‘Me too’. I think there’s something so hugely significant about them doing it.
“I really believe that in years to come, we’ll look at the footballers standing up and just look at how significant that was.
“For a country where footballers and football are, I suppose, seen as the epitome of maleness… for footballers to stand up and say, this happened to me. All of the men sat at home on the sofa, picking up the red-top newspapers, will see that.”
With both the footballers’ statements and the soap’s plans hitting headlines, Survivors Manchester saw an immediate increase in the amount of men contacting them for help and support. Within 24 hours of ‘Coronation Street’ becoming headline news, the organisation received “six or seven calls to the support line asking for help or a referral”.
“We then closed at 6pm on the Friday and reopened, as usual, at 8am on the Monday,” Duncan says. “In the space of six working hours, we had 40 new referrals. 40 men and got up themselves and asked for help.
“I really, really do think, because of who David is, that this is going to be a real anchorpoint moment in cultural history.”
Advising TV shows is not Duncan’s day job. As the Chief Executive of Survivors Manchester, he focuses on regional and national strategy, has places on numerous panels and has worked with the Home Office and Ministry of Justice. He still has one day a week working as a psychotherapist, having trained over eight years ago, working with male survivors of rape who are currently in prison.
Media requests come intermittently, but not everybody who requests assistance on their drama, radio show or documentary will get it, with a number of previous pitches have fallen short.
“It ends up happening a lot where TV productions companies, or documentary makers, ask for support, so I have a few rules of engagement,” he says. “I’m not prepared to just be somebody that gets picked up and put down whenever they feel like it. If we’re going to tell a story, it’s going to have to be collaborative and that means that there is compromise on both sides.
“If it’s a drama, for instance, if someone is going to be raped on day one and the next day nobody talks about it and it’s like it never happened, then I refuse to be engaged in that.
“Anything that involves any kind of unrealistic experiences, so anything that’s super exaggerated, where there isn’t anything about the individual.
“It can take up to 20 years for a man to step forward, so while there are absolutely men where something happens to them and they report there and then… one of our ambassadors, he reported pretty much straight away but that’s not a common response, men are more likely to shut down.
“So if there’s [a show] where something happens, they go to the police [straight away], they investigate and within six weeks everything is wrapped up and happily ever after, that’s not something I want to be involved with. What that does, is sets up expectations which are completely untrue.
“With Coronation Street, that’s the one thing I’m really proud of them for doing. They’re going to be tackling some really difficult parts of the story, but they’re parts that are extremely common, very real. David is silent.”
In the coming weeks, viewers will see David attempt to process what has happened and his recovery, mentally, will not be easy. Ready for more calls to come in, and media requests to increase, Duncan shares his hopes for what is sure to be a landmark moment in British television.
“What we’re really hoping for with this storyline is more of an understanding, first of all, sexual violence happens to men. Not, sexual violence happens to gay men,” he says. “It happens to boys and men, and can happen to anybody. I want to see much more conversation and debate.
“I’d like to see organisations that specifically work with men to engage in conversation and I’d like to see us as men do what women have been doing, which is mobilising themselves. In a really healthy way, looking at ourselves and how we can help each other.
“I know people keep talking about toxic masculinity, and I’m not too sure if that’s what I’d describe it as, maybe it’s toxic patriarchy. I think it’s way more complex and multi-layered than calling it out as one thing, but I want to see people have more conversations, I want to see where we go for support services.
“The idea is that David will hopefully, at some point, get support - but what does that look like for males? When people see David and want to get help, what do [support organisations] do? How do we make sure that there is quality assured support for men and boys across the UK? At the moment, it’s a post code lottery. I want to see the Male Survivors Partnership develop from this.
“Someone like David who might not want to get support, or feel that he is able to, when he does get support, I want him to be able to go to a place where the support is evidence-based and the correct support.”
“The biggest thing for me is people knowing that when they’re ready to speak out, there are organisations ready to support them. They are in the driving seat.”