Mainstream TV is proving it has serious backbone in its unflinching portrayal of the realities of abuse.
Television does not get much more mainstream than Coronation Street. For those who have grown up with its cobbled streets, just hearing the theme tune is as comforting as drinking a hot cup of tea under a warm blanket.
The soap has never shied away from dramatic storylines. Who could forget Deirdre’s day in court or Tina being bludgeoned to death by Rob after her affair with Peter Barlow was revealed? Funny and dark in the same breath, Coronation Street has always been at its best when it treads the fine line between the light and shade of human relationships.
The long form nature of soaps lends itself to exploring a topic in detail and giving it the space to unfold. Never has that been truer than the current storyline portraying the sexual abuse of Bethany Platt.
Trouble ever since she arrived in 2015, Bethany has been through the mill. From being bullied at school and having an addiction to diet pills, to falling in love with her mum’s boyfriend, life has not been easy for 16-year-old Bethany.
It is this troubled background, and the resulting loneliness and vulnerability, that makes her the perfect target for abuse. After overdosing on pills she is discovered in an alleyway by Nathan. Under the respectable veneer of the tanning salon entrepreneur lies a cruel pimp who spends months systematically separating Bethany from her friends and family.
Moving her into his flat, giving her a job and ostensibly making her feel loved, Nathan has crafted a life where Bethany’s whole self-esteem depends on him. After being manipulated into thinking she has let Nathan down, Bethany feels compelled to make it up to him.
The answer? Having sex with his “friends”, one of whom turns out to be a police officer. Coupled with her revulsion at being raped by strangers is the utter confusion that her so-called boyfriend has no problem with her sleeping with other men.
I defy anyone watching Bethany’s bolshy exterior unravel not to feel moved, and while yes this is a soap character, her experience reflects the daily lives of people in abusive relationships all over the UK.
Coronation Street has bravely given the storyline the time in needs to build and breathe, to accurately portray that abuse happens over time and not always in the way people might expect. It is not always strangers or evil men in dark alleyways. Often it is the people closest to you.
The mainstream appeal of Coronation Street means that there may even be people watching the soap who are only just starting to recognise the parallels with their own lives, such is the insidious nature of abusive relationships.
A different, but equally powerful piece of drama is the BBC’s exceptional dramatisation Three Girls. Screened in May, the three-part series revisits the 2012 Rochdale sexual abuse scandal, telling the untold story of the vulnerable white girls abused by a paedophile ring of British Asian men.
Paired back, raw and without a hint of sensationalism, the experiences of Holly and sisters Amber and Ruby are lent added depth and authenticity by the fact that they are based on real accounts of abused teenage girls.
Girls like Holly, Ruby and Amber would not normally be fodder for a primetime 9pm slot. They live in a drab town where the high street is lined with chip shops and kebab houses. This is where they meet their abusers, the older men who ply them with vodka and free chips, letting them mess about in the back room listening to pop songs in their trackie bottoms. Little girls having a laugh, until the cold reality of the abuse sinks in.
The casting is perfect, from the uninitiated Holly rebelling against her parents, to the childlike and painfully vulnerable Ruby. Then there’s tough nut ringleader Amber, who under the hard exterior is fragile, lonely and scared. They look and act like children, flitting from anger and bravado to abject fear and resignation.
There is a scene where Ruby, who is 13 at the time the abuse starts, explains her experiences to the police. Her poignant description of being “passed around like a ball” is heartbreaking in its simplicity and brutal accuracy.
This unvarnished portrayal of abuse in a struggling town where no one cares about where you are or what’s happening to you is harrowing, but yet ultimately uplifting.
That is the strength of brave TV drama, the desire to tell stories about people whose lives are not glamorous or exciting. These characters represent normal people trying to find their way in a world that can be cruel and unforgiving, where naivety is a characteristic easily manipulated to harm you.
It is right that the BBC and soaps like Coronation Street are using their position in the mainstream to strip back the mask of abuse and tell the unvarnished truth. Their ambition, and their young heroines, should be applauded.