As the soap’s first transgender character, Hayley Cropper’s gone on to find a special place in viewers’ hearts. As her story comes to an emotional conclusion in a controversial right-to-die storyline, actress Julie Hesmondhalgh tells Susan Griffin about her memorable moments on the cobbles
It’s Julie Hesmondhalgh’s last day on Coronation Street and it’s only lunch time, but there have already been tears.
“Jennie [McAlpine, who plays Fiz] got me going with her card,” says Hesmondhalgh, who’s played Hayley Cropper for the last 16 years.
The Accrington-born actress’ departing storyline’s been one of the most talked about in soap history, not only because she and husband Roy (David Neilson) are such well-loved characters, but because of Hayley’s controversial decision to end her own life after being diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Hesmondhalgh, 43, knew the moment she told the show’s producer Stuart Blackburn she wanted to leave, that it wasn’t going to be in the back of a taxi.
“It wasn’t necessarily what I wanted, but I knew it had to be that way for Hayley and Roy,” explains the actress.
“It wouldn’t have made any sense to do anything else.
“Had I gone off to Africa [as the character did in 2007 when Hesmondhalgh had a break], I would’ve been ringing Roy all the time.”
Blackburn, a former Corrie scriptwriter, was on his way home following his first day in charge, when he received the call.
“Stuart, bless him, doesn’t mince his words at the best of times,” say Hesmondhalgh, chuckling as she recalls their conversation.
“I said, ‘Stuart, I can’t couch this with any other term but I’m going to leave,’ and he went, ‘Oh my God!’”
Roy and Hayley were introduced by Alma Baldwin back in 1998, when Hayley was a shy shop assistant at Firman’s Freezers.
A friendship ensued and then, on one of their dates, Hayley revealed that she was a pre-operative transgender formerly called Harold (she later underwent sex change surgery).
“Right at the beginning, the trans community weren’t happy with the storyline because, to be fair, it was a bit of a joke,” says Hesmondhalgh, who’s wearing a bright green Sixties-style dress, her peroxide crop messily styled.
“We had a producer, Brian Park, who was brilliant but it was like, ‘Oh, we’ll have Roy on a series of disastrous dates and then he’ll fall for someone and find out she’s transsexual’.
“But I never saw it as a joke. I read up on it, talked to people and tried to do it properly, and when David and I started working together, we both took it on. I think the trans community saw it and thought it was actually changing attitudes.”
The pair had a blessing ceremony in 1999, which is where Hesmondhalgh met her husband-to-be Ian Kershaw, the writer and actor who played “a baddie journalist” in the episode.
Then in 2010, Roy and Hayley got married to reflect the change in law. “Roy gave a speech, which remains one of my favourite lines ever,” says Hesmondhalgh.
“He said, ‘We’ve remained the same, the world has turned to meet us’. And that’s exactly what happened. They’ve just carried on their little path and the world has adjusted, and that’s brilliant.”
Looking back, she thinks it’s ridiculous that the soap chose an actress to play the role.
“Now you’d have a trans actor, but the pressure for someone would’ve been off the scale back then.
“There was enough pressure on me from the d***heads in the press.”
The Lancashire-born star’s initial interest had been social work. She decided later to focus on acting, studying at LAMDA before joining an independent theatre company.
Roles in The Bill, Dalziel And Pascoe and The Dwelling Place followed, before Coronation Street came calling.
“I’ve always really believed in soap, because of its ability to reach into so many homes,” she says. “I grew up [watching] Brookside, which was the first issue-led soap, and I remember being really challenged by it.”
Just as Hayley’s arrival proved thought-provoking, so does her departure - in choosing to end her life before her cancer treatment renders her incapable of doing so.
“It’s very much character-led because she wouldn’t ever want Roy to assist her, and she doesn’t want to get to a point where she isn’t able to do anything and could confuse reality with the past,” she explains.
A member of the British Humanist Association, Hesmondhalgh has “quite strong views” in favour of pro-choice.
“Obviously within the constraints that have to be extremely carefully laid out to make sure it’s not abused,” she says.
“I wouldn’t want to live in that kind of pain and anguish and see my family and friends go through it.”
For that reason, she’s always understood Hayley’s decision, while Neilson hasn’t.
“We as actors have very different views, so he’s just played what he feels and I’ve just played what I feel.”
She describes the two of them as “like an old married couple”.
“My relationship with David’s been the absolute best,” she adds. “He’s completely different from Roy. He’s very dry, he doesn’t suffer fools. He’s so loved and respected. Ask anyone in the cast who they’d like to work with, they’ll say David.
“I’ve had him for 16 years, so it’s someone else’s turn.”
Viewers won’t actually see Hayley die but they will witness her drinking the lethal concoction, which Roy tries to dissuade her from doing right up until the end.
The last scene was done in one take.
“The director, Kay Patrick, was keen for us not to have to keep doing it, because when you first do a scene like that, it’s very raw and you get the performance.”
The atmosphere on set that day was unlike anything she’d witnessed before.
“There’s a lot of banter and a lot of fun, even when you’re doing extremely dramatic scenes, but everything was silent. It was almost holy and church-like,” she recalls.
While the last few months have been tough-going, Hesmondhalgh’s keen not to complain.
“I always think you’ve got to be careful when you’re talking about things like this, because I don’t actually have it [terminal cancer],” says the actress, who mulled over her decision to leave for a long time before making the announcement.
“I’d started thinking about it [leaving] when I was doing a play at the Royal Exchange Theatre [in Manchester] last year,” she notes.
“I just felt, if I didn’t do it now, I never would. Sometimes you’ve got to shake things up a bit.”
She’ll continue watching the soap - “Oh God, totally!” - but she may have to set the recorder, as she’s starring in the new play Blindsided, followed by Black Roses, which she’s taking to London on tour.
“That takes me right up until April.
“After that, who knows? I think I’ll probably be ready for maybe a little bit of comedy,” she says, laughing.
“Or a holiday!”
Life after Corrie – it starts next week
Actress Julie Hesmondhalgh, best known as Coronation Street’s Hayley Cropper, is to star in the Royal Exchange Theatre’s world premiere of the new Simon Stephens play Blindsided from next week.
She last appeared at the Exchange in Black Roses: The Killing Of Sophie Lancaster - for which she won a Manchester Theatre Award.
Blindsided is about families, obsessive love and betrayal, and centres on a girl growing up in a battered part of Stockport at the end of the 70s.
Stephens is one of the most prolific contemporary writers in the UK. Blindsided is the fourth play he has written specifically for the Exchange and follows the success of Punk Rock in 2009. He also won an Olivier Award for his recent National Theatre adaptation of Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time.
On Saturday February 1 there will also be a panel discussion with the playwright alongside leading theatre professionals and academics from the University of Manchester. It’s a free event, but ticketed. Blindsided runs from January 23 to February 15.
Box Office: 0161 833 9833 or www.royalexchange.co.uk.
Storyline hailed over right-to-die debate
Julie praised the soap for starting “a conversation” about the right to die.
The actress will be seen committing suicide after a battle against incurable cancer, joined the soap in 1998 to play the Street’s first transsexual and won the hearts of the nation with her on-screen romance with cafe owner Roy, played by David Neilson.
The storyline is being played out as former lord chancellor Lord Falconer of Thoroton launched a bid to legislate on the controversial issue with his Assisted Dying Bill, which would enable terminally ill patients to request assisted dying, subject to a range of safeguards.
The soap star said she had been surprised by the extent of the press coverage of the storyline because it was tied in “so completely” with her character.
She told ITV’s Daybreak: “I thought that was very specific to her and that it wouldn’t really impact in this way but it’s absolutely brilliant that it’s started this conversation about the right to die Bill and so on, so I couldn’t be more pleased about that because that’s all you can hope for that people talk about these things in a real way and a new way, so it’s been wonderful”.
She said the storyline was “such a responsibility”, adding: “I did feel the weight of that but it was a privilege to do it.”
She called for a debate on the issue, telling the Radio Times the storyline was “timely and appropriate” and that “there are no easy answers”. She added: “This is a conversation that needs to be had.”
The Samaritans charity, which advised producers on the storyline, warned that the scenes of Hayley’s death from a drugs overdose could cause a risk of copycat suicides.
A spokeswoman said: “We want to limit the risk of copycat suicides. That is why we advised them to give no details of the medication or how she obtained the drugs.
“Portraying an overdose, for example, as a gentle and peaceful way to die, can be very dangerous and bears no resemblance to the reality of slow liver failure afterwards.
“We have advised them to make it as safe as possible but we can’t stop them from doing it. We might not agree, but dramas all, at some point, cover these issues.”
Care Not Killing, a campaign group opposed to euthanasia and assisted suicide, said the soap was “in great danger of normalising an occurrence that is actually very rare indeed”.
The controversial storyline will reflect the split in opinion in the right-to-die debate with both Roy and Hayley’s friend Fiz Stape (Jennie McAlpine) struggling to deal with Hayley’s decision.
Coronation Street producer Stuart Blackburn said: “This is a sensitive issue and we will be exploring the effects of her decision on husband Roy, who has a huge emotional and moral dilemma over her choice. Not everyone will feel Hayley’s decision is the right one and we fully respect this; we will be exploring both sides of the debate on screen.”