Wednesday’s hour-long episode of Coronation Street, which depicted the shock and grief of Weatherfield residents when they found out about Aidan Connor’s suicide, will go down as one of the most powerful in the soap’s recent history.
The ITV show has been praised for the sensitive and moving way in which it portrayed the reactions of his friends and family.
Seven million people watched the episode. It was written by Jonathan Harvey, who says he felt “a responsibility to try and be as honest as possible”.
Harvey says the show didn’t initially set out to tackle male suicide simply because it’s a big issue in society – but explains that the plot was a chance to send a message about seeking help.
“It never started out as ‘let’s do this issue,'” Harvey tells BBC News. “It was organic, about character and things like that. But it did turn into, ‘This could be a very important story for us and it could help people and change people’s lives.'”
Harvey says he was keen to show the full range of realistic reactions to an unexpected death – especially the feeling of disbelief.
“The biggest thing I drew on was that my best friend died very suddenly about two or three years ago, of a heart attack,” he says. “I know that’s not the same as suicide, but I’d been out with him all day the day before, and when my partner got a phone call and told me, I was so incredulous.
“So I drew on a lot of what we went through then because I spent a lot of time with his family and everybody’s got different reactions – anger, disbelief.
“I was really able to draw on all those experiences and put that into the script.”
While dramatic, the episode avoided being sensationalist. Harvey explains that the show’s writers are given an outline of each episode by the storyliners – and this one felt different from usual.
“Usually as a soap writer your job is to make the preposterous believable – when someone gets knocked on the head and bundled into the boot of a car and tied up for the third week on the trot…. really? Your job is to make the audience believe it.
“With this one, what was really nice was I believed every bit of it. So it was just a lovely episode to get because you could just be truthful. Rather than spinning a yarn, or spinning a conceit, there was a responsibility to just try and be as honest as possible.”
The emotional centrepiece of the episode was a monologue delivered by one of the street’s veterans Gail, played by Helen Worth.
She reflected on the fact you don’t really know what’s going on in each other’s lives, as footage switched between different characters being told the news. It was originally meant to be a silent sequence.
But Harvey says: “It felt like it needed the gravitas of one of our longest-running characters to pass comment on the community that, when the programme started, was close-knit, looked out for each other and knew everybody’s business. That’s the cliche of what soaps are.
“And yet [she was saying], if you did know everybody’s business then you would have seen this coming.
“It was a weird one to write because I thought, this could be really dreadful and flippant. But fortunately we all pulled it off.”
Suicide prevention charities The Samaritans and Calm were given the script at every draft stage and made recommendations, such as not showing the body of Aidan (played by Shayne Ward) or saying anything about how he took his life.
‘People tell their stories’
Harvey, an award-winning playwright and one of Coronation Street’s longest-serving writers, also penned the episode in March in which David Platt was drugged and raped.
Wednesday’s instalment saw David’s storyline run in parallel to Aidan’s, with David going missing before deciding he didn’t want to end up like his friend.
“I’ve had lots of people getting in touch,” Harvey says. “Like when we did the rape story, people start telling you their stories or their experiences. I’ve had lots of messages on Facebook from people who have been touched by suicide in some way.”
Lucy Fallon, who plays Bethany, said on Twitter that Gail’s speech was “the best bit of @itvcorrie I have ever seen”, while Samia Longchambon (Maria) wrote that the episode was “one that will go down in #corrie history”.
Speaking on BBC 5 live, comedian and writer Jake Mills, who founded mental health charity Chasing the Stigma, said it was “the opposite of what I would expect from a soap opera”.
He said: “I thought it was dignified, sensitive, respectful, and I feel like it was actually real. So often we see things dramatised and pulled to the extremes, but with this it was very real.”
The Samaritans’ media advisor Lorna Fraser, who worked with the show, said: “One of the most important things that this storyline covers is the importance of talking if you are struggling to cope – talk to somebody, don’t suffer in silence, there’s always help out there.
“But also this storyline covers very well the importance of talking if there’s somebody that you’re worried about – if somebody doesn’t really seem themselves, talk to them about it. Ask them if they’re OK.”
If you want to talk to someone, you can phone The Samaritans on 116 123 or email . Calm can be contacted on 0800 58 58 58 (17:00-midnight). Details of other organisations that can help are on the BBC Action Line website.