Hollyoaks, a Channel 4 soap set in a fictional suburb of Chester, is a strange beast. Aimed at teenagers, on one level it’s like an economy-value Dynasty, with similarly overblown and contrived storylines; but instead of champagne-drenched catfights the inhabitants of the ‘Oaks settle their differences by glassing each other or burning down the local club – roughly once a year. Consisting of a cast the majority of which could only loosely be described as “actors”, the show is the epitome of a guilty pleasure. Loaded with cheap ingredients, you know it’s bad for your health but you just can’t help but pig out on it occasionally.
And yet, almost from its start (a main character died from a drug overdose not long after it first aired), Hollyoaks has consistently ventured into territory where others have feared to tread. During the 15 years it’s been on television it has tackled supposedly taboo subjects such as male rape, sex abuse, self-harm, mental illness and bisexuality with a directness often lacking in other, “proper” dramas. And with its current storyline about Jason, a transgendered teenager transitioning from female to male, it’s breaking new ground once again. Victoria Atkin plays the part with a sensitivity that makes it impossible not to sympathise with Jason’s internal conflict and feelings of alienation from his family as they struggle to come to terms with the “death” of their daughter, Jasmine. And in those characters who accept Jason for who he is, the story makes the important point that things get better.
Of course, this is still Hollyoaks, where no plot, including this one, can escape poor acting or the lurid trappings of its surroundings. At Christmas we learned that Jason’s grandfather is actually a secret serial killer, while the actress who plays Jason’s mother excels at flaring her nostrils and opening her eyes extremely wide, but that’s about it. However, in the quieter moments – the scenes of Jason strapping down his chest with sports bandages, for example – the show achieves a truthfulness that cuts through the attendant murder, mayhem and wooden performances.