'MS is not a soap opera'

5 February 2019

When Martin Baum first learned Coronation Street was to introduce an MS storyline, his immediate reaction was one of "wariness tinged with optimism". Here he gives his verdict on how MS has been represented by the soaps over the years.

Although Hollyoaks in 2017 introduced an MS storyline when Nancy Osborne, played by Jessica Fox, was diagnosed with a relapsing remitting narrative, it’s fair to say, aside from a Neighbours story line where Susan Kennedy was diagnosed in 2007, the relationship between multiple sclerosis and the small screen has been less than represented.  And not always for the best.

Thirty years ago, history was made after EastEnders regular Colin Russell, played by Michael Cashman, was given a swift prognosis by Dr Legg, before being ‘sent away’ and never heard of again.  That story line left its mark on me to the extent that I still remember feeling angry, hurt and stigmatised.

My fear now about Coronation Street, was how compassionate the producers and writers would allow themselves to be.

My fear now about Coronation Street, three decades on, was how compassionate the producers and writers would allow themselves to be.  Initially I was encouraged when actor Richard Hawley, who plays the newly diagnosed Johnny Connor, said that the new storyline had changed his outlook on life and he would take lessons from what he had learned.  This was looking positive.  Unfortunately, as the MS theme progressed, the same could not be said in the depiction of the illness.  Lazy attention to detail meant that the usual MS tropes had been woven into the narrative.  

Much to my disappointment, it seemed that nothing had changed in the pursuit of using my illness as a crutch – or should that be wheelchair - to carry an ignorant made-for-TV scenario.  There was little to inspire and engage with an audience, some of whom might just have benefited from becoming better informed.

Over the course of several episodes, falling over twice and a clumsy reference to ‘Johnny needs his medication’ was as accurate as it got.  It explained nothing to anybody already ignorant about the illness other than to foster a tired stereotype with more of the same old same old.

Aside from Johnny being diagnosed within a week of experiencing symptoms, the only trick Corrie producers missed was not having a disabled space painted outside the Rovers.  This was a disappointing oversight.  What this was, was an opportunity for depicting a true reflection of mobility MS baggage that is only all too familiar for the rest of us.

Soaps like The Street pride themselves on reflecting life as it is with an unerring attention to detail.  Or they would have us and themselves believe.  Had the writers bothered to remember, or even been aware, Johnny would have got a blue badge because of his disability and parked up in the disabled bay.  And that’s where true life reality would have kicked in for a healthy-looking Johnny. To any Street resident – remember how quick they are to point the finger – Johnny Connor would have been judged a benefit cheat for looking ‘normal’ and not being disabled enough to claim that space.  That would have been reflecting life as it is on any other road that’s not Coronation Street.

For more information on Martin visit martinbaum.co.uk