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Have we forgotten how to forgive our soap stars?

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Leslie Grantham, who died last week at the age of 71, was a legend of soap.

Way back in 1985, he spoke the first words in the new soap EastEnders. His partnership with Anita Dobson led to the fourth most watched moment of UK television ever when, on Christmas Day 1986, half the population watched his character ‘Dirty’ Den serve his wife with divorce papers.

That scene has become iconic, as has his assassination with a bunch of daffodils. When he was brought back from the dead in 2003, his presence triggered a whole new set of exciting and interesting storylines. When you say ‘EastEnders’, it’s hard not to think of Den Watts.

But there was another side to Grantham which has made him almost as infamous as his on-screen persona. Years before EastEnders, he served ten years in prison for the murder of a taxi driver in Germany whilst serving in the British army. The tabloids went mad, but the producers at the time defended their decision to cast him, claiming they were aware of his crime and he had paid his debt to society. In 1985, it seemed, the past could be left in the past.

Yet in 2004, Grantham’s second stint on the soap was curtailed. Why? Images of Grantham behaving lewdly on webcam to an undercover reporter appeared in the press, alongside claims that he had criticised several cast members. The producers acted swiftly, and Dirty Den was no more, definitively bumped off and carried out in a coffin this time. All of this, for a ‘crime’ far less shocking than murder.

Grantham is just one in a long line of soap stars who have found themselves hastily ditched from their shows for their off-screen antics. Coronation Street’s Chris Fountain (Tommy Duckworth) was written out following the discovery of his attempts at rapping on YouTube, with tracks which advocated violence towards women. The same soap sacked Marc Anwar (Sharif Nazir) for a racist outburst on Twitter, whilst Melissa Suffield, who played Lucy Beale in EastEnders, was let go due to ‘unruly behaviour’, which mainly seemed to consist of her drinking whilst underage.

Meanwhile, some have been given second chances. Perhaps it’s a case of the producers – and the public – seeing the actors seeking help for their problems. With Grantham’s prison sentence served, his slate was wiped clean, much as Craig Charles was allowed to return to the role of Lloyd Mullaney in Coronation Street following treatment for his cocaine addiction. Likewise, Daniella Westbrook (Sam Mitchell, EastEnders) has been afforded several chances to redeem herself following her own drug issues in the past. There are few of us who would begrudge somebody the opportunity to get their life back on track following struggles such as these – otherwise, why bother seeking treatment in the first place?

Yet, what is the treatment for stupidity? Fountain and Anwar’s off-screen antics were ill-advised and offensive, but in the case of the former, isn’t anything that isn’t played out in mainstream rap music? Moreover, Suffield’s underage drinking happens up and down the country every day of the week, and to punish a 17-year-old for something that most people have experienced seems ludicrous. After all, it’s not as if people much older and supposedly more responsible haven’t had too much to drink and behaved appallingly in public: think of Wayne Rooney, for one. Boris Johnson manages it without even a sip of the hard stuff.

We hold our soap stars to high account, something which is only too obvious by the interest surrounding the return of Stephanie Davis to Hollyoaks. The actress was sacked in 2015 due to arriving on set ‘unfit for work’, a coded reference to the alcoholism Davis now admits was hampering her performances at the time. Since then, she’s played her private life out in the papers, but it was recently announced that she was to reprise her role as Sinead O’Connor. Executive Producer Bryan Kirkwood – who was responsible for Davis’ departure – said: ‘I am delighted that Stephanie is returning, she’s a hugely talented actress who has worked hard to overcome some personal issues.’

Personal issues. For me, that’s the whole point here. In the case of Davis, she was sacked due to her inability to work, something quite different from the public disgraces described earlier. But to my mind, that’s even worse: why on earth should I know that somebody has been disciplined, suspended or sacked due to ‘personal issues’? No other workplace would announce their reasons for letting a staff member go, nor would it feel the need to justify its employment of an ex-offender.

It’s time for a change. It’s time for us to remember that actors are workers, in a job, and not necessarily to be idolised. Unlike many people in public life, what they do outside of their work does not really impact upon us. Footballers, popstars, TV presenters, MPs – they’ve all slipped up from time to time, and they appear before us as themselves, their personalities a part of their fame. Soap stars don’t. Many viewers don’t even know who the actor is behind the character, let alone that they’ve disgraced themselves in the tabloids or online.

In 1985, a convicted murderer who had served his time was forgiven. In 2018, the Foreign Secretary is repeatedly forgiven for his crass and damaging political statements.

Frankly, it’s time we cut our modern soap stars a little more slack.


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