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From Coronation Street to New York: Julie Hesmondhalgh's work asks, what if acting could change the world?
On Hayley Cropper, 'state privilege' and sobriety
By Sophie Atkinson
“Honest to God, this is the whole truth. About six months before I got Corrie, I’d written down, in that ‘manifesting’ way, what I wanted to achieve, and my three main aims were be £300 in credit in the bank — which seemed like an impossible bloody dream back then — to have a new hat, and three, to be in a soap.” This, according to Julie Hesmondhalgh, is how an actor only a few years out of drama school ended up on the longest-running soap opera in the world. We’re sitting in her lovely, ramshackle kitchen as she casts her mind back to 1997, when her agent called to say she had an audition to play Hayley on Coronation Street. All she knew about the character was that she was “fun” so she prepared accordingly: full bleached hair, leopard skin, Bet Lynch mode. When they saw her, the team started umm-ing and ahh-ing.
“The casting director said ‘I don’t know how to say this to you’ — it was such a different time — ‘she’s a trans character.’” What Julie didn’t know, and found out much later, was that Hayley was supposed to be a joke. The plan was for the show’s shy, earnest, middle-aged cafe-owner Roy Cropper to have a series of dates, all of them disastrous, of which Hayley was the first. “And the hilarious denouement of that story would be that he would fall in love with her and she would say ‘I’m trans. I used to be a man, I was born in the wrong body’, all that terrible 1990s language and he would freak out and never see her again.” Of course, if you watched Coronation Street in that era, you’ll know that never happened. Instead of mocking the couple, the show went on to depict a tender and loving relationship between Roy and Hayley, the first transgender character on a British soap. So what changed?
Julie was serious about doing the role well, so she headed to Front Line Books, a left-wing bookshop in the city centre, and asked them for every book they had on trans people. Back then, the books skewed academic which meant she read “amazing but very advanced gender theory” from authors like Kate Bornstein. “I read everything I could,” Julie tells me, “and went back for a little screen test and they gave me the part. It was that easy.”
The word “easy” is probably relative, because the beginning of Julie’s time on the soap doesn’t sound particularly relaxing. The main trans pressure group of that era, Press For Change, the UK’s leading trans activist group of the time, bristled when they learned Corrie had cast a cis woman to play a trans character (Julie says she felt uneasy about this herself, and she would later start campaigning alongside them). They wrote letters saying that Hayley should be played by a trans actor, and as she puts it, “what are Coronation Street doing, we don't trust them, they're just going to make this a joke.”
It’s a fair enough accusation, given the original plans for the character, but in Aberdeen, Annie Wallace — an introverted computer specialist and a trans woman — turned on her telly, saw Hayley and thought: This is me. “She completely connected with the character, the relationship, everything, and she wrote a letter to the Radio Times saying, I know a lot of people are up in arms about this role but this character could be me, I feel like it's completely my story.” The team got in touch with her and she became a sort of unofficial researcher for the show. Little details from Annie’s life fed into Hayley’s: her passion for glam and prog rock, for example, and even the date of her birthday.
Annie helped Hayley to feel like a real flesh and blood trans person, rather than a cis person’s take on the same, and Hayley shaped Annie’s life, too. In her late thirties, she moved to Manchester and ended up auditioning for drama school. Then, after years passing as a cis woman, she decided to come out on her fiftieth birthday. “Her life changed as soon as she came out, just like people say, everything started to fall into place.” Annie scored a part on Hollyoaks as the headteacher, Sally St. Claire, and became the first trans person ever to play a trans character on a British soap opera.
But back to Corrie. The wonderful thing that happened, Julie tells me — and this is what happens in soaps when they're working well and at their best — is that people really got behind the relationship between Roy and Hayley. “Even though I was supposed to scarper, people really wanted them to work as a couple. So I would literally be in Asda in Accrington and people would say, when are you and Roy getting married?” The enormous affection the public developed for Hayley hamstrung the show’s writers — they could see that people loved the relationship and decided they couldn’t get rid of her.
When viewers would ask Julie when she and Roy were getting married, she would stay in character and tell them that they weren’t allowed, prior to the Gender Recognition Act in 2004. And when the characters finally got married, Julie, the writers of Coronation Street and the storyline got heralded in parliament for changing public attitudes towards trans people “which was one of the proudest moments of my life.” Hayley’s story did change things, Julie thinks: “It turned something that was a scary, snarky issue into a person.”
Playing Hayley was one great aspect of being on Corrie but meeting her husband Ian Kershaw was another. Although they met in her first week on the show, they didn’t get together until much later, at a birthday dinner, when at the end of the evening, she told him she was going to marry him.
It seems possible, listening to Julie’s story of their relationship, that smartphones or apps or being on the internet 12 hours a day has diluted our capacity for intensity because nobody my age has a story like this. I’m 35 now and Julie was 30 when this happened. They texted for a few days: “Then we met up on a Sunday night, had our first date, and then I moved in with him that Wednesday. I was pregnant in six weeks. As we were on our way to Vegas to get married, I found out.” Within the year, their first daughter, Martha was born.
Ian is a writer on the show, and Julie stresses just how challenging penning an episode of Coronation Street is — she points out that sometimes they’ve got 60 years’ worth of exposition to get in, as well as what took place in the episode before. The fact the show has been running since 1960 means an archivist is necessary — Julie explains that the writers pitch storylines to him and he’ll correct them where necessary: “Actually, she had a hysterectomy in 1984, so she can’t possibly be pregnant.”
‘That’s how you build communities’
Julie grew up in Church, a village just outside Accrington in Lancashire and her upbringing was “very traditionally working class” — a small terraced house, a mum and dad who were office workers and who played football pools every Thursday night. 70s and 80s Accrington was full of political division — pubs had right wing or left wing allegiances, there was a huge Pakistani community and a lot of racism. She thinks that most people in the media understand what the demise of local newspapers has meant for communities — but few others do. For her, the local paper at the time, the Accrington Observer, was a way of both celebrating the town and a forum for discussing problems. “That kind of local news,” she says, “that's how you build communities.”
She didn’t think much about class growing up. It was only when she was setting off for drama school that her punk brother, seven years older than her, having already studied at Oxford, took her to one side. “He said do you ever think of yourself as a working-class person? I was a bit like, we've got a fridge. We're not chimney sweeps!” He warned her she was in for a shock — that she’d go to her posh drama school and she’d realise what was what. “And he was absolutely right.”
Her childhood was “very, very ordinary” in some ways “but with this extra thing": her extraordinary father, John. Like many people growing up in the 1930s, he had a difficult upbringing. After his mother died in childbirth, his father David remarried, and John gained both a new mother and a new brother, from his stepmother’s previous marriage. When John passed his 11+ and was given the chance to go to grammar school, he was forced to turn it down. His stepmother's son had failed the same exam, so he wasn't allowed (presumably it would have made the other boy look bad). Instead, at age 13, he dropped out of school and became a butcher’s boy. At age 16, his father David took his own life.
This sounds like the sort of circumstances which could make a person bitter and perpetually unhappy. But John sounds as if he had a gift for joy. After he died, Julie’s mother gave her a box of old diaries that her father had written. “And in it, there's this piece of writing from 1946, when he was 16, so a couple of months after his dad had died and he wrote this sort of manifesto for life, 'A Character I Should Love To Have.’” She explains: “It's about appreciating music and nature and art and poetry and looking to the great figures in literature to get comfort and to find God in the wide open spaces and to be pleasant and smiling and friendly with everybody. I mean, it was incredible.”
This wasn’t just a lovely theory — this was something he put into action in his life. She tells me her abiding memory of her parents growing up, is that whenever someone came over, they’d turn off the telly, turn the chairs round and “they would shine the light on that person.” She explains, they were always so interested in and engaged by other people that it was a shock to find that other friends’ parents weren’t like that. Her father was someone who, if he was worried about someone, like a friend of hers, he would write them a postcard. “Loads of my friends have got postcards from my dad with a funny poem on or something. Everything my childhood was about was like, making up daft rhymes and poems and songs and old musical songs, and hymns.”
At the risk of being accused of penning a hagiography, doing the fawning journalist meets celebrity thing, there’s a lot of her parents in Julie. What she says, about her parents shining a light on visitors? That’s exactly how I feel, interviewing her. We don’t get started for a while because she’s so warm and curious and genuinely interested in everything about me — the time I lived in Germany, in Spain, how The Mill functions (she's been a member for a while), how I got involved — that I get off-topic.
As a teenager, Julie grew interested in theatre. She wasn’t the only one in Accrington — there was a further education college there with an excellent drama department and an inspiring teacher, Martin Cosgrif. Perhaps because of this, “Loads of us went to drama school and became actors afterwards.” Her brother had been right: it was posh — she was there with Oscar-winning actors’ children and lots of privately educated people who’d gone to schools like Eton and Harrow. But she was lucky: there were plenty of working-class students at LAMDA back then. “It was because the people who ran it were very much of the Angry Young Men period of the Royal Court, and they’d gone on to run the school, so in terms of [class], it was quite progressive, less so in terms of diversity.”
What she enjoyed, she tells me, is what she refers to as state privilege. Every stage of her life, she feels she got the best of everything. But all that is changing: “I feel like I'm walking through life and the path behind me is crumbling as I go.” At school, she had great teachers who weren’t as overloaded as they are now by admin, who could create drama groups. When she went to drama school, she got a full local authority grant to do that: “They didn’t just pay my rent when I was in London, they paid my maintenance, so it paid my rent when I was in London.”
This matters — drama school isn’t like university, where you’re maybe doing 12 hours of classes a week and can fit a job alongside it. It’s nine to six, and then you have to learn your lines in the evening. After she graduated, she set up a theatre company along with some others in London and helped run it for a few years while claiming dole and housing benefit. There was no obfuscation at the dole office: she’d tell them that she was building a theatre and it would lead to work, but that she was effectively in the midst of an apprenticeship. “They'd be like, fine, sign off, whatever, they wouldn't try and make me do other jobs. And I've paid that back in tax, a hundredfold now because I had that experience.”
The only way is up
Julie played Hayley for 16 years, and the majority of those were relatively undramatic for her character — after her introduction to the show, Julie says, it wasn’t like she spent the entire time talking about trans issues. No, she was mostly just stitching knickers in the factory, just pootling about. In 2012, appearing in the Royal Exchange’s elegy for a 20-year-old murder victim, Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster made her realise there were more stories she wanted to tell, prompting her to leave Coronation Street. The writers gave the character a suitably nuanced and emotional ending — in 2014, when Hayley found she had terminal cancer, she asked her husband to help her end her own life.
Leaving Coronation Street was nerve wracking, she says. But her post-Corrie career suggests she needn’t have worried. Since then, she’s appeared in plenty of appointment television: she starred in Cucumber, a comedy from Russell T. Davies of Queer as Folk fame; guest-starred on Doctor Who; earned a Bafta nomination for her work playing a rape survivor in Broadchurch; appeared in Happy Valley and The Pact.
But what she really enjoys most is theatre — “You’re there with the audience and it’s new every night”. This year, she played Paula, a English volunteer at a refugee camp in The Jungle, a play whose cast includes former refugees and was written with refugee input in Calais, which has played at the Young Vic, the West End and in New York. Currently she’s filming Mr Bates vs. The Post Office for ITV, which maps the British post office scandal (a story we covered back in 2021).
Since then, she’s made another big change, when she quit drinking five years ago. While she doesn’t identify as an alcoholic, she says she had a bad relationship with alcohol from a very young age. “The way that I have defined it is that some of the best nights of my life were fuelled with alcohol, all of the worst things that I've ever done or experienced in my life have been alcohol-fuelled, without a doubt.” Her favourite part of sobriety? That 4am moment she used to get after a night out has now evolved. It used to be that she’d wake up and think anxious thoughts: why did I say that?, flashbacks of people’s faces as she was talking and flashbacks to her being cocky. “Now if I have those moments, I kind of own them, I have to go, oh you are a bit of a twat sometimes, so that's okay, and kind of work with that.”
We get into the drinking, because we’re talking about God, as you do —she tells me she believes in God in the way you have to when you go through AA and you have to find a higher power, whether that's love or the universe or some higher consciousness. “I believe that there's something more than just these bodies, these bags of blood we drag around,” she says. Possibly I’d have deduced this even if she hadn’t told me out loud — there’s a sort of yearning which runs through all her projects for a better world.
She runs a political theatre company in Manchester, Take Back Theatre (“when we set up, people were a bit like ‘you're preaching to the converted’. But it's better to do something imperfectly than not do anything at all”); she became a patron of Dorsey Rape Crisis while playing a rape survivor; and she talks about wanting to somehow build the path that’s been crumbling behind her back up again for the working-class artists to come. Julie is that rare being: someone who seems to care as much about those around her as herself. When she talks about Take Back, she lights up. Life can be lonely, and divisive, she thinks, but this is different: “It's about community and communion and giving people a sense of belonging.”
This article has been edited to correct errors — Julie told her husband she would marry him, not the other way round at the end of the first evening they spent together. We originally referred to Julie’s inspirational teacher at Accrington College as Martin Cosgrove, instead of Martin Cosgrif, his actual name. She did not run the theatre company on her own in London, she co-ran it. We regret these errors.