Coronation Street is set to explore living with Motor Neurone Disease in a hard-hitting new storyline when Paul Foreman (Peter Ash) is diagnosed with the terminal illness.
Viewers have seen Paul struggle with what he thought was an injured hand after being knocked down in a road accident. But tonight he will visit a specialist and in April he'll learn that this, as well as his problems with mobility, balance and dexterity, are in fact symptoms of the condition.
The ITV soap is working with the MND Association, and Ash’s co-star Daniel Brocklebank became an ambassador a few years ago, after working with the charity for 20 years.
The actor, who plays Paul’s partner Billy Mayhew, has a personal connection to MND.
“20 years ago my grandfather was diagnosed with MND, and obviously subsequently died from it. So this is a subject that I’ve lived through in my own life, as have, obviously, the rest of my family,” says Brocklebank.
“Because I’ve been working with the MND Association for so long, I’ve subsequently met a lot of other people who have been living with MND. So it’s a subject that’s really close to my heart — I’ve been helping to fundraise for them for many years.”
The actor adds: “I’m not going to lie, my legs went a little bit weak [when I heard about this storyline], because I suppose it just brings back memories of that time.
"I did wonder, I thought this could potentially be quite triggering in a lot of ways. Obviously, Billy’s knowledge of MND is very different to my knowledge of MND; but I’m hoping therefore I might be able to bring some of my personal experience into the playing of this storyline, having been somebody who did, in real life, help to care for somebody with MND.”
For Ash, meanwhile, his character’s diagnosis will sadly lead to a permanent departure from Coronation Street. “I was called into Iain [MacLeod], the producer’s office, late last year,” Ash explains.
“He said ‘we’ve got this very big storyline for you, it should be a great thing to do. Unfortunately it does mean an eventual exit’. I had mixed feelings, obviously.
“I’ll be sad to leave the show, it’s been such an amazing job, I’ve met fantastic people - so I’ll be sad to leave. But at the same time, quite happy to be involved in such a powerful storyline that hopefully will bring awareness to [MND]. So, [it’s] a double-edged sword.”
Describing what we can expect for his alter ego in the coming weeks, he reveals: “He gets informed that they are going to be testing for MND. Paul doesn’t really know what that is, so he has to ask, [and] the consultant explains ‘these would be the symptoms if it is MND’. I think from that point, he just goes into shock.
“He’s not been told [for] definite yet, he’s been told they’re testing for it; but in Paul’s head, as far as he’s concerned, that’s what it is. - it makes sense. Obviously, when it sinks in a bit, it turns his whole world upside down.”
Even after his official diagnosis, Paul doesn’t tell Billy what he’s going through for some time; instead opting to confide in flatmate Dee-Dee Bailey (Channique Sterling-Brown).
“He feels like there’s too much going on in everyone’s life at the moment, to unload that on them," says Ash. "So he kind of bottles it up and just keeps it in. He doesn’t want to tell people, because he says that he feels people will treat him differently, that he’ll be pitied, and he doesn’t want that.”
At the time of filming, Billy is still being kept firmly in the dark. But Brocklebank believes that his alter ego’s profession may be a great help when he does learn the truth. “[Billy's] job is very much about pastoral care. On a personal level, he’s obviously going to be absolutely devastated that his partner has been given this diagnosis. But then I think his job skills will also help him to be able to be a support for Paul.
“I think he will want to show a strength for Paul, and maybe will keep his - I don’t know obviously, I’ve not read any of this - but I think he will leave his own personal emotional bits maybe on the quieter side, because he won’t want to make it about him, this is of course all about Paul.”
While Ash has done plenty of research into MND, Brocklebank has indeed been able to offer his own insights. “It not only affects people physically, but emotionally,” he explains. “And not just from the shock of having [MND], but it can affect people’s emotions. People can become very giggly [at] inappropriate moments, or become very emotional, or become very angry.”
“We had a scene last week where - because we’re still playing that Billy doesn’t know. We were discussing why Paul gets so emotional at this point, and I said ‘it might not be the fact that he’s still reeling from the diagnosis, it could be the fact that the MND is actually affecting his emotions’. That was something I noticed with my grandfather, who I’d never seen cry. I was very, very close to him, [had] never seen him cry.
“Even before he was diagnosed, he became much more emotional; he was actually only diagnosed a week before he died,” he explains. “So we’d had pretty much almost, just under 2 years of his symptoms progressing and us being told it was asthma or this or that.
“But one thing that we did notice was that he became a much more emotional person, would cry at things, and we were all thinking ‘what?’ because he’d never been like that at all. Now, in retrospect, that was because of the MND, but as I said, we didn’t know it was MND at the time. So there were those little insights that we’ve been able to discuss on set, where I’ve been able to throw little things in.”
Ash notes that people will be looking to Coronation Street to handle this storyline appropriately. “There’s so much responsibility to get it right, not to cheapen it; to represent it properly. We act it, but there are people watching it who are living with it, so it’s very important to get it right, and to be spot on with it and sensitive.”
Brocklebank adds: “Obviously, [I’m] extremely sad to know that eventually we’ll have to lose Peter of course, because I love working with him. But for the illness and for the MND Association, and for my grandfather and all of the people that I’ve met and known over the last 20 years, who have suffered with the illness, in a strange way it’s lovely to be able to commemorate them and their stories.
“Hopefully [we can] raise awareness, and get us to a point where we can fund enough research that we find at least something to slow it down and hopefully, ultimately cure it.”
Coronation Street producer Iain Macleod adds: “Motor Neurone Disease is something that many people might have heard of but perhaps don’t know a lot about, even given the recent cases of public figures talking about their experiences of living with the condition. We have been privileged to work with the Motor Neurone Disease Association - including talking to people who have the condition and their families - to ensure we do justice to people’s real-life experiences.”
Asked what it means to see Coronation Street focusing on Motor Neurone Disease, Chris James, Director of External Affairs at the MND Association, says: “It’s incredibly important for the MND community. Awareness is one of the things that the community talks to the Association about all the time, they really want us to inform and educate people about the disease.
“We are really grateful to the team at Coronation Street for choosing to tackle this difficult subject. Putting MND in front of millions of viewers every week will raise incredible awareness and help educate people who have never come across this disease."
Coronation Street is working with the MND Association on Paul’s journey with the illness. Anyone identifying with this storyline can find help and support by visiting the above website, or by visiting the NHS website.
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