Entertainment

Listen, Things Got Weird and I Ended Up on a Yacht with the Cast of 'Hollyoaks'

A dispatch from Ibiza.
July 25, 2017, 1:14pm
Someone from Hollyoaks takes a photo of the sun. All images by the author, and it shows.

1. THIS SOMBRERO IS DOING MY FUCKING HEAD IN

Santos Ibiza Hotel, white brick shining like blanched bones out on Ibiza's southern Platja d'en Bossa, May 2017. It is pre-season here in Ibiza, so the entire place has an air of idyllically sunny calm: there are no beetroot-red tourists quietly stirring in their own sick slicks, nobody has broken a leg falling off a quad bike yet, the island's nightclubs are yet to crank into that high-summer superstar DJ gear; the whole place doesn't quite throb and hum like it's on an achy comedown. Quietly, out there, deep beneath the water, Wayne Lineker sits and waits, dead but sleeping, waiting for the 1st of June, when the first clang of the season starts; Wayne Lineker, a goatee-and-tan Cthulu, who only wakes to the sound of six girls from Leeds on their first holiday abroad without their parents; Wayne Lineker, King of Ibiza, who will rise terrible and enormous, dripping from the sea, and turn, arms outstretched to his flock. "BOYS," he will say, to a room full of 200 mid-table Premier League midfielders, topless with baseball caps backwards on their heads, "BANG THE FUCKING GONG." Lineker smells the air. "IT'S FINGERING SEASON."

But for now, it's May, Lineker sleeps and we're by the beach watching Hollyoaks being made. Hollyoaks runs a tight ship: this year, 12 or so cast members have flown out to somewhere sunny and affordable for the show's summer holiday kickstarter – the semi-traditional "Hollyoaks abroad" episodes – and the crew has seven filming days to resolve four dangling storylines, so there's no real time for fucking about. The director, when a take is not up to his liking, shouts "NOT VERY GOOD". When he likes it, there is a simple shout of "LOVELY". It's a dichotomy I can get behind: a yes/no binary that, along with the fearsome production manager-cum-patriarch Colin, who yells at everyone to settle between takes like the hardest deputy headmistress you had at your school, keeps the mostly young cast (and me, when I tried to talk during an impromptu production meeting) in check.

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Behind the cameras is an entire crew with lighting and sound and make-up and runners, and then behind them is me and a couple of guys from UniLAD, and everyone here is absolutely On It: Holly (Amanda Clapham) and Ellie (Sophie Porley) are involved in some storyline that seems to involve pushing a guy repeatedly into a swimming pool, and are doing so with professional élan; Hunter (Theo Graham) and Neeta (Amrit Marghera) manage to wrap their beach scenes within a few takes despite half a hen party walking past, doing a full "fucking hell is that Hollyoaks?" double-take then just standing there for a bit, agog at it all; and Alfie (Richard Linell) and Tom (Ellis Hollins), two of the comic relief elements in this soap opera trifle, hit their marks despite having to sprint out of shot on a half-windy afternoon without their slightly problematic comedy sombreros flying off their heads and into the sea.

You know Tom: Tom! Tom from Hollyoaks! Little Tom! Tom you first saw as a three-year-old, on Hollyoaks, then he aged but his face sort of remained the same. I mean, no other soap character in history has aged publicly the same way Tom from Hollyoaks has aged: in plain sight, just a little more every day, like watching your own child age, and then one day you look at them at an angle and their limbs have grown and they have taken on the size and shape of an adult, but they are still to you that young innocent you always saw in them as a child. Tom from Hollyoaks gets mobbed whenever the cast go on outings together. Tom from Hollyoaks is the most famous member of the team. Tom from Hollyoaks, now 17, is here on his first ever trip without his chaperone. If Tom from Hollyoaks is 17, how old are you? Tom from Hollyoaks is running away from the lifeguard who told him to stop messing around; Tom from Hollyoaks is on holiday trying not to get in trouble with his headmistress; Tom from Hollyoaks is smeared with a thick white line of suncream like Shane Warne in the 90s. Tom from Hollyoaks is running off set clutching his sombrero down tight.

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"This sombrero," Tom from Hollyoaks says, "is doing my fucking head in."

Tom from Hollyoaks just said "fuck". My head is spinning.

2. 'HOLLYOAKS' AS A SOLE INDICATOR OF AGE

We are, all of us, defined and shaped by the era of Hollyoaks we first enjoyed. You can pretend you are better than it but you aren't: for me, it was between the first year of sixth form and the second year of uni, when The Simpsons defected from BBC Two to Channel 4, and the ad break afterwards rolled into this odd, violent, sexy world where university freshers; exactly three dads; a curiously ageless boy; enduring heartbreak magnet and perennial cafeteria owner, Tony; two short-haired villains who joined the show on rolling one-year contracts and took it in turns to own the town's only nightclub; six 17-year-olds who somehow made up the entire year at the town's college; and 20 calendar-ready pinup girls all shared one small hamlet with one small shop, two restaurants, one pub and one club.

This was a time of Becca, Jake, two blonde twins whose names I forget. The introduction of the McQueens, now ascendant to soap award royalty. That American kid who fell off the bridge. Newt, the emo one. Bombhead. There was a character called "Bombhead". And, from them, we learned things: that to get married to another human is to invite chaos and almost certainly a murder on your wedding day; that something always goes quite drastically wrong during fresher's week; once every three years, a teacher will shag one of their students, and that that is A Bad Idea; fledgling businesses that on paper cannot survive with the minimal footfall that Hollyoaks Village affords them still manage to survive somehow for years; if your boyfriend is mad at you, maybe check he isn't just really gay; like buses, if someone hasn't died for a while, it's because four of you are due to die at once, possibly in an SU fire.

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There are constants in the Hollyoaks universe: death, despair, that every time you feel comfortable in a relationship a newer, even bustier person will come along; secrets, lies, I-did-it-,-alright!-I-killed-her-! confessions out on the edge of windswept woods. There is always an upbeat ex-copper called Jack cheerfully yelling in Scottish. There is always a newly rediscovered cousin peeking around the corner of a door jamb, listening. Step-incest is a major theme. Where there is death, there is also light: most people get over the murder of their closest loves or relatives by not wearing make-up for a week then packing some carry-on luggage and trundling it near to the town's only taxi. Hollyoaks is a gilded place where despair, though frequent, never seems to hit as hard as it does in real life; a tiny hamlet replete with those fluttering little butterflies that come with the start of every relationship, only everywhere, the relationships, love bursting out of the town's very pores.

It's silly, is what I'm saying. It's a soap designed to be digested by minds riddled and bent by puberty. It is for half-stoned students to watch as the first thing they do that day after waking up at 4PM. If you have not had a hangover where you watched an entire three-hour Hollyoaks omnibus, replete with sign language interpretation, then did you really have an early twenties at all? No. You did not. But it's silly in a way that matters, silly in a way that acts as a series of realisation milestones for the audience who devours it. One way or another, some time over the last 20 years, Hollyoaks has quietly become this national treasure, a rock in the stormy seas of all our lives.

3. IT PUTS THE LOTION ON THE SKIN OR ELSE IT GETS PUSHED IN THE POOL AGAIN

Roughly, the storylines we're dealing with out here in the white, white heat of the sun are:

  • Holly and Ellie are meeting a handsome new character, ''''''Brody''''''', and they are both flirting with him by either over- or under-applying suncream to his back, or saying he can't swim as fast as they can. That's about all they've really got, flirting-wise;
  • Hunter and Neeta are fulfilling the circular Hollyoaks destiny of being a sixth former and a student teacher who wind up banging, and keep laying the groundwork here for that (the banging) with lots of "oh, I didn't see you there!" walking into each other around corners and wistful across-the-pool glances, which, spoiler: is going to culminate in them making the fuck out;
  • The new guy stops being pushed into pools and getting suntan lotion dicks drawn on him long enough to see Hunter and Neeta do the aforementioned out-making, which is a moment of Drama;
  • Tom and all his school-aged mates and the headmistress of the school who is there for some reason (in the Hollyverse, this makes sense) keep getting up to shenanigans;
  • Everyone goes home and says what a lovely time they had, and Neeta and Hunter whisper to each other that it'd be best if nobody ever knew about their frankly illegal liaison, but then, uh oh: turns out the new guy from Ibiza has, handily, just moved to Hollyoaks Village, and now there's all that to deal with, which is Sustained Drama;

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But for now we're struggling with a seemingly difficult take where Adam (Brody) (The New Guy) has some suntan lotion applied to his back by a frankly gravity-defying Spanish extra called, no-fooling, Roxanne, who is wearing an actual red Baywatch-style bathing suit and the most ludicrous reflective shades on earth, and has these just astonishing enhanced lips and buttocks, like if they were casting a modern reboot of Weird Science they should just get Roxanne in, is what I'm saying, and her role is to walk slowly away while the entire cast, crew and all the other Spanish extras who are lying around like sort of sexy cushions watch her with keen interest, and for whatever reason this take keeps messing up so this whole absurd circus has to be reshot maybe eight, ten times, and Adam is there, back thick with lotion, audibly saying, "I can't believe this is my life," and yeah, fair play: this is really very ridiculous.

4. HOW TO MAKE A SOAP AND NOT A PAMPHLET

The great prestige of British soaps is arguably the ability to balance the slapstick with the harrowing. Consider the Eastenders Christmas Episode, the exemplar of British soap and one we've all, one way or another, seen at least once: always that fine balance of feel-good family reunions (Ian Beale, in a paper hat, begrudgingly cooking a turkey for his awful son) or baffling wedding-on-Christmas pre-routines (Danny Dyer, in a short-short dressing gown, avin a laff), then either an attempted murder or a drowning or a car accident or a mother abandoning her child or someone in the boot of a car getting crushed to death by accident (or Dirty Den, divorcing his wife via an envelope). Life, soaps tell us, are an undulating routine of extreme highs and awful misery, confined to the same two or three streets and the same 40 or so people. We escape the 7/10 misery of our own lives by watching the 100/10 misery of our favourite soaps.

Hollyoaks skews young – the average audience is 37, compared to the Channel 4 average of 49; Eastenders (50), Emmerdale (55) and Coronation Street (54) all pitch higher – so has to be sensitive to a younger audience when writing its horror. But there's another balance to be struck, there: presenting hard-hitting, real world dramatic storylines without patronising a young audience or making them feel like they're sitting through a particularly dry assembly. How to make horror palatable and entertaining, in essence. How to make horror real, and not feel like you're reading distantly about horror in a pamphlet given out in a doctor's office.

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"It felt like the time was right to deal with the issue of consent head on, especially with the age of our audience," says one of the shows 30-odd writers – and former Hollyoaks actress – Zoe Lister. The Consent Storyline is Hollyoaks' latest big win: a multi-character, months-long story arc that saw new character Nick (Ben-Ryan Davies) have a grimly ambiguous sexual encounter with Ellie (Sophie Porley) at the beginning of Fresher's Week, before embarking on a relationship with her friend Holly (Amanda Clapham) that only ended when he raped her, too.

There are things to keep in mind when writing a soap rape: the consequences of reporting the crime, for instance, showed Ellie being ignored by the police while Holly's back-up claims were taken more seriously; the initial episode, a Fresher's Week special, painted a deliberately uncertain picture of the night leading up to the rape; the episode was accompanied by an online special where the characters hosted a Q&A about consent. It was also important to make Nick a normal, otherwise-likeable character, rather than an in-the-shadows cartoon villain: his normalcy, paired with his damagingly ignorant understanding of consent, made him a far more real and relatable horror for the young audience it was aimed at. "We knew we wanted Nick to be a normal bloke," Zoe says, "the kind of lad who everyone knows, and someone who – unfortunately – has a view on consent that if she's invited you back to hers, or if she's your girlfriend, you've got a green light."

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Charities such as The Mix and Rape Crisis were consulted to make the situation as realistic as possible and, most crucially, incite playground discussion. "We didn't want to tell viewers what to think; we invited them to question and debate it," says Zoe. "We wanted to open the conversation so that young men and women at school could argue about it at lunchtime – even if they disagree, at least a conversation is happening that slowly but surely could change viewers' attitudes or educate them so they know the law. One writer told me his 11-year-old daughter had watched the episode and started talking about how wrong the situation was, and Nick shouldn't have had sex with Holly. People may say that 11 is too young, but I would argue that that is the perfect age to learn about consent."

5. HEY, HOLLYOAKS IS WOKE NOW

A pretty good way to spend an hour in the Ibizan sun is to talk to Annie Wallace about literally anything, although we are mainly discussing Hollyoaks, because ten yards away from us they are filming Hollyoaks, and Annie is a member of the Hollyoaks cast, and also, as a soap nerd, knows an awful lot about Hollyoaks, and I am here in Ibiza literally only to think about and look at Hollyoaks, so long-story-short we are talking about Hollyoaks. Starts well: I tell Annie I don't watch Hollyoaks and haven't done for a decade now, and she uses her hands to invisibly clear the table in front of her, so as better to explain the current interconnected storylines from the show with a series of illustrative hand gestures.

So: Annie plays Sally St Claire, the new headmistress of Hollyoaks High School, who replaced Patrick Blake, a baddy who met what Annie calls "a sticky end":

What was his sticky end?
He developed motor neuron disease, which was quite an interesting thing for a man who was such a control freak. He was terrible to his wife. It was awful to watch. He intended to take his own life, but his granddaughter had become unhinged and because he was too weak to fight her off she smothered him to death.

Oh, okay.
—and then, his family turned up and found him dead, and panicked because they thought he'd taken his life or been murdered or something, and they put him in a wall.

Hold on, what? Jonathan Creek-style? They just built him into a wall?
Well, there had been a car accident, and there was a gaping hole in the wall, and the workmen were repairing the wall, so they managed to secrete him into this hollow wall. And he wasn't found out until after about six months.

Okay. So you came in as sort of interim non-wall headteacher?
Yes.

You see how Annie talks about soap, now, don't you: with deep, deep knowledge and this curious third-person detachment between her, her character, the real world and the Hollyverse. Annie is also useful at giving an industry-wide look at the state of soap today: before her acting career, she worked on Coronation Street as a researcher, helping advise and inform the character of Hayley Cropper, British soap's first transgender character. Other soaps have followed suit, very slowly but surely: in 2015, Eastenders announced the casting of Riley Carter Millington as Kyle Slater, the first trans man to play a trans character in a British soap; Annie herself is Hollyoaks' third trans character, although the first to be played by a trans actress, and the first to play a gay character ("This year has mostly been about Sally's love life. She went on speed dating and on a couple of dates with this lovely woman Roberta – Sally's gay, by the way – a couple of dates, and then she dropped dead." A clarification: "In a restaurant, not in the throes.").

Get into the shallow pool of soap diversity and "first"-shaped milestones abound, but Annie's proud to play a character who isn't defined solely by the fact that she's trans. "Oh, she's great – really great to play," Annie says. "That's the one thing I'm delighted about is that they've got an incredibly three-dimensional character. She really is a very strong headteacher, she takes no messing, she can't stand bullies, she stands up for the underdog and she wants the best for the kids." She's also, crucially, got enough history as a fully-formed soap character that the writers can more or less figure out how she's going to go along without constantly deferring to Annie for guidance. "Initially we did this big character conference meeting with Sally and the writers and producers and everything. It was like, 'We've got some ideas,' and they threw some at me and I threw some at them, and I told them some things that had happened to me that they said, 'Oh, we could use that – that sounds like a great idea.' There was a lot of batting to and fro. But the only input I've had going forward is just some of the dialogue she's had."

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Hollyoaks is pretty committed to its diversity: the current cast of characters includes dots along every bar of the LGBTQ+ spectrum, as well as those who live with disabilities, and they have the storylines to match (troubles Hollyoaks characters have had in recent weeks: one man struggles with his bisexuality; a camp gay man feels persecuted by a homophobic pub landlord; an MS diagnosis leads to a fundraising village fete; Tony made a nice cake and Nancy dropped it on the floor). But none of the characters are purely defined by their differences, which is key.

"Not that it matters," Annie says. "Because in Hollyoaks, the one thing is that people's sexuality just is. There's no comment about it. People either are gay or bisexual or straight, or any mixture in between, and it's a fact – a kind of thing that exists, and the storyline pursues that direction, and there's no critique and there's no editorial about it. Which is how society should be. It just is. So it's nice to be a part of that."

PUN I HAVE HAD RUNNING IN MY HEAD FOR TWO STRAIGHT MONTHS NOW BUT CANNOT FOR THE LIFE OF ME FIGURE OUT ANOTHER WAY TO WORK IT INTO THIS PIECE SO YOU'RE JUST GOING TO HAVE TO DEAL WITH IT THIS WAY: "Hollywokes"

6. FITNESS AND HOLLYOAKS, A VENN DIAGRAM

The new guy has barely eaten for days, barely drunk any water, either. His big entrance scene is an Ex on the Beach-style emergence from the water, where he shakes his hair off and waltzes past the two designated Hollyoaks babes, who are agog, then he winks and takes an outdoor shower at them. For this to all happen, the already beefy Adam Woodward has been training for weeks and watching his diet for days so he looks as HD-ready ripped as possible for his big shoot. He looks like the most expensive steak I've ever seen in my life. It looks like if I hit him, I would hurt my fist about it. I just want him to hold me.

"I haven't really eaten," Adam says, eyeing up the lunch buffet, his voice sounding dry, "not really… not really had a drink, either." I eat a whole thing of chicken grillers in the time it takes him to do an impromptu shoot for Gay Times, where he jumps into and out of a swimming pool in various degrees of glamorous exhaustion.

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Fitness is Hollyoaks and Hollyoaks is fitness. The word "fit" and its modern context – someone who is bite-your-knuckle attractive rather than the way your dad uses it to mean "in shape" – may as well have been invented for the Hollyoaks cast. They are all really, really fit. They are fit in that way the fittest person in your town, or school, was always fit. Galactically fit in the context of your surroundings. That you would see them, sometimes, out and about, and you would get that electric jolt. One time that thing happened when you were out at a club with your friends and you saw them, smoky across the room, glowing shrouded in pink in a room full of greens and blues, and you would make eye contact with them – well, for you it was eye contact, the most electric eye contact of your life; for them they were reading a big poster that was up behind you about bands set to play the venue in the next month-and-a-half – and you would swear to all your friends on the way home, T-shirt slicked to your body with sweat, eating cheesy chips out of a container, ketchup all down your front, no, you would swear, they were looking at me. Honestly. I was going to go and talk to them and everything.

That. That is how fit the Hollyoaks cast are. The new guy finally relents and eats some chicken and drinks some water and looks all the healthier for it.

7. S.T.R.E.A.M. (STAGS RUIN EVERYTHING AROUND ME)

Anyway, things have got a bit weird now and I'm on a yacht trip with most of the cast to watch the red sun set beneath the Ibizan sea, to watch our nearest star dip into Lineker's Void and usher the night in behind it. It's the closest I've got to the cast, who have spent the day working, and only now can I really observe them: they all have, for instance, absolutely startlingly white Instagram teeth, they are all good dancers (there is music playing on the yacht) (Malique Thompson-Dwyer, who plays Prince McQueen, dances like an angel) and they are all gathered around the same bottle of {rosecco, bursting the cork without dropping any and toasting The New Guy, and Ibiza, and life in general. Amanda Clapham (Holly) really looks like Gemma Atkinson (Lisa) did in the soap years before, making me ever more suspicious that the show is just the same 400 or so episodes, played in a constant repeat. The guy who owns the yacht has got off the yacht onto a kayak so he can float out to sea with a bagful of phones and take pictures of the group doing the Titanic pose off the front.

I suddenly feel very detached from reality, here, tiptoeing along a yacht, arching my arm over the prow to try and get a good sunset shot, watching glossy TV actors eat couscous off paper plates. The fundamental vibe here is startlingly wholesome: despite a full cooler of beers, wines and mixers, none of the cast are really Getting On It, because they are busy doing their Instagram Story instead. I wonder about life as a Hollyoak Hotty: could I do it? Could I live in Liverpool with gleaming white teeth, crying on cue for money six days a week? Could I shout "YOU JUST DON'T UNDERSTAND!" at my TV mum while wearing quasi-River Island loose neck T-shirts? Maybe I would be a villain, actually: blazer-and-tee combo, grizzled facial hair, suspicious on-screen girlfriend I just won't commit to, cocaine deals that are alluded to but never explicitly acknowledged, drugs exchanged in huge white padded Jiffy Bags that in no way condone or glamorise their use. Strangle someone to death with a belt on their birthday. Drive a car into a wall on the day of my wedding.

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"OI," a shout goes, and then a pause. Then: "WAHEY!" A boat of stag party lads has floated close to ours, and it feels like we are on the precipice of a situation that can go one of two ways: full, pirate-style invasion, with the dude in the Superman costume who is complexly undressing to moon us swings aboard and demands a Heineken and a selfie, or the two boats will just sort of float near each other until the stags get bored of shouting. It's the second one: it's 9PM, and the stags all look knackered, as if they have been drinking for 14 straight hours, just completely over it, exhausted. "WAHHHH," one of the stags shouts, recognising Sophie Porley. "HOLLYOAKS." Then they float off a bit into the distance.

Think of this in the voice of the Hollyoaks guitar voice: now now naddle-naddle nowwww

No, that's the intro one. The one at the end of the credits, that one:

now now naddle-naddle nowwwwwwwwww—

Really sustain it at the end there. Bit of feedback. Just a little bristle of feedback.

wwwwwwwwwwwww

The sun sets orange behind us. In four hours time I will ill-advisedly combine gin, beer and an empty stomach, and end up vomiting in a shower. But for now, yes: wah. Hollyoaks.

@joelgolby

The Ibiza episodes of Hollyoaks started on Monday. You can catch them on Channel 4 at 6.30pm.