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Alison Wilde on Disability in Coronation Street: Izzy Armstrong ITV1, July 2011 / 2 August 2011

Gary and Izzy from Coronation Street

Gary and Izzy from Coronation Street. Image © ITV

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Now, I’m a big fan of Coronation Street  (the only soap I make time to watch) and I’m certainly not going to complain about its increasingly rainbow-coloured community – I love the idea of Audrey falling in love with Mark/Marcia and coveting his feminine clothes. I would like to think that many of us will be living such pleasurable lives at 70, rather than eking out our days on memories, waiting for an over-worked care attendant to get us out of bed.

And I’m not even going to complain about Cindy’s, sorry Stella’s accent. Although it initially seemed odd that Michelle Collins was cast as the landlady of the Rovers’ Return and that she has a Yorkshire rather than Lancashire accent, our reluctance to accept her is perhaps because she had made such a deep impression on us as Cindy Beale in Eastenders for ten years. But, if you watch soap opera you should be prepared for the impossible or improbable; it is after all a genre where one character can come back as a completely different person sometime later. Dead husbands walk out of the shower several years after their death as though nothing had happened. Affairs and dramatic accidents and illnesses are rife, and there is always at least one person involved in murderous schemes (I must say the recent storylines featuring John Stape’s ‘accidental’ killings tested my patience and love of Corrie).

I was delighted when Izzy Armstrong (played by Cherylee Houston) was introduced as a character to Coronation Street. First appearing in April 2010, her initial contract was for seven episodes but was subsequently extended to six months. Since then she has become known as Coronation Street’s first disabled ‘regular’. Although the programme has featured disabled characters many times before, most of these have been men and the only one to occupy a long term role was a much older woman, Maud Grimes (Elizabeth Bradley). Even better, Houston, who has been using a wheelchair since she was diagnosed with Ehlers–Danlos syndrome in her twenties, is the first disabled actor to become a regular character.

Izzy’s character has been skillfully developed over the two years she has been in the street. She has a strong and nuanced personality which puts her on a par with the other regular characters, a rarity in soap operas. She is equally capable of gentleness and fire, and has faults and virtues as well as friends and ‘enemies’, like most of the other characters.

She is neither a follower nor a leader but seems to be equally capable of both. Storylines so far have emphasised her desire for autonomy, with frequent hints about her father’s over-protective attitude towards her and her determination to be independent and in control of her own life. There have been some minor glitches, like how did she come wheeling herself into Anna Windass’ house so easily earlier in the week despite the step, but overall I have been impressed with her multi-dimensional personality, which is almost as well-rounded as the non-disabled characters.

It is difficult to see how the story will unfold but it is Izzy’s relationship with Gary Windass (played by Mikey North) which has been troubling me for a while. Whilst it is good to see a disabled woman having a relationship on  our TV screen, especially to view an all too rare portrayal of a disabled woman who takes the lead in care and emotional work (as many of us do, not that you’d know it), their romance has come across has distinctly non-sexual.

With almost boring predictability we see many characters in, often adulterous, passionate embraces and over-long, invariably stomach-churning kisses, scenes such as this are infrequently enjoyed by disabled or non-heterosexual characters. Yet Gary and Izzy make the big decision to move in together, skipping the exciting, or even flirty, parts of their relationship. Whilst infidelity is endemic on the street, it seems that passion and sex remains a taboo area for disabled people and other members of Coronation Street’s ‘rainbow community’. However, despite this lack of ardour, Izzy and Gary’s relationship has taken a strange, if not unexpected turn towards a more pathological form of passion.

Izzy’s relationship with Gary seems to be largely dependent on her motherly attitude to his difficulties. Always prone to fluctuations between aggression and tenderness, Gary’s time as a soldier in Afghanistan has (understandably) resulted in post-traumatic stress after his experiences of a roadside bomb, the death of his fellow soldiers, including his best friend, and a tram crash on the street some months later. Unfortunately this narrative arc seems to be playing itself out in ways which may weaken Izzy’s character. Over the past few weeks his bonds with her have become more obsessive as he has become increasingly frightened to let her out of his sight, creating a claustrophobic relationship and a potentially victim-like role for Izzy.

He became more and more agitated when Izzy lied about a secret trip out with her friends and he found out that she was not where she said she would be. When he learned that she has been ‘mugged’, he believed that someone wanted to kill her. In his subsequent efforts to ‘protect’ her he imprisoned her within their flat, attempting to block any visits from friends of family and he hid her wheelchair in his van, explaining that it needed to go away for repairs. 

After a short time (possibly one or two days) Izzy asked why her wheelchair had not been returned, commenting that the wheelchair services are usually very quick. When Gary leaves the house she rang the wheelchair service to find that it was not there. On confronting Gary about his lies and the loss of her wheelchair, he admitted his plan to keep her away from any danger to her life. At this point Izzy learned the full extent of her horrifying situation when, forcing her into a corner yet clinging to her in despair, he revealed his plans to keep her in the flat under his protection, with no means of getting around or out. After a few minutes her father rescued her and forced Gary to return to his mother’s home and to seek psychological help.

This storyline hasn’t reached its final resolution. Will Gary get the right support? Will Izzy forgive him? Will they get back together? Will Gary’s mum get together with Izzy’s dad? (yes, this last one is probable and will probably head to a number of typical soap opera-style dilemmas). The plot illuminates some of the difficulties in representing impairment and disability. There are issues of inaccuracy which are irritating, and misleading; who gets their wheelchair repaired in a few days (or even a few weeks?). Conversely, this is a rare example of a disabled actor getting a dramatic storyline whilst raising important mental health issues. Is it stigmatising that this particular storyline emphasises pathology and potential violence towards disabled people? Isn’t this a particularly bad time to do so, with the rise in hate crime? Or are we getting the representational equality we have demanded? I am a little ambivalent but think it is potentially a big step forward for soap opera content.

Nonetheless, I wish that Coronation Street would play to its strengths. The soap has always excelled in its depiction of ‘ordinary folk ’and in portraying the trials and tribulations of everyday life. This was exemplified in the character of Blanche Hunt, an older, miserable character whose lines spun everyday banalities and malevolent put-downs of the other characters into some of the best comedy on television. For me, these subversions of everyday life were Coronation Street’s major quality, creating carnivalesque forms of fantasy and humour which acknowledged the involvement of the audience in the stories.

As such, Coronation Street has excellent potential to treat disabled actors equally, to parody disabling social norms without resorting to heavy-handed educational messages which portray disabled people as ‘issues’.