Domestic Abuse in Your Living Room – An Interview with Jeremy Sheffield and Nikki Sanderson
As I begin writing this post, I’m in Liverpool, on the set of my favourite soap, Hollyoaks. Out of the window to my left, I can see the rusting boat, home of the Savage family, and on my way in through the studios, I walked past the Dog and Pond, the Police Station, and several other places I’ve seen on a near-daily basis for the past fifteen years. Who’d have thought Henley Boy would have ever led me here?!
I’m here today to interview Jeremy Sheffield and Nikki Sanderson – characters Patrick Blake and Maxine Minniver – about an extremely important slow burning storyline which has involved them both for the past year.
Patrick’s abuse of Maxine has led to both actors being nominated for British Soap Awards, and rightly so. The complex, multi-layered relationship which they’ve portrayed on screen for the past twelve months, has thrust domestic abuse into peoples’ homes and the public eye, even resulting with a partnership with the Home Office. In December last year, two adverts were released by the Home Office, starring Jeremy and Nikki’s characters. The adverts focus on the many ways abuse can manifest itself. From controlling someone’s text messages, to deciding what they should or shouldn’t wear.
These subtle elements of abuse are true to life, and have developed throughout the characters’ onscreen relationship.
As Jeremy points out early in the interview, it often takes victims a great deal of time to recognise they are being abused. The abuse story began far earlier than most viewers realised, with subtle aspects such as Patrick purchasing the flat Maxine rented, and controlling her phone. This scenario is often true to life. He describes a recent episode of Newsnight, where a victim of abuse admitted the moment she first understood her situation was whilst sitting watching Hollyoaks with her children.
The Hollyoaks storyline has been carefully positioned – Patrick Blake is a pillar of the community. The high school headmaster, to the outside world he is a successful, put-together alpha male. However behind closed doors, he is a controlling, manipulative, self-centred abuser. A Jeckyll and Hyde characterisation which Jeremy Sheffield plays to perfection. ‘I know he’s very dark and so shocking in some of the things he does, but I also really wanted the public side of him to be someone who you might possibly know. Whether that’s a doctor, or a teacher, or another professional in the community who you might come across in your life. I wanted him to be a real enough person who really could exist, and yet has the capability to do these monstrous things behind closed doors.’
A seasoned actor (still recognised for his role in Natalie Imbruglia’s Torn video and as Alex Adams in Holby City), this is Sheffield’s first long-running soap role, however this hasn’t hampered his dedication to the role. Whilst he has played a number of nasty characters in the past, these have always been in films. In this character, Sheffield has had a year and a half to develop his understanding and characterisation of Patrick. He describes it as a mental stretch, but a great challenge. It’s very rare as an actor to be able to properly explore the underlying psychology of a character in so much detail.
Sheffield’s genuine desire to get the character, and the story, just right is palpable. At one point during our interview, I describe a recent scene which I felt was done very well. When Patrick fears he’s about to be caught, he lies to Nancy and Darren and tells them Maxine is in fact abusing him, not the other way round. As Patrick describes Maxine’s motivations, and tries to justify what she’s apparently been doing to him, it’s evident he’s really talking about himself – a chilling insight into the mind of a perpetrator. Jeremy’s response was touching. He looked genuinely excited to hear me reference the scene. ‘I’m glad you got that! I worked so hard on that scene! We all had a huge conversation with the script team about that scene, because I was concerned that we’d spent a year building up this slow burning relationship, but then to turn it on its head within two and a half episodes would undermine the reality of everything we’d spent a year building up to. We worked at changing it to make the lie more subtle and better. And I think it worked – it’s very nice that you picked that up, because it really, really was hard work!’
It isn’t just Sheffield who has dedicated a great deal of time and effort to the role. The decision of the Hollyoaks scriptwriters to make Maxine Minniver the target of Shefflied’s abuse is a careful one. A one time fiesty and incessant woman, Nikki Sanderson describes Maxine as going from a girl ‘who would have punched someone in the face if they said something wrong to her’ to a woman who is ‘completely defeated and will accept anything from Patrick, even if she know it’s wrong.’
The characterisation is important. Just as Patrick highlights that anyone can be an abuser, Maxine showcases the fact that anyone can be a victim of abuse, even a really strong female. And together, the pair clearly show that violence and abuse exist across all class boundaries.
Having spent most of her career playing comic roles, Sanderson has risen to the challenge of a serious role. She has visited refuges, meeting women in all stages of coming to terms with abuse, and worked closely with charities including Rape Crisis and Women’s Aid. ‘It’s not something we’ve gone into lightly, we have researched it. Some actors would have just read the words and performed the script, whereas Jeremy and I are fully knowledgeable about what we’re doing and the subject matter.’
The effect of the storyline has been incredible.
All around the country, viewers have spent a year screaming at their TVs and throwing things at the screen in frustration. But this frustrating, cyclical nature of the abuse is what makes it so true to life. When I posted a picture of me, Jeremy and Nikki on Facebook after the interview, one of the first comments by one of my friends was ‘Get Maxine away from Patrick, quick!!!’. Nikki explains how on a daily basis, members of the public approach her to tell her to ‘Leave him!’, showing just how much the nation cares about her character. Meanwhile, whilst no one approaches Jeremy in the street (he and Nikki laugh and suggest this is because they’re all too scared of him), he occasionally sneaks onto Twitter and does a search of ‘Patrick, Hollyoaks’ just to see what people are saying about his character!
There are also far more important effects of the story. The Home Office has reported a marked increase in reports of domestic abuse, and is attributing that to the ‘This is Abuse’ campaign which the pair were involved in, and in addition to the Newsnight story shared by Jeremy, the pair are aware of hundreds of individuals affected by the Hollyoaks storyline. Nikki is regularly contacted by victims of abuse, and former victims of abuse, over Twitter. A testament to how believable and approachable her character is. It goes to show the true power of soap operas – where characters become everyday household faces, with whom viewers feel able to share their most painful truths. One perpetrator even called into The Wright Stuff this month when Nikki was on the show, and admitted to abusing his partner, live on air.
Finally, both actors are nominated for the highest accolades at the British Soap Awards – Best Actor and Best Actress. An acknowledgment to just how well they’ve played out an extremely uncomfortable, but necessary storyline.
When I ask about the violence, and whether it’s difficult to act, Nikki underlines how close the pair are, and how important the actors’ real-life relationship is. They trust each other completely, which is so important when acting out the more violent scenes, as this allows them to push boundaries. Jeremy also explains that the relationship between Maxine and Patrick needs to be believable, and so the viewer needs to also see chemistry between the pair.
The reality of soaps is that they bring some really uncomfortable topics straight into our homes, and as dedicated followers, we will sit through even the most awkward of storylines, desperate for justice for characters who we have grown to know and love. Whilst for many of us, Maxine and Patrick’s story may simply seem like entertainment, even if you aren’t in an abusive relationship, there are lessons to be learned. Perhaps in later life, you’ll recognise similar controlling tendencies in a partner, or maybe elements of the storyline remind you of a friend or family member’s relationship. Both the actors, and directors have been praised on several occasions by former victims of abuse for the realistic nature of the relationship. It is not just the shocking scenes of violence which ring true. The simplest of looks can be telltales signs of the horrid reality lying beneath a seemingly perfect relationship.
I finish the interview by asking Nikki what advice charities give if you think a friend is being abused – an issue which has arisen twice recently in Hollyoaks, when both Dennis and Nancy have come close to understanding the true nature of Maxine and Patrick’s relationship.
‘Every situation is different’, she explains, and sometimes interference can actually make it worse. ‘Contact a charity.’ she suggests. They will tailor their advice to the exact situation, and ensure that they give you the best advice for what you have seen and understand of the relationship. Whilst trying to intervene might seem the most sensible approach, as with Dennis’s attempt to help Maxine in Hollyoaks, often the victim will deny it, and do anything not to admit the reality. And if the perpetrator gets any idea that the victim has spoken to someone about the abuse, this can actually make things worse.
The pair were a true pleasure to interview. Despite the serious nature of the topic we were discussing, we laughed a lot during the interview, as the pair were so honest and approachable. At one point during the interview, Jeremy interrupted Nikki, with what we both expected to be a profound comment, only to remove a banana from his pocket (which he hadn’t realise was there!) and adamantly tell us both it was a banana, in case we’d looked down and thought it was something else!
For both Nikki and Jeremy, it’s their first nomination for Best Actress or Best Actor at the BSAs, and they seemed genuinely excited to simply have made the long-list, let alone the short-list. It’s clear that this story has affected them for so long, that to receive recognition for their work – both in the response from viewers and real-life victims, and from the British Soap Awards, feels like a real achievement for them both.
The pair are up against strong contenders from other soaps, but Hollyoaks has a very dedicated following, and is a force to be reckoned with – as evidenced by the 20 nominations it has received for awards this year (more than any other soap).
They both definitely have my vote, and if you’d like to add your vote to the acknowledgment of this extremely important storyline, you can vote online HERE. The whole process takes less than five minutes.
Miss Twenty-Nine xxx
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