It’s a beautiful, hot, bright summer day in Manchester. In October! As if those two freaks of nature are not enough to confuse me, I’m about to film a scene putting up Christmas decorations. Christmas already! It’s mine and Sue Cleaver's (Eileen) first day back after a couple of weeks off. Sue has been away on her hols and returns tanned, blossoming and bursting with stories of her Safari adventure.
As she sits in the make up chair, we try in vain to run through the lines of our scene but tall tales of her walking with elephants are far too great to wait. Besides her glowing looks and amazing stories, I think she may well have got very close to the elephants indeed, because I’m sure I can still smell their scent on her. She has literally just got off the plane. As I give her a morning cup of tea (she already has me well trained) all the perfume and hair spray can't quite take it away. And of course, when Sue and I eventually enter Stage 1 and the Grimshaws' front room there is indeed an elephant in the room for Eileen and Paul: The subject of Alzheimer’s. But more of that in a mo.
It’s strange for two actors who have been away for a time to get straight back to working on a scene. We need to learn lines, find a rhythm, bring it to life, even if our heads are still in far off distant places. Today is made easier though because we are working with director Noreen Kershaw. Noreen, besides being a fine director, is herself a brilliant actress of real pedigree (that makes her sound like a well bred dog, but you get what I mean, she’s class). She has an actor’s energy and humour on set that is stimulating and gets us back into the swing of things easily. Not that Sue and I need an injection of humour. If anything we need a laughter lobotomy. Working so closely with someone (our last day on set, two weeks previously, was spent lying on a sofa snogging for four hours) doesn't always mean you get on. Luckily Sue and I do and our own particular brand of stupid humour is a large reason for that.
Many people have asked me since I started 'what is Sue Cleaver like to work with?' I was well aware that Eileen is a Corrie institution and much loved by many, so it would be easy for her to keep a new actor at arm's length, keep herself to herself, or call the shots. Luckily for me she has been nothing but warm, generous and open. I hope she doesn’t read this though because I know she won’t stop going on about it!
So back to our storyline. After being rejected by Eileen when she found out about Paul’s wife who's suffering from Alzheimer’s, Paul and Eileen have tentatively entered a platonic friendship. Things have happened and things have been said and they find themselves in the Grimshaws' front room putting up her Christmas decorations. The fact that both are desperately looking for companionship and light in their lives is brought to the fore as the Christmas festivities approach. I can’t tell you what happens, obviously, but it is an intriguing story.
We know Eileen is a compassionate, caring women who has been unlucky and is desperate to love and be loved. Paul is very much the same, though his circumstances differ greatly. He is absolutely devoted to his wife Lesley but is more than aware that their love has changed and the impact on him is massive. He has been thrown in at the deep end of caring for his wife and sees her disappearing in front of him on an almost daily basis. Such is the often unrecorded and unnoticed plight of the caregiver. I think he is very near the edge. His loneliness and desperation great, his feelings of inadequacy overwhelming. And of course his guilt at feeling such things only compounds his problem. His suffering compared to the horror his wife is going through is nothing. But as the disease has progressed, so have his futile attempts to grin and bare it.
And what a disease. Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia, of which there are many. It attacks the chemistry and structure of the brain leading to the death of brain cells. The symptoms can be varied, including loss of memory, mood changes and communication problems. Up to 800,000 people in the UK alone have some form of dementia and it affects an estimated 35 and half million people worldwide. Although it mainly affects the elderly it can also affect younger people. Early onset Alzheimer's can be especially cruel because the sufferer is usually physically fit and otherwise healthy but the attack on their personality can be brutal.
The producers, writers and cast have been working closely with The Alzheimer’s Society who have been a great source of information, facts and detail. Whilst what we do will always be soap opera and ultimately a piece of fiction, the duty of care from our team of writers has been fantastic. There is a real rigour to portray our story with accuracy and credibility.
Personally my contact with a carer in a very similar situation to Paul’s has been invaluable. His partner was suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s and he eventually started a relationship with another woman, whilst still caring for his wife. What I found fascinating was that as a result, despite the difficulty and condemnation of others, he ultimately became a better carer for his wife. He was so low, so desperate, the stress and loneliness of being a full time carer so crushing, he was barley able to function for himself, let alone for someone else in greater need. But with hope and love and support and a light at the end of the tunnel he was far better equipped to provide the range of support, both physical and emotional, that his wife’s illness demanded.
So with our story who knows where it will lead? I know Paul is drawn to Eileen in desperate need of her companionship, fun and warmth and yet he remains committed to his wife as her devoted carer and husband. A unique triangle with conflict in all directions, for all involved. It is not a situation anyone ever planned or wished for but if I have learnt anything in meeting sufferers and their carers, it is that no matter how brutal and bleak this disease can be, people find incredible mechanisms to cope and continue with dignity and hope. Somehow the mighty human sprit will endure.