“Do your worst, I’m not frightened of ya. I’m HI-Val. I’m Valerie Pollard of the Valerie Pollard Foundation. I’m Val!”
Last night we said a final goodbye to Val Pollard in UK soap Emmerdale as part of their “Summer Fate” storyline. The first major character to be diagnosed HIV Positive in a soap since Todd Carty’s Mark Fowler in EastEnders, Val was diagnosed on screen at the start of last year. What was great about this story, with Val becoming infected after sleeping with a holiday fling in Portugal, was the fact it avoided using a character who would have been consider “high-risk”. Val isn’t a gay man, a drug user or black – she was a white middle aged woman living in a small village in Yorkshire.
Without a doubt the story highlighted that HIV is something that can and does affect anyone, it’s a virus that does not discriminate. Furthermore, it brought to the public’s attention the issues around people over 50 looking after their own sexual health.
Obviously the storyline was given more focus in its early days with Val telling her husband and then dealing with her neighbours finding out her status, eventually outing herself in the local pub to take control of the rumours. After doing so she took on the persona of “HI-Val” trying to raise awareness about the condition, albeit not always by the best possible means.
It’s sad to see her leaving our screens and it’s not the first time a major soap character has disappeared relatively soon after tackling an issue that usually affects only a minority of people. We’ve seen it before with many male actors choosing to take a break after their characters have come out as gay on screen.
Val’s death was as loud, brash and ridiculous as her character – and that’s why I loved it. In a stark contrast to Mark Fowler’s final storyline Val’s had nothing to do with her HIV status, and that’s the best outcome the HIV community could have hoped for.
Today in the UK we are more likely to die from something unrelated to HIV. I don’t anticipate I’ll end up dying in a house of mirrors which is falling around me because of a helicopter crash, but I’d put a bet on it being something relatively normal and mundane rather than because of picking up an opportunistic infection or my medication failing.
Charlie Hardwick played Val for 12 years, and kept the character true to form even after the diagnosis. She might have been “HI-Val” when getting on her soapbox but the rest of the time she was the same Valerie Pollard we’d loved, or loved to hate. As with real life the character proved that HIV doesn’t have to change you as a person – you are still you and nothing can take that away.
Cheers to Emmerdale over the past few months for bringing HIV into people’s living rooms and well done to Charlie for keeping the character as fiery, loud and rude as she always had been… it’s why I enjoyed watching her so much.