‘Coronation Street’s brutal hate crime plot is inspired by my daughter Sophie’s murder’
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Coronation Street fans were recently left reeling by the death of Seb after he and goth girlfriend Nina were set upon by gangs.
The shocking storyline was inspired by the real-life murder of Sophie Lancaster, who was attacked and left for dead just because of the way she looked.
Here, Sophie’s mum Sylvia, from Rossendale, Lancashire, tells her story and explains why she decided to collaborate with the soap’s writers…
When Coronation Street’s Nina was attacked and beaten for the way she dressed, and her boyfriend Seb was killed, I knew it would be hard for fans of the soap to watch.
But seeing the story play out on screen has been especially hard for me, because in 2007, my precious daughter Sophie really was beaten to death and her boyfriend seriously injured simply because of the way they were dressed.
Sophie had just hit her teens when she first started dressing in the goth way. She dyed her hair jet black and styled it in dreadlocks, and she wore a dog collar around her neck. She’d come home pleased with the latest black dress she’d bought or show off a new face piercing.
I thought she looked beautiful and very cool. At just over 5ft and very petite, she’d always been such a quiet, shy girl, so I was pleased that she was learning to express herself. Her new look seemed to give her more confidence.
Growing up, she was a home-loving girl who loved reading. I can still picture her as a toddler, sitting there holding a book upside down. Reading became a passion we shared and she was never happier than when she was curled up on the sofa, a book in one hand, a Coke or a chocolate bar in the other.
Her favourite was the Harry Potter series, which she started reading as a young girl. She was always nagging me to read them, although I resisted. “Mum they’re brilliant,” she’d say.
When she started seeing her boyfriend, Rob Maltby, he walked an hour to the shop and back just to buy her the final Harry Potter instalment. I’m so glad she got to read that before she died.
Like Sophie, Rob dressed like a goth, with long dyed black hair and face piercings. They certainly made a striking pair. Working in youth services, I was aware that kids who dressed like them received a bit of abuse. I worried that Sophie might get some hassle, but I thought it might only be a few taunts, never what ended up happening.
Sophie and Rob were both bright and creative. Rob was a kind, gentle soul who was studying art, and although Sophie had a place to study for an English degree, she decided to have a gap year first as she didn’t feel ready for college. Meanwhile, she worked at HMV, a job she absolutely loved.
When they moved in together when Sophie was 18 and Rob was 20, I was really pleased for them. Sophie seemed so happy and was growing in confidence by the day.
The last time I saw her, she and Rob came over for her weekly visit to me and her brother Adam, who was 21 at the time. I remember her curled up on the sofa with Rob, making a fuss of my cats and we talked about music.
Driving them home later, something made me say, “Be careful walking around in the dark around here.” I knew the way they looked stuck out in the small town of Bacup where they were living.
“I’m not that stupid, Mum, don’t worry,” Sophie reassured me.
A week later, on Saturday morning, 11 August 2007, I’d just popped out to the shops to buy food for her visit the next day when I got a call from Sophie’s brother Adam. Sophie had been attacked and was in intensive care in hospital.
The police said a group of teenagers at Stubbylee Park had started calling Sophie and Rob freaks. Then they attacked Rob, beating and kicking him until he lost consciousness. As Sophie cradled his head and tried to make them stop, they attacked her, punching her and kicking her in the head.
When I got to the hospital and saw Sophie lying there, connected to tubes and machines, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. She’d been so badly beaten I barely recognised her. Her head and face were swollen and she was black and blue. There were even trainer marks on the side of her face where they’d kicked her head like a football. It was horrific.
I just couldn’t understand how anyone could do this to another human being.
The doctors were hopeful she’d recover, but as she lay there motionless, I felt helpless. I talked to her or read to her from her Harry Potter books, willing her to wake up.
Knowing how important her hair was to her, I gently waxed her dreadlocks, as she’d shown me, and a nurse helped me to wash her, which felt very special.
We heard that Rob had woken from his coma and was likely to make a full recovery, but Sophie’s condition worsened. Finally, after a series of scans, we were told she wouldn’t recover. Her brain was too badly damaged.
Thirteen days after the attack, the machines keeping her alive were turned off. I held her in my arms as she died, telling her I loved her, that I’d miss her forever and that I’d do everything I could to stop this happening again.
Everyone was distraught – Adam, Sophie’s dad, the nurses. It was such a waste of a brilliant young life, just for dressing differently.
Hundreds turned out for Sophie’s funeral. What had happened seemed to have struck a chord and we had huge support, which really helped me through those first days and months after her death.
Two of the teenagers were sentenced to life for what they did to Sophie and three others were jailed for grievous bodily harm. I’ve tried to put them out of my mind – they don’t deserve my attention, but I’ll always be linked with them. Every now and then I’ll hear about one of them appealing their sentence or doing a course in prison, and I think, “My Sophie couldn’t do her course.” I can’t forgive them.
I threw all my energy into starting up the Sophie Lancaster Foundation. Adam works with me there. Like me, he’s struggled to come to terms with his sister’s death. We go to schools and colleges and talk about hate crime and alternative subcultures such as goths.
We’ve had so much support. Julie Hesmondhalgh, who played me in a play about Sophie, is a patron, as is Vicky McClure from Line Of Duty. But with hate crime against alternative subcultures on the rise, there’s so much more work to do. If we can change a single young mind or challenge a prejudice, then it’s worth all the effort.
When the Coronation Street producers first approached me about using Sophie’s story as inspiration for a plot line, I wasn’t sure what to think. But I talked to them about what they wanted to achieve and I was involved throughout to advise.
Sophie’s death still feels very raw to me. I think about her every day and feel that she’s always with me. Little things set me off. Hearing Chasing Cars by Snow Patrol has me in floods of tears – it was one of her favourite songs and we played it at her funeral. Or I’ll see someone who looks just like her and my heart lurches.
On her birthdays and the anniversary of her death, the foundation organises events, but I also go on my own to her grave. I’m so proud that she stayed with Rob and tried to save him, but of course another part of me wishes she’d run away.
I hope that seeing the Coronation Street story will make people think about what happened to Sophie and how we must all make sure it never happens again. The message still needs to be heard.
Five teenagers aged from 15 to 19 were charged with the attacks on Sophie, 20, and Robert, 22. Ryan Herbert, then 16, and Brendan Harris, 15, were sentenced to life for murder and three others received between four months and five years for grievous bodily harm.
The judge told them that their behaviour “degrades humanity itself… it raises serious questions about the sort of society which exists in this country.” Herbert will be eligible for parole next year.
For more information please visit sophielancasterfoundation.com
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