The actor who plays Ashley Thomas in Emmerdale talks to us about how an innovative episode of the soap next week will show his character’s dementia in an entirely new light.
The sad decline of Ashley Thomas continues to grip millions of Emmerdale viewers, whilst also raising awareness of early on-set vascular dementia in a way that only a prime-time TV drama ever can.
Now, as Ashley’s condition deteriorates further and he is admitted to hospital, Emmerdale is set to break new ground by screening a special episode told entirely from Ashley’s perspective, giving a unique insight into the reality of living with dementia.
The episode, which will be shown on Tuesday 20 December, will follow Ashley as he walks out of hospital unnoticed, still wearing his pyjamas, and heads out into the village, vulnerable and alone.
‘He doesn’t simply wander off, in Ashley’s world he’s going home,’ says actor John Middleton. ‘He’s going to see his mum who he thinks is still alive, though terminally ill. Ashley relives an experience which was very upsetting for him, as if it’s happening now.’
Camera work and editing will have a distinctly different feel in Tuesday’s episode, capturing Ashley’s confusion as he grapples with everything from catching a bus to buying something in a shop, and revealing to millions of viewers that, as John discovered, ‘even the most ordinary day-to-day activity can be so complicated.’
‘Although Ashley’s behaviour may seem wildly eccentric – wandering the streets in his pyjamas – in Ashley’s world he’s fully dressed and it all makes perfect sense to him,’ says John.
Since the character he’s played for nearly 20 years was diagnosed with dementia last year ago, John has gone to great efforts to portray the condition truthfully. ‘As I started researching the role, I realised the fearsome responsibility of telling the story accurately otherwise we’d do an immense disservice to people with dementia and their carers.’
John’s research, which involved visiting a residential care home, meeting support workers and support group members and liaising closely with the Alzheimer’s Society, led him to make a great number of discoveries about dementia, in particular vascular dementia.
‘One of the nurses I spoke to right at the beginning of my research said she often referred to people with vascular dementia as ‘the tortured’ because they do have moments of complete lucidity where they know exactly what is going on,’ he says.
This week’s powerful episode was inspired by a short training film produced by Sterling University called Darkness In The Afternoon to help families understand dementia. http://www.dementiashop.co.uk/node/128
‘It shows a beautiful young woman running through streets, forests and a park and being chased by an old man. She’s wearing a red ballgown and eventually runs into a police station, saying an old man is chasing her and she’s terrified,’ explains John. ‘They put her in a room, she looks in the mirror and in the reflection is an old woman who clearly has dementia…and the old man chasing her is her husband. The film resonated with me completely because one of the lessons my research has taught me is how thoroughly a person with dementia believes the world they think they are in.’
This exceptionally moving episode of Emmerdale will lead on to another emotional storyline, as Ashley’s wife Laurel (Charlotte Bellamy) realises they can’t continue living as they are, and must make a decision about her husband’s future care.
‘From the research that Charlotte and I have done, we realised that for family carers this can be one of the most upsetting moments, bringing feelings of immense guilt and also relief. We also discovered that a move like this can sometimes lead to an improvement in their relationship. Once someone else is doing all the daily caring duties and you no longer have to say ,’it’s time to get dressed,’ or ‘you need to go to bed,’ and what remains is just the loving nature of their relationship.’
Could this mean that there is light at the end of the tunnel for Ashley and Laurel? Will their relationship move into a better place? ‘Quite honestly I don’t know because the scripts are still being written,’ says John. ‘Ashley will go into a care home and he’ll be around for a little while longer yet. But it will end. I knew when the story was pitched to me two years ago that it would end with me leaving and the producer asked me to think carefully before taking it on. But I didn’t need to, it seemed such a great story, and so relevant to so many people, that I didn’t hesitate before agreeing.
So, has the storyline he describes as ‘the best I’ve ever had’ led John himself to change his perception of dementia? ‘Definitely,’ he replies. ‘I had no personal experience of dementia before so it was all quite new to me and I’ve learnt so much.
‘Firstly, that in the earlier stages of the condition it doesn’t have to be as tragic as we might think. What struck me more than anything else about one of the support groups I visited for people with young dementia was their extraordinary stoicism and ability to see a lighter side to this too. Then in the later stages, I was also surprised by the contentment many of the care home residents I met seemed to feel, even those with severe dementia.’
Whilst these experiences may not be true for everyone, it’s clear that John has done his homework and that the Emmerdale team is genuinely committed to showing dementia as it really is.
‘With a show like ours, we have to work twice as hard to tell the story well. It’s assumed generally that because this is such a popular show we will somehow sensationalise it, and therefore cheapen the story,’ John adds. ‘We’ve tried very, very hard not to do this and to tell the dementia story accurately truthfully and with integrity. I hope we’ve succeeded.’
Tune in at 7pm to watch this special episode of Emmerdale on ITV.