Jane Danson said filming the scenes was emotional
As his distraught parents softly sing “You are my sunshine” by his bedside, tragic Coronation Street toddler Oliver Battersby’s little heart stops as he loses his brave fight against a rare disease this week.
Fans gripped for months by one of Weatherfield’s most heartbreaking storylines will see devastated parents Steve McDonald and Leanne Battersby bid their son goodbye as his life support machine is switched off on Friday.
But for actress Jane Danson, who plays Leanne, filming the scenes was even more harrowing and emotional – because of the tears she had already shed with a real-life mum who had gone through the same heartbreak herself.
When she found out about the story a year ago, Jane turned to Liz Curtis, whose eight-month-old daughter Lily had died from mitochondrial disease, the condition Oliver has in the show.
Jane Danson wants to raise awareness of mitochondrial disease
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Coronation Street Christmas storylines: Love triangle, death heartache and big decision
Jane, a mum to two boys, was devastated to hear the devoted mother’s story of losing her child, from the day she was diagnosed to the day she, too, had to say goodbye at her daughter’s bedside.
Jane, 42, says: “Liz told us pretty much week by week what happened to her and her little girl.”
Getting to know Liz, who founded the Lily Foundation, a charity which supports families of children with the incurable disease, made Jane determined to do justice to her and other grieving parents as she took on the story.
Liz with Lily, who died of mitochondrial disease in April 2007 aged eight months
Jane says: “At the end, after crying a lot, I said to her, ‘As a mum, how do you carry on?’ She said, ‘I had two other children, I had to carry on’. She wanted to do something positive out of something so tragic, which is why she set up the foundation and she does some incredible work.
“She said some years have passed and it kind of does heal a little bit, she obviously will never really get over that, but she has put her life into the charity that funds research and she supports lots of families who are sadly in the same situation as Leanne and Steve.
“I don’t know whether I would be as strong as that. I hope I would be, God forbid, but she is just an incredible lady and I took a lot of inspiration from the things she was saying and I just wanted to honour people like her.”
Jane as Leanne in a scene with Oliver
Steve McDonald (Simon Gregson) and Leanne Tilsley (Jane Danson) sit at Oliver’s bedside singing ‘You are my Sunshine’
Viewers have followed Steve, played by Simon Gregson, and Leanne’s heartbreak since June when, after suffering a series of seizures, Oliver was diagnosed with incurable mitochondrial disease.
Jane admits she knew little about the condition before meeting Liz.
She says: “It is really difficult when you have these stories. You have this huge sense of responsibility and part of that is understanding that person and what they’ve been through.
"She was so generous with her story and literally gave everything to us. It helped us do the job we have done.”
Jane Danson and her family at Winter Wonderland in Manchester in 2016
(Image: Seb Beeson/SilverHub)
Jane now believes the storyline has been both the most harrowing and the most important in her 23 years on Corrie, and admits even she has struggled to watch as Leanne’s heartbreak plays out on screen.
She says: “It is in parts a very hard watch, even for me. Even my mum, who is the biggest Corrie fan ever, has found watching really hard. But that is kind of our job to do that.
“I will just encourage people to try to stay with it. It is hard and it is difficult. Death at any age is a bit of a taboo, and it is a child so it is heartbreaking.
Parents Steve and Leanne at court hearing
“We don’t really talk about our feelings. And certainly this last year or so there has been a huge mental health push about talking about your feelings.
“That is the bottom line really – it is hard to watch, it was hard to film. I had to put my scripts down about seven times when I was reading it as I couldn’t see for the tears.
“I do hope people see it through, though, because it is important.”
Corrie fans have watched Leanne fight doctors, lawyers and the courts in her attempts to save Oliver’s life.
Leanne admits she cannot return to hospital to say goodbye
Jane, married to actor Robert Beck and mum to sons Harry, 14, and Sam, 11, says not everyone will agree with how Leanne has reacted in some situations but, as a mum, she understands.
She says: “Before I had kids I would see something on the news and think, oh, that is awful. But it does change after you have your own children, it hurts, it physically hurts.
"Some of those scenes physically hurt because it is just an unimaginable thing. It is that instinctive thing to protect your child, you would die
"We have gradually seen her literally go out of her mind. She is not thinking logically, nobody is really listening to her.
Leanne overwhelmed when Nick Tilsley offers to sell his shares in Underworld to raise cash for Oliver’s treatment
“It is heart-breaking as she is doing everything possible to save that little boy, even though she probably knows, deep down, the time has come, she will fight to the end, which she does.”
Jane is proud to have raised awareness about the disease and the Lily Foundation.
She says: “I have had lots of messages from people who work at the charity and lots of mums as the story has gone on. It is a really, sad, heavy, awful story, but we have been supported by all the families.
“When people are saying that is how I reacted, or that happened to me, you feel like in some ways it is comforting. Sometimes we don’t talk about very painful things and when you do talk, it does help make you feel better.
“This is such an enormous platform and it has raised such awareness, not just for the charity but for all the people who have been though this.
“It is just a bit overwhelming, but if we have done anything in a small way to raise awareness, it is a good thing.”
Join the Lily Foundation’s “Just £1 and change lives” appeal at thelilyfoundation.org.uk