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'I had to flee the country as soap storyline took over my life. .' Star Rachel forced to take break after her character is put through the wringer on Fair City.

Byline: JIM GALLAGHER

A DISTRAUGHT soap star has fled the country after being overcome by shockingly traumatic scenes on her show.

Rachel Sarah Murphy, who plays Jo in Fair City, was in Spain last night recovering from stress and exhaustion.

Tracked down by the Irish People she said: "I just had to get out of the country. I couldn't deal with the stress.

"I was hyperventilating on the set and didn't think I could carry on filming.

"My whole chest went red and blotchy and I was crying and everyone else was crying. It was awful.

"I couldn't deal with it any more and had to get out of the country. I hate flying but I rang a friend and said I had to get out that night.

"I finished filming in the afternoon and was on a flight that evening - and I got drunk to help me cope."

Rachel, 29, had been filming one of the most dramatic storylines in Fair City's 12-year history.

Jo has told lover Dermot she can't marry him and have kids because her family has been struck by deadly and incurable Huntington's Disease.

It's an inherited genetic disorder which leaves the patient completely physically and mentally disabled.

Jo told Dermot how she watched her mother die from the condition and how any children she had would have a 50 per cent chance of developing it.

Top actress Rachel had spent the weeks leading up to the dramatic part meeting with real victims of the disease.

"I spent a lot of time with them and did a lot of research. It was very emotional," said Rachel.

"I am the type of actor who takes things on board and the stress was incredible. I had panic attacks every day.

"I could not deal with the stress. It was miles too much to deal with.

"I was only doing this for five or six weeks so how people actually deal with it in real life is beyond me.

"It is a horrible disease - and showing what is going to happen to these people is awful.

"I met these people and you do not want to show them how they are going to die. But you have to let people know about Huntingdon's Disease, otherwise they end up in hospital being treated for Alzheimer's or Motor Neurone Disease.

"A lot of people have never heard of it and I knew nothing about it.

"But this is not a shock syndrome. Everything that happens in Fair City is true."

Rachel said filming this week's scenes were the toughest of her career.

"I thought I would have to stop it. I was telling Dermot how I watched my mother die and how she did not even remember us and how my father who loved her so much was distraught.

"I didn't think I could go on. Everyone was crying and I couldn't control myself. I was hyperventilating.

"It was very, very emotional but we just kept going."

Rachel said she would now rest for two weeks before heading back to Dublin to resume the storyline which will run for a couple of months.

The Huntington's Disease Association of Ireland last night praised Rachel and Fair City for the way they had dealt with the traumatic story.

Development Officer Bernie Moran said she was amazed at the lengths Rachel went to to learn about the disease - and the tight bond she created with many of the victims.

She was also impressed at the lengths to which the Fair City makers went to get the facts right.

Bernie told the Irish People: "They were absolutely fantastic.

"Their researcher David O'Sullivan has been in close touch with us since last May, they were so determined to get it right. The whole thing has been so impressive.

"We met Rachel just so we could have a photo taken for our own newsletter but she wanted to meet the families.

"She is a particularly nice person and was lovely. She is a Cork woman and has a great way with people.

"She was not patronising and got on great with everyone and the families told her their stories. Anyone who dealt with her loved her.

"She talked to one man with the disease. She could see herself in his position and s took that home with her.

"She has stayed in touch with us and she told us that she cried and Dermot cried during filming, and that even the crew were in tears.

"You cannot overdramatise Huntington's Disease because it is incurable and fatal. But there are so many things that families can do to make it bearable with the right information."

There are believed to be 400 people with the disease in Ireland and a further 2,000 offspring at risk.

The HD Association said it was expecting hundreds of calls from possible victims over the next few weeks as the Fair City story progresses.

A helpline number is being broadcast after each episode of the soap.

"The calls began after the episode on Monday night," said Bernie.

"Some families are distraught, which is the downside to exposure."

But she said that there are people in Ireland who have never been told that they are at risk.

"There are parents out there who never felt in a position to tell their children they have a 50 per cent chance of having the disease.

"And some doctors used to choose not to tell patients they had it because they didn't think they could cope.

"So there are people who are startled by what they are seeing on TV. They did not know the consequences of family members having the disease.

"And some people with Huntington's have themselves been in denial.

"We try to help them cope because we can't change the situation."

Bernie added: "I was very surprised by how much time Fair City have put into this. There is always the potential to get it wrong but so far it has been spot on.

"Dermot immediately thinks there must be a cure. The patient is forgotten about as everyone panics and that is so realistic."

Bernie said their counsellors helped families by teaching them to cope.

"For many people their quality of life actually improves because they start living life to the full. People can be positive with good information."

It is possible to treat some of the symptoms with drugs.

The Huntington's Disease Association can be contacted on 1800393939.

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SO IN LOVE: But Rachel's character Jo refuses to marry Dermot
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Publication:The People (London, England)
Date:Jan 12, 2003
Words:1090
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