Paul recently parted ways with girlfriend Eileen (Sue Cleaver), but tonight's (May 28) double bill sees him surprise the factory worker by asking her to come with him to the service as he can't get through it alone. When Eileen agrees, could there be fresh hope for their future as a couple?
Digital Spy recently caught up with Tony Hirst, who plays Paul, to hear his thoughts on Lesley's Alzheimer's storyline and where things go from here.
How have you found filming such a hard-hitting storyline?
"It's been a strange old time! From an actor's point of view, it's been great and I've been very lucky to have some fantastic writers and creative people working behind the storyline. At the same time, it's not pleasant - it's difficult, it's bleak and it's brutal, but that's also where drama lies. So there's a paradox there - it's been enjoyable from an actor's point of view, but disturbing from a story point of view.
"I've learned a great deal from the storyline, and I'm very proud of the way the show has handled it and raised awareness. That wasn't the goal or the intention of the show, as Coronation Street isn't an issue-based show and never should be. But they knew that was going to be the result of it, so they've taken their responsibility very seriously. I'm proud to be part of that."
What do you make of the reaction you've had over the story?
"It's interesting, because anybody who's had any experience of dementia is 110% positive towards Paul and Eileen and wants them to find happiness. They thank me for bringing the subject up and playing it with accuracy, which is really lovely.
"Some people have suspected that Paul has an ulterior motive or made judgements about him, but I guarantee they have absolutely no experience or idea about dementia. That's interesting, though, because then they have to make sense of the contradiction - he's clearly not a bad man, but they don't like what he's doing and they feel uncomfortable with it. That means they try to understand it, so hopefully it's still raising awareness."
We know that you met real-life carers while researching the storyline. What did you learn from that?
"Well, one interesting thing is that if you think our story's extreme, if you talk to people who are living daily in the situation, the reality that they're living is absolutely nothing in comparison to the storyline. That's really frightening - that our story by comparison is tame.
"The Alzheimer's Society also has a really good, active forum for sharing information and stories between each other. Again, some of the stories on there are just desperate. One other thing is that dementia is a strange disease in the way that it affects people in many different ways. There are stages in the progression of the disease, but there's also a huge spectrum of behaviour, so everyone's stories are different."
What was it like to say goodbye to Judy Holt, who played Lesley?
"It was difficult, because Sue, Judy and myself have obviously worked together very closely and we get on really well. At the same time, it's been odd. Normally when you work with someone, you build up a really tight relationship and you know that person quite intimately.
"However, Judy was playing a character who was just slightly never quite there, so that distance meant not developing the usual kind of relationship with each other. Both Judy and I said this on the day that she left. But it was sad to see her go and I'll miss her laughter!"
What can you tell us about Lesley's funeral?
"Even though they've recently gone their separate ways, Paul realises that he really wants Eileen to be at the funeral. He also feels that Eileen has a right to be there, as she was very supportive and close to Lesley.
"Lesley's family finally turn up for the funeral, even though they've been conspicuous by their absence so far. I think that's one of the key facts of dementia - especially in the late stages when it gets very difficult, a lot of family and friends disappear. They don't know how to deal with the situation and they withdraw.
"There's some conflict as Lesley's family don't believe that Eileen should be there. But the irony is that Eileen has been far more supportive and helpful than any of the immediate family. Paul's very aware of that, so he's extremely protective and defensive of her."
After such a tough time, could there be a light at the end of the tunnel for Paul and Eileen?
"I hope so! I think they both genuinely love each other, and they've been through a hell of a lot. I think that's going to forge them closer together rather than blow them apart.
"I just hope they have the time to realise what initially attracted them to each other, which was a sense of humour, fun, and compassion. There hasn't been a great deal of that because the circumstances haven't allowed it, but I like to think that they'll re-discover that side of their relationship."
We first saw Paul in Corrie's 50th anniversary episodes. Did you ever expect that you'd be invited back a year later?
"No, it was really weird! I auditioned to be involved in the live episode, because I was really keen to play a part in that. Not only is Coronation Street such an iconic show that I really wanted to do, to be involved in a piece of live telly was really exciting.
"They did ask at the time if I'd be interested in coming back. If they'd asked me before I'd worked on it, I'd have probably said, 'I'm not sure - I've got loads of other things that I want to do as an actor'. But it was such an absolutely lovely place to work that coming back was a no-brainer. The cast and crew are so fantastic and I still come into work every day with a skip in my step."
How long will Paul be sticking around in Corrie for?
"I don't know and I don't actually think they know yet. But I'm here for a while and I'm not going anywhere just yet. I think the writers want to explore what happens with Paul and Eileen and I'm really excited about that.
"It's very fluid, though - I don't think you can ever say that you'll be here for a certain amount of time. I do know that I'm really passionate about the show and I hope that the writers find a life for Paul and Eileen."
Will Jason accept Paul? Could they become friends?
"I'm not sure, because there's not a great deal of drama in friendship - there's a lot more in conflict! But Ryan Thomas, who plays Jason, has just been one of the most warm-hearted and generous men you could ever wish to work with - right from the beginning of the live episode. He's been really supportive and a big reason why I feel so at home here. Ryan doesn't have to go out of his way to be friendly, but he does.
"On screen, though, there's probably not a great deal of drama if we do get along. He's obviously got to protect his mum first and foremost."
What else can we expect now that Paul is back on the cobbles?
"Well, a lot of the people who've been suspicious of Paul have been convinced that he's had an ulterior motive with Eileen. I'm really pleased that they're going to find out that he hasn't - he's been true and he's just been trying to do the right thing.
"I think that's why the story has worked, really. A lot of stories work on goodies and baddies, and in this situation there hasn't been any baddies. Essentially there's been three good people and the disease is the baddie."
On a separate note, do you still meet fans who want to talk to you about Hollyoaks' Mike Barnes?
"They do! Some people I meet are big Corrie fans, some are big Hollyoaks fans and then some people watch both. Some people still call out 'Barnsey' and some people call out 'Fireman Paul', but I don't mind that, really. I like the fact that Barnsey still resonates with people and that Paul's here as well. I'm very lucky!"
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Coronation Street airs Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays on ITV1.