A version of this story first appeared in The Herald magazine, December 2010.
ON A SMALL TERRACED STREET IN SALFORD, two women are preparing to fight. One is in her mid-sixties, but looks older, perhaps immortal. Her face is a formidable proposition at the best of times, stern as the rain-scoured slates on the roofs. When she is angry, as now, it becomes flintier still. Imagine Winston Churchill, chewing a bulldog, chewing a sour wasp. Wearing a hairnet.
The other is younger, around 38, and she wears her flaming hair piled high and spilling loose. (Although, when photographed in wavering black and white, like this, her hair looks deepest black.) The older woman lives a proudly God-fearing life. The younger lives without apology. There have been several skirmishes. This big clash has been brewing for a year.
They come stalking at each other from either end of the empty street: the older from the corner pub; the other from her house, No. 11, where, seconds before, she had been smoking at her kitchen table, magnificent among the potato peelings. When they meet, the air explodes. A barrage of accusations, insults and truth-telling, shouts flying like artillery, bringing the rest of the street’s residents spilling onto the cobbles or hanging from upstairs windows to gawp, until – just as the younger makes her hand a claw and gets ready to strike – the men come timidly forward to pull them apart.
The scene comes from episode 95 of Coronation Street, and the women, of course, are Ena Sharples, she of everlasting faith and eternal hairnet, and Elsie Tanner, dubbed “the sexiest thing on television” by future Prime Minister Jim Callaghan – either a rare example of a politician talking straight from the heart, or a common example of a party leader trying to look like he keeps up with the nation’s pop culture.
The programme went out November 8, 1961; too late for Bonfire Night, but a display of fireworks that has lingered long in the memory of those who saw it. Fans refer to the incident as “Elsie’s Poison Pen Letter” – she received a vicious anonymous note, denouncing her morals, and, after first accusing Annie Walker, original imperious landlady of The Rovers Return, pegged Ena (wrongly) as the sender. When it comes to the iconic confrontations of the early 1960s, The Cuban Missile Crisis and Ali vs Liston get all the attention, but there are some for whom the period’s tensions are summed up by this earlier, more apocalyptic showdown: the original moralistic battleaxe and the original “tart with a heart” in the Street’s first epic catfight.
In Coronation Street: The Golden Anniversary Collection, a hefty new DVD box released as part of the whirlwind of activity marking the soap’s 50th birthday, this single episode has been chosen to represent its first decade. Alongside documentaries on the series and individual characters, there are a few well-chosen 1970s episodes in the set, and generous selections from the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, and it seems odd, to say the least, to have only one from the 1960s. (Corrie largely escaped the barbarous habit of tape-wiping and junking that has blighted Britain’s golden age TV archives, and most of its almost 7,500 episodes to date are preserved intact. Indeed, a tremendous 10-disc box of nothing but 1960s episodes appeared just a few years ago.)
Still, if it had to be only one, this is the one. Revisiting the episode, you might notice first what has changed. Kenneth Barlow, that thin, radical CND campaigner at the back of the crowd watching the catfight, is so much younger, for one thing. (Although his supercilious smirk is instantly recognisable). And the Street itself is so much smaller. The current exterior set was still twenty one years away from being built, and the show was still confined to the studio, a wobbly row of wooden house fronts, built to three-quarters scale – the actors had to train themselves to walk slowly as they passed along, so as not to give away how tiny it was.
Pushing through the hazy monochrome, though, it’s what remains the same that is most striking. This was Corrie in its undiluted “kitchen-sink” era, a product of the same revolution from the north that brought forth Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, Room At The Top, A Taste Of Honey. The knee-jerk response to the phrase is to think grim, grimy, serious social realism. But actually look back at Albert Finney’s epochal swagger through Saturday Night or the pointed fantasies of Billy Liar, and as much as the angry young men’s anger, it’s searing wit and a sense of style that stand out.
Ena and Elsie’s confrontation is a case in point. The build-up is filmed in a way that has precisely zero to do with reality. Instead, it’s a sly pastiche of a showdown in a Hollywood western: the director cutting repeatedly between Ena, furiously supping milk stout, and Elsie, silently sucking her cigarette, zooming in on their faces in a way that recalls the stylised spaghettis of Sergio Leone – except, Leone himself wouldn’t begin making them for another three years.
Here you see Corrie’s wicked sense of humour, and its confidently playful self-awareness, in place from the first. Present, too, is the thing that has always marked the programme out: writing that simply sings (“C’mon, Harry, there’s skin ‘n’ hair flyin’ out there!” “Why, what they fightin’ with, double-barrelled rollin’ pins?”), pulling off the trick of sounding very real, while also sparking and clattering as “brilliant dialogue.”
Most of all, though, looking back, you see how the show today still clings to the template laid down back then, in the beginning. A world driven and rocked by the wills, passions, dramas and tragedies of extraordinarily strong, yet infinitely vulnerable women, where the men – strong of arm, some, but mostly feckless at best, reluctant to get involved, or caught in their own secret schemes – get dragged along in the wake.
A world from which there are few escapes, but where people keep dreaming of escape. The heroic irony of Ken Barlow is that his intellect, qualifications and quenchless thirst for knowledge should have made him the best equipped of them all to get free, while his sense of himself as being above all the tawdry domestic dramas around him should have given him the drive. 50 years on from his first appearance in the first episode, though, there he is still, still sometimes dreaming of the books he could have written, the life he could have lived, if only…A street that is a trap as much as a home.
THE FIRST EPISODE OF CORONATION STREET was broadcast live on Friday 9 December 1960. One month before, November 2, the Lady Chatterley’s Lover obscenity trial had ended, with the unbanned book selling out across the UK in one day. November 3 saw Finney become a new kind of British movie icon in Saturday Night, Sunday Morning. Something that had been bubbling since the end of the war, the intelligence, attitude, experience and passions of the working class, had finally arrived at the centre of British culture. One year later, the week Corrie celebrated its first year on air, Brian Epstein saw The Beatles playing for the first time.
Today, it’s easy to forget, or perhaps impossible to imagine, how radical the series was. Prior to Coronation Street, its creator, Tony Warren, had a job churning out scripts to what-ho formula for Granada TV’s adaptation of Biggles. This was the company whose own logo proudly trumpeted “From The North,” but in 1960, not a regional accent was to be heard outside of comedy characters. Instead, the adventures of Ginger and Algy, delivered in the perfectly clipped and rounded vowels of Received Pronunciation.
In an incident that has passed into legend, Warren – a former child actor, and unafraid of dramatic displays of petulance – staged a one-man protest in his producer Harry Elton’s office, sitting on top of his filing cabinet and refusing to come down, until Elton agreed to allow him to write something real, something he knew about: about out there, streets of small houses that smelled of coal and fish and chip papers, where the wind got in through the windowframes.
Warren has spoken often about how he learned to write about this world: as a small boy in Salford, when he would sit forgotten beneath the table in his grandmother’s kitchen, and listen as his mother and aunts bickered, gossiped, sniped, berated, confessed to and consoled each other, while the men said little, or cracked jokes. “I borrowed conversations from under that kitchen table,” Warren said. “My aunt looked at her reflection in a powder compact and said, ‘Eeh Lily, you’re about ready for the knacker’s yard.’ That line went to Elsie in the first episode…”
These were characters planted deep in reality. Literally: Warren came up with their names by copying them from old gravestones in Manchester’s St Michael’s cemetery. To this day, there are old hands at Granada who maintain the set is haunted. Warren himself is among those who claim to have encountered the spirit of Pat Phoenix – or is it Elsie – wandering the studio in recent years, wreathed in perfume.
Shown recently on BBC Four as another artifact of the 50th anniversary celebrations, the drama The Road To Coronation Street does a brilliant job of contextualising the scepticism and snobbery Warren and Elton faced from executives, over their desire to put onscreen the everyday existence of characters “who would be the heroes of everyone who’d ever walked across a yard at midnight and sat on a frozen lavatory seat.”
The attitudes that Corrie flew in the face of can be heard echoing through the infamous review The Daily Mirror’s television critic, Ken Irwin, wrote of the first episode: “The programme is doomed from the outset – with its dreary signature tune and grim scenes of a row of terraced houses and smoking chimneys…” Audiences, though, recognised it instantly. Granada originally planned just 13 episodes to be shown across six weeks. Within three months, it was the most watched programme in the country.
Warren stopped writing regularly for the show in 1968, by which point its ratings seemed unassailable, fixed around the 20 million mark. Coronation Street was already part of the national bloodstream by then, but it had already come in for criticism of a different nature, nothing do with any shock of the new. Rather, the show was now berated precisely for being stuck in the past, reflecting a kind of all-rubbing-along community life as remembered, rose-tinted, from the early 1950s.
As the 1970s dawned, the sense that the series was ignoring the changes in society was given a stark physical manifestation. Most of the Salford terraces the programme had been modelled on were torn down around it as high-rises sprang up, leaving cobbled Coronation Street almost as incongruous a relic as Doctor Who’s 1950s police box. In 1982, bricks reclaimed from those “slum clearances” were used to build the exterior set that stands today.
That same year, Corrie faced its starkest challenge with the arrival of Channel 4’s Brookside. This wasn’t its first soap rival – both Emmerdale and Crossroads came wobbling out of its shadow in the 1970s and sucked up some of its ratings. But, in the years when it was still being written by the likes of Jimmy McGovern, Brookside was the first to offer a serious new take on the agenda of a soap from the streets, reflecting the era’s social strains and desperations, characters caught in storylines of industrial unrest, unemployment, drugs, violence, the black market.
By contrast, Corrie, which was very slow to reflect the north’s ethnic mix (and, for a programme originally created by a gay man, extremely reluctant to include a gay character), seemed to have long dropped any pretensions toward realist grit. Instead, the show valued a gentler, deeper investment in character and humour.
Brookside quickly dropped the ball, first through a cackhanded habit of hoisting “social issues” with all the subtlety of SALE signs in a shop window, and then by chasing ratings with increasingly spectacular storylines. Gradually, however, as the decade progressed, Coronation Street absorbed some lessons from the competition. Longer, darker and – if you took time to stand back and pick them apart, surprisingly complex – storylines began filtering through: Rita Fairclough’s epic torment at the hands of Alan Bradley, the man fated to meet his end beneath a Blackpool tram (a blue plaque marks the spot today) among the most memorable examples.
But it was the stubborn commitment to character that paid off, dramas arising from personalities, not issues. The Street has black and Asian residents today, but the likes of Lloyd, Dev and Sunita are written as individuals rather than representatives, people rather than colours. Similarly, Gail’s Gay Dad, Tedd, is one of the least stereotypical gay characters we’ve ever seen in a soap, in the way that Sean Tully isn’t.
Most incredible of all is the joyous treatment of Roy Cropper and his transsexual wife, Hayley, outsiders who have evolved into the moral heart of the show. To this day, I remember vividly the scene when Hayley’s old Great Uncle Bert showed up on their wedding day, and tried to talk her out of it: “I’ll tell you this, Harold. Why don’t you go and put your trousers on and come home with me and your auntie? After we’ve had us tea, we can walk down to the Wheat Sheaf and have a game of dominoes. You always enjoyed that.” Then, after she told him that Harold was gone and never coming back, the old man said this: “Aye…You know…Me and your auntie…We’ll never stop being fond of you………Hayley.”
Corrie has presented many topical stories (teen pregnancy, cyber stalking, Helmand) and over the top spectaculars of its own over the past decade (Richard Hillman’s reign of terror, the Mad Maya incidents, Scottish Tony’s siege of the knicker factory) but, uniquely among British soaps, you still get the sense that the people caught up in them, baffled, are reacting the way that you might.
Tellingly, when Corrie secured its highest ever ratings, in the 1980s, it was with episodes that had nothing to do with spectacular storylines or the big issues, and everything to do with character: 24 million tuning in to see Ken and Deirdre get married in 1981 (the urban myth is that their wedding drew a bigger TV audience than Charles and Diana’s the same week); and the departure of the peerless Hilda Ogden, which drew 29 million in 1987. That’s over half the population of the UK, all gathered at once to watch a small woman in a headscarf leave to take a job as a cleaner in a doctor’s surgery.
In that one little headscarved package, Hilda personified Coronation Street’s greatest weapon, its unique gift for merging pathos and comedy. She and husband Stan were always essentially comic creations – but when, in 1984, she returned from his funeral and sat weeping over his glasses, a large section of the UK wept with her.
THE COMEDY IS THE ELEMENT that has always most confounded Corrie’s critics. The strain of recognisable, slow-burn humour it has developed has inspired some of the best sitcoms, from The Royle Family to Early Doors and Phoenix Nights, which in turn have inspired Coronation Street back. But John Betjeman – the Poet Laureate who founded The British League For Hilda Ogden with Laurence Olivier and Michael Parkinson – put his finger on it when he was the first to compare the series with Dickens:
“Manchester produces what to me is The Pickwick Papers. That is to say Coronation Street. Mondays and Wednesdays, I live for them. Thank God, half past seven tonight and I shall be in paradise.”
It is a shame he never lived to see Deirdre’s mother, Blanche Hunt, in the full flow of her old age. Blanche was a direct descendent of the Ena-esque battleaxe, but, with hobbies that included attending the court hearings and funerals of strangers, Betjeman would surely have relished her as a new Madame Defarge.
(What I have not done here is mention EastEnders, ostensibly Coronation Street’s great rival. That is because, save for a few scattered moments between Den and Angie across 1985 and 1986, I can see no way in which it has ever come even close to rivalling it. Again, the comedy factor is the acid test. On a good night, if that’s what it wants to do, Corrie can be the funniest thing on TV. When EastEnders tries to be funny, it is more bleakly depressing than when it tries to be bleak and depressing. Like the compressed matter waiting to explode out in a Big Bang and form a universe, all the differences between the two shows can be found there in the opening seconds of their first episodes. When Coronation Street began, the first thing anyone saw on screen was children playing. EastEnders opened with the discovery of a corpse.)
ON A SMALL TERRACED STREET IN SALFORD, a man sits dying in an armchair, the same armchair his wife died in three years earlier. Suddenly, magically, but without fuss, she is somehow standing there again, wondering what’s keeping him, and, before he goes, they dance a small shuffling waltz in the living room they shared, while Nat King Cole sings “Autumn Leaves.”
The characters are Jack and Vera Duckworth, and the scene comes from episode 7464 of Coronation Street, which went out on November 8 2010: precisely 49 years after Elsie and Ena squared up on the pavement outside, the programme delivering another moment some of us will remember for years to come.
With the TV schedules full, fractured and time-shifted as they are today, it’s highly unlikely any British drama will ever again draw the 29 million viewers that tuned in to see Hilda’s departure. It’s doubtful, too, if Coronation Street will ever resonate again with the country in quite the way it did in 1983, when the words KEN AND DEIRDRE REUNITED flashed up on the electronic scoreboard at Old Trafford while Man Utd battled Arsenal, or even in 1998, when questions were asked in the house about Deirdre’s imprisonment. (Free The Weatherfield One!) All the same, 11 million tuned in to see Jack’s demise. I was among them, and I will admit that I was in bits.
Talking about the programme’s longevity recently, Tony Warren explained it this way: “Very often viewers will have formed an affection for it in their childhood or when they were going through a dramatic period in their life. So when they return to it, it’s like returning to an old friend. It’s there, it’s safe and it’s secure.”
My own road to Coronation Street was not quite like that, but I would bet it is similar to many. Growing up in the 1970s and 80s, I thought I hated the programme, without watching it. Flickering in the corner of every house in the scheme, it was exactly the kind of thing, I thought, that represented everything I was in a hurry to grow up and get away from.
At the same time, I remember seeing certain episodes – Hilda unwrapping Stan’s glasses in 1984; Elsie taking her last taxi ride out of The Street the same year – and getting the vague feeling of being there for something important. As the 1980s ended, I was beginning to get hooked without realising it. Hilda’s final episode, on Christmas Day 1987, might have been the start, but I can recall getting pulled in particularly by long saga of Alan Bradley, and the small, weird despair of Don Brennan, the one-legged taxi driver who wound up making nasty phonecalls.
I probably still wouldn’t have admitted to myself that I was watching Coronation Street, though – but by 1990, living in my first flat, it just happened that every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, I always had my dinner ready just as the programme started. Then it got to the stage that, if my dinner wasn’t ready, it would have to wait until after Corrie was finished. And don’t bother trying to phone me, either. (ITV dropped the traditional Wednesday night episode in 2009, to shift it to Thursday. Over a year later, it still feels wrong. Each Wednesday, at 7.30pm, I am seized by the panicking feeling that there is something I should be doing.)
I get caught up in the big headline-making stories as much as anyone. What I love about the series, though, are the moments in between, the throwaway interactions between these characters, the unexpected, weird, but entirely ordinary things they say, the dense tapestry of references that crop up in a regular Corrie script. Proust, Poe, The Banana Splits, Neil Diamond. John Stape, a tormented, psychotic Ken Barlow for our age, enjoying a day off reading HG Wells’ Invisible Man. Across the 2000s, I grew fully obsessed by Corrie’s habit of throwing in regular, relatively obscure nods to Joy Division.
The spine of it all, however, remains the women, their wills, passions, dramas and tragedies. Elsie is long gone but, in the strong, bruised likes of Becky, Carla and Leanne – one of the all time great Corrie heroines, who never quite gets her due – the tradition is still burning.
The anxiety of being a fan is the dim question of, What if it stops being so good, what if it changes? Apprehension flutters every time a new producer comes in with a new broom, every time a new set of characters arrive, every time they change the title sequence and – sacrilege! – tinker with the music. The miracle of Coronation Street, though, is that the template Warren laid down in his original 13 episodes is so strong the show manages to absorb all that comes along, and still come out looking and sounding like Corrie. Over the years, it has had writers as different as Jack Rosenthal, Paul Abbott, and Russell T Davies, but the voice remains the same. Writing in 1970, on the 10th anniversary, Room At The Top author John Braine put it perfectly: “The most important character in The Street is The Street itself. No matter who comes and goes, The Street remains.”
The 50th anniversary will be marked with a live episode – a tradition Coronation Street started in December 2000, with its 40th anniversary show. Shows like The Bill and EastEnders have followed suit with live episodes of their own, but the meaning goes deeper with Corrie. Live TV today, in the age of X Factor, is an “event,” but when Corrie began, it was still just the norm.
Tony Warren, who still acts as a consultant and advisor will be there on set on the night, perhaps sharing memories with William Roache about when they used to do this regularly, if on a smaller scale. It’s common knowledge this will be another “spectacular”: a tram will crash from the viaduct, bringing devastation to the cobbles below. Major characters will disappear beneath the rubble, and some will die – though, as the rumours circulate (could this be the end of Ken? Rita? Norris? Ashley?), the show has done a miraculous job of keeping who, exactly, under wraps.
If it gets too much, console yourself with the knowledge that you are simply reliving the same torment Corrie fans experienced back in 1967, the last time a train crashed through that viaduct, and Ena Sharples was among those feared dead. She survived. The street remained. On Coronation Street, it goes around, it comes around, and then it goes on. And we go on with it.