Rita, Stan and Ken, too

Fifty years old today, Coronation Street redefined commercial television. Clive Bloom celebrates the quietly socialist institution, once radical, now nostalgic, that offers us a vision of working-class heroism

December 9, 2010

Many years ago, as an MA student at the University of Essex participating in a tiresome session of postmodern deconstruction, I let slip the esoteric thought that what had been said might be relevant to the soap opera Coronation Street. Deathly silence fell and tumbleweed blew across the lecture theatre. It was a gaffe worthy of Prince Philip.

I am a fan of the soap and have been since those plaintive tones introduced us to a new serial on 9 December 1960. The programme was set to run for 10 episodes, but proved so popular that it ran weekly at 7.30pm on Mondays and Wednesdays for almost the next 50 years, providing a routine that punctuated and organised the week.

During the 1990s, the shooting schedule even allowed the studios at Granada Television to open the set to tourists. For a small fee, a visitor could be videoed supping a pint at the Rover's Return before being ushered into the gift shop for Corrie tea towels, key rings, mugs and jigsaws. Alas, the set was closed to pilgrims when the show started broadcasting three days a week.

This fictional street in Salford's "Weatherfield" area has become a place of secular pilgrimage more real to us aficionados than our own home towns. We know who lives and works where and the exact location of Rosamund Street, Bessie Street Primary School and the legendary Red Rec. The script department even uses a series "historian" to avoid continuity errors.

Coronation Street is more than a TV show. It is a multimillion-pound business and a national institution, said to have been closely monitored by the late Queen Mother, who watched so that she could gauge the attitude of her daughter's subjects.

There had been such serials before in the UK: Emergency-Ward 10 began in 1957 (the BBC didn't catch up until 1965 with the short-lived soap The Newcomers) and there were American dramas aplenty on ITV. But this was a show that was neither soap opera nor documentary, but a fusion of the two, the serialised drama.

From the beginning, Coronation Street showed the people to the people and took its drama not from external events, but from the richness of working-class culture and language, from its dress, courtship rituals, eating habits and entertainment (pigeons, whippets and charabanc outings to Blackpool). The humanity stems from the observation of real life in the backstreets that marked the careers of comedians Robb Wilton, Norman Evans (over the garden wall), Hylda Baker and Les Dawson (it still informs the comedy of Peter Kay). The tragedy has its roots in the work of J.B. Priestley, D.H. Lawrence and films such as Love on the Dole (1967) and Hobson's Choice (1954); the voices echo Gracie Fields and actors such as Tom Courtenay.

The Northern community was depicted as strictly matriarchal, full of strong, pre-feminist women who earned the bread, had the children and didn't give a stuff about the men who floated aimlessly into their lives as temporary distractions. The women of "the Street" still come in all shapes and sizes (including transsexuals and lesbians), from always dependable Eileen Grimshaw to the beautiful village idiot that is Rosie Webster, with a body from heaven and a brain from Ikea.

The men might be bullies or weak-willed ninnies; worst of all they might be middle-class tie salesmen - as Deirdre Rachid (her of the oversized glasses) found out to her cost when she was banged up under false pretences. Yet men don't count in the scheme of things.

The Street is a place of women and women's desires. Ask the long-suffering Steve McDonald, Ashley Peacock or Graeme Proctor, whose very voices betray their frustration with their inability to comprehend the workings of the female psyche, or Dev Alahan, who thinks he's the fount of all wisdom about women, but is outwitted at every move by the females in his life.

Of course, there's always the actor Bill Roache, who has played Ken Barlow in the saga for a remarkable 50 years. He has remained its male stalwart even longer than the stoical but roguish Jack Duckworth (Bill Tarmey) who bowed out of the show last month.

Roache has even seen his son and grandson playing against him (as who else but his son and grandson), because Corrie thrives on wit and irony. Yet poor old Ken has been stuck for years, frustrated in his ambitions and in his marriage, and Jack preferred his pigeons any day to a hot night of passion with Vera.

The values of the show are still those of family and community. Coronation Street was the "Big Society" before posh Southerners David Cameron and Nick Clegg were even born. Here is the meaning of neighbourliness and kind-heartedness, justice and ultimate decency, with everyone looking out for everyone else; everyone's kids looked after not by the nuclear family, but by an ideal extended family of friends and relations.

Nobody falls off the edge, because it's everybody's business how the neighbours get on.

Of course, there's a price to be paid for living in a television bubble, just as in life. Such communities may be claustrophobic and vicious. Woe betide the character who wishes to better himself, go to university or even live a suburban lifestyle. Rosie may have a Porsche, but she still lives with her knicker-sewing mum and mechanic dad. Dev, with his string of corner shops, was still forced to move back into a two-up two-down Victorian terraced house because his wife missed the camaraderie of street life.

No wonder Americans don't get it. The show is uniquely British, from its once smoke-filled back rooms to characters whose intravenous consumption of alcohol is in direct proportion to their need for constant supplies of fish and chips. This is still effectively the world of the working class, a quietly socialist world, once revolutionary and dangerous, now nostalgic and safe, but perhaps a necessary part of our national vision of ourselves.

The soap is now older than many of its viewers, so placed discreetly in the background of many of its sets are framed photos of the stars of shows long vanished into the vault, reminders of our own long-lost past, like the memories rewound in Krapp's Last Tape. Here, we too can revisit our personal journeys through the television lens and remember those faded storylines that need explaining to our children or grandchildren.

Richard Hoggart heralded this sense of the richness and texture of ordinary life in his 1957 sociological study of the cultural and reading milieu of the working class in Leeds, The Uses of Literacy. In it, he argued that the popular entertainment that grew out of working-class communities was threatened by the new mass commercial entertainment exemplified by TV and the hunger for American thrills. Norman Collins, deputy chairman of Associated Television, dismissed its viewers as "illiterate" morons.

Their conclusions were misplaced, for what emerged from commercial television was precisely that accurate grass-roots vision that Hoggart and Collins thought would be killed by it. Coronation Street was born as commercial television found its confidence as a medium.

The birth pangs of the show have long passed into legend. Tony Warren fought against all the odds to convince Sidney and Cecil Bernstein, the owners of Granada and Londoners to boot, that a programme about those Northern folk who lived in Manchester's serried ranks of terraced houses would be watched and loved as a national treasure; that its characters - the old battleaxe Ena Sharples, the tart-with-a-heart Elsie Tanner, the upwardly mobile snob Kenneth Barlow and the tough publican Annie Walker - would turn into characters worthy of a Dickensian novel in all the rich complexity of their moral development.

Hilda and Stan Ogden were perhaps the greatest creations of all, perfect gems of the fragile, stubborn, foolish and lovable little people of the world, whom L.S. Lowry spent a lifetime capturing on canvas as he wandered around Salford collecting rent.

As for Hilda's "muriel", is it not more worthy of real, national affection than anything owned by Charles Saatchi?

This was to be a show that began by exposing the humdrum nature of real existence, its small pains and petty triumphs, with compassion and emotion. If nothing much happened it was because nothing much happens in real life. Character development was everything in the early days: it was only really when the socially "relevant" angst of Brookside (1982) and the cockney melodrama of EastEnders (1985) began to steal viewers that the likes of murderer Richard Hillman came on to the scene, making Number 8 Coronation Street a living hell for Gail Platt and her hell-spawned son David (who is as mad as a bag of spanners and has even been on The Jeremy Kyle Show). Nowadays, you can't watch the famous cobbles for five minutes without emergency services resuscitating at least two or more unfortunate victims of road rage or factory arson.

Corrie is going to celebrate its 50th birthday this month, revered and respected, celebrated both by a transvestite play in Manchester as well as by The Road to Coronation Street, a docudrama on BBC Four, of all places. It is the longest continuous narrative on British television, rich in both visual and textual language; it is the most detailed representation of life in the UK since the Mass Observation project; an extraordinary historical and cultural resource; and still good telly.

And now, I have just opened my paper at the television pages only to find that "Becky's world falls apart" when her skanky chav sister Kylie returns from Ayia Napa with a handsome Greek in tow and announces she is going away for good and taking her little boy (only recently reunited with his mum after battles with foster parents and social workers). Yes, another soap opera twist, but something genuinely filled with the power of real tragedy. And at Christmas, we are promised a tram crash with fatalities aplenty among much-loved characters. I'm so excited, I've gone all peculiar. Quick, mother, drop that barm cake and put t'hot pot on t'boil!

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