I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware of Coronation Street. My parents never watched it – they were more into comedy and “proper” drama than soaps. But it was a fixture not only in all of my friends’ houses, but also in that of my grandmother, who was a devoted fan of the programme. My Nana spent her entire life living in a street in Dublin’s North Strand that bore more than a passing resemblance to Coronation Street; when she married, after the death of her parents, my grandad moved into Nana’s family home, and that’s where my father and uncle grew up. So perhaps it’s not surprising that she loved a programme that may have been set in a different country, but which wasn’t a million miles away from “respectable” working class Dublin. And perhaps it was inevitable that eventually, despite having groaned as as a kid whenever a visiting Nana took over our TV to watch Coronation Street (or snooker, to which she was also devoted), I’d be drawn to it too. By the time I was in secondary school, I had succumbed, dragging some of my immediate family with me, and although I drifted apart from the Street while I was in college (unlike EastEnders, in those days it didn’t have an omnibus, and as I was never at home when it aired during the week I just stopped watching), after a few years I gradually found myself sucked back in.
It’s 50 years today since the very first episode of Coronation Street, and on Monday ITV re-showed it in its entirety (the interiors – with their stiff, tightly covered armchairs, old kitchen units, square mirrors and pale tiled fireplaces – looked so like the way my grandparents’ house looked even in the ’80s that it gave me quite a shock). It was amazing how many of the elements that still define the show were still there – the often hilarious, pitch-perfect dialogue, the fine acting, the conversational asides that are all about defining character rather than just advancing the plot. And, of course, the Ken Barlow.
There’s a lot of snobbery about soaps, often from people who never watch them, and in some cases it’s deserved. Fair City is unlikely to win any acting or writing awards in the near future. But at their bests, soaps can be art – moving and intelligent and funny, and a culturally important look into the lives of people who are neither glamorous nor wildly financially successful, people who work in corner shops and pubs and factories for most of their lives. It may have descended into farce in its later years, but for a while Brookside was a proper, gritty look at Liverpudlian life. Even EastEnders, which has always a tendency to preposterous, and immensely unlikeable, miserablism, has had many moments of greatness.
But no soap has ever been as consistently good as Coronation Street. This is partly because Corrie is fundamentally character-driven rather than just plot-driven, and those characters are given some of the best TV dialogue ever. An average episode of Corrie can feature an exchange between young arsonist-turned-window-cleaner-turned-butcher Graham (one of my very favourite characters) and a group of older ladies about his favourite classic films (he beat an enraged Blanche, Deirdre Barlow’s curmudgeonly mother, by correctly answering a question about The Women). Or this glorious sequence in which the well-meaning Ken and Deirdre accompany Ken’s son Peter to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting which is soon disrupted by Blanche, played with wonderful style by the late lamented Maggie Jones.
I particularly love Ken’s angry “It was a barge!”
But perhaps what I love most about Coronation Street is that, despite the melodrama and tears and the occasional murder, the programme and its characters are essentially good hearted. Coronation Street is a place where neighbours, when they’re not feuding or sleeping with each other, do look after each other. They help each other. During this week’s tram crash madness, the residents have worked together to rescue their neighbours (in the grimmer world of EastEnders, they’d probably be rifling through the pockets of the unconscious). Unpleasant characters in the Street are almost always capable of redemption – think of Becky, who arrived in the Street as a dishonest druggie and, under the care of Roy and Hayley Cropper, discovered that she wasn’t worthless after all. The continued close relationship between tough, loud, cider-swilling Becky – now happily married (most of the time) to the hilariously lugubrious Steve and living at the Rover’s – and the eccentric Roy and kindly Hayley is one of the sweetest things on television.
In fact, if any characters sum up the appeal of Corrie it’s Roy and Hayley. In another programme, they would be tragic figures. Roy is socially awkward and obsessed with trains – in most soaps he’d be a tragic loner, but although some of his Coronation Street neighbours are puzzled by Roy or find him boring, they don’t sneer at him and they treat him with respect. The same goes for his patient wife Hayley. Hayley is transgendered, part of a community who are usually lazily treated by television as jokes or victims. But Hayley is neither. She’s just another resident of the Street, beloved by most of her neighbours, and though her trans-ness is never brushed under the carpet, it doesn’t define her character or the vast majority of her storylines. I can’t think of any other mainstream television programme that has treated a trans character with such respect and affection. But that essential decency is at the core of the show. Even Blanche had a heart, and the perfectly placed moments when you were reminded how much she did love her family – yes, even Ken – were all the better for being so incredibly rare.
Blanche sadly left our screens this year when Maggie Jones died, but the Street is still full of feisty older ladies (though Rita’s life is in danger following the crash – don’t die, Rita!). At a time when older women are increasingly rare sights on screen, the unashamedly old ladies of Corrie – including barmaid Betty Williams, who is played by 90-year-old Betty Driver – are the stars of the show, interacting effortlessly with characters a third of their age. But the Street has plenty of younger female stars too. Take Leanne. In some programmes, someone who had worked as prostitute would be eternally a tragic or damaged figure. But Leanne picked herself up, refused to apologise for her past, and kept going with a brave smile on her face in the fine tradition of Corrie grande dames. I love Leanne and her relationship with her fiance Peter and his son Simon. If Peter dies and she ends up with the appalling Nick I will be enraged.
Then there’s the delightful Julie Karp, the bitchy yet vulnerable Carla Connor, the increasingly likeable ditz Rosie Webster and of course Rosie’s little sister Sophie, a smart and funny teenager whose coming-out story – she’s fallen in love with her best friend Sian – was handled with kindness and, as ever, humour. When her mum Sally, who had previously been disparaging rumours that her daughter could be “a nasty lesbian” found out that the rumours were indeed true, she wailed, “I don’t really think lesbians are nasty! Mary Queen of Shops is a lesbian and I love Mary Queen of Shops!”
So as Coronation Street celebrates its anniversary this evening with a special live episode, let’s raise a glass of Newton and Ridley’s finest to a street that, over the last five decades, has survived several vehicle crashes (the tram isn’t the first thing to fall off that viaduct), countless affairs, more than a few murders, lots of cat fights, much preposterousness and some of the funniest and most appealing people ever seen on televison.
Oh, and Ken Barlow.
(Oh, who am I kidding? I love Ken too.)