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Posts Tagged ‘Coronation Street’

Here’s my guilty secret – I watch Coronation Street. Ever since the tram crash, I have been reeled right in. I’m not about to defend my viewing though – you can judge me whatever way you want to on that issue. I am, however, going to share an element of discomfort I have with a storyline at the moment and ask you what you think.

Here’s the synopsis:

Pretty, blonde Maria lands herself a job as PA to the (female) boss of the knicker-factory. A potential client – Frank – comes along with what could be a huge order vital to the continued existence of the factory. He’d like to view samples later that night in the comfort of his own home. Carla – the boss – despatches Maria to town to have her hair and nails done and to buy herself a new frock for the meeting. Maria buys a black frock and was  gorgeous and glammed when she arrived at Frank’s house.  I have no issue with what she did or didn’t wear. Personally, I don’t think it was appropriate for a business meeting – but I would defend Maria’s right to wear whatever she likes wherever she likes.

They had dinner, they had wine, they had chats, then Maria hoped they’d get down to business and Frank would sign the contracts she had brought with her. Frank hoped to get down to business of another kind. He had the hots for Maria and clearly wanted to play hide the sausage. Maria, for her part, had told Frank that she wasn’t interested and that she had a boyfriend. He didn’t seem too keen to no for an answer, though. We saw Frank and Maria on the sofa, Frank kissing Maria when clearly she didn’t want him to and we saw Frank’s hand on Maria’s thigh.  Maria pushed Frank off her and legged it out of the house.

Clearly, if this had not taken place in Soapland, it would not have been a pleasant experience for the woman involved.  In this scenario, Frank was out of line. I have no issue with that, but I am puzzled by Maria’s insistence that Frank ‘tried to rape’ her. Because I don’t think he did. I think he assaulted her, I am pretty sure he scared her, I’m fairly convinced she was shocked and shaken; I would suspect that he was using his substantial leverage – the possibility of giving work to the factory – to entice or persuade Maria to have sex with him. I am sure that Frank’s actions constituted an assault, but I don’t, however, think he tried to rape her.

Maybe if Maria hadn’t managed to escape when she did, Frank would have raped her – but who can say for sure?

Am I missing something? Or should Maria revise her statement and stop telling people that Frank tried to rape her?

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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.)

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There are many reasons I love Coronation Street. The sheer quality of the writing (never will I forget Norris describing Rita “fanning herself with the People’s Friend like something out of Les Liasons Dangereuses“). The funniness. The wonderful characters (Becky! Blanche! Eileen! Any one of that trio alone would make a programme worth watching). The way that characters who would be the butt of jokes in lesser programmes (like the wonderful Roy and Hayley) are treated with respect and affection.

Viva Blanche!

Viva Blanche!

But one other great thing about it is the fact that it’s one of the few high-profile television programmes where you see older women who actually look like, well, older women – and who get proper characters and storylines instead of just being doddery old grans.

The older Corrie ladies, Rita, Blanche, Emily, Betty, Audrey – hell, even Deirdre and Liz (not that she’d like to be included in this group), are opinionated and funny. They’re not just sitting around waiting to die. Some are sexually active. Some are happily single. But all are complex, interesting people – albeit complex, interesting people who happen to live in the heightened reality of Wetherfield.

But while game old birds might be thriving in soapland, they’re not doing so well in the more serious media. In yesterday’s Guardian, the legendary Joan Bakewell writes about the lack of women over 50 in our news programmes – and how they’re starting to fight back; 57-year-old Selina Scott is taking Channel 5 to court for age descrimination, claiming they went back on an offer to cover another (younger) female newsreader’s maternity leave. Bakewell remembers the optimism of the early ’80s, when she and her peers “joked about how the tough older male would always be lead presenter, while a woman was given the secondary role – softer stories and knowing her place. We joked, too, about the obvious stereotypes: the craggy world-weary buccaneer male reporters – Sandy Gall, the late Charles Wheeler, and Newsnight’s younger trim female presenters whom we dubbed the “programme wives”. I was one such. So was Jenni Murray until she went off to enliven the more feminist corridors of Woman’s Hour.”

Bakewell and her female colleagues assumed this would all change. But nearly 30 years later, it hasn’t.

But where today are the wrinkly female equivalents of Trevor McDonald and Peter Sissons, Nick Owen and Jon Snow? Kirsty Wark stands alone, and she, after all, is merely middle aged. Older women are missing from news and current affairs.

Bakewell suggests, and I think she’s right, that this is because TV is not only obsessed with youth but increasingly run by younger people (“The only people of 60 they know are their mothers”). And she points out that their reluctance to show older people, especially women, on screen, makes bad business sense – why ignore a potentially huge audience?

But in her final paragraph, she reminds us why it’s important to show women of all ages on screen.

One entire segment of the public – women over 55 – never see their like on serious programming. They may be part of the content – victims of crime, sufferers from disease or lottery winners, but they are never there as the professional equivalent of older men. I rejoice that there are older people on the screen: David Attenborough and Bruce Forsyth are wonderful. But I rejoice too that Selina Scott might force the industry to take charges of ageism seriously.

The fewer ladies of a certain age we see on the screen, the more the idea that men somehow age “gracefully” while women become pathetic and hideous once they hit the menopause is perpetuated. So let’s hear it for the older ladies. After all, if we’re very lucky, we’re going to be them some day.

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THE WORD is out. The jig is up. The worms are out of the can. The Wire, television’s best-kept secret, has just gone mainstream. First came two articles two days in a row, in last week’s Guardian. The first was a worshipful piece on how the architecture of Baltimore was the real star of The Wire (bullshit; the story-telling and casting director are the real stars). The second was an interview with Dominic West, aka McNulty (pictured above), arguably one of the biggest stars of the show. In the interview, West revealed, amongst other things, that Zadie Smith had run up to him in the street and told him how much she loves the show. (Guess who’s looking for an ‘in’? The show is part-written by a crack team of David Simon, Ed Burns and a few novelists, including George Pelicanos).

Then came a reference in an Alan Moore interview (thanks Sinéad), who said, “The absolute pinnacle of anything I’ve seen recently has got to be The Wire. It’s the most stunning piece of television that has ever come out of America, possibly the most stunning piece of television full-stop.”

I couldn’t agree more. Then, a few nights later, as I was passively sitting with one eye on Corrie, scouser Lloyd suddenly says, “it’s like The Wire round here, meeting on street corners.” When Corrie references something, you know you’re busted. The cat is officially out of the bag.

This weekend, I had to admit the game was finally up, as the papers gave blanket coverage to the show to mark the start of season 5 on FX (nice interview with Omar (pictured below) in the Guardian that reveals that scar is 100% real!).

For about four months now, I’ve been living in the demi-monde of Wire obsessives. A half world where conversation consists only of Wire-related topics, vocabulary incorporates phrases like “Aight” and “true dat” and everything is sieved through a Wire filter.

Last week, in Wire limbo and desperate for a fix, I hunted down some books by David Simon, the show’s creator. I had never been in the True Crime section before. I felt embarrassed. True Crime has its connotations. In my mind, it’s read by the same kind of people who buy those bumper crossword and wordteaser books that you find left behind in hospital waiting rooms. To add to my embarrassment, I couldn’t locate the bloody books. The man behind the desk told me they had Homicide and The Corner on the shelf, but the computer lied! With some detective work (see, it’s taking over my life), I located Homicide misfiled in the Crime section but couldn’t find The Corner. So I asked the girl. She looked downstairs in the storeroom. She looked upstairs in the overflow section. She looked back in the True Crime section, which I had already exhausted. I just looked bereft. She took my number and promised to locate a copy and ring me once she found it. True to her word, an hour later, I got the call. When I went in to pick up the book, I had the kind of heart-warming conversation that is a privilege of being a Wire fan. The man behind the customer service counter said he had never read any David Simon books before as he handed them over. Have you seen The Wire, I ventured? ‘Twice!’ he replied. I told him to shut up, as I haven’t seen all of Season 5 yet. You know there’s a new show starting in America that David Simon wrote, I say, thinking I’m the cool one with all the insider information. “Yes! Generation Kill! Started Tuesday night!” he replied. We smiled to ourselves, recognising fellow obsessives. We said goodbye awkwardly, feeling we had shared something and thus our departure should have been something other than formal and stilted.

For those of you lucky enough not yet to have seen The Wire, Channel 6 just started showing Season 1 (I think it’s just two episodes in) at 9.25 on Thursday nights. But be warned, you will end up spending more and more of your time (and eventually all of your time) thinking about the show, talking about the show, reading books that inspired the show and generally proclaiming your love for the show that is, possibly, the most stunning piece of television full-stop.

Oh, and a final word to the unconverted: It’s better than The Sopranos. Enjoy.

p.s. Just found this New Yorker profile of David Simon. Like I said, I’m obsessed.

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