My relationship with Britain's longest soap opera, Coronation Street has waxed and waned over the years. In the 1970s I would sneak out of my bed and go downstairs when my mother was flossing her teeth in the bathroom (a task that would take about 90 minutes - say what you like about OCD perfectionists, but they always have lovely gleaming teeth). I would then watch Coronation Street with the sound turned right down, while sitting up close to the tv so I wouldn't be discovered. One storyline particularly affected me - when Deirdre Barlow left a pram containing baby Tracy Barlow outside the Rovers' Return, and then a lorry crashed into it. Deirdre thought Tracy had been killed, and almost threw herself off a viaduct, but it all ended happily, as a neighbour had taken the pram off for a walk without telling anyone. Although a) if you leave your baby in an unattended pram while you go in a pub then you're kind of asking for trouble and b) considering that Tracy turned into one of the street's biggest villains, a different outcome may have been happier for some people.
During the 1990s, when the internet was just taking off, I was the scourge of the newsgroup rec.arts.tv.uk.coronation-street (or ratucs as the "in-crowd" called it). I was one of those obsessive contributors, posting several messages a day (sometimes an hour), and being a central figure in an "online community". We felt so cutting-edge, that we were living in a futuristic virtual society (this was long before Facebook and Youtube). I had a kindly stalker who used to visit me at work occasionally, and I conducted an "online marriage" with a lady from Canada, which caused controversy and
threatened to wreck the group. I ran little competitions and actually sent out prizes to winners (!) And I even posted up mocking updates of the show, where I referred to Deirdre as Dreary, Rita as the Big Red Wig and Ivy as Pope Ivy. One of my fella members of ratucs, Glenda, took over the updates, and runs her own Corrie site, as well as the site Flaming Nora.
As I took on more responsiblity at work, and developed a busy social life for a brief period, it became increasingly difficult to keep up. I've watched Corrie on and off since then, but more off than on. To be truthful, the increasing reliance on murders, dramatic accidents, big fights at weddings, fires etc, have put me off it a bit. After a time they become predictable and I've always enjoyed the gentle humour and characterisation the most, not the cliff-hangers. If Coronation Street was real, would any of the characters ever be able to get life insurance or even car insurance. Imagine them phoning "Go Compare" and saying "I live at 9 Coronation Street, can I have some life insurance please!". A klaxon would probably start buzzing in the call centre, as their little computer worked out that statistically, you have a 20% chance of being murdered within the next 10 years, a 30% chance of being in a car which crashes into a canal, a 86% chance of getting married to Steve McDonald at some point in your life and a 112% chance of your partner cheating on you and your baby actually being someone else's.
Long-suffering Steve McDonald: my ideal man, which is just as well, as statistically everyone will end up being married to him at some point in their lives
A boxed set of episodes from the 1960s have been released recently, and I'm enjoying them much more than the current storylines. There is the added bonus that they can be viewed as both social history and as entertainment. It's fascinating seeing the insides of people's homes in the 1960s (even if they are fake homes). The production values are much more austere (we rarely see outside, and the outdoors sets are clearly painted backdrops of streets), while the fact that episodes were filmed live means that actors occasionally fluff their lines but nobody seems to mind. The stories tend to be character driven - Ken Barlow's intellectual snobbery featuring heavily in early episodes. Like many of the early characters in Coronation Street, I see little glimpses of myself - particularly Ken (though Annie Walker and Elsie Tanner (see below) also contribute).
On the whole, people are kinder to each other and there is a strong sense of community, exemplified in an episode where a coach trip to Blackpool feels like the characters are going to the other side of the planet. Rather than milking every storyline for maximum drama, it instead goes for an understated approach, which is actually more effective. So when Ida Barlow is killed in a road accident, we learn about it via a series of business-like conversations in a police station. We don't see the accident, and even when the police tell the family the bad news, we are not shown this scene, but are left to imagine how Ken and his father will react, off-camera. Had Ida Barlow been run over now, there would have been a giant close-up on her face as a car hit her and she died, then the car would veer off the road and fall into a canal, then it would explode, killing everyone in it. Then we'd switch to a close-up of the shocked faces of her entire family who had witnessed the crash. Then a tram would crash off a bridge on top of them all, and they would all die too.
Three characters stand out in the early years, all women: Annie Walker, Elsie Tanner and Ena Sharpes. Annie Walker (played by Margaret Thatcher before she became Prime Minister) is the Queen of the Street, being a terrifying dragon figure to her husband, and engaging in petty bourgeoisie snobbery whenever she can, she has a wonderful way of giving people dirty looks while sounding nice.
Elsie is the most likeable and fun character, a brassy red-head and good-time girl who's now a bit "past it". She is supposed to represent the "common family", with a son who's been in prison (and is clearly gay, although written as if straight). Nowadays she'd be viewed as respectable and having old-fashioned values. Elsie has a heart of gold and genuinely likes and understands men, even if they continually let her down. I don't know a great deal about how her character develops, but it's clear she's going to suffer again and again.
But it's Ena Sharples who, for me, is the true star of Coronation Street. Perhaps the closest thing to a villain, Ena is a ferocious battleaxe in a huge trenchcoat with a hairnet helmet permenantly glued to her head. She's the sort of woman who isn't afraid to speak her mind, who views conflict as oxygen, who dominates her hapless friends vinegary Martha and vague Minnie, is casually racist (see second clip below), but also extremely clever and manipulative, often using religious piety or her age ("I'm just an old pensioner") to gain the undeserving moral high ground. Many of Ena's storylines involve her precarious position as caretaker of the Glad Tidings Mission, where she gets to live at the vestry for free. To Ena, the vestry has the same status and importance as Southfork in Dallas or Denver-Carrington Oil in Dynasty. She will do anything to keep it.
In the first episode, Ena introduces herself to timid Florrie Lindley, who has just taken over the corner shop. "I'm Mrs Sharples. I'm a neighbour, you a widow woman?" she says. She then interrogates Florrie on what church she goes to and where she's going to be buried (death is one of Ena's favourite subjects), and asks for half a dozen fancies ("no eclairs, I said NO ECLAIRS").
This clip of Ena, while in hospital is notable for her racist outburst "I had three doctors round me this afternoon and one of them was as black as a chinmey bag. Oh he was clean you could tell, his face shone like black leading", and the disturbing close-up of her face right into the camera at the end of her accusoratory rant. It is as if she is about to emerge out of the television and attack the viewer. Can you imagine Coronation Street doing anything so avante guarde these days?
Despite Ena's rather challenging personality, it is easy to see how she quickly became one of the most popular characters, and her "wisdom" is currently much impersonated in the Odana household. Well, not the racist stuff.