Thursday, January 13, 2011

On Ena

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 (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.


Anonymous said...

The early Street was very much a mirror held up to certain aspects of provincial life, in a way that today's Street could never replicate, even if it wanted to. Today's Street is more 'theatre of the absurd' than reflection of social reality, and I think one of the reasons that it has lost popularity is because it has lost that sense of verisimilitude which made it watchable. (I think I stopped watching religiously about the time Kevin Webster shaved his moustache off, which I think was roughly around the time that Diana died, although clearly far more harrowing). Racism, for example, is still endemic, but I don't recall hearing any out-and-out racist comments by anyone in the Street. (Funny how they're all terribly PC on that front, but not averse to serial adultery and murder). Ena's racism was innocuous by comparison. Those were the days where you could go into a woolshop and ask for "two balls of nigger brown" with no-one batting an eyelid. I'm not saying there was an innocence to it, but in a society where black faces stood out, such remarks were certainly more understandable than what one hears today. Were the makers of CS to bring back some 'ishooz' and treat them realistically, rather than raining down trams on people and turning people lesbian not to highlight same-sex issues but to drag in viewers, then I'd probably watch more avidly. But it ain't what it was, that's for sure. Particularly since the demise of Blanche.

Lubin said...

Ah Blanche - sorely missed. At least one thing which CS has going for it is the strong roles it has for older people, and those with non-standard attractiveness.

encyclotedium said...

I wasn't a fan of the tram crash. While it was storylined well and a real spectacle, I thought it was a shame they resorted to that to 'celebrate' the 50th anniversary. It was like Die Hard but with barm cakes. That the show has been a little flat since the tram crash confirms my worries; once you go so far, where's left to go? That said, there were some truly great performances — Sally Webster has been a revelation. I think I was just disappointed that they resorted to a stunt rather than the human interaction they do so well. Tracy Barlow's return has been yet another tram crash; more pant than anything else.

I have to say that I don't think the lesbian storyline has been a viewer snare. yes, the girls are very pretty etc, but Sally's reactions to her daughter's sexuality when it first arose seemed authentic: confused, a little bit horrified, but still with an underlying love for her child. As for the different races, yes, massively under-represented from a soap that has claimed to be grounded in reality. The fact that the show's first Chinese character has made the news as if it were the modern-day equivalent of the moon landing serves only to reinforce my point. It is, however, the only soap that really represents older people and the way they live their lives. And they may be more peripheral now, but Blanche's Polish hip replacement and Emily's breakdown in the late '90s were great TV. One last thing and a massive boast post: I have pulled a pint in the Rovers and sat in Eileen's chair in the cab office AND inspected Deirdre's tablecloth at close hand. It's filthy, the slovenly article.

Adrian said...

RATUCS! I remember that - I was a mere lad of 15 reading all about Corrie. I loved it - I still call Rita the Big Red Wig.

I love Ena too. My favourite moment was when she announced her mother's death: "she sat up in bed, broke wind and died".