Still entertaining after 50 years
Coronation Street’s popularity rests on avoiding ‘ishoos’ in favour of camp humour and pints-of-bitter nostalgia.
‘Fifty today, old lad?/Well, that’s not so bad/All those years without/Being really buggered about’, wrote Kingsley Amis in his birthday poem ‘Ode To Me’. Somewhat inevitably, though, he warns that ‘the next fifty won’t be so good’ because ‘after a whole generation/Of phasing out education/Throwing the past away’ all we’ll be left with is ‘unchangeable crappiness (which) spreads over the land’.
These are words worth heeding for Coronation Street, as the long-running soap chalks up half a century this week. In the fiftieth anniversary week, the cast went all out for a party, which ended in a suitably melodramatic fashion: an explosion at a club, a plummeting tram, and a live episode where we find out who among the characters survive.
Yet despite the drama, Corrie has a reasonably decent claim to having avoided being buggered about too much so far. After all, one character we won’t be saying goodbye to is Ken Barlow, who has been around since the very first episode, when he was an angry young man eager to escape his working class roots. ‘It’s so frustrating being stood around unable to do anything’, he said whilst surveying the wreckage on Monday’s episode – an existential howl of despair befitting Britain’s most well-known Guardian reader.
Any international viewer seeking to get an insight into what is now the world’s longest-running soap opera might find Coronation Street a dazzlingly surreal experience. Set in a fictional suburb of Manchester it still exists in a world of cobbled streets and terraced houses, where all the inhabitants are factory workers going down the same pub every evening, taking their minds off their mundane lives with an endless succession of affairs and petty little dramas. People still speak in broad Northern dialects and drink pints of bitter; the theme tune is a mournful brass dirge; the women are either terrifyingly sexually rapacious vamps or terrifying, sour-faced harridans; the men are generally either hen-pecked inarticulate blokes who just want a quiet life or slimy love rats.
Yet while it is tempting to be outraged at the insufferably sentimental portrayal of British life which harks back to a nostalgic, bygone time of bucolic working-class Northern life, it would hardly be a novel criticism. In fact, the Daily Mirror – back when it was the paper of choice for the forward-thinking working class – accused the soap of as much from its very first episode, and maintained that it would surely only last three weeks. A reputation for being blandly quaint has never left the programme since. By contrast, the notoriously gritty and controversial Brookside was a statement of intent by the alternative broadcaster Channel 4 to provide a more realistic portrayal of working-class life being decimated under Thatcherism. It was swiftly followed by the BBC’s Eastenders.
The soap wars marked a decidedly dodgy period in Coronation Street’s history, as it tried to compete with storylines in other series that reflected the important social and political issues of the day: AIDS, domestic violence, social disorder, and so on. As it did so, Coronation Street‘s storylines became increasingly outlandish. For a series grounded very firmly in the traditions of the soap opera genre (soaps take their name from mini-domestic dramas broadcast on radio to advertise soap powder) and the literary traditions of working-class music-hall humour (many have commented on how the bitchy Ena Sharples and her gang of housewives operated as a Greek chorus commenting on street events) this was always going to be a disaster.
Not least because, unlike the partially state-funded BBC and Channel 4, Coronation Street was the flagship series of the commercial channel ITV, which encouraged a certain risk aversion. Pointing out the under-representation of minorities in Coronation Street became something of a liberal party game throughout the Eighties and Nineties: it took until 1999 for the first Asian family to arrive in the streets of Manchester, and only in 2003 did it properly tackle a gay storyline (four years after Queer As Folk had put Manchester at the centre of metropolitan gay life). This year, it introduced lesbianism (nearly 20 years after Brookside caused a storm of protest with Beth Jordache).
Yet there is something to be said for Corrie’s traditionalism. While Brookside has fallen by the wayside, its celebrated social realism and controversial bent having been slaughtered by Channel 4’s conversion to the schlock value of reality TV, and Eastenders having been neutered by Auntie’s neo-paternalism and a liberal thirst to educate the masses out of their disgusting ways, Coronation Street is still standing strong. This is partly because it never actually lost sight of what it was: well-made popular television, designed to reflect and briefly alleviate the humdrum lives of its viewers. It still maintains something of the camp sense of humour it had from the outset, marking it out from the gloom-fest of ‘Enders. More subtly, but just as importantly, it’s the only soap left that is willing to imply that people might still go down the pub to, well, have a drink and laugh with their mates and have a natter about who they’re copping off with (without mentioning whether they’re using protection or not). Even after the smoking ban – surely the final nail in the coffin of the working-class community boozer the show hopes to represent – the sight of Deidre Barlow having a laugh while puffing away on her cancer sticks can raise the hackles of Britain’s new moral majority in the health sector.
There’s plenty to dislike, naturally. The attempts to elevate Coronation Street to a level of Shared National Experience are as strong in the overblown celebrations across the media of the fiftieth anniversary as they were when the then fresh-faced prime minister Tony Blair backed the ‘free the Weatherfield One’ campaign to get Deidre released from prison back in 1998. For all the misty-eyed talk on BBC Radio 4’s Today of dialogue emulating Joe Orton and Alan Sillitoe, it is ultimately just a soap opera and not high art. I’m not one who subscribes to the theory that if Shakespeare or Dickens were alive today they’d be writing for soaps – this may be true, but that would mean that a chap called Shakespeare and a chap called Dickens would be obscure and probably embittered scriptwriters rather than two of the greatest artists in history.
But let’s not sneer at a bit of popular entertainment which isn’t frightened of being popular or entertaining even in today’s austere and po-faced climate. So Corrie, as Amis said, ‘Be glad you’re fifty–and/That you got there while things were nice… here’s wishing you many more years/But not all that many. Cheers!’
David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.