Among the visual litter of second-rate soap operas, sitcoms and gameshows
one programme has stood out like a beacon for over thirty years now. If the unthinkable ever happened and it was removed from our TV screens, a storm of protest would be guaranteed. It is well written, superbly acted and tremendously likeable. It is, of course, Coronation Street.
Coronation Street is what the pundits like to call a ‘national institution’ and watching it it is easy to see how they came to that conclusion. At an emotional level, not only does it hold a special place in the heart of many viewers (unusual itself for a TV programme these days) it reflects a wider set of social values which viewers can easily identify with. It is a cosy, homely type of programme that you can curl up in front of on a winter’s night. As has been tirelessly pointed out. the only real problem with it is that it does not reflect a cosy, homely world. Indeed, Coronation Street, its detractors claim, does not reflect reality at all. It portrays a world that does not exist anywhere any more. It is a terraced Victorian street with cobbles, a corner shop and an old-fashioned English pub. the sort of self-contained community that is dying out everywhere. Furthermore, Coronation Street largely neglects the type of problems associated with this decline.
At the time of writing, there is not a single unemployed person on Coronation Street. There is nobody with a drug problem. Nobody, apparently, even on anti-depressants or tranquilisers. Only one person. Emily Bishop, with a past history of mental illness. No one is active in a pressure group or political party of any sort, and there do not appear to be any trade unionists. Most bizarrely, for an inner-city Manchester street, there is not one Asian family and interestingly — as has been spotted by many a comedian with an axe to grind — the corner shop is run by a white couple called Reg and Maureen. Throughout its entire history, in fact, Coronation Street’s corner shop has carried the flag for white Middle England. And of course, there is no one in Coronation Street who is — you know — in any way ‘funny’, sexually. Raquel’s recent dalliance with Curly Watts is as close as it gets.
This all sounds like a terrible indictment, and in some ways it is. Coronation Street is a hopelessly unrepresentative television programme. Even if we momentarily disregard the sociological breakdowns and the discrepancies they reveal, comparatively few characters in the Street are in any way likely. Most are quite bizarre, though often entertainingly so. Has anyone ever met anybody in real life remotely like Reg Hallsworth? Or Mavis and Derek? Or Raquel? The question is superfluous — of course nobody has. and certainly not in the one little street. They are extreme characterisations of the comic variety, exaggerated almost — though not quite — out of recognition altogether. In truth, they have far more in common with comedian Harry Enfield than with anything or anyone to be found in miserable old Albert Square. Enfield’s “Mr ‘You don’t want to do it like that”’ seems to draw heavily on Percy Sugden.
Paradoxically for the greatest British soap opera, its characters are often more in the tradition of the British sitcom — more Captain Mainwairing or Gordon Brittas than Arthur Fowler, more Hattie Jacques and Joan Sims than Mandy Jordache. They are not, to hazard a guess, meant to be real people at all. It is hard to think of other characters in any other British soap opera who fall into this category.
Not them again.
Extreme characterisations often provide for good comedy, and this is one of the secrets of the Street’s success. Compare it to BBC I‘s EastEnders and this becomes apparent very quickly indeed. While EastEnders goes in for a highly distorted version of ‘social realism’, the Street doesn’t bother its head — its philosophy is that it is drama and laughs that people want more than murder, mayhem and misery. And that is precisely why it is held in such affection by millions of workers. Without too great a leap of the imagination, it gives them a sense of what life might be like if it wasn’t so bloody boring most of the time. lts appeal may be less obviously based on escapism than racy Dallas or glitzy Dynasty, but escapism it is nevertheless.
Despite their occasional traumas, the characters in Coronation Street are genuinely interesting specimens who are, encouragingly, rather nice with it. They are, as they say up North, decent folk. Has Alma a malicious bone in her body? Have Sally and Kevin, or Rita? It would not appear so. Best of all, they seem to inhabit a real community in every sense of the term. Not a sprawling housing estate plagued by packs of dogs and discarded syringes, nor the amorphous sprawl of suburbia but a place where people genuinely care about one another and then nip in to the local boozer to finish off the day with a pint and a gossip. It is a bit of a fantasy, true, but a lovely one.
It would be easy enough to sneer at all this, but Coronation Street deserves better. It cannot even be dismissed as a mere capitalist utopia, for although there are clearly elements of this, it is a strange utopia where the inhabitants live in poky, claustrophobic little terraced houses without any greenery in sight. Instead Coronation Street is best seen as an antidote to the myriad other TV programmes that portray the working class as vicious morons without an ounce of feeling or compassion in their entire bodies. If the producers of EastEnders got their grimy little hands on it, Nicky Platt would soon be selling crack cocaine on the corner of Rosumund Street and giving heroin to little Sarah-Louise while Betty Turpin would be running a brothel above the Rover’s Return. Would that be more realistic? Hardly. It would simply be to swop one excess for another.
Though it has its faults, Coronation Street has more going for it than most soap operas. Crucially, it has never really endorsed the ethics of the market driven economy, and its least likeable characters. Mike Baldwin and Steve MacDonald are both petty capitalists, interestingly enough. And when realism — in a genuine rather than the over dramatised form of otvher soaps — rears its head, it is often for Vera Duckworth or Curly Watts to bemoan their existence as a ‘wage slave’ after a long day in the supermarket. Most of the characters, though idiosyncratic enough, appear reasonably intelligent — only screaming, bawling Tracy Barlow seems to have caught the EastEnders disease so far, and this too is encouraging.
Coronation Street will surely continue to do what it does best: provide an engaging pastiche of working class life with humour and vigour. It can generally leave the issues campaigning and ‘social realism’ to Brookside, the petty arguments and grind to EastEnders and the gratuitous violence and bad sets to Prisoner Cell Block H. It has little to learn from any of them while it continues to depict a working class with humour, a certain degree of confidence and more than one brain cell to collectively rub together. For this alone, its deficiencies can be forgiven. That is its greatest achievement over thirty years and more, and in a world dominated by a cynical, bitter and twisted media, it is not to be sniffed at.