The death of actress Jean Alexander at the age of 90 inevitably evokes memories of the character she played in Britain’s most popular TV programme for 23 years, a character that those of us who weren’t there when it started found it inconceivable to imagine the show without. Hilda Ogden was for most of us the first cast member we pictured whenever we heard the name ‘Coronation Street’; that a staggering 27 million viewers tuned in to her final farewell at Christmas 1987 speaks volumes as to the impact Hilda made on the pop cultural landscape, the kind of impact no single television character will probably ever make again.
The instant power of television in the two-channel world it occupied when ‘Coronation Street’ debuted in December 1960 imbued the show’s strongest characters with iconic properties that ironically threatened to overshadow the groundbreaking realism that it was initially acclaimed for. Ena Sharples in her hairnet and Albert Tatlock in his flat cap were authentic archetypes of the environment Tony Warren strove to recreate onscreen in the beginning, but within a few years both characters were in danger of assuming the larger-than-life qualities of comedic caricatures that the programme’s critics labelled irrelevant relics of a bygone age bathed in sepia-tinted northern nostalgia. The rough edges, they claimed, had been softened by success. The writers responded to such criticism by presenting viewers with a fresh challenge.
‘Coronation Street’ was already four years old by the time Hilda Ogden set up home in Weatherfield, but the character eventually became as intrinsic to the show’s mythology as the ones that had been introduced at the very beginning. The street’s resident nosy parker with her trademark curlers grew into such a crucial ingredient of what made the programme work so well that it’s interesting to note the negative reaction to the arrival of the street’s ‘problem family’ in 1964, albeit one it’s not difficult to understand when viewing their first scenes via DVD.
The Ogden clan were perceived as not just common, but criminal – almost a forerunner of the Gallagher family from ‘Shameless’ forty years later. Stan was an idle skiver with a hint of a past sometimes spent detained at Her Majesty’s Pleasure; son Trevor was a devious tearaway; daughter Irma was so ashamed and embarrassed by her parents and sibling that she distanced herself from them in public; and Hilda herself (who initially speaks in a broad Scouse accent) was regarded as the worst kind of gobshite fishwife. On one occasion, when Stan mistakenly thinks he’s won a fortune on the pools and spends a night buying every round in the Rovers to celebrate, his discovery that Hilda failed to post his coupon in time leads to him giving her a shiner, a bit of domestic abuse not one single character reacts to in the way they would now. There are also references to other Ogden children in those early episodes, one of whom is apparently in a mental institution, though they were quickly forgotten about and never mentioned again. It seemed the writers at the time were determined for the Ogden’s to embody every antisocial aspect of the mid-60s.
However, as the Ogden’s were slowly trimmed down to solely Stan and Hilda, Stan’s skiving gradually became less despicable and transformed him into a loveable laughable layabout, whilst Hilda’s incurable habit of poking her nose into her neighbours’ business – not to mention her ongoing feud with Elsie Tanner – made for some of the most entertaining moments in the show’s history. There was no more pretence to realism, but it didn’t matter; ‘Coronation Street’ had entered its own reality, one where the likes of Hilda Ogden could survive into the 1980s in the same way that men in tights can fight crime in Gotham City or Metropolis without anyone thinking it remotely odd or unrealistic.
As Stan Ogden approached retirement age (an eventuality he’d seemingly been preparing for throughout his time in the programme) actor Bernard Youens was clearly not a well man, and Eddie Yeats was introduced as Stan and Hilda’s lodger in order that Hilda might have a younger layabout to engage in banter with; but when Youens died in 1984, Hilda’s other half was naturally killed-off, leading to perhaps Jean Alexander’s finest performance when she had to unwrap Stan’s belongings that she had collected from the hospital he died in. Alexander admitted she was crying real tears during that scene, but seeing Hilda as a real human being for once seemed to suggest the character had exhausted all her comic possibilities; Alexander lasted for just three years as a Weatherfield widow.
Having spent her apprenticeship (like many of her original ‘Coronation Street’ co-stars) in regional rep, Jean Alexander had made an early TV appearance in the first series of ‘Z-Cars’ in 1962, and after a cameo playing Christine Keeler’s mother in the 1989 movie ‘Scandal’, the small screen was where she stayed after exiting the Street, eventually joining the cast of ‘Last of the Summer Wine’, where she remained for 18 years. She finally retired from acting at the age of 86, never having married or had children. Sensible woman.
Over the last decade, the writers of ‘Coronation Street’ have belatedly realised it is the unique comic characters that the viewers warm to more than the interchangeable teenagers or young couples that could essentially appear in any soap opera; and it is the superlative dialogue they utter that lingers longer than whatever spectacular siege, fantastical crash or murder whodunit the programme-makers believe will keep viewers watching. The likes of Norris, Mary, Dev, Steve and Liz MacDonald could only really reside in Weatherfield. It is in this context that they, as with their predecessors Jack and Vera Duckworth, Fred Eliot, Bet Lynch, Reg Holdsworth, Percy Sugden, Ena Sharples and Albert Tatlock, belong; but it was the success of Hilda Ogden that really established this essential key to the longevity of ‘Coronation Street’ – and for that, the programme owes Jean Alexander big time.
© The Editor