ALEXANDER THE GREAT

hildaThe 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

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6 thoughts on “ALEXANDER THE GREAT

  1. I’m not a big fan, but…. one episode should be compulsory viewing for all students of theatre, whether actors or writers or critics. It is the one where Raquel (played by Sarah Lancashire) is about to go to a modelling assignment for “Armani”. The dialogue is comedy gold, but the range of pathos, comedy (with Reg and Maureen singing “The Young Ones”), drama with Curly’s dealings with his assistant manager and the scheming and conniving of Tanya, with the chivalry of Des Barnes covers every base in one half hour.

    There will also never, ever, be another Elsie Tanner.

    But another thought: maybe those characters were so alluring because we recognised them from our own community. Today’s communities are so atomised and constantly shifting, do we even see such brassy women as Elsie, or Hilda Ogden – or even Annie Walker types in our own lives any more?

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    1. Indeed, the notion that a community has a history comprising characters who have been part of it for decades is a rarer concept these days. Whenever friends talk of street parties during the 1977 Silver Jubilee, they often sound surprised no such event took place on the street where I lived (though it was ironically a cul-de-sac). The fact the street was on a new estate meant there were no residents over 30, and it tends to be the middle-aged that organise those kind of do’s. It was an estate with no history, really, and yet now that it has one, it still isn’t Coronation Street. I can only think of one resident there today who has been there as long as my mum (40+ years), which speaks volumes as to the shifting nature of community over the last half-century.

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  2. I concur – I grew up in a northern industrial ‘Coronation Street’, lived next-door to our ‘Elsie Tanner’, our ‘Rovers Return’ was just across the road, all the ‘Street’ characters, from the aspirational ‘Ken Barlow’ to the idle ‘Stan Ogden’ were instantly visible amongst that real, long-lived community.

    But, unlike today, many of those folk were life-long residents in that neighbourhood, as had been their parents before them – indeed my own maternal grandparents lived in the next parallel street all their married life – they all knew each other’s business and character. But to most of those folk, moving out was not an option, neither was any big aspiration, their modest aim was just to pay their bills each week, enjoy what little they had and ‘get by’. They may not have been entirely happy with their lot, but they had no realistic expectation of changing it, so pragmatic resignation was the order of the day.

    Today, everyone is fed a 24/7 media diet of expectations which stimulates aspiration and movement – not necessarily a bad thing, but some amount of community ‘baby’ has certainly been thrown out with the old ‘bath-water’.

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    1. I think the glut of ‘property porn’ TV shows certainly have a lot to answer for, generating the belief that a house is not a home but a cash-cow investment, and that aspiring to constantly change addresses in some ill-advised and largely unrealisable (for most) concept of social mobility is somehow ‘keeping up with the Jones’s’. Therefore, communities are in a permanent state of flux and community spirit is thin on the ground.

      On a different note, welcome back to the fold, good sir. I hope the IT issues have been resolved now.

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  3. Still some way off the ‘final solution’ but I’m limping along with a lap- top until I can get a new office system in place – but at least I’ve got full web-access back. Migrating historic stuff from defective decade-old systems ain’t fun. Having to spend real money on it too, which is even worse. Hey ho.

    (The delight is that I can now get scales of processing power and storage on a lap-top for ‘pence’, when the same thing would have literally cost millions only 20 years ago, and needed a sterile environment and armies of operators to run it – amazing progress).

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    1. Yes, I’ve also had to endure the tedious process of transferring ‘stuff’ from one PC to another, though in my case the material only stretched back four or five years at the very most. Accumulated a lot more since then, a bit like actual physical stuff!

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