Swivel-eyed get – what a wonderfully vivid description of an interfering busybody. It gate-crashed the national lexicon when Arthur Seaton was confronted by the actions of ‘Old Ma Bull’, a characteristic battleaxe familiar to anyone who had grown-up in an immediate post-war working-class community, the kind that would shortly be given iconic properties courtesy of ‘Coronation Street’, whereby Old Ma Bull would be remade and remodelled as Ena Sharples. The 1960 movie of Alan Sillitoe’s ‘kitchen-sink’ novel, ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ laid the ground for Tony Warren’s transfer of the Angry Young Man’s oeuvre from silver to small screen at the end of that year; but Albert Finney’s interpretation of the book’s lead character has remained a British cinematic touchstone that every anti-hero has followed ever since, even when the actors taking their cue from Finney’s pioneering lead don’t necessarily recognise the taste of the chip on the character’s shoulder.
Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay, Terence Stamp, Michael Caine – actors whose grammar school backgrounds were no impediment to achievement at a unique moment in recent British history, when social mobility was a reality rather than a theory undone by successive government cuts to the Arts in the state sector. The death at the age of 82 of the first of those landmark thespians to break the mould has served to remind us all that it was once possible to rise from the provinces and reach for the stars bereft of nepotism or economic privilege. Despite the fact that this quartet went on to play a wide variety of roles, the seismic impact they made when kicking down the drawing-room doors at the dawn of a decade that briefly redrew the map of possibilities is something all four will forever be associated with.
However, one only has to look at the legacy of ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ via the small screen to realise its groundbreaking authenticity has been diluted and all-but obliterated. Today’s television demands have transformed Tony Warren’s depiction of Salford from a twice-weekly account of events the audience could relate to into a nightly penny-dreadful document of fantastical melodrama whereby sieges, shootings, murders, abortions, rapes, drug and sexual abuse, fires and explosions are the norm, and where infidelity is apparently compulsory. Taking its sensationalistic cue from the likes of ‘Eastenders’, ‘Emmerdale’ and ‘Hollyoaks’, the 2019 landscape of Weatherfield makes Syria seem a preferable destination.
One could say this week’s unsurprising (if appalling) statistics on knife-crime have perhaps demonstrated urban society today is a good deal more dangerous than the one Arthur Seaton swaggered his way through on a Saturday night in 1960; and I would imagine the producers and writers of ‘Coronation Street’ justify their gory stories by claiming they are merely reflecting that danger via the heightened, exaggerated reality of drama. At the same time, such tactics don’t so much exaggerate as distort reality, as though the writers scan the worst headlines and then shoehorn them into the script, giving viewers the impression that society is even more violent than it actually is. Pulp novelist Richard Allen sourced his cult series of 70s books on teenage tribes in much the same way.
The criticism of ‘Coronation Street’ used to be that it was trapped in a nostalgic time-warp, portraying a cosy cobblestone community that had long since vanished beneath the tower-block; the only remnant of this viewpoint in today’s version is the fact that every character in a job has a workplace no more than a dozen paces from their front door. Otherwise, cosy certainly isn’t a word that can be applied to ‘Coronation Street’ in 2019; a solitary street in which virtually every depressing social issue afflicting the nation can be found in action is hardly cosy, though it’s not exactly reality either. And one major casualty of this approach is the crucial element of ‘Coronation Street’ that served to elevate it above the competition for decades, its humour.
Past writers understood the formula that had made the show so successful; Weatherfield was a place where tragedy and comedy sat cheek-by-jowl, as they do in the real world. Yes, there were plenty of dramatic events on ‘Coronation Street’ during its first half-century, but there was equally just as much witty writing, characterisation and dialogue worthy of the finest sitcom. This was once a balance that worked well, though perhaps having to stretch storylines so thinly across so many episodes a week has now resulted in a desperate increase of the shock-horror plots at the expense of Stan & Hilda-type hi-jinks, something clueless TV executives deem vital in a ratings battle that has actually never been more irrelevant. If ‘Coronation Street’ remains a mirror on society, anyone looking through that mirror can only come to the conclusion that society is f****d.
If the streets of terraced houses surrounding the old Raleigh factory in Nottingham that Arthur Seaton knew as home hadn’t already been wiped from the map, would they too have descended into the same moral cesspit at their Salford contemporary sixty years on? Probably. Whereas the kitchen-sink heroes – Seaton, Billy Liar, Jimmy Porter et al – railed against the iniquities of their uninspired inheritance and fought tooth-and-claw to climb their way out, the way in which their grandchildren are depicted for dramatic purposes lacks the one key ingredient that made those early 60s movies so invigorating and uplifting – hope.
One could argue the decline of social mobility means hope is in short supply as it is, so surely drama should reflect that when turning its focus on those at the bottom of the heap. Unfortunately, by doing so it has the habit of making any relatively rare drama set in a working-class community either on TV or at the cinema a pretty despondent experience. Even whenever a non-Estuary English accent is aired on the likes of ‘Woman’s Hour’ today, the listener knows the subject under discussion is bound to be gangs or drugs or sexual abuse or sex trafficking coz that’s what them working-classes do, innit.
Finney has died at 82, Courtenay will be the same age at the end of this month; Stamp is 80; Caine is 85. These guys are either gone or getting very old indeed, and we won’t see their likes again because the system that enabled them to succeed isn’t there anymore. That’s why we’re inundated with Cumberbatch’s, Lewis’s and West’s; that’s not a criticism of Benedict, Damien or Dominic as actors, but they all had advantages that gave them a head start. A kid without those advantages, a kid in possession of a talent with the potential to flower into that of a Finney or a Courtenay, will have doors barred to him as a result and we’ll be denied that talent. We could consequently return to the time before Arthur Seaton, whereby ex-public schoolboys will effectively ‘black-up’ to play working-class characters, and actors with more authentic origins will be reduced to comedy cockneys or daft northerners. And then the bastards will have ground us down after all.
© The Editor
10 thoughts on “A CLASS ACT”
My favourite comedy half hour of all time is from Coronation Street… sometime in the 90s when Raquelle was off to a modelling gig with “Armani” and had a butterflies-in-the-tummy section with Bet Lynch, while Ron and Maureen were singing “The Young Ones” in the bar and Curly was getting it on with his new assistant manager. Sheer comedy genius with that human tragedy, jealousy and lust all as buried sub-plots, and better than Monty Python or Absolutely Fabulous or anything else.
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Oops! Memory lapse! Reg, not Ron.
Ah, yes – Reg Holdsworth. I recall at one time he used to rent the flat above Alf’s corner shop and when evicted his possessions were thrown out on the street by Mr Roberts, including a sizeable selection of ‘gentlemen’s magazines’ – the sort that the Kabin never seemed to sell.
I grew up in a street very similar to Coronation Street and the attraction of that programme in its early days was precisely its reality – to us it was ‘Reality TV’, it was the environment, people and situations that we saw around us every day. Now, of course, we have something branded as ‘Reality TV’, which is anything but. Similarly, soaps such as Coronation Street, Emmerdale, EastEnders etc. all portray an unrealistically concentrated dump of topical social issues, often including much unsubtle social engineering – they are not alone, even The Archers and Doctor Who have fallen down that rabbit-hole and disappeared from having any value.
Going back to the ‘angry young men’ actors, maybe it was their grammar school backgrounds which actually enabled their art to develop. Back then, social mobility was available to many through the wide availability of grammar school standards, even access to exclusive fee-paying ones – I know, I climbed that ladder myself, a ladder which has since been removed by the ‘progressive’ shift to the alleged level playing-field of comprehensives and which only produces identikit clones filled with the sterilised thoughts of others.
If you want creative folk, you’ve got to set their minds free – which is the last thing any controlling government actually wants.
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It could also be doubly difficult for a young Albert Finney today, emanating from the social demographic designated as the favouriite punchbag of many running the Arts and media. As for what’s happened to ‘Doctor Who’, don’t even get me started on that! Actually, I think I got some of it off my chest with my last video, which YT ‘banned’, the sensitive little wallflowers…https://vimeo.com/307897206?fbclid=IwAR3J_is_zbyNETrejk79nivox-OR9shC1E_J22F9L8VZ_7fqKv4gjAvIZ7g
RIP Bruno Ganz
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Which leads me to muse that Alice in the Cities couldn’t be made today. The paedofinders would demand production be shut down.
Wow, that’s an obscure reference! I think I still have that on a VHS tape somewhere, having recorded it in the early 90s.
Come to think of it, I think I have most of Faraway So Close on a VHS somewhere recorded from the tv. It’s only so-so, frankly, Alice in the Cities is the best Wenders’ film I’ve seen. I tried to watch Paris Texas but it bored me to sleep.
You want obscure? I’ve been trying to track down an online copy of this, so far without success:
I’d happily pay them but I’m not arsed buying a DVD (it seems to be DVD-only).
Never heard of that one, but mention of recording ‘Alice in the Cities’ from TV reminded me once again of how Channel 4 used to aim for an audience with cultural curiosity and now produces naked dating shows.
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