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