THE BABY AND THE BATHWATER

A tried-and-trusted barometer for how far we’ve travelled as a society in living memory – certainly by the compilers of cheap clip shows – is to look at television output from 30-40-50 years ago. Yes, we’ve all seen these delves into the archives, with their awkward examples of antiquated attitudes towards women, ‘ethnic’ groups, gays and so on; such out-of-context samples of the recent past are usually accompanied by interjections from contemporary talking heads reacting in ‘Gogglebox’ fashion. As most of those selected to offer their insightful opinions tend to have been born long after the event, they react in the way people have always reacted to a past they never lived through; one may as well dig up descriptions of the atrocious living and working conditions of the urban poor in the Victorian period and inform someone born in 1995 that children actually used to be sent up chimneys. Yes, times have changed, just as times always do; that’s what happens when day follows night.

Despite having a greater immediacy than cinema in being able to reflect current cultural and societal developments and trends, television drama nevertheless isn’t the news; it usually trails a year or two behind the zeitgeist by virtue of the time it takes from the scriptwriter penning the opening line to an eventual transmission date. In the early-to-mid 1990s, for example, there was a spate of ‘illegal rave’ storylines running through many mainstream TV series of the era, with the standard moralistic plot usually concerning a teenage character dabbling in ecstasy and dicing with death as a consequence. However, by the time most of these shows aired, the rave scene had already relocated to shiny new city centre nightclubs opened by canny promoters and superstar DJs, and what remained of the illegal element was in the process of being crushed by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994.

Similarly, many TV dramas – and sitcoms – of the 1970s often feature storylines in which the late 60s ‘counter culture’ still figures prominently when embodied in hippie radicals spouting pseudo-Marxist revolutionary gibberish and using outdated terminology – ‘man’. Therefore, relying upon old telly, certainly drama or comedy, to provide a 21st century generation with an accurate window to a world they never knew can be a tad misleading. Even taking some archetypal variety show of the period and studying the act of a comedian in a dinner jacket spinning the routine mother-in-law/thick Irishmen gags doesn’t take into account the fact this kind of comedy was hardly cutting-edge; it had long been regarded as naff and was regularly parodied by satirists on TV; it was also mercilessly ripped to shreds by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s foul-mouthed alter-egos Derek and Clive on their subversive vinyl outings at the same time as ‘Seaside Special’ was airing. Ee, it’s Alfie Noakes!

By picking and choosing snippets of old-school attitudes or language alien to modern mores simply to fit the agenda of the programme-makers and therefore underlining what a backward, bigoted society we used to be, there’s an inherent dishonesty at play; in falsely claiming this represents a whole picture, we conveniently ignore those segments of popular culture and television of the past that did a better job of giving voice to important issues and the masses affected by them than any equivalent attempt can manage now. Yes, ‘Play for Today’ is rightly remembered as a beacon of this, but it wasn’t operating in isolation; many of the writers, directors, producers and actors who progressed to the single play and gave us some of its most memorable jewels received their apprenticeship on what the BBC used to categorise as ‘continuing dramas’. In the 1960s and 70s, two shows served as especially potent training grounds – ‘Coronation Street’ and ‘Z Cars’; today we’d call them soaps, but they were described as continuing dramas back then.

The impact of Tony Warren’s baby on British TV was more or less instant and proved to be incredibly far-reaching; it’s easy to forget just how radical it was when first broadcast and how much it revolutionised television as a whole, not just drama; one could argue there’d have been no ‘Steptoe and Son’ or ‘Till Death Us Do Part’, let alone ‘The Wednesday Play’, without ‘Coronation Street’. Within a year of the arrival of Ena Sharples, Elsie Tanner, Annie Walker and the rest, the BBC responded with ‘Z Cars’, another groundbreaking series that took the gritty, kitchen-sink vibe of ‘Corrie’ and put it in police uniform. Whereas Salford had been re-imagined as Weatherfield, Kirkby was reborn as Newtown. As close-knit communities were being swept away by the tower block and Brutalist housing schemes, ‘Z Cars’ showed how crime continued to flourish even in the Brave New World Utopias of the 60s. As the series moved on into the 70s, this factor became more pronounced as a greater reliance on location filming exposed just how swiftly those idealistic projects had descended into grubby, decaying eyesores in which crime and poverty were just as depressingly prevalent as they had been in the old slums.

Although a couple of ‘Z Cars’ DVDs were issued around seven or eight years back, giving me the opportunity to see the series with a fresh pair of eyes, great chunks of the show from the 70s are currently (at the time of writing) available on one of those YT channels that have a habit of quickly disappearing. I was able to download all the episodes – just in case – and have been watching them over the past few weeks. As is so often the case with mainstream dramatic output regarded at the time as the formulaic poor relation of the single play, when stood beside the ‘Am. Dram.’-like hospital-based soaps of today, many episodes of ‘Z Cars’ are astonishingly engaging, moving and hard-hitting. The writing and the acting are both of a remarkably high standard for a show that aired before the watershed. The characters are well-drawn, believable, either eminently likeable or effectively loathsome, and the situations are entirely relatable, especially to the audience who would’ve been watching at the time.

As someone who was a regular childhood visitor to an auntie and cousin who resided in one of the worst examples of a 60s high-rise concrete Dystopia, ‘Z Cars’ scenes of feral kids running wild around graffiti-stained estates with broken lifts, broken windows and broken spirits ring very true indeed. Not only do you instantly warm to the regular cast, but you care what happens to those who figure in just the one episode, which is a testament to the writers and the actors. Long scenes enabling characters to breathe and establish their personalities in a way that gradually explains the predicament they’re in means the viewer is slowly reeled into their world rather than emotional investment being achieved by emotional blackmail delivered with the subtlety of Bob Geldof demanding ‘Give us yer feckin’ money’. By mostly avoiding the headline-grabbing blags and gangland murders that Regan & Carter tackled, ‘Z Cars’ deals with the kind of small-scale crime most of us will come into contact with at some point of our lives and therefore highlights the plight of that most overlooked contemporary demographic – the little people.

From a modern perspective, the best way to watch ‘Z Cars’ – and its unfairly-maligned elder sibling, ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ – is not to view it as belonging to the same televisual canon as ‘The Sweeney’ or ‘The Professionals’ simply because cops are involved, but to place it alongside the likes of ‘Play for Today’, which also took time out to seek out the drama in the ordinary life. As we find ourselves at a moment in society’s decline and fall in which me and thee count for so little that they place us under house arrest, hide our faces behind masks and outlaw any public protest against them, it’s worth remembering how what was once the nation’s premier medium used to serve as the stage for our stories. Are we so much better off now than we were then?

© The Editor

A CLASS ACT

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

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

STREET LIFE

WarrenSpike Milligan once said his epitaph would read – ‘Wrote The Goons, died’; it’s an inevitability that when someone whose working life created something that has impacted upon the consciousness of the general public in the most benign manner, the rest of the creator’s life (and their afterlife) will be lived in the shadow of his or her creation. The Beatles as a musical unit effectively covered around thirteen years of Paul McCartney’s seventy-four on the planet, yet it is those thirteen for which he will be forever remembered. And so it is with Tony Warren, whose death at the age of 79 was announced today.

Warren was an actor from childhood, though had been a novelist for the majority of his adult life; however, the obituaries will be headed ‘Coronation Street creator dies’. ‘Coronation Street’ was something that occupied Warren’s time at the turn of the 1960s – over fifty years ago; his involvement with the programme essentially covered the first 13 episodes and then other writers such as Harry Kershaw were brought in by Granada to allegedly lift the writing burden from the man whose imagination the entire concept sprang from. Warren felt his input was being minimised by the same people who were against the programme in the beginning and now had an overnight sensation on their hands; control of his baby was wrestled away from him, though he continued to write occasional scripts for it up until the late 1970s. In recent years, his services as a consultant had been called upon by a younger generation of writers and producers who had grown up with Warren’s brainchild and he received belated recognition as the father of the institution.

Tony Warren was born three years before the outbreak of the Second World War, and like most children whose earliest memories emanate from the home front he was raised in a matriarchal community. He confessed his happiest times were hiding under the kitchen table merely to listen to the conversations carried out by a tough breed of women who had already lived through one global conflict as well as the Great Depression; there was also the fact that they had been raised in a hard environment of virtually Dickensian poverty, residing in bug and vermin-ridden houses bereft of running water and mired in appalling sanitation, forever burying babies at a time when there was no NHS to save them. Their response was not to buckle under, but to knuckle down. One way of dealing with such a gritty existence was gallows humour, something that was evident in the myriad of curious phrases that dripped from the lips of the extended female family surrounding Warren in his formative years. These were seared onto Warren’s memory and resurfaced when he abandoned speaking the words of others and began to write his own.

It’s debatable whether someone who created some of the most iconic female characters in British popular culture owed those creations to his childhood experiences or the fact that he himself was distanced from the macho male psyche especially prevalent in the North of England by virtue of his homosexuality at a time when a prison sentence was a perennial concern. In truth, it was probably a combination of the two. Drifting towards the theatre as a safe haven, Warren turned to the new medium of television when Granada was established as the North’s outlet for the expanding ITV network in 1956; acting in some of Granada’s early productions, he reckoned he could do a better job of concocting scripts than those whose woeful efforts he was being forced to endure and his contributions were readily accepted. However, it seemed to Warren that Granada’s regional remit was being overlooked when it came to the drama the station produced and he began to delve into his upbringing when the idea of a series based in the reality of what the company fancifully called ‘Granadaland’ entered his thoughts.

‘Florizel Street’ was a hard sell as the 50s morphed into the 60s. Despite the revolution taking place in British theatre, literature and then cinema, with ‘Look Back in Anger’, ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’, ‘A Taste of Honey’, ‘A Kind of Loving’ and numerous others, television was resistant to allowing the lives of its largely working-class audience onto screens dominated by middle-class actors, presenters and subject matters. Successive rejections from the Granada bigwigs as Warren polished and honed his story of a street like the ones he could see from the windows of his office at the citadel that was supposed to reflect its surroundings only served to intensify his determination. To be fair, the reluctance of his bosses to commit themselves to Warren’s radical concept needs to be placed in context; there had been nothing comparable to what Warren envisaged on British TV, and it was seen as a huge gamble that could leave Granada with egg on their faces.

Gradually gaining the invaluable support of drama producer Harry Elton, Warren’s labour of love was cautiously given the go-ahead in 1960 and the task of casting the characters began. Regional rep and radio were trawled for the right actors to fit the parts, many of whom had been journeymen thespians for decades and had little experience of television. Doris Speed, cast as landlady of the pub at the end of Warren’s fictitious street, was semi-retired from acting; Violet Carson, a relatively late choice for resident battleaxe Ena Sharples, had more or less abandoned acting after a degree of modest wartime fame on the wireless; Pat Phoenix, cast as colourful tart-with-a-heart Elsie Tanner, had worked at Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop in London and foresaw a future eking out a living playing small parts on stage and in the odd B-movie; only William Roache, cast as the street’s intellectual angry young man Ken Barlow, had ambitions to become a big star, viewing his part as a stepping-stone to greater glory. In an infant medium trying its hand at a novel new drama of a kind that had never been produced before, it was no wonder few of the original cast saw further ahead than the 13 initial episodes Granada had commissioned.

When the first episode of what was renamed ‘Coronation Street’ (one of Warren’s few compromises) aired on 9 December 1960, it’s hard to conceive of the seismic impact it made on viewers from the distance of over 55 years later. A TV nation that was accustomed to television talking down to it like a benevolent colonial governor addressing the natives was shocked and excited to see archetypes they instantly recognised on-screen. Every working-class neighbourhood in the country had an Ena Sharples, an Elsie Tanner, an Annie Walker, an Albert Tatlock, a Minnie Caldwell and a Leonard Swindley. Yes, ‘Coronation Street’ was so rooted in a particular Northern culture that the odour of bread-and-dripping could almost be sniffed in the room when it was broadcast; but the characters possessed traits that could be found anywhere in the country wherever there was a close-knit community living in each other’s pockets, and the show was networked in a matter of weeks, shooting to the top of the ratings in record time.

The BBC woke up from its rather smug slumber in the wake of this new sensation and was encouraged to bring a little realism into its own staid TV output, resulting in the commissioning of other groundbreaking series such as ‘Z-Cars’, ‘Steptoe and Son’ and ‘The Wednesday Play’. The importance of ‘Coronation Street’ should be disregarded at one’s peril. Simply getting it onscreen in the first place – a testament to Tony Warren’s grit and determination – stands as perhaps the single greatest achievement in the history of British broadcasting. His obituaries may be prefixed with ‘Coronation Street creator’, but there’s really no greater epitaph that could grace his tombstone. Rest in peace, and thank you, Tony.

© The Editor