Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Stories that shine light on a dimly lit Coronation Street

(This post was originally posted by Flaming Nora on the Coronation Street Blog December 2013, reposted to this blog with permission.)

Guest post from Coronation Street Blog reader Nathan Richardson

It was with a frisson of excitement and joy that I watched Robin Askwith, Southport born actor and star of the magnificent 1970s Confessions sex-romp series, make his return to Coronation Street last week.

Dressed in a red and black striped blazer that an Edwardian gentleman may have worn for a seaside jaunt in the early half of the last century, and sunglasses carried off with a certain contrived ├ęclat, he plays the character of Rodney Purves, or Richie de Vries, to use his stage-name – a friend from Dennis Tanner’s show-business days. Purves, we’re told, had a No.13 hit in 1965 with Sweets of the Night, and even supported Manfred Mann. I watched on with quiet delight.

But while I am fan of Askwith, it was the type of character that thrilled me most. I enjoy these figures, often quite noted names in their own right, that enter the soap for a short, fixed period. Other characters are introduced indefinitely, and are kept on only if the public take to them. The character of Mary, for example, has no real ties the street, but because of her genuine, funny, and interesting character, her place remains. Paul, on the other hand, who was bland, and unoriginal, and given some of the most absurd and ridiculous storylines, didn’t warm with audiences, and was subsequently axed. But Askwith, I am sure, is here only for a short-period, and will be given one story-line, before invariably wandering back out into the world.

I remember with the fondness the character of Mel Hutchwright, played by Ian McKellen. Hutchwright was something of a spit and sawdust escritor, and with his charm and charisma duped the elderly circle of Weatherfield denizens (many – Fred Elliott, Vera Duckworth, Betty Williams, Blanche Hunt – themselves now gone) into giving him money.

Mel, the shabbily dressed bohemian, was said to have fallen somewhat on hard times, but after watching a slanging-match between Janice Battersby and Cilla Brown in the Rovers one lunch-time, he found his muse reappeared. One day as he was stood on the street, he said that he was, “Inhaling this Northern air, and the cobbles, and the pigeons…I see the history of generations; what countless shoes have worn these cobbles down, what were their owner’s thoughts, their lives.” McKellen, much more familiar with Shakespeare than soap-opera, was delivering a soliloquy to the street. One doesn’t, alas, get this with Steve McDonald. And who can forget his relationship with Ken Barlow? “I can’t help thinking there’s something Lawrencian about you,” he told him one afternoon, and at the book group meeting in the cafe, he said Ken’s style of writing for the Weatherfield Gazette was, “Not so much Look Back in Anger, but look back in a rather bad mood.” It was funny, intelligent, different, and hugely entertaining.

Similarly, I recall with equal fondness Ken Barlow’s trysts with Stephanie Beacham’s character, Martha Fraser. Her home was a narrow-boat moored on a Manchester canal. They met when Ken was walking Eccles the dog and so commenced a wonderfully old-fashioned and helplessly romantic affair; a brief encounter, you may say.

Martha shared Ken’s passion for literature, and on dreamy afternoons by the water, with cups of tea and homemade soup in hand, they would pour over their favourite works. “Ah, I’ve been meaning to re-read the entire Dickens,” Ken said, “but I never seem to get around to it.” Martha led a solitary life, but she was also an actress, starring in an amateur production of A Streetcar Named Desire. This is, however, Coronation Street, and the course of true love never did run smooth – before long, their affair of sorts was exposed. Martha asked Ken to sail away with her to the next town. He arrived with a suitcase, but changed his mind at the last moment, and as the boat chugged away into the Lancashire mist, Ken stood solemnly, alone, on the bridge, and for moment it was though Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No.2 wept away as the effervescent amour sadly faded back into reality.

These two examples could quite easily be novels or films in their own right. I am attracted to that. As storylines, they are spherical. You can’t add anything to them, or take anything away. They shine light on an otherwise dimly-lit street. Take, for example, the character of Peter Barlow. He is, I presume, in his mid-forties, and this month he was married for the fifth time. It is grotesque, and this is the failing of Coronation Street today – the producers want fireworks and intensity, but life, of course, is not like that. If you watch the early episodes, not only are the scenes much longer, but very little actually happens.

There were quite basic conceits of narrative. Ena Sharples and her clique simply sat in the Rovers drinking milk stout and gossiping, but their language was so alive and full of life. It didn’t matter that they didn’t do anything. 

For the street to exist as it does today, something has to give, and for me it has been its credibility. I am always amused at how little time it takes for a character to be immersed into the street. Tim, for example, has been there for around six months, and already everybody in the street knows him. He’s as much a part of things as those that have lived there for decades. With these short-term characters, however, that come in for one storyline and meet only one set of characters, we get a taste of its former glory. I shall remember Mel Hutchwright much longer than I shall the Scotsman who owned the factory and killed off his brother-in-law. I even forget his name now. Mel was only in it for one month, and yet soon enough there shall be another villain, but never another Mel Hutchwright, and that is why I await the storyline of Rodney Purves with eagerness and excitement. 

The writers seem to have much more fun composing these characters, and I for one have much more fun watching them.

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