Thursday, 17 April 2014

Stella Cartography

(This post was originally posted by Scott Willison on the Coronation Street Blog in December 2013.)

Oh, Stella.  How did it all go so wrong?  On paper you should have been perfect.  A ballsy, brassy character with a secret connection to one of the Street's stalwarts.  A well-known actress taking the role.  A feisty landlady who could run the Rovers and win our hearts.

It didn't end up that way, and when Michelle Collins finally departs the Street in 2014, she'll be unmourned.  In fact, there will probably be a queue of viewers outside the gates willing to drive her anywhere she wants to go, so long as it's a long way from Weatherfield.

Why was Stella such a failure?  I reckon there are a few factors that came into play that meant the viewers were sceptical even before she set foot on the cobbles.

The first we heard of Michelle Collins' potential involvement in the Street was when she had a dinner with the show's then new producer, Phil Collinson.  The tabloids leapt to a conclusion: Michelle was being scoped out as a new star of Corrie.  "They're just friends!" the press office said.  "They've worked together before, and they were just having a chat."  Michelle had previously appeared in Sea of Souls and Doctor Who, both of which were produced by Phil.  In fact, in Doctor Who, she played a loyal wife who refused to believe her husband was a villain even as he killed her workmates; it ended with an enormous fireball.  No typecasting there.

It meant that when Michelle finally turned up on the Street, it had a slight tang of nepotism about it.  She hadn't got the job because she was the best for the role - she got it because she and Phil were great showbiz pals.  The feeling that she had been parachuted in only got worse when it was revealed she was the new landlady of the Rovers.  Since Annie Walker died, there's been a certain feeling that you have to earn ownership of the pub.  It's the heart of the show, and as such, the landlord or lady should be a character we already care about.  Bet.  Jack and Vera.  Fred Elliot.  Liz and Steve.  Families who are being rewarded for their years of loyal service by getting one of the prime jobs on British television.

Stella waltzed in, first as manageress, then as owner of the Rovers, and we knew nothing about her.  It felt wrong, somehow, watching Ken and Deirdre order pints off this complete stranger.  The effortless way in which Liz McDonald has returned and reasserted her dominance demonstrates how tough it is behind that bar.

There's also the Cindy Factor.  Even if you'd never seen an episode of EastEnders, you were aware of Cindy Beale: she was a superbitch on a scale Tracy Barlow can only aspire to.  From modest beginnings as a girl on a hat stall in the market, Cindy got pregnant by her brother in law, was threatened with a shotgun by Ian Beale, returned and gave birth to twins, slept with her other brother in law, hired a hitman to kill her husband, fled to Italy with two of her three kids (one got left behind by accident), and finally died in childbirth behind bars.  She was two-faced, conniving, and wicked, and a joy to watch.  She made her mark.

Bringing an actor who was so well known for one role on a rival soap into Corrie was going to be different - just look at how badly Michael "Sinbad" Starke fared when he moved into number six.  Worse, whether it was the intention of the scriptwriters, or the determination of Michelle Collins to be not-Cindy, Stella was made soft as an eiderdown.  She didn't have a wicked, bitchy side to her; she was caring, huggable, empathetic.  Or as it's also know, dull.

Corrie is built on strong women and Stella was just a drip.  She was forever popping up to provide a cup of tea and a sympathetic ear; the back room of the Rovers became a drop in centre for the emotionally traumatised.  Wander in for a quiet pint because you'd had a bad day at work and next thing you knew Stella had whipped you behind the bar for a cup of Tetley and a hand holding session.  Again, the landlady of the Rovers should be involved in everyone's lives - she sees them every day and hears all the gossip.  Watching characters we'd known for years open up to this stranger felt wrong though.  She didn't fit.

The introduction of Sue Johnston as her mum, Gloria, felt like an even more desperate attempt to get us to like Stella: "Look!" the show seemed to say.  "Her mum is Sheila Grant!  Or, if you're a bit younger, Barbara Royle!  She's a legend of British television, and she produced Stella!  Admit it, you like her a bit more now."  And it might have worked, if they ever gave Gloria something decent to do.  Sue Johnston's considerable acting talents were wasted, and it was no surprise that she decided to leave before Michelle Collins had even announced her departure.

The net result was a character we didn't care about who never went away.  If you're behind the bar at the Rovers, you get far more scenes than any other actor; even if your only line is "two ninety eight, ta", you have to be there.  It felt like Stella was always around, and so antipathy turned into hatred.  Overexposed characters can come back from the brink.  Michelle was the Most Fragrant Empress of the Universe for a while; every appearance made you want to vomit up your own kidney. A combination of quieter storylines and, admittedly, Kym Marsh Ryder Marsh Lomas Marsh disappearing on maternity leave for six months, managed to redeem her, and now she's back to being a perfectly acceptable character.

Could Stella have been redeemed too?  Possibly.  She was still Leanne's mum, and we all love Leanne; Eva is amusingly dizzy and self-centred (hopefully she's staying when the other Prices leave), and her disastrous relationship with Karl could have been interesting.  The idea of her being saddled with a loser, loving him despite his massive flaws, could have been compelling; instead, he had an affair with Sunita (who was in the middle of being the most hateful character in the Street - what did Shobna Gulati do to the writers to make them hate her so much?  Did she not send them a Christmas card?).  Stella chucked Karl out and we had weeks of her wailing and feeling sorry for herself.  She had no gumption, no core of steel; if she'd shown a bit of backbone then we might have liked her more, but all she did was weep in the back room and offer sympathetic hugs to Dev.

By the time the Rovers was burnt to the ground with her in it, most viewers were praying that she'd get caught up in the conflagration.  That would have been the perfect point for Stella to quietly exit, stage left, flogging the pub back to the McDonalds and vanishing.  That didn't happen; we got a load of hand-wringing and talk about financial hardship before Gloria revealed she had a few grand in the back of a drawer and did Stella want it?  Looking back at those lengthy discussions about overdrafts and paying Owen, it's hard not to feel a little bitter; it was a massive waste of time, because the minute Stuart Blackburn took over as producer he exiled the Prices to the outer darkness.  Stella's barely been onscreen for months, and she isn't missed.

There's still a little while left on Michelle Collins' contract.  Time enough to make us regret her departure, if the writers really try; after all, once she goes, Leanne won't be left with any relatives who aren't Platts.  Now that she's free of the Rovers there's time to make Stella fun and interesting before she bows out.  Alternatively, someone could lock her in the cellar at the Bistro for six months; I suspect that many of the viewers won't be bothered either way.

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