Tuesday, 13 May 2014

The Peter Principle

(This post was originally posted by Scott Willison on the Coronation Street Blog in April 2014.)

They tried to make him go to rehab, he said... well, actually he said, "yeah, fair enough."  Peter Barlow's currently locked up in a sanitarium somewhere, licking the back of the wallpaper in the hope that the ancient paste has fermented and trying not to listen to the big yellow rhinoceros in his ear.  I like to imagine he's at a sort of budget Priory; no A-listers like Pete and Kate and Amy, just a few people from Desperate Scousewives and perhaps a random 1970s DJ hiding away from Yewtree. And Rosie Webster, of course, continuing her plummet into media tart by building up a story for the ninth volume of her autobiography: 2013-2014: The Year Of Living Bralessly.

Poor Peter.  Alcoholism is a terrible affliction of course - I speak as someone who is currently nursing a bottle of Stella Artois like my long lost child - and after his dreadful life, who can blame him for turning to the vodka now and then?  Born in 1965, he found himself thrust into Weatherfield at its most grim and kitchen-sinky.  Albert Finney could've turned up at any minute, complaining about t'factory before knocking up Rita Tushingham; Coronation Street was battered two up two downs filled with doughy matrons and ne'er do wells.  Admittedly, the Barlows were perhaps the best family on the street.  Ken was - hard though it is to believe here in 2014 - a thrusting, focused, exciting young man, while mam Valerie was a young hairdresser with the spirit to set up her own salon in the front parlour.

That same salon was soon moved out for the bassinets; Peter came as a twin, as a disproportionate number of soap babies do, though for ease of casting it was non-identical.  For their early life, Susan and Peter lived pretty much the same life as every other child on the Street.  They were seen and not heard, they got fed a lot of fish fingers, and they were periodically threatened with death (a coal falling out of the hearth nearly put paid to the twins in the Sixties).

By the turn of the decade, Peter was safely in his class at Bessie Street, no doubt surreptitiously drinking the caretaker's floor cleaner when he thought no-one was looking.  Surely nothing could go wrong?  Actually yes; a mooted move to Jamaica - home of Red Stripe Beer - was spoilt when Valerie Barlow electrocuted herself in the maisonette and then set fire to their home.  This traumatising incident will have no doubt deeply affected the Barlow twins, making them scared for the safety of their only remaining parent and wanting to stay close.  Ken immediately stuck them on a train northwards and they went off to Scotland for twenty years.  Apparently he "couldn't cope" with the twins on his own, presumably because it got in the way of him diddling Joanna Lumley.

Peter did make a brief reappearance in the mid-70s, though he looked different now.  Peter has been played by more actors than Hamlet; there's actually a rota going around all the men of the United Kingdom to take a turn - my opportunity to look shifty in a ginnel is pencilled in for June 2031.  In the forty-nine years of his existence, Peter had been played by such luminaries as Christopher Dormer, Linus Roache, Kirsty Soames' Dad, Sir Alec Guinness, Hartley Hare, and five koala bears standing on each other's shoulders under a raincoat.  Linus actually returned in 2010 as a different Barlow; producers were careful to keep him well away from Chris Gascoyne, in case the Blinovitch Limitation Effect shorted out the universe.

Not much was heard from the twins for the rest of the Seventies; they'd occasionally turn up to stop Ken from getting his end away with another lady, and selfishly whine that being brought up in Scotland by a couple of pensioners while their Dad worked his way through Greater Manchester's spinsters had stopped being fun, but they didn't make a permanent return until the Eighties.  Susan had got engaged to her often absent father's mortal enemy, Mike Baldwin, in a development that psychologists have described as "creepy."  The only way it could have got more Oedipal was if she'd popped her eyeballs out on the honeymoon.

Peter showed up at the wedding, probably because he heard there would be free champagne.  By now he had a fiancĂ©, Jessica, a well-meaning drip, and a career in the Navy.  Peter the Sailor Man barked at Ken with a new found strength - it's unknown if spinach was involved - and persuaded him to attend Susan's wedding by careful use of emotional blackmail.  Then he was off again, riding the high seas, until he came back a different man at the turn of the Millennium (this being Peter, he was quite literally a different man).

This time Peter was here to stay, drawn to this little cobbled street that had nothing but horrible memories for him.  By this time Jessica had run off with another man, and Peter had departed the Navy; whether this was related to the abolition of the rum ration, I can't say.  He was soon causing havoc by revealing that Susan had given birth to a Baldwin, all those years ago; when Mike found out, Susan crashed her car and died, proving that no Barlow should ever be allowed to drive.  Another big wodge of self-loathing was added to Peter's Guilt Bank, and his trips to the Rovers became more frequent.

It was fate that he should end up with a pub landlady; Shelley's appeal was probably optics-based, if Peter was completely honest, because it wasn't long before he was getting Twist from Spaced up the duff behind her back.  Oh, the agony!  Two women, one with his baby, one with a pub of her own; he finally did the only sensible thing and married them both.  There was a brief, infinitely tiny moment when it actually worked, but he didn't really have the quick wit to enable him to maintain two relationships at once.  That sort of juggling requires lightning fast reflexes and a clever mind; Peter had to write Shelley on the back of his hand to stop him from calling her by the wrong name.  It all exploded in the Rovers - as things often do - and Peter skulked off to Portsmouth.  There was a brief return in 2007, for Tracy's trial; given that the two of them barely knew each other growing up, it was a kind moment of sort-of brotherly love.  Either that or, like everyone else in the country, he just wanted to make sure the ghastly creature was locked up forever.

He made a more permanent return a year later with his curly haired cherub of a son, Simon; his mum had succumbed to ovarian cancer and left him alone in the world.  Peter accepted the additional responsibility with his usual grace; knocking back a hip flash of Bell's before storming into the nativity and weeing up against the cardboard donkey.  This caused Ken to do a lot of grimacing and hissing "Peter!" through clenched teeth, though frankly when it came to parenting advice, he was about as authoritative as Fred West.  Things came to a head when Peter swallowed an off licence, then set the flat on fire; nobody was really bothered about him, but since this disaster nearly killed Simon and his pet rabbit, the family intervened and he began his long struggle against the booze.

No-one in the Street seems to find it a bad idea that Peter can regularly be found having an orange juice in the Rovers, even though it is a place that is known to serve alcohol.  Similarly, everyone seemed to think it was an absolutely marvellous idea for him to open a wine bar underneath the viaduct, even though that was another place that was known to serve alcohol.  The driving force behind this potential Vesuvius was new fiancĂ© Leanne Battersby, possibly the only person in Weatherfield with a worse track record for addiction than him.  The ex-hooker arsonist and the drunken bookie; it was a match made in heaven.

Nothing in soap land runs smooth, and their stag/hen night was interrupted by an exploding restaurant and a runaway tram.  By this point Leanne was getting extra shifts in the bar with her ex, Nick, though to be honest most of the shifts seemed to end with her skirt left under a table.  Both Leanne's lovers were almost incinerated in the conflagration, but in the end the only person who died was poor guileless Ashley, proving that script editors have a really sick sense of humour.  Leanne married Peter when she thought he was about to die; his subsequent recovery was met with a lot of worried side eyes, but eventually he'd recovered enough to demand a divorce at the altar (it all made sense at the time).

The two reconciled, and everything looked rosy, until Carla Connor staggered into view, hammered on red wine.  She had a drink problem, and Peter graciously went to her aid.  It helped that the person needing an intervention was a saucy brunette in stilettos; one wonders if he'd have been quite so charitable if it had been, say, Sylvia.  The two bonded over pints of fizzy water - though Carla must have gone to a different AA group, one which didn't preach abstinence, but instead said that she looked fabulous with a glass of red, so you go girl.  Carla saw Peter as her hero; Peter saw Carla as a human version of Smirnoff, and they eventually gave in to temptation.  That was the end of his marriage to Leanne, leaving only the question of Simon's custody; following the fine Barlow tradition, Peter thrust his son in Leanne's direction with a shrug, saying, "well, I'd be rubbish, wouldn't I?"

After a hiatus in the USA together, Carla and Peter returned more sober and more in love than before.    The fates, however, were conspiring to push him back on the booze.  First his business failed, because apparently Weatherfield is the only place in Britain where the recession had a negative effect on  bookies; Carla immediately promoted him to her deputy in the factory despite his lack of experience.  (Given that his predecessors in this role were Michelle and Maria, is it any wonder that company is constantly on the brink of bankruptcy?)  Meanwhile, resident sauce pot Tina McIntyre was sending seductive glances in his direction; what Tina (the daughter of an often-absent father with a crippling substance abuse problem) saw in Peter (an often-absent father with a crippling substance abuse problem) is another Greek tragedy waiting happen.

As before, Peter couldn't simply stop a wedding when it appeared on his horizon; I'm not really sure where he got this idea that weddings are like tsunamis, and that the only thing you can do when you're involved in one is to strap yourself to a piece of furniture and hope you don't drown.  Despite ensnaring the witty, sexy Carla, he still felt the need to feel up Tina by a plate of mini kievs.  The net result has been six months of the two most desirable women on the street begging for sexual intercourse with a porky beardo who's pushing fifty.  The stress of having it away with both women at the same time lead Peter back to the booze in a strange pub, probably because he wanted to go somewhere he could boast very loudly.

What will happen to Peter when he finally emerges from rehab?  Will he have decided which woman to go for?  Will he finally decide to be the decent father he never had himself?  Will he have an entirely unexplained tan, almost as if Chris Gascoyne has in reality been on holiday in the Maldives all this time?  Who knows.  Even if he's not much longer for the show, we needn't worry; Peter Barlow is like Doctor Who.  He'll always come back, probably with a completely different head.  Plus his trusty companion: Jack Daniels.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That was an excellent synopsis of the saga of Peter Barlow.

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