A big thank you to our guest blogger Martyn Hett for this post
Earlier this week I headed to The Lowry to attend Coming Out - From Script To Screen, a discussion on homosexuality in Coronation Street taking place as part of Manchester Pride Fringe. I managed to bag a front row seat, and sat with palpitations knowing that within minutes I would be just feet away from the big man himself, Tony Warren.
Damon Rochefort introduced the event with a montage highlighting Corrie’s best moments throughout the years. It was met with lots of laughter and the fans in the audience were completing the actors’ lines as though they were at a Sound Of Music sing-along. Following the montage, Jonathan Harvey, Debbie Oates, Brooke Vincent, Anthony Cotton and Tony Warren entered the stage to rousing applause and took their seats.
As the discussion began, it was like crack for the superfans in the audience. The chemistry between the writers was infectious, the anecdotes from the actors were insightful and exciting, and Tony Warren commanded the entire room every time he spoke as though he were The Pope.
Debbie Oates was a delight to listen to. She was incredibly witty, full of expression and seemed genuinely passionate about the LGBT cause – even claiming to be referred to as ‘Head Of Lesbian’ at Coronation Street. She discussed the unease felt by some of the writers when gay characters were initially introduced, with some claiming ‘not to know how gays think’ to which she responded, “You don’t know how women think either, but you still write for them!”
Damon Rochefort and Jonathan Harvey also provided great insight on their personal feelings towards Coronation Street’s portrayal of homosexuality, with Harvey making the very honest admission that he had previously felt excluded by the soap due to lack of representation. Rochefort and Harvey’s inappropriate jokes had me laughing out loud on several occasions, and the evening seemed to be constructed similarly to Coronation Street itself: the serious made digestible with regular doses of humour.
From a fan’s point of view, it was great to see some of the writers in the flesh, particularly names that I pray for at the beginning of an episode. Between the stories about the lines they can’t believe they got away with (Blanche’s “nasty gash”, anyone?) and their personal reflections on some of the more hard hitting scenes, it felt almost like a night at the Rovers with a group of old mates.
Brooke Vincent, who joked about being the ‘nation’s favourite lesbian’, spoke of her fear at being given such a big challenge at the age of 16, her initial reaction being, “Why me?” I got a real sense of personal journey when she spoke, and it seemed as though playing the character of Sophie from such a young age had helped Brooke to develop her own sense of self.
When discussing her character, it was noted that she had been in the soap since birth and that the audience had watched her grow and develop as a person. This raised the interesting point that Sophie had not been brought into Coronation Street especially to be gay, and that the audience had had a chance to explore sexuality through the eyes of somebody they had witnessed growing up.
The biggest revelation of the evening for me was Anthony Cotton. Anthony discussed the abuse he regularly receives from members of the gay community who claim he has “set the gay cause back 25 years”. I’m ashamed to admit, this was an opinion I had shared until recently. As somebody who has always been flamboyant, I am no stranger to internalised homophobia. However, it wasn’t until recently that I realised that my disdain towards flamboyancy in the media was actually a projection of my own self-hate.
Anthony touched upon this when I questioned him on the issue of homophobia within the gay community. His answer was eloquent and heartrending, yet at the same time encouraging, particularly for somebody like myself. He mentioned that he had never featured on the front cover of a gay glossy, which instead tend to favour “naked straight men with boxing gloves in front of their willies”. These in turn become the role models for younger gay men, meaning the character of Sean becomes less aspirational. Couple this with people’s inability to distinguish between fiction and real life, and it becomes pretty clear to see that Anthony has suffered. Nevertheless, Anthony spoke of his achievements and the importance of representing every part of the spectrum, and it turned out to be one of the most poignant moments of the evening.
From the moment Tony Warren entered the stage a sense of admiration and respect could be felt across the entire room. You could hear a pin drop when he spoke, and the same Tony Warren who refused to come down from the filing cabinet at Granada was clearly still present, albeit older and wiser.
Tony discussed a story conference in the early days at which he stood up to speak against anti-gay language being used by saying, “Without a poof, none of you would be in work this morning!” When his colleagues responded by saying it wasn’t directed at him, he simply said, “Call my brothers, and you call me.” It was a stark reminder of how difficult it must have been for somebody like Warren in those days, and brought the earlier discussion about internalised homophobia back into the forefront of my mind. How have we gotten to the point where we are attacking each other when people such as Tony faced daily battles simply to exist in society?
In response to a fan question about Coronation Street’s perceived ‘lateness’ when it came to representing the gay community, Tony mentioned that there were underlying fears that advertisers may have pulled out had Coronation Street introduced a gay character any sooner. Never one to leave the tone too serious, he then joked that we had come a long way since then as the current sponsorship seems to feature two gay meerkats raising a baby together. The audience was left in stitches.
Given that Coronation Street has pretty much dominated my entire life, this event was a dream come true; after all, it gave me the chance to publicly fangirl over my favourite writers, members of the cast and Tony himself. But the event also raised several important issues on the historical struggles faced by the LGBT community, as well as the rather different struggles faced by people such as Anthony today.
Thanks to Damon Rochefort for putting together such a wonderful event, and thanks to Tony Warren for making my dreams come true by posing for a photograph with me at the end. It was most definitely an evening I will never forget.
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