Saturday, 4 March 2017

Playing the Corrie Class Card: When Johnny met Jenny

Guest blog post from Leslie Katz

(This post was originally posted by Flaming Nora on the Coronation Street Blog February 2017, reposted to this blog with permission.)

Wherein lies the spark between Johnny and Jenny?  They're like the Bogey-Bacall of Corrie 2017. He's old school and so is she. Somehow, they smolder and spark. I don't mean champagne, cigarettes, and dusky dialogue. I mean that, unlike so many Corrie couples at the moment, they visibly occupy different social and economic strata. Given that Jenny emerges from a relatively murky past, we cannot answer with any confidence questions like: “How much does she have in her bank account?” However, the writers have introduced her in this most recent reincarnation as Johnny's foil. He runs Underworld, whereas she is considered lucky to have received a menial position there as cleaner. As a sign of his position, he takes possession of Carla's luxe apartment at Victoria Court, while Jenny remains a dependent lodger at Rita's. Although somewhat of an interloper himself in Carla's “empire,” he, nonetheless, occupies the position once held by Mike Baldwin, and thus the power to lift up Jenny, the fetching scullery maid who catches his eye.

This is a storyline we haven't seen in a while, at least not in its archetypal form. With Carla at the helm of Underworld, it was harder to conduct business in the old “boy's school” way, so, apart from Carla's fling with the binsman, we never got the idea that she was slumming it romantically. Even her decision to make Peter Barlow a partner never took on quite the dimensions of Linda Baldwin, gold-digging her way to the top, sleeping with Mike Baldwin's son en route. As sewer-rats come, Peter was relatively benign, not the least because he occupies a quicksilver relationship to class. Yes, the Bookies had fallen on hard times, but, as a man, even temporarily unemployed, Peter could not accept his wife-to-be's largesse and, anyway, doing so would clearly be the finishing of him, as any man who lives by his wife's pursestrings is doomed to emasculation, ergo cheating. (For one relevant case study, there's Karl Munro and Sunita.) Anyway, the writers never defined Peter as stuck, in a class sense, below Carla. While the Barlows are not rich by most standards, they still occupy a staunch middle class position on the Street. Tracy Barlow looked down her nose at a packing job at Underworld, while, at the same time, scoring a relationship with the boss's brother, Rob. In short, people like Carla and her brother thought that marrying into the Barlow family was, in one way or another, an acceptable union of peers. I'm not saying this makes a ton of sense, given their disparate incomes. It's just that the writers chose to represent the families on a more less equal footing.

I was too young to watch Coronation Street in the 70s, but with youtube I've been able to revisit the episodes where Mike Baldwin would show up in the Rovers for his extravagant Scotch, waving around his cash, and buying drinks for the neighbourhood clientele, at prices which were for him, undoubtedly, laughable. He was the proverbial Big Fish in the small pond of Weatherfield, able to afford flash cars and snazzy digs precisely because the living costs were dirt cheap. His love interests inevitably came from similar stock (claw and scrabble), but, having experienced less success than he, they were easily blinded by his kitschy displays of “living high.” Well, not everyone. Dierdre, at least, appeared to like the man more than his bling, and, despite genuine feeling, rejected Mike's lifestyle for Ken's lack of material affectation. On the other end of the spectrum, Hilda Odgen swooned over Mike's assets, at the same time he grew to respect and care for her, almost as an extension of his own gutter-rat origins.. None of these relationships, however, could have been explored without first delineating a sharp understanding of class difference. Mike was a self-made man, pulled up by dubious bootstraps from his Cockney origins, but he was also a success story, a ruthless union-crushing entrepreneur, who swanned around, at the same time rubbing elbows with the common man and woman whom he knew, deep down, were his closest kin.

Today's Corrie mostly skims over this class stuff.  Nick, Dev, Carla, and now Johnny have flats at Victoria Court, but they come and go from those flats, often inviting family members to visit, share, or live there in their absence. We have little idea what constitutes a desirable income, with or without perks. Unlike the olden days, when Fred Gee had it all, working as potsman at the Rovers, with bed and board + access to Annie Walker's Rover 2000, now employees flit between shifts behind the bar, filling in at the Bistro, time behind the cash at Dev's, and who knows what else. The characters who make enough to afford their own home blur into those who can barely afford rent and those who have nowhere to live at all. Apart from weird vagaries of time and circumstance, we are mostly party to a classless microcosm where a hairdresser lives at the same standard of living as a business owner, or a skilled mechanic at the same standard as a pensioner.

But, getting back to Johnny and Jenny, they fit into a recognisable, old-world paradigm. Whether she's lost everything or had nothing to begin with, Jenny starts off at the bottom, a lodger who is grateful for a position as a cleaner in Johnny's factory. Likewise, whatever Johnny's shady past, at the moment he's sitting at the top of Underworld, and he has both the swank flat and the high-end clientele to prove it. In class terms, the original Coronation Street template falls back into place. Whatever Jenny's motives, gold-digger, or real-life Cinderella, her character definition is already sharper than the indeterminate Evas, Sarahs, Toyahs, all of whom left reasonable employment for a sabbatical or gap-year break in Weatherfield, mysteriously getting by on odd-jobs, while miraculously avoiding poverty or frown-worthy scut work.

Corrie 2017 is mostly class-blind, or, if you will, post-class. Even Sally and Tim, although filling out the roles of snob and everyman respectively, appear to combine incomes and live in relative comfort. Genuine romantic drama, however, relies on harder edges and an old-fashioned sense of erotic taboo – the high falling for the low and vice-versa. Maybe that formula doesn't fit our reality anymore, but, if Johnny and Jenny's relationship can be believed, it still functions in the world of soap.

By Leslie Katz

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