Sunday, 29 June 2014

Why do I love Elsie Tanner? Ah, now there's a question!

(This post was originally posted by Graeme N on the Coronation Street Blog in May 2014.)

I watch a lot of classic Coronation Street episodes on Youtube, mainly because I think the overall standard and quality is often superior to the Corrie output in 2014. It might be more old-fashioned, move at a slower pace and feature fewer characters but it has a gritty honesty and a terrific warmth that is frequently missing today.

For me, nobody else sums up those two qualities better than the late, great Patricia Phoenix as street siren Elsie Tanner. Of course Elsie is a legendary Corrie character, featuring in the very first episode and being at the centre of the programme for many years until she finally departed for good at the beginning of 1984. 

Pat Phoenix was one of the biggest stars Corrie had in those days, her life off screen was often as dramatic and eventful as what happened under the roof of number 11 Coronation Street.

I've recently been watching the episodes leading up to Elsie's final exit over the Christmas period in late 1983/early 1984. I was a baby at the time so have no recollection of Elsie at all. What strikes me is that it is a relatively low key exit compared to the dramatic, explosive departures we see today. It was beautifully played though, Elsie's love from twenty years before, Bill Gregory, returned to pay his respects to Rita over Len's death and managed to sweep Elsie off her feet all over again. As 1984 began, Elsie traded the back streets of Weatherfield for the sandy beaches of Portugal. 

Pat Phoenix was legendary for wearing clothes on screen that her character could never have afforded but the back street glamour she made famous just worked and nobody questioned it. When I think of Elsie I picture her, fag in one hand, gin and tonic in the other, bemoaning her latest fella, battling in the street with Hilda Ogden or showing Gail and Suzie who was boss. There was always such a raw, honest quality to Pat Phoenix's performances. You almost felt like she'd just turned up and gone straight into it, it felt so real.

So here's why I will always love Elsie Tanner, in no particular order:

1. When Elsie returned to Weatherfield in 1976 the writers created a wonderful new home life for the newly separated Mrs Howard. Moving in Gail Potter and Suzie Birchall gave Elsie a new lease of life. She was a mother figure to both girls but also a big sister. The chemistry between all three women was terrific, with Elsie seeing a lot of herself in the balshy, flighty Suzie. They embarked on many comic storylines together while Elsie was also there to pass on her experience with the fellas. I loved it.

2. Elsie's fellas. Elsie was rarely without a love interest. While she married Alan Howard and eventually fled to Portugal with Bill Gregory, there were many others in between. So popular was her character that when she married on screen in 1967, the man she married had to have the surname Tanner so Elsie's name wouldn't change! There was also Ron Mather, the Irish taxi driver, Ted Brownlow, Wally Randle (played by future Alan Bradley actor Mark Eden) and Wilf Stockwell. A low point for Elsie came in 1978 when a businessman called Bernard Lane chatted her up in a bar, presuming she was a prostitute. This shocking event led to a great deal of soul searching and the licking of wounds however before long Elsie was back at her strong, glamorous best. 

3. Elsie and Ena Sharples were often at loggerheads. They were towering personalities and complete extremes and as they lived in the same small street, they often clashed. Most famously, Elsie and Ena fought in the street after Ena became Elsie's landlord and tried to evict her. During the very public argument Ena smashed Elsie's window with her handbag, with Elsie having the last word informing Ena that as her landlord, she could pay for the broken window! As in real life, both women mellowed slightly in later years and it was a joy to see them share scenes in the late 1970s that were touched with warmth and affection, reflecting on their spats in the past with humour at what had been.

4. Elsie and Len Fairclough were always friends and while there were hints at romance at various points the writers never quite took them there. I loved their enduring friendship and it was typical of Elsie that her closest friend and confidant was not a female character but one of the men. They understood each other and shared some touching, heartfelt scenes. An extra dimension was added to this relationship when Len married Rita. Elsie and RIta's spiky relationship was a joy with both women tinged with jealousy and suspicion. 

5. Elsie's exit in 1984 is a lesson in underplayed departures. It was beautifully written and stylishly played out with Elsie's final scene seeing her reminisce on a dark street, taxi waiting to take her to her new life. It also felt so right with a link back to one of her earliest romantic storylines. A fitting tribute to a great lady.

I always find it hard to decide on my favourite female character in Corrie, I keep changing my mind. I'll always love Annie Walker for her presence behind the Rovers bar and her pithy one liners. Betty was a natural and brought so much warmth every time she appeared. Hilda Ogden was iconic - Jean Alexander managed to craft a character blending comedy and pathos in every appearance. Ena Sharples was the original battle axe with a heart of gold. Elsie Tanner though is always right up there, towering above the rest.

So what are your favourite memories of the wonderful Elsie Tanner?

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