The other night I dipped at random into a Coronation Street boxed set of DVDs and watched what is probably one of the best episodes I’ve ever seen. It’s from 1967 and has the whole street in something of a kerfuffle because Elsie Tanner’s gentleman friend from the days of the Blitz is back in town – a handsome GI called Steve.
‘We were called good time girls. And we did have a good time. A damned good time!’
Elsie’s out in the countryside having a nostalgic walk with Steve, who she hasn’t seen in over twenty years. It’s all equal parts nostalgia, regret – and just a touch of bitterness. It’s endearingly seemingly clunky, too, in the way the mood switches from happy laughter to melodrama (she stands and walks to a tree, where she poses like Garbo at the end of Queen Christina – hair streaming in the breeze.) But it’s modeled on the melodrama of the 30s and 40s movies that Elsie even references in the script – when she says she first dyed her hair red to be like Rita Hayworth (she felt Steve lose interest in her when they sat in the pictures and Hayworth came on the screen.) Elsie goes into a story of how she did a home-dye job and made a hash of it.
This is very dense, beautifully layered writing. It’s camp as anything – but wonderfully subtle. It’s about characters looking back and mythologizing their own lives, and gently sending up their own foibles and pretensions and hopes – with talk of tragic non-meetings and leave-takings under Warrington town hall clock. Then, later, when we get regretful scenes from Elsie (who secretly feels too past it for all this sudden romance) we get funny stuff about how, back in the old days having a plastic handbag and a sixteen guinea suit meant you really were something. There’s a level of self-parody in all the self-pity and introspection, and that’s why it always rings true to me.
It can only be the work of Tony Warren, the series’ creator. It’s so different from everyone else’s Corrie work, before or after. It’s not just a case of hitting the right notes in the salty vernacular – it’s about the warmth and pathos – and the characters being in charge of what they’re saying.
It’s never about the writer’s cleverness at the expense of the character – and what a hard trick that is to master.
Every one of Warren’s beloved characters get their moments and they all reveal something we never knew. Old Ena Sharples talks about the US with Steve the GI and we learn she once visited her brother there, but she never took to the place. Except for the funeral parlours of Nebraska. Later, she harangues Elsie outside her house about how she used to have all the soldiers round – and the jeeps would come up these cobbles at such a clip. But it’s not as straightforward as simply having a go at Elsie’s loose morals. Ena wants those old days back as much as anyone – you can see that and hear it in her performance.
The whole episode is astonishing, I think. And while it seems mostly frothy fun – there’s this weight of years and wasted time sketched in masterfully behind every moment. And then – just when you think you know where it’s going – the lights dim and dip in the Rovers and there’s an unearthly screeching explosion from outside. Len Fairclough comes bursting in, full of panic. A tram’s crashed through the viaduct. And now, instantly, there’s a disaster movie going on outside.
I was completely thrown by this. I knew this happened in Corrie, sometime in the late 60s, but not right then. It arrives in this episode with the horrible shock that real life events do. And the whole show lurches into a different genre, in those final, sickening moments – but because the characters are drawn so brilliantly we really care what happens next.
It’s a street like any other. That’s what the show was always about. You could chose any narrow street with pressed-together houses and smoky chimney pots anywhere in Manchester, or any northern city, and you would find dramas like this. And faces from the past can arrive to stir everything up in any street, too. And dreadful disasters can happen, too. It’s everyday melodrama – and watching it the other night I was struck by its immense subtlety and blending of genres.
And the fact that it can still make me laugh and gasp out loud like no other show.