Thursday, 7 December 2017

'Christmas on Coronation Street' - by Maggie Sullivan

Back in the Seventies there were three wonderful novels by HV Kershaw adapting key moments and storylines from early episodes of ‘Coronation Street.’ As a kid I would pore over these paperbacks from our living room wall unit (just as I would through titles by James Herbert, Jackie Collins and Catherine Cookson.) There was something, to me, absolutely compelling about being allowed inside the minds and thoughts and the pasts of characters familiar from TV.
For me, it was a bit like listening to family gossip. It was like when my Big Nanna came visiting (usually with her friend, Deaf Olive in tow.) They would sit all afternoon and Glad would reminisce. ‘Do you remember her who was married to whatsit, who lived down by so-and-so, and they were the ones who had all that bother with the you-know-what, well, it’s her who’s died.’
I would listen, completely agog to this kind of gossip. To me it was a wonderful art form: ripe with allusion, metaphor and folk history. These women were the bearers of great dollops of oral history. Glad coming to ours and drawing out these tales was her way of making sure all the stories got passed on, to the next generations.
‘What was that?’ Deaf Olive would shout. ‘Eee, you bugger!’
One of the very precious people from the past who was only available to us now via my Big Nanna’s spoken tales was her husband, my Granda-as-I-never-met, as she called him. Mam’s long-lost, beloved Dad, who’d died of lung disease when she was only nine. A proper gentle man, he always sounded.
Glad told a story of him, not long before he died. It was when ‘Coronation Street’ first came on the telly. She was in the scullery, being busy, and he was sitting in his chair with the telly on. He stared at the screen and he could hardly believe what he was watching. ‘Glad! Glad! Come through! They’re talking like normal people on here! On the telly! They’ve actually got normal people on here!’
She came through, muttering, reluctantly, and peered at the screen. She was always very sceptical about the telly (it was often too rude and nasty for her taste) but she had to admit: ‘Coronation Street’ was more like real life than anything else. It was more like the terraced streets of South Shields she’d grown used to in her adult life.
A few years later, when her husband was dead and she was working all the cleaning jobs she could, her twin girls were full of excitement one Christmas because the star of the Street was coming to town. Elsie Tanner was going to open up the new Binns Department Store on Fowler Street.
Glad gave her daughters permission. She’d be too busy to go and she wouldn’t have been that interested in anyway. Why go gawping at someone off the telly? They were just the same as us, weren’t they? They just had more money, that’s all.
My Mam and her sister – they must only have been about ten – went into town and stood in the crowds on Fowler Street, outside the great big Binns. When Elsie Tanner stepped out of her limousine their eyes nearly popped out of their heads. Not just at her huge, Hollywood-style fur coat, but also at her hair.
‘Mam, it was red like Heinz tomato soup!’
In fact, the whole crowd had gasped. Everyone in those black and white telly days was amazed by Elsie’s dark red tresses.
Many years later – 2004 – I told some of these family Corrie stories to Tony Warren as we had tea at the Midland Hotel. We were supposed to be having high tea in the special tearoom but he said he preferred to sit slap-bang in the foyer where you get to see more of life going on; more people going to and fro.
I told him these stories knowing full well that he’d have heard similar ones from all kinds of people over the years. Surely it had all been said before. But he listened very graciously when I told him that this stuff that he’d created was intrinsic to my family’s sagas. It was a huge part of our lives.
I also told him that he’d ruined my life.
‘How’s that?’ he cackled, looking delighted.
‘Because of all those strong female characters confronting each other over the years. They made me think that, when you have a problem with someone, the way to tackle it is to barrel up to them and go: ‘Listen, lady!’ And have it out with them straight away. And it generally isn’t.’
He shook his head firmly. ‘It usually goes horribly wrong.’
‘So I’ve been mislead!’ I said.
‘But it’s fiction, Paul,’ he said. ‘Coronation Street is all made up.’
‘Ha!’ But I refused to believe that.
And I still do.
It’s all extremely real to me.
Except when it comes to the current show. I don’t find all those serial killers and explosions and kidnappings very convincing.
I’ve really tried to carry on loving Corrie as much as I did in the past… but I think they’ve forgotten something central to the show. We should look at that street and think – this could be any street in this country, or the world. Instead we think – this is like nowhere else on the planet. We are invited to look at a place full of freakish secrets and deceptions, rather than the more humdrum ones that make up normal life.
So… in recent times I’ve felt a little exiled from Weatherfield.
And yet… this past week I’ve been delighted to indulge in a novel by Maggie Sullivan published by Harper Collins and called ‘Christmas on Coronation Street.’
It fits beautifully, easily within that genre of cobbles-n-heartache that we see everywhere (mostly in branches of The Works): they’re usually books set during the Forties or Fifties, about the early lives of working class girls. Pregnancy and war. Work and men and children and holidays. Custard creams and munitions factories. Often they come with a kind of built-in soft focus. They are about nostalgia and recounting a version of working class history that wouldn’t shock or cause anyone to choke on a bourbon.
On first seeing this book, and realizing it’s the first in a series that takes us back to Weatherfield during the Second World War, I thought: how canny. How clever. A brilliant way of bringing together a well-known brand and a very identifiable book genre. (I do love a good Saga, though I’m quite cynical about them. They have to be very well written to snag my attention.)
Pretty soon though, I realized that this is one of those books that’s branded so well that it doesn’t really have to be that good in order to sell well. The elements are all there already. However… the text itself is the thing of course, and the text itself is really good, I think.
What Maggie Sullivan (is it a pseudonym? It sounds too perfect a name for a novel like this. She already sounds like a Catherine Cookson heroine.) what she does is create a proper novel from all this TV backstory stuff. The scaffolding was already there in those in-fiction non-fiction books published over the years, but what she makes us do is live through the late Thirties and early Forties with these younger versions of characters we knew only when they were much older.
She fleshes out the drama. Those old painted flats and canvas backdrops get blown away. The sun comes streaming in, along with the smoggy clouds and the filth and the drenching Manchester rain and, as the book goes on, the real horror of the bombs falling and sudden, violent, arbitrary death.
She takes Pat Phoenix’s legendary performance as Elsie Tanner and makes her into a novelistic creation. She’s hardly even sixteen for most of the book and we watch her scrabbling about in the slum conditions her family are used to in scenes that feel like they’ve come from Elizabeth Gaskell. We see Elsie’s determination to get out and discover love and protect her siblings. She falls in love with a boy who goes off to fight Franco and finds early death. She falls for a dodgy gangster who gets her up the duff, but who installs her in the home she’ll Queen over for forty years… It’s a great story, and one we thought we already knew, but it comes up fresh and brand new in the telling.
The final chapters are, I think, the best of all, when we see Elsie settling into the Street. She is joined by pitch perfect recreations of Ena Sharples and Annie Walker. It’s a huge relief to be back in the company of these battleaxes again – when they’re younger, more vital, and still in the prime of life.
What I love about this is there’s a rawness to it all. The diseases and disasters of the past are evoked unsentimentally. Houses drop on people, people go missing. Terrible things can happen to folk. But those who remain still have to go on: they have to go on living out their own personal saga with stoicism and grit, and maybe a touch of wry humour.
Elsie’s fraught scene of giving birth – helped out by the terrifying Mrs Sharples – is one of the best in the novel. While all is erupting in drama Annie Walker - filled with dismay at what is transpiring in her back parlor - adroitly removes her good cushions from the settee where the expectant mum writhes in agony. A priceless touch.
I’m overjoyed to hear that a sequel – this time from Annie’s jaundiced, snooty point of view – is on our way come Mother’s Day.
And I hope there’ll be many more to follow, each of them dwelling on the years before TV cameras ever trundled their way over those famous cobbles.

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