Experimental soap

It looks like Coronation Street‘s writers have been reading handbooks on experimental fiction. This week, apparently, all its episodes will concern a single day (involving yet another homicide) – following therefore in the neat steps of Malcolm Lowry (Under the Volcano, after Chapter 1), Ian McEwan (Saturday), Barry Hines (A Kestrel For A Knave aka Kes), and, of course, Joyce’s Ulysses. I think (possibly, I fear) there are 5 episodes, so the day is going to be compressed into about 125 minutes. Coronation Street is at the moment what I try hard not to watch, because I lost its plot a few years ago, and grew bored of it. Still, five episodes dealing with one day, eh? It cannot be long before there is an episode of Corrie which is told backwards, or which is broadcast with running subtitles telling a parallel and different story. Or a French feminist Corrie, in which there is nothing but hard porn, which (so I read) is the current rage of French cinema.

The homicidal tendencies of Corrie do entertain me, though. When, in the 1990s, actor William Roache successfully sued because he was called ‘boring’ by The Sun – a pyrrhic victory, because he lost the lot in a subsequent case against his lawyer for giving him poor advice – the contention was really that his character, Ken Barlow (in the soap now for 48 years) was boring. The fact that Ken had had about twenty careers, three wives, and countless extra-marital relationships, in one case producing children; and that his daughter married his ex-wife’s lover, and had a son; and that his ‘life’ was an epicentre of complete, almost unmitigated disaster – all this did not dent the idea that Ken was dullsville incarnate.

Will Coronation Street outlive me? I suspect it will. It has now reached that stage where it is as untouchable as the monarchy (hmm, okay, that’s questionable). Banks may come and banks will go – woomf, there’s another, not mine, I hope – but the Street will persist, even if I retire hoitily-toitily to the kitchen when it’s on, and read some avant-garde poetry instead…

I often use the very first twelve or so minutes of the first programme when teaching creative writing, because, for all its lumbering camera-work, and a staircase that very nearly collapses under Pat Phoenix (Elsie Tanner), there are some text-book pieces of story-telling in it, not least in the way it sets up Dennis Tanner as the bad boy, only to wrongfoot (wrong-eye?) the watcher – and because of a lovely piece of anticipation. Ken and Dennis are in the bar of the Rover’s Return, and the landlady, Annie Walker, provides Ken with a requested twenty cigarettes. But she’s out of packets of twenty, and asks if he’d mind two packets of ten. This trivial action is a great piece of forward planning, and a good example of how to make a plot work (the writer was Tony Warren). A minute or so later, Dennis tries to buy twenty cigarettes, and is denied (“Rule of the ‘ouse,” says Annie, in a Mancunian accent the character later dropped). Ken slides one of his packets of ten to Dennis – wouldn’t have been possible if there’d been packets of twenty behind the bar. Great detail.

I wish also that I had a tape of every time a Coronation Street character quotes Shakespeare. They’re always at it. But my favourite ever line was from a possibly long forgotten character, Phyllis, some time in the 1980s. She was a no-nonsense matron. A character called Chalky Whiteley (get it?) had made a sort of marriage proposal to her. Phyllis turned on him contemptuously: “I wouldn’t marry you, Chalky Whitely, if you came with a nest of tables.”

Oddly enough, one of the first discoveries I made when I researched my family was that my father’s second cousin (not one he knew of) had a three-year affair with Pat Phoenix in the 1950s – before Corrie, and when she was known as Patricia Pilkington. But we have to make do with trifles if searching for the famous in our ancestry (not my preoccupation – but still, Pat Phoenix later married Anthony Booth, the father of Cherie Blair, so that makes me… er…)


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