This year, we are celebrating the anniversaries of the two best-known British soaps. EastEnders, set in the fictional London borough of Walford, has now been on our screens for 25 years and the BBC has been running adverts asking people to remember their favourite dramatic endings – usually involving murder, secret parents, domestic abuse, infidelity and arson. EastEnders, though, is a mere newcomer compared with that other great serial drama which, at 50, is twice its age.
Coronation Street, known colloquially as Corrie or The Street, began life in 1960 on ITV. Set in Weatherfeld, a fictional suburb of Manchester, Coronation Street portrayed a gritty image of Northern working class life all set in a particular small backstreet.
In those days it was shot in black and white, and the opening title sequence showing row upon row of small Victorian terraced houses billowing out smoke into a dull, pewter sky while the iconic theme music played in the background is imprinted on the minds of many British people.
Those early stories verged on the grim, though often tinged with humour. Amazingly, when the series started, Britain had stopped war-time food rationing a mere six years earlier. The people living in those tiny houses, whose front doors opened straight out onto the cobbled street, lived hard lives. There were few luxuries, they worked hard for little money and they took their pleasures in the pub (The Rovers Return) and the corner shop where they could buy tea and cigarettes. Their other great pleasure was, of course, their greatest asset – community. People could gossip, argue, comfort, laugh, eat and drink together.
Coronation Street has always been filled with tremendous characters and the script writing has been superb. Two early matriarchs were Ena Sharples who always wore a hair net and would brook no nonsense and Annie Walker who was landlady of the little backstreet pub yet her airs and graces seemed to imply she was running the Grosvenor House Hotel. Len Fairclough was the strong-arm alpha male while Stan Ogden was a work-shy joke. The most recent character always ready with a tart phrase was Blanche (played by the recently deceased Maggie Jones). She was usually given the best one-liners, such as when she says to her daughter Deirdre, ‘Good looks are a curse, you and Ken were very lucky there’.
Over the years, scripts have been written by such well-established playwrights as Jack Rosenthal, Paul Abbott and Russell T Davies. And the fame of the series is such that it has attracted cameo appearances by well-known actors Sir Ian McKellen, Maureen Lipman, Andrew Sachs and Stephanie Beacham plus rock group Status Quo and comedians Peter Kay and Norman Wisdom.
The demise of Coronation Street has predicted many times. Even in 1960 it was criticised for depicting a world that no longer exists. However, the public begs to differ. There have been record viewing figures for scenes such the exit of Hilda Ogden, Alan Bradley’s demise under a tram, Ken and Deirdre’s wedding, and the sad and poignant death of Vera Duckworth. It seems the end of the world’s longest running soap is not happening any time soon.