Monday, January 30, 2012

The Street where they live by Ian Walker (New Society 3 April 1980)

Did I ever mention on the blog that Coronation Street's Stan Ogden was supposed to have been an International Brigader? By the time Ian Walker wrote this article in 1980 all memory of The Street's radical past was long forgotten.
" . . . sentimental Labour Party nationalism", indeed.
The Street where they live by Ian Walker
An old man sits in the Rover's return, saying nothing. A few yards away, in Elsie Tanner's living room, Len Fairclough is confessing that he has beaten up a woman, but the old man doesn't seem too interested. An extra, he has been sitting in the Rover's on and off for the last 13 years. The first episode of Coronation Street went out on 7 December 1960.

They all call it The Street, those who work on the programme, like producer Bill Podmore. "People says it's bloody ridiculous," he says. "All them things wouldn't happen on one street. But The Street ia all the streets. That's dramatic licence."

But scrub the term "soap opera." According to Bill, The Street is a "drama series," employing nine writers, two continuity writers and one programme historian. "A lot of the stories are taken from real life. Like there was this newspaper story about GIS returning to this country and meeting up with old girl friends. So we played it with a GI coming round to look Hilda up. Yes, we are aping reality." The Street has seen five births, 20 deaths and eleven weddings, but no abortions.

"We're very aware we're talking about working class people, the problems they have. We're talking about real people. We'll always have someone saying, 'Do you know, Albert Tatlock's just like my uncle whatsit?' As long as people are saying that, then the programme will be a success." Arrangements are already in hand for celebrations attendant upon The Street's two-thousandth episode, due for transmission on Monday, 2 June. "Everyone knows an Annie Walker and a busty barmaid who's quick with the repartee."

The television strike put the programme behind schedule, so film produced this Thursday afternoon will be watched by around 19 million next Wednesday night. "We're ready to go, 45 seconds. Nice and quiet now . . . 15 seconds." The floor manager beats sound out with his arm and the theme tune plays in, that mournful accompaniment to the smoke drifting over the backstreets in the opening shots, mourning originally I suppose the heartache down there on the wrong sides of the tracks, but more now it seems mourning for the old England, the old north.

It is a dirge for the world which lost out to gay rock stars and American detective shows; which caved in with the Special Patrol Group and race riots. The last time any black people appeared in The Street was in 1974 when the Bishops fostered two black children at Christmas.

Stan Ogden sits in a threadbare armchair reading Sporting Life. Hilda is away in Spain, and there us a mountain of washing up in the sink. The floor manager snaps his fingers for the dummy run to begin. Before filming, the producer, sitting up in a glass box, must work out all the camera angles. Young men push around grey metal structures supporting seated cameramen.

"It's great," says one of the lads doing the pushing. "Great. In August you get a straight ten weeks off, full pay. This is my first year, like, and you just do this, then a bit of mixing." When he has finished his apprenticeship, he will get pushed around too.

Stan Ogden receives a visit from Eddie Yates, the fat Scouse, who predicts the pasting Stan will get from Hilda when she sees what a state the place is in.

Eddie Yates, like Stan Ogden, speaks exactly the same on and off screen. "Exciting, isn't it, showbiz?" he says, when the scene is over. "The tinsel, the glitter . . . I'm an 18-stone Greta Garbo." The Street's sex symbol, Elsie Tanner (Pat Phoenix), says that she expects I'm here to do "another knocking job" as she waltzes by.

Someone tells me Jim Callaghan once said Pat Phoenix was "the sexiest thing on TV." The Street has many famous fans: Laurence Olivier, Roy Orbison, David Essex, Diana Dors, Cyril Smith, the late Marc Bolan. John Betjeman once came round to Granada for lunch. He likened The Street to Pickwick Papers; reckoned that if Dickens was around now, this is the kind of stuff he'd be doing.

The Street had its biggest international audience in the early sixties, when it was exported to 19 different countries, but subsequently those networks developed their own working class soap operas and now only television stations in Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and Canada still screen it.

Elsie Tanner is supposed to be brewing tea for Len Fairclough, but the box of matches has gone astray and Vinny, the props manager, tears his hair out. "Shocking isn't it?" he says. "Not a box of matches in the place." Pat Phoenix languidly remarks that it doesn't matter; she can fire up the gas ring with a cigarette lighter, shielding it from the camera with her body so the viewers will never know.

After she's put the kettle on, an out-of-work Elsie tells Len she has just been for a job interview. "Oh," he says. "You're going to the boss's wife."

"Boss's plaything, I'm not fussy," she replies, the cheeky kink of the lips, the raunchy available local girl. James Callaghan could never feels as at home with Jane Fonda or Brigitte Bardot. The scene ends with Len Fairclough, head in hands, starting to cry after he says, "Elsie. Why am I such a bloody fool?"
The moment the floor manager winds up the scene, he wipes away the tears and starts laughing.

The fixture list pinned to the wall of The Street's working man's cafe is for Man City, the one in the Rovers is for Man United, and it is in the Rovers that around 15 extras have taken up their positions. "Bit of chatter please," they are instructed. The three men playing darts land all their arrows in and around the 20. "Well, what sort of year do you think it's going to be business-wise then, 1980?" the worker (pint of bitter) demands of the businessman (gin and tonic).

Granada TV should continue to do well business-wise, out of The Street. A 60-second advertising spot for transmission in the Granada area alone costs £7,000. "It's a very popular programme so you have to pay the top premium rate, what we call superfix," says the man in the ad sales department.

Eddie Yates buys his girl friend a half of lager in the Rovers. The woman playing that part has been on good money for the last few weeks, but next week she'll be travelling home to London. She says she hasn't got any other work lined up, but she has heard that her part went down well with the producer. She thinks she might be written back in soon.

Even if she sin't, the programme historian, Eric Rosser, will have preserved her role for posterity. He used to work for the Inland Revenue till, ten years ago, he wrote to the executive director with some ideas for story-lines. His letter disclosed such intimate knowledge of The Street that he was hired as an archivist. "I kept records from that first show, 20 years ago," he says. Now aged 66, he has only ever missed three or four episodes, which he was able to see run through again at Granada. Does he remember any gays featuring in The Street? "No, nothing like that at all. We had an attempted rape once, but we've had no homosexuals at all on The Street." Next Monday's show is going to be the 1,984th episode.

Filming finishes at six on the dot. "We start at 9.30 sharp tomorrow." The floor manager's shout is drowned in a determined rush for the exits. Some are making for the Granada drinking club over the road, where two women, one with a peroxide bouffant, say they have just been interviewed by Tit-Bits for a feature on the women who work in The Street's factory.

It grew up with Z-Cars, Harold Wilson, football as a fashionable interest for rulers. Now, in 1980, The Street has become a period piece, sentimental Labour Party nationalism: coronations, pints of bitter, working girls with knowing winks. The streets are different now.

The outdoor scenes are filmed every Monday on a street Granada built, just behind the studios. It is a row of empty shells: facades and backyards with nothing in the middle.
3 April 1980

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