I READ a few days ago that hour-long episodes of Coronation Street are to be broadcast three times a week as part of an ITV assault on the BBC’s EastEnders viewing figures. Heaven knows how thinly this will spread the talent. The last time I caught a fleeting glimpse of the Street, it was full of poor young actors reciting cliched lines with a total lack of understanding.
By contrast, let me take you back to May 13, 1964, when at the age of eight I was already a committed Corrie fan. In the Rovers Return, Frank Barlow is holding a party to mark a win on the Premium Bonds. Among those attending is Martha Longhurst, one of three old biddies who regularly drink milk stout in the pub, the others being Ena Sharples and Minnie Caldwell.
Martha is clutching a newly issued passport because she is about to join daughter Lily and her family on holiday in Spain. At the bar she orders a large sherry but looks in no mood to celebrate. Surrounded by boisterous neighbours about to begin a sing-song with Ena at the piano, she shows signs of distress and retreats to the Snug, to the strains of On Moonlight Bay.
As the singing continues, Martha appears to have difficulty breathing and loosens the neck of her coat. She removes her hat and, trembling, holds her head in her hands before slumping to the table. As the revellers in the bar sing Down At The Old Bull and Bush, Martha has a heart attack.
Landlord Jack Walker, eventually advised of the motionless figure in the Snug, approaches Martha and assumes she has over-indulged, saying: ‘You’ll have to get used to wine when you’re in Spain, you know.’
Unable to rouse her, he calls wife Annie, who is joined by Len Fairclough as she tells Jack to call for a doctor. As the assembled throng realise something terrible has happened, the music stops and there is a long, embarrassed silence broken by Fairclough muttering: ‘She’s . . . dead.’
A shocked Ena goes to see her friend and the Snug door closes behind her. Wordlessly, the Rovers customers file out of the pub. More than 57 years on, I remember their names – Jerry and Myra Booth, Elsie Tanner, Albert Tatlock, Florrie Lindley, Emily Nugent and the rest. You can watch this classic TV moment here.
Portraying a death on screen was hugely controversial at the time, even though it was sensitively and beautifully done, and there was a massive public reaction. I wonder if, 57 years from now, fans will be recalling what happened on the Street this week.
Back in the Sixties there were just two half-hour editions of Corrie, on Monday and Wednesday evenings. They were usually the main talking point in offices, schools and factories, where the characters were regarded as real people not actors. Indeed woman workers at the Michelin plant in Burnley held a collection for the widowed Emily Bishop after her husband Ernie was shot during a wages snatch. Bosses ordered the money to be handed back.
I remained a Street fan in the golden years, through the drama of Deirdre Barlow’s affair with Mike Baldwin, the wonderful comic interplay between Alec and Bet Gilroy in the Rovers, Stan and Hilda Ogden (Lord Olivier was among Hilda’s greatest fans) and the death of the dastardly Alan Bradley under a Blackpool tram. The missus and I would record the programmes while at work and watch them together as a Saturday-night treat.
With the later increase in episodes, however, came an equivalent decline in quality.
The last straw for us was when Derek and Mavis Wilton bought and moved into a new house without having looked around it. We pointed this out to the programme makers via the Granada press office and received a terse reply that ‘we don’t feel the need to explain everything to our viewers’.
The audience was immediately reduced by two. Followed over the years by millions of others.
Old jokes’ home
ENGLAND’S openers are batting at Lord’s against Australia in the Ashes. Geoff Boycott is at one end and a racehorse at the other with a bat tied to its front right leg. The horse receives the first delivery and drives it for four. The second receives the same treatment. The next two are blocked and then the horse parries the ball through the covers for what looks like an easy couple of runs. Boycott shouts: ‘Two’ but the horse raises its left hoof and refuses to move. The same thing happens with the next delivery. At the end of the over, Boyks stomps across to his partner and says: ‘I am the great Geoff Boycott and when I say you run, you run.’
‘Listen, mate,’ replies the horse. ‘If I could run I’d be at bloody Ascot!’
And while we’re on the subject of talking animals, a duck walks into a chemist’s shop and says: ‘Could I have some lip salve, please?’ ‘Certainly, that will be £1.50.’ ‘Can you put it on my bill?’
Giles and Giles
LAST week I mentioned an email from Yasmine Giles, wife of King Crimson founder Peter, about their new album and forthcoming gigs. Yasmine has sent me a copy of the CD, Insights, and I must say it is not what I was expecting. It’s a collection of dreamy, bossa nova-styled numbers with more of a debt to Astrud Gilberto than the Seventies prog scene. Beautifully played, of course.
A PS from PG
Like so many substantial citizens of America, he had married young and kept on marrying, springing from blonde to blonde like the chamois of the Alps leaping from crag to crag.
PG Wodehouse: Summer Moonshine