The cast of television soap opera 'Coronation Street' perform at the Royal Gala Show in London, 29th November 1966. From left to right, Violet Carson, Margot Bryant, Pat Phoenix, Philip Lowrie and Peter Adamson. (Photo by Larry Ellis/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

The nation’s favourite: why Coronation Street matters

As Coronation Street celebrates its diamond jubilee, is it time to take it seriously as the chronicler of our times?

On 9 December 1960, workers across the country clocked off after a week’s toil on the factories, steel plants and coal mines that made up much of heavy-industrialised Britain. With their wage packets, many would have made their way to one of the country’s 3500 working men’s clubs or to the Mecca dance halls. Others headed to the local pictures to see Kirk Douglas star in the latest blockbuster Spartacus.

For the vast majority of the working class however, it would be a simple Friday night in front of the nation’s favourite pastime: the television. Over the course of the 1950s the number of sets in Britain had increased to ten million and at peak viewing times half of the population was tuned in.

Radical in its simplicity, Coronation Street was an early form of reality television

On that December night sixty years ago, as the BBC offered up a Tonight special presented by Cliff Michelmore, viewers of ITV were about to participate in a social and cultural revolution. At 7pm, Granada unveiled a new six-part soap opera exploring “the driving forces behind life in a working-class street in the north of England”. Three years after his first script had been rejected by the BBC, Tony Warren’s Coronation Street had arrived.

Like the numerous Granada executives who had expressed their concern about the show, the television critics were unimpressed. Most famously, The Daily Mirror’s Ken Irwin predicted it was “doomed from the outset – with its signature tune and grim scene of a row of terraced houses and smoking chimneys.” Jack Bell found it equally hard to believe that viewers will want to put up with “continuous slice-of-life domestic drudgery two evenings a week”.

For one seventeen-year-old girl watching at home with her parents in Liverpool, Corrie was a life-affirming moment. Cilla Black watched as Ken Barlow’s father fixed a bike in the front room. At the same time, she clocked her own father doing the same thing: “Wow, they are just as common as us. This is wonderful”. Radical in its simplicity, Coronation Street was an early form of reality television, where ordinary people discussed ordinary things in very ordinary accents.

For the sceptics, there was general bewilderment at the passion it sparked

It quickly broke all viewing records, rising from ten to fifteen to twenty million viewers to become the nation’s favourite. Its emotive relationship with the viewer was something that had never been seen before in Britain. For some people it was a talking point, something to discuss in the workplace or with friends. For older people, particularly those that had moved out of cobbled streets on to the new high-rise estates, it served as a window into a world that had been left behind. Other dramas such as The Grove Family and Emergency Ward 10 had depicted community life before. Yet, as the historian Alwyn Turner points out, these shows focussed on workplaces or on a single-family: “They were slices of life, where Corrie was life”.

In its formative years the cast received bags of letters from fans warning them of plots and potential disasters ahead. Pat Phoenix – who emerged in the 1960s as the first television sex symbol through her portrayal of Elsie Tanner – was taken under the arm of the nation. When her character began dating a married sailor (played by Jack Watson) fans wrote to her to warn her of his two-timing ways. For Watson, the attention was a little more unwarranted. One night he was stopped outside Granada studios by a mechanic who threatened him with a beating if he “didn’t leave Elsie alone”.

People instinctively saw their own lives in the stories and felt the urge to intervene. So, when the character Florrie Lindley was “hard up”, twenty girls from a frozen peas factory advised her to stock up on their cheap brand. When the Barlow twins were born the cast received toys from well-wishers. Remarkably, when a character would leave the show, the producers would be inundated with applications from fans to move into the vacated house.

For the sceptics, there was general bewilderment at the passion it sparked. When Violet Carson drew in a huge crowd to switch on the Blackpool Illuminations in 1961, The Guardian was shocked to see the audience turn up to see not the actress but Ena Sharples and “the phenomenal illusion they have created”. Corrie’s impact on popular culture meant that the producers shouldered a “quite immense” responsibility over their subjects. In the 1960s, the character of Lucille Hewitt had to remain an “implausible virgin” for fear that others would say “if it’s alright for Lucille then…”. The producer Michael Cox admitted that there were important topics – such as Manchester’s growing drug problem – that he simply could not tackle: “Any portrayal of an addict would probably encourage imitation rather than understanding”.

Perhaps its most radical decision was to make strong women the focal point of the show

To its staunch critics, of which there were many, this was the evidence that Corrie did not reflect working-class life but merely indulged it. Clancy Sigal famously took to the New Statesman to attack it as “a lie from start to finish if it is supposed to represent any recognizable aspect of life”. Not only was it “false” in dialogue, storyline and character, but it was also patronizing, shying away from “class tensions” which Sigal knew to be alive and well “between shop keepers and street residents”. Another journalist argued that it was holding the public back because it “eulogized normalcy” by making “everything in our lives seem palatable and acceptable”.

Revisionists have long argued that the show was outdated from minute one, more of a nod to Richard Hoggart’s romanticised idea of the working-class community than of contemporary Manchester. Others believe it failed to tackle the true complexities of working-class life. In the 1970s, for example, Emily Bishop’s character fostered two black children without an eyebrow being raised on the street. Critics argued that “there would have been more ripples in Salford” had it happened in real life. By the 1980s, Bill Roache, the man who has played Ken Barlow since episode one, lamented its loss of radicalism: “It’s become shallower which is a shame.”

Pat Phoenix, on the other hand, believed the show was successful because it was not a sociological experiment. She encouraged middle-class academics who wanted to understand society to “go to night school or watch That Was The Week That Was” instead. And while more radical programming has always been available – be it via Play For Today, Boys From the Blackstuff or Brookside – none have had the ability to shape the national conversation in the way Corrie has.

Perhaps its most radical decision was taken by Tony Warren in the very early days: to make strong women the focal point of the show. The sharp tongues of Elsie Tanner, Annie Walker and Ena Sharples were thought to be a product of Warren’s upbringing in the war: “I grew up in a matriarchal society. All the men were at war and I was surrounded by strong women.” It’s an approach which has remained central to its ethos. In a recent poll of the all-time best characters for the fan site Corriepedia, fifteen of the top twenty were women.

Coronation Street reaches parts of the country that mere politicians cannot

Sociologists have argued that the female characters simply offered “validation for the banalities of working-class life” and failed to challenge gender stereotypes. Much loved Hilda Ogden, for example, was never happier than when she was cleaning. But the critics underestimate how the show introduced the day-to-day experiences of women to a mass audience. In the late 1960s, it was heavily criticised for a storyline in which Irma Barlow suffered a miscarriage without a major incident precipitating it. Having tried to convolute a scenario whereby she would lose the baby, the producers decided to tell “the blunt truth, people do have miscarriages, they often just happen without reason”. In the 1970s the show broke new ground by dealing with the fallout of an attempted sexual assault over a prolonged period. Viewers watched as Deidre Barlow refused to report the incident for fear of “questions asked” before spiralling into a mental health crisis, culminating in an attempted suicide.

Gradually, as Coronation Street became more comfortable with its status, the show actively raised important social issues. In the four months following Alma Sedgewick’s death from cervical cancer in 1998, health experts calculated that there was a 21 per cent increase in the uptake of smear tests in the North West of England. When the show controversially introduced a trans character in Hayley Cropper, eighteen million people learned about the discrimination she faced within the law. Its impact prompted an Early Day Motion in Parliament and instigated the debate which led ultimately to the 2004 Gender Recognition Act. Recently, the show was widely praised for its sensitive portrayal of male suicide, having worked on their script with organizations such as Mind and the Samaritans.

There can be little doubt then that Coronation Street reaches parts of the country that mere politicians cannot. Prime ministers of all persuasion have understood this and sought to tap into its appeal. In the 1960s Harold Wilson claimed it was his favourite show. Likewise, when her premiership was on the ropes in 1990, Margaret Thatcher swung by the Rovers Return for a “bitter lemon” and gave journalists the dream photograph of her outside Alf Roberts Cornershop.

There was one politician who owed his political career to the show more than most. As the unknown candidate in the 1982 Beaconsfield by-election, Tony Blair called upon his future step-mother-in-law Pat Phoenix to help pull in the crowds. After losing the by-election, she returned again to help him in Sedgefield, ensuring his picture made it into the national newspapers for the first time.

Blair evidently never forgot Corrie’s pulling power and in 1997 infamously called for the release of Deidre “The Weatherfield One” from prison. When Jeremy Corbyn was offered the same opportunity in 2018 – to support The Daily Star’s campaign to release Sally Webster from prison – his team politely declined the offer. Later, when campaigning alongside Corrie star Nicola Thorp at the 2019 election he admitted he was more of an EastEnders fan.

Coronation Street remains a central pillar in the weekly routine of millions and millions of people

Perhaps Corbyn would have been better served adopting Jim Callaghan’s approach in the 1960s. In the run up to the 1966 General Election, the Corrie cast were invited to Downing Street where Harold Wilson “poured the sherry” and mingled with the stars. Pat Phoenix was again on hand to help the Labour cause. She told journalists how impressed she was by the beleaguered Chancellor Callaghan: “WOW! He’s a real charmer… He told me I was the sexiest thing on TV.” As the pin-up girl for millions of working-class men across the country, Callaghan understood her popularity. In reality, he had never watched a single episode.

And while Britain, the North and the working class have undergone a significant transformation in the past sixty years, Coronation Street remains a central pillar in the weekly routine of millions and millions of people. Even today, in the era of competing demands from Netflix, Sky and Amazon, it regularly draws in eight million viewers. So as the cast raise a pint of Newton and Ridley for its diamond jubilee, it is perhaps time we appreciated our own little diamond. For we are unlikely to ever see its like again.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5

Subscribe
Critic magazine cover