17, 19, 24, 26 May 1976 – In which I overthink Ken Barlow eating a salad

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Ken Barlow is a very useful character for the purposes of Coronation Street. It’s fortuitous that William Roache, the actor who has played him since the show began in 1960 (imagine playing the same role since 1960! It’s almost unfathomable) has never found something else he desperately wanted to do. Ken fulfils several functions. As a university graduate, he represents aspiration and “betterment”; but because he never manages to leave the Street for any length of time, he also represents failure, impotence, and hypocrisy. All of his middle-class pursuits are ripe for mocking, but at the same time he is able to mouth political views or approach current events in ways which are in stark contrast to most of the Street’s other characters. The writers can have him both ways: he is often written as smug, vaguely ridiculous and tiresome – but he periodically represents progress and free thought. (I wonder if the Street’s many writers through the years are handed a little portfolio on how to write for Ken. “Make him subtly awful – but occasionally interesting.”)

My thoughts on Ken are particularly relevant this week, as his married lover, Wendy Nightingale, has left her husband and shacked up with him in number 11. Ken’s Uncle Albert describes this, delightfully, as “living over t’brush“, and is most displeased – as are several other street residents. We are treated to Ena Sharples and Annie Walker tut-tutting over a milk stout, while Mavis witters on about “thinking of the children” to Rita. Unsurprisingly, Rita and Elsie are less likely to go full judgeypants; Elsie merely warns Wendy, from her own experience, that if she “can’t make it work with one fella” she probably won’t make it work with another. (Wendy uses this advice as an opportunity to look uncertain about eventually marrying Ken. I don’t really hold out high hopes for this relationship, I don’t mind telling you.)

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Mrs Walker ponders happier, less permissive times, when women couldn’t own property and marital rape was legal.

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I can’t give a good reason for including this screenshot other than my pride in how silly it is.

Elsie has other problems at the moment anyway: a new character, “Reenie” Bradshaw (I assumed this was some derivative of Irene – and it is – but I also discovered that this is also how they pronounced “Renee”. Goodness.) has offered to buy the corner shop from Betty and is planning on moving herself into the back room flat that Elsie inhabits. Renee is not backward about coming forward, and while Elsie reluctantly considers reclaiming her house from Ken and Wendy, Trish glumly fears for her job.

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Renee, clearly a devotee of the Deirdre Barlow school of optical fashion.

In the usual way of “high” and “low” storylines, the angsty love of Ken and Wendy is interspersed with the frankly ludicrous crush gormless barman Fred has on glamorous nightclub singer (and stationer) Rita. In the modern parlance, Fred has practically no game, and Rita doesn’t have the heart to let him know it. Danger, heartbreak dead ahead.

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Rita gazes upon her single rose from gormless Fred with something approaching horror.

As smug and annoying as Ken can be, he really comes into his own after a Weatherfield council meeting in which he is told to either stop living in sin with Wendy or quit his job as Community Development Officer. He rounds on councilman Plonker Ernest Bishop, who clearly had something to do with dropping Ken in it, calling his behaviour hypocrisy in light of the stripper indiscretions of a few weeks ago. You tell him, Ken! (The writers are so great at these callbacks to other storylines.)

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Ken in high dudgeon.

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Plonker Ernest being told where to get off.

Signs and Signifiers Corner

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“And so, Wendy, what is this called? A ‘vegetable’, you say?”

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A salad this pathetic does not deserve a snog, you two.

Here, Ken and Wendy make the world’s most grim-looking salad. It occurred to me that this salad, pathetic and unappetising as it is, is inserted into the proceedings to signify middle-classness. The people of Coronation Street eat boiled things and fried things; they do not eat salad. (As a much wiser man than me once said: you don’t win friends with salad.)

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Plonker Ernest gives us a brief but tantalising view of this poster.

I apologise for the visible pause sign on this screenshot but it only appeared for an instant and took some work to capture. This is in the council offices and I find it delightfully punitive: do some graffiti and lose a leg! Or something.

3, 5, 10 May 1976 – “Try not to drink it with your usual fierce alacrity.”

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Soap opera plots thrive on secrets and dissatisfactions, punctuated with rare moments of catharsis or triumph (secret comes out! Dissatisfaction is acted upon! Someone gets a comeuppance!). Coronation Street has months or even years for plots and subplots to simmer, come to a head and loop back around again. In these episodes various threads, both “high drama” and “low comedy”, from the last weeks come together rather wonderfully: Hilda and Stan, feeling ill-used after Stan’s deliberate ousting from Superbrain (Len sent him in a taxi to the wrong pub), mutter darkly over their bread and dripping about everyone looking down on them.

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Hilda’s feelings of inadequacy are exacerbated by a series of run-ins about her grooming and fashion sense with local women, particularly Elsie. She purchases a sort of… smock? Peasant top? from Sylvia’s, the fashion boutique at which Gail and Elsie work, in an attempt to change their opinions, but everyone is scornful and big gob Trish says she’s just mutton dressed as lamb

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Hilda was initially so pleased with her smock, but the shocked and disapproving looks of the other women soon put paid to that. I must say that although I am a great lover of vintage clothes, I am finding it difficult to put myself into a mindset which would consider this top a) the height of fashion and b) “too young” for anyone.

Gail and Elsie refuse to take the top back, and Hilda, hurt and angry, reports to the owner of Sylvia’s that one of her staff members was once done for shoplifting. (The writers are obviously confident enough in the longterm dedication of their audience to bring back details of this years-old subplot about Elsie.)

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The men of the Street, meanwhile, are dealing with fraught interactions of their own. Ken is still on a quest for middle-class, married Wendy; Ray is fighting with Deirdre over whether to buy a card table or a sun bed (I spent quite some time thinking this was a very extravagant purchase, then realised that in the 70s in the UK this merely meant “sun lounger”); and Alf and Len are spending hours over their pints of bitter discussing Len’s increasing business expenses and Alf’s less than stable employment situation. (The Street is quite adept at obliquely referring to current events like economic depressions without getting too specific or dating itself too much. Things are “bad out there” at the moment and that’s all we need to know right now.) Stan realises that he was sent to the wrong pub for the Superbrain quiz on purpose and does a round of shouting and storming out of the Rovers.

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Bet Lynch: loser of Superbrain but winner of Copping Off With the Quizmaster Using Her Astounding Cleavage.

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I simply can’t let this amazing Dorothy Hamill-esque hairstyle (on one of Wendy’s friends) go unremarked.

Snappy Comebacks Corner

Coronation Street has a reputation among the uninitiated for being dreary, but where dialogue is concerned nothing could be further than the truth. The actors’ line readings are also unfailingly on point when it comes to snaps.

An exhausted Mrs Walker serving a beer to Len: “Try not to drink it with your usual fierce alacrity.” Mrs Walker then justified her own snarkiness to Len: “The hoi polloi don’t mind being insulted, you know. Not by a social superior. At least I AM talking to you.”

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Trish to Emily in the shop, clutching a loaf of bread: “Do you want that, love?”

Emily, with some asperity: “No, I’m just giving it a cuddle because I’ve mistaken it for a cat.”

Trish: “Well, give us 17p and we’ll call it Tiddles.”

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Gail spent some time in these episodes pondering marriage and her own future, once rather memorably with Deirdre. (Oh Gail, if only you knew!)

Gail: “Men is just born selfish, that’s all.”

Deirdre: “Yeah, they want it all their own way.”

Gail: “So much for liberation.”

Deirdre: “Ha! It’s a farce.”

Gail: “They still get their own road. Walk all over us.”

Deirdre: “And expect us to be grateful!”

Gail: “I’m not getting married! I’m being nobody’s slave!”

(I believe Gail is now on marriage number five.)

26 and 28 April, 1976 – “Don’t all kill yourselves rushing to congratulate me.”

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It’s odd to think that a show running for 55 years has certain thematic constants, but Coronation Street does. It’s a show which does not look kindly on hypocrisy or pomposity. The merest whiff of “getting above your station” is mercilessly mocked or punished. Middle-class professionals who wander through the cast, like teachers, are pathetic figures of fun (Ken Barlow, Brian Packham) or, if they’re lucky, pathetic harbingers of evil (John Stape). People who aspire to detached houses and city jobs are looked at askance. This approach is a practical as well as ideological one: the show is called Coronation STREET, not Various People From All Walks Of Life In Manchester At Large. The characters must therefore stay in their tiny houses and do local jobs.

That’s not to say, however, that things don’t change on the cobbles. The episodes I’m currently watching have given me a few “not in Kansas any more” moments. Plonker Ernest Bishop has washed up at Len Fairclough’s house, and is given the world’s worst advice when Len frustratedly suggests he go and “beat the living daylights” out of Emily rather than keep whining about his plight. Ena, meanwhile, is over at Emily’s attempting to get her to take Ernest back. Emily says some fantastically women’s-lib-influenced things which made me cheer inwardly, but it’s clear the show thinks all this feminist nonsense is a bit ridiculous. I’m trying to imagine a situation in which current characters on the Street would, even as a joke, suggest domestic violence as a problem-solver or give short shrift to a woman’s quest for self-actualisation. With apologies to Dr King, the arc of Coronation Street’s moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. Eventually.

And speaking of men of God, Plonker Ernest is in danger of losing his job at the Christian mission as a lay preacher thanks to his stripper escapades. Ena suggests he use the old “I was researching the filth in order to stamp it out” line with his boss, although Emily looks darkly upon this as the last refuge of a lying liarpants. You see, guvnor, he was only trying to understand the permissive society from the inside out. As it were. (I know that Ernest is murdered at some point in the next few years and I must say that I am, small-mindedly, rather relishing the thought.)

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I can’t work out whether it’s her husband or her blouse that’s causing Emily the most discomfort.

In the meantime, poor old Stan Ogden has to cram for the Superbrain inter-pub competition on his new specialist subject the western “dessert” (thanks Hilda) in World War II. Listening in despair as he flubs his answers, Bet says “Has he always been that daft, or has he been taking tablets for it?” Again: don’t get above your station, characters. You may know a lot about United, but there’s no point in reaching for the pub-quiz moon.

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Bet and Betty despair over Stan’s hopelessness. PLEASE NOTE DOOR TO THE WOMEN’S TOILETS MYSTERIOUSLY OPENING INTO THE SPACE OCCUPIED BY NUMBER ONE’S FRONT BEDROOM.)

Bet takes over from drunken Stan and triumphs with her expertise in true crime magazines, which is clearly a proper working-class interest. Much like “pigeons”.

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Triumphant Bet.

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Disappointed Ogdens.

Retail Wonderment Corner

The corner shop is delighting me with its unfamiliar brands and extraordinary level of service. One does not get the products off the shelves oneself, oh no. One stands and waits to have the products fetched, and woe betide you if, as a shop assistant, you are found wanting. “I don’t care if it sells woolly hats for baldheaded budgies,” snaps Hilda of Gail’s new flash job at Elsie’s fashion boutique – Stan requires bacon and either Gail or Trish is going to have to be the one to fetch it.

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Elsie and Gail preside over a boutique stocked entirely with nylon and polyester doubleknit.

21 April, 1976 – Knowledge is Power

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It’s all kicking off on the cobbles, as the strip club was raided by police and various men were named and shamed in the Weatherfield Gazette. Deirdre breaks some crockery on Ray’s face off-screen, while Ernest takes the opportunity to double down on being a plonker by blaming the whole episode on Mavis coming to stay, inspiring the usually gentle Christian Emily to use the phrase “painted whore” and lock her whining husband out of the house for the night. Goodness, Emily, that’s a bit full-on. What would the Lord say?

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Plonker.

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Emily’s “painted whore” side-eye.

The writers of Coronation Street often combine a “high drama” story with a “low humour” story (both, of course, may be high camp). During this arc of marital problems Mrs Walker, Rovers Return landlady, is concurrently running a Mastermind knockoff quiz competition called “Superbrain” (sample specialist subjects: “pigeons” and “Manchester United”). “His brain’s not exactly CLUTTERED with knowledge,” says the inimitable Hilda Ogden of her husband Stan, but his United obsession means he runs away with the prize anyway.

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Gleeful Hilda.

I was delighted to see that Mrs Walker, quizmaster, used the show’s catchphrase “I’ve started so I’ll finish” as if born to it. She HAD spent all day at the library getting the questions, after all. (Imagine running a specialist quiz night without access to the internet. It’s almost inconceivable now.) So both the “high” and the “low” storylines let us know that even a little bit of knowledge, if it’s on the right subject, can swing things your way.

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I’ve started so I’ll finish.

Space-Time Continuum Corner

My friend Mark has pointed out that according to the street’s layout during this period the Rovers Return loos appear to be occupying the same space as number one’s front bedroom. He says this may explain why Tracy Barlow has grown up to be such a “disturbed individual”.

Understanding Women

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April, 1976. Gender roles and sexuality: they’re funny old things, cock*. Elsie’s left her husband but can’t be seen to be shacking up with Len Fairclough, even if she is only staying in his back bedroom and it is a very modern 1976. That may very well be true, but “folk round here”, warns Ena Sharples, will not take kindly to a married woman living in those sorts of circumstances. But I’m more inclined to think the primness is a bit of a poorly maintained facade: there’s quite a lot of simmering… STUFF… going on. If it isn’t Deirdre and Ray talking about their amazing night of lovemaking (!), it’s ingenue Gail discussing her plans to “spread herself around” (yes, you read that right). Plus Ken Barlow’s been carrying on with the posh-ish married woman of his dreams (don’t get above your station, Ken!), and the episode I watched today contained an actual honest-to-goodness belly dancer at an illegal strip club, if you can imagine such madness on the cobbles. Bet Lynch, sharp-tongued barmaid and a woman I have always considered my spiritual adviser, had this exchange with Alf Roberts:

“Stag night at Gatsby.”

“You dirty old man.”

“It’s for charity.”

“Strippers’ convalescent home?”

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That young lady looks in rather rude health to me.

(The man having his glasses fondled is Ernest Bishop, who has left his wife Emily at home wittering on with Mavis in blissful ignorance. In current episodes Emily speaks of the late Ernest in hushed and reverent tones. It’s rather refreshing to see here that actual past Ernest is, in fact, a bit of a plonker.) Bet, the only one who’s aware that half the Street’s married men are away watching naked ladies undulate, suggests that the entire male sex should be destroyed, but we know she doesn’t really mean it. Earlier in the episode Len Fairclough, official Man of the World, gives jilted, punched-in-the-face Ken some wry advice about the mysteries of womanhood. Ladies are apparently quite inscrutable, even if they’re not the ones doing most of the lying right now.

imageThe longsuffering women of Coronation Street (Gail, a shop assistant with whom I am as yet unfamiliar, Ena, Rita, Betty) set up Elsie’s new room for her. Two of these women are still on the show. Does that blow your mind a little bit? It does mine.

Dated Tchotchkes Corner:

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 I am desperate to see these odd ornaments in Ken’s house close-up. The lack of film clarity is killing me here.

imageElsie waits for a job interview in a fashion boutique of gloriously grotty proportions. The windswept 70s ladyface is so of its time that I actually exclaimed “awww!” when I saw it.

*It’s a term of endearment in Manchester. I swear to god.

Cockroach*

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April 14, 1976: even if it happened nearly 40 years ago, there’s something pretty satisfying about Ken Barlow getting a smack in the mouth.

*The actor who plays Ken Barlow, William Roache, was known by his fellow cast members as “Cock-roache” for his womanising ways. Getting punched by a jealous husband probably wasn’t too much of an acting stretch.

And so it begins: April 1976

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It occurs to me as the first scene (between Rita and Mavis) from April 5, 1976 comes on screen that I was only 18 months old at the time this screened, yet I still know who these people are. Many things are familiar and yet a lot of it is rather strange. The Rovers and the rooms of the houses seem much larger than they do in later years (perhaps the set designers got a bit more realistic about the size of a two up two down terraced house and a local pub). Every external shot is simultaneously grotty, brown, gritty and windy. I dimly remember the 70s, and this seems completely appropriate. (That’s the thing retro stuff like That 70s Show gets totally wrong: pockets of colourful grooviness were very small. Everything was brown and there was a shitload of macrame and strong-assed cigarettes.) As Deirdre and her first husband Ray walked along by the world’s most hideous canal, I couldn’t have blamed either of them if they had flung themselves into it. No wonder punk happened.