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.)
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.
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.
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.)
Signs and Signifiers Corner
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.)
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.