x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

After 50 years on air, nothing is simple in the UK anymore

Coronation Street, which launched as a two-month experiment back in December 1960 by Granada Television, has been celebrating its 50th anniversary this week with a series of specially commissioned story lines.

It's been an upsetting seven days here in the UK, with mayhem and chaos invading every home in the country. I'm not talking about the student tuition fee protesters, but merely the events in the nation's favourite soap opera, Coronation Street.

The series, launched as a two -month experiment back in December 1960 by Granada Television, has been celebrating its 50th anniversary this week with a series of specially commissioned story lines.

Set in the fictional northern Manchester suburb of Weatherfield, the programme is now the world's longest running drama series. So popular has it become that many people spend more time in the company of the show's fictional heroes than they do with their own blood relatives.

Of the initial cast of characters, only one still remains: mild-mannered Ken Barlow, who in the course of 50 years in the street has got through three marriages, one widowhood, two divorces and 27 girlfriends.

The special anniversary episode, the 7,487th in the programme's history, was titled Four funerals and a wedding and it didn't disappoint.

Rumour has it that Granada is looking to clear out some dead wood and some deader storylines in recent months. What better way to achieve it than by arranging for a mass cull by way of a sudden disaster?

Thus the special anniversary night episode was as memorable as any in the show's history, with an explosion in the local nightclub causing a fire that spread to adjacent buildings. And just in case that wasn't enough to finish everyone off, the writers even contrived for a crowded tram traversing a nearby viaduct to topple over the parapet and crush anyone still standing.

The only individual not caught up in the mayhem was "John", who missed it all because he was in his sitting room with the curtains drawn. But then, he had other things on his mind - namely, his dead fiancé whom he had just murdered with a claw hammer.

It'll be many more days before an anxious nation discovers which of their favourite characters has survived the cull and who has perished.

A week on and the dazed protagonists are either still trapped under falling masonry or lying critically ill in hospital. Their attempts to resist the blandishments of the Grim Reaper are sure to continue for many weeks yet.

But it wasn't just the episode itself that proved so riveting. With admirable foresight, Granada followed it up by repeating the very first episode from December 9, 1960. Filmed in grainy black and white by cameras the size of small bungalows, this juddering 30-minute trip down memory lane shone a stark light on changing times and changing fashions.

Was life really that simple back then? The interior sitting room sets contained little more than a chair and a table with a half drunk bottle of milk on it; the story lines centred not on the sort of seamy intrigues or serial infidelities we've become used to, but merely on young Ken's attempts to fix his bicycle and whether the neighbourhood busybody Ena Sharples would choose a chocolate éclair or an egg custard for her tea.

Yet its very simplicity proved oddly mesmeric. Basic old-fashioned ordinariness is a rare commodity these days, on TV or in life, and the mere reminder of how things once were was enough to make you weep for the past.

My actress wife Julia, who many years later appeared in the programme as a child-snatching housewife (needless to say her character perished after falling from a church steeple), was even more affected by watching the original: aged eight at the time of the broadcast and living with her parents in a northern town very like the fictional setting, she remembers watching it with her mum and dad.

Back then, Coronation Street offered something new and unique - a popular drama that accurately reflected the everyday lives of the working class people in the north, rather than the middle class, metropolitan concerns of the London programme-making elite.

All gone now of course. Being working class is no longer a badge of honour. Aspirational is the thing to be. Rickety chairs and bottles of milk on the table are considered signs of failure and indolence, and designer sofas and designer drinks have replaced them. And as for representing peoples' daily concerns, last night's new instalment was back to familiar territory, with murder, duplicity, infidelity, deception and heartbreak - just another day in the UK in fact.

Oh well, it was nice while it lasted.


Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London