Mike Baldwin and Coronation Street’s battle of the sexes: Johnny Briggs 5 September 1935 – 28 February 2021

“There’s two things wrong with the working class. They don’t work and they’ve got no class.” — Johnny Briggs, trading as Mike Baldwin.

Now in its seventh decade, Coronation Street has given us some of the most memorable, iconic characters on television — the majority of them female or as part of a double act. Though there was one cheeky cocksure upstart who made a splash in his own right. Very much an outsider in many ways, the character of Mike Baldwin appeared in over 2000 episodes across 30 years, and was played by former child star Johnny Briggs, who has died aged 85. He was possibly the programme’s greatest male actor.

Every now and then, an actor or actress strides onto a television show and, backed by exemplary writing, manages to not only define the series, but often a genre. And this is never more evident than with an ITV soap opera centred around the residents of a cobbled, terraced street in working class Weatherfield, a fictional backwater based on inner-city Salford in Greater Manchester, and from where the new vogue for gritty kitchen sink dramas could be beamed into people’s homes for the first time. In 1960, it was projected to last just thirteen episodes.

Kitchen sink realism was a cultural movement designed to explore controversial social and political issues, depicting the domestic situations of ordinary Britons who usually lived in cramped rented accommodation and spent their off-hours drinking in grimy, smoky pubs. It was the age of the Angry Young Man.

Coronation Street brilliantly subverted the genre for the small screen, because when you think of Weatherfield the chances are the first characters that come to mind are the fairer sex. Very possibly you remember its original brio trio — the show’s first three matriarchs, unvarnished and unnervingly invented by a gay Mancunian man, Corrie’s creator Tony Warren.

Mess with us at your peril: Ena, Elsie, Annie

Those steely stalwarts — Rovers Return landlady Annie Walker, harridan in a hairnet Ena Sharples, and the legendary ‘Liz Taylor of Lancashire’, the original Queen of the Street Elsie Tanner — dominated the programme for its first two decades; an indelibly and incredibly soulful Northern legacy which has yet to be matched in British soaps and, given the dire state of the genre in the modern age, probably never will.

If those ladies  a bit before your time then you’ll probably have a twinge of recognition for some of the following, because throughout its tenure the longest running soap opera in television history has maintained their roll call of formidable tigresses, willing to defend their young at all costs. From feisty battle-axes (Ena, Ivy, Blanche) to scurrilous gossips (Minnie, Martha, Hilda Ogden), salubrious sirens (Elsie, Rita, Bet Lynch) and the put-upon mother figures (Deirdre, Vera Duckworth, Betty Turpin).

If a television show could identify itself by gender then Corrie would almost certainly be female. Indeed, if you look at its long and illustrious history most of the male characters have ostensibly acted as little more than foils for a Coronation Street prototype; the strong, bossy women that have dominated the programme, the most forbidding faces on the street. And no storyline of recent years is a better example of this than the time in 2008 when the brilliantly acid-tongued Blanche Hunt, probably the last of the great comic battle-axes, gets it into her head that her son-in-law, Ken Barlow, has been leading a not-so-secret gay life.

It’s hil-air-ious.

For the record, the above composite of two episodes were both written by women. 

Ask yourself this. 

Who thinks of Jack without Vera? Stan without Hilda? Alf without Audrey? Roy without Hayley? Even, god forbid, Ken without Deirdre? It’s like trying to imagine a television without a screen. The Corrie couples gave the show heart and substance.

There was one notable exception, however, and his name was Baldwin. Introduced in the first year of the “classic” Bill Podmore era of Coronation Street (1976-1988), the character and entire raison d’être of Mike Baldwin was a complete departure from Corrie conventions. 

In 1976, women ruled the roost in more ways than one: Annie ran The Rovers, Rita ran The Kabin, Renee ran the corner shop, and Emily ran the cafe. Yet with the show in its seventeenth year, Podmore was determined to put his mark on the cobbles, introducing a brand new character to set the famous rooftop cat among the cobbles. 

In the year when industrial strife dogged the Labour government, and Prime Minister Harold Wilson made way for James Callaghan, here was a flashy entrepreneur in a sports car opening his namesake denim-maker business, Baldwin’s Casuals, in Weatherfield. Even worse, he was a Southerner. And a cockney stinking Londoner at that. The street didn’t know what had hit it.

Quickly establishing himself as the street’s biggest and most uncompromising employer, Mike was quick to threaten his machinists with the sack if they slacked and had additionally taking a dim view of workers getting above their work station. His employees, of course, was almost entirely women. The boys were back in town, and now they were calling the shots.

In another break with tradition, that Baldwin lived on his own away from the street, unmarried for his first ten years in the programme, just added to the sense that this was a man apart, a cold blooded interloper that had little time for the warm and cosy community of old. With a mixture of ruthless, roguish charm and wide boy menace, the self-centred, self-made and self-contained Mike Baldwin was essentially Coronation Street’s first character of the 1980s, a sign that Britain was about to undergo a disorientating, unforgiving shake up under the cut-and-thrust Conservatives headed by the money-obsessed Margaret Thatcher. And talking of iron ladies…

And then there was that famous love triangle in 1983, one of the seminal moments of British telly soap, as current Corrie scriptwriter Damon Alexis-Rochefort recalled to BBC News as news emerged of Johnny Briggs’ death.

“He was the only regular Southern character for a long long time, and that worked very well for us. When I first joined in 2004 we were embarking on a big long exit, Johnny wanted to go. All his history with Ken Barlow was great dramatic conflict for us: you had liberal, Guardian reading Ken on the one side, to whom money was filthy. Then you had the capitalist pig on the other side, and then you’ve got Deirdre in between, which was perfect and gave material for decades. 

“There’s no point playing a story like that if the viewers have only known the characters for a year or two. Ken — Bill Roache — was there from episode one back in December 1960, so. It was such a huge story sweeping the nation that Manchester United actually flashed it up tin their boards during a game “Deirdre stays with Ken.” Incredible really, for a football match to put that up. 

“That enmity carried on for many years until Mike succumbed to Alzheimer’s and left the show in that fantastic tragic Shakespearean fashion, with Ken of all people being the one to see him out of this world.”

A former child actor born in Battersea, Johnny Briggs played Baldwin brilliantly, the archetypical rough diamond who you loved to hate. I’ve no idea if we were distantly related, as the maternal Briggs in my family hail from Nottingham, close to where William Roache hails. We’ve one famous Briggs in the shape of acclaimed folk singer Anne Briggs already, though two would have been cool. 

I guess the nearest I got in personal terms, was, for a short while, ‘knowing’ Johnny’s screen son Paul Fox. He was the handsome young buck who played Baldwin’s illegitimate offspring Mark Redman, the one who was wild enough to have an affair with his own father’s short-lived wife Linda.

Equally, Paul was quite a party boy in London back when, though LA is his lady these days, doing it his way just like his telly dad.

RIPJB.

Steve Pafford

Free Deirdre: revisiting the Weatherfield One is here

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