Dust off those Free The Weatherfield One placards, Corrie fans. They’re probably worth a pretty penny on eBay, especially now ITV3’s just rebroadcast that classic headline-grabbing storyline. Ah, the memories.
Call me tragic, but as a Brit abroad, one of the first things I investigated after moving to Australia in 2014 wasn’t where was the nearest chippy or how warm was the local beer but, almost as sinfully, whether Aussie TV were showing that slice of northern cobblestone comedy grit, Coronation Street.
Corrie may be the world’s longest running drama, but as good luck/bad luck would have it, it was unceremoniously removed from free to air schedules not long after I arrived. This was before the joys of online VPNs, and seeing as the only way to view the programme was via the slightly incongruously titled BBC UKTV on Rupert Murdoch’s Foxtel (the antipodean Sky subscriber service) I decided to give it up and, well, there was plenty of sun, sand, sea and box sets to occupy my days.
Fast forward to 2017, and when I bought a property in France one of the plus points was that the previous owner, an English acquaintance of mine who’d been Sting’s yoga teacher, had installed a satellite dish with requisite Freeview box and pointed it in the direction of the Channel, pun intended. Naturally, I tried getting into Corrie again, thinking, as you do, that is would be easy as ABC to pick it up where I left off.
I couldn’t actually believe what I was watching. A nauseating lesion of nastiness that left a distinctly unpalatable taste in the mouth.
Growing up in strife-ridden ‘70s Britain, we were a Corrie family. Somehow, these twice-weekly insights into the lives of the Weatherfield working class somehow made our lives down south seem positively trouble-free, relatively speaking at least.
But at some point after the soaps started going overboard on the airtime and sensationalist headline-grabbing storylines, Coronation Street became the proverbial shadow of its former self. Locked in a bitter ratings war with the Beeb’s horrid poundshop gangster serial EastEnders, the Corrie team have resorted to coming on like a risible version of the very soap they’re trying to beat: a mini northern Albert Square, where everyone’s unhappy, probably because everyone is so utterly ghastly to each other.
“So you don’t watch Coronation Street any more then,” my parents asked me not so long ago. Not on your nelly. Not only were the storylines Depression Central, losing any last vestiges of that famous female dominated humour it was once known for, but I simply didn’t know half the characters. I did the inevitable and started tuning into Classic Coronation Street, a cosy fireside trip down memory lane on ITV3 every weekday afternoon.
Kicking off with the introduction of the tram-loving Alan Bradley character in 1986 (memorably played by my former Hampstead neighbour Mark Eden, who died recently), for the last three and a half years the mid afternoon throwback has seen everything and anything, including Norris kidnapping Derek and Mavis’s garden gnome, Denise (Daniel’s mother) cheating on Ken with her brother-in-law, the Mallets trying to buy a baby, Emily Bishop protesting up a tree, Hayley having the hots for Roy and his rolls, Les Battersby running over the Christmas turkey, Jack and Vera trying to run The Rovers in an uneasy threeway with Alec Gilroy, blah blah blah blah blah.
That’s just being boring, some might say. But the scripts are colourful and evocative, and the way the lines are delivered are often moving and/or hilarious and a joy to watch.
Movie master Alfred Hitchcock once said that “drama is life with the dull bits cut out.” And it’s kind of true, because when you look back at the old episodes, they could make a gripping storyline out of anything, and it didn’t necessarily have to involve death and destruction at twenty paces. That colour has faded to grey, which is why an episode of Classic Corrie aired last Friday felt like a bit of an event in so many ways. Episode 4387 to be exact: the one where Free Deirdre became Deirdre Is Free.
Back in the days when the soaps still attracted huge audiences of 17 million plus, in 1998 the nation was truly gripped by the saga of Deirdre’s downfall, brilliantly played by Anne Kirkbride.
Widowed, too-trusting Deirdre had been wooed by charming — dashing even — airline pilot Jon Lindsay (Owen Aaronovitch), who, unknown to her, had a wife and family waiting in the wings. Well, a three bed semi in suburbia, to be exact. He also wasn’t even a pilot – he was a humble sales assistant in a tie shop, though at least it was at the airport.
Come tie with ’re.
When Lindsay’s lies were exposed, poor Deirdre was caught up in his dastardly web. To the horror of every right-minded citizen up and down the land, our three-packs-a-day everywoman received an 18-month prison sentence on charges of theft and mortgage and credit card fraud. The gross injustice of it all!
Viewers were so outraged at her incarceration that the tabloids soon whipped up a public frenzy, and even T-shirts were printed featuring the iconic image of bespectacled Deirdre peering out from behind bars. For the first time in soap history, fiction ran into reality when even the PM decided to get in on the act, announcing that he would have the Home Secretary Jack Straw investigate poor Deirdre’s case, tongue firmly in the cheeks marked ‘publicity whore.’
“It is clear to anyone with eyes in their head she is innocent and she should be freed.” Yes, that was the then actual Prime Minister, actual Tony Blair, commenting on the wrongful imprisonment of a fictional character in a television soap opera.
Not to feel left out in a moment of national importance, William Hague, the then foetus leader of the Tories, announced that his party was also concerned about Rachid’s treatment, stating that “The whole nation is deeply concerned about Deirdre, Conservatives as much as everyone else.”
I remember calling my mum the week she was sent down. The character, not the mother. At the end of the conversation I thought I’d slip in a wee topical point.
“Oh, before I go, there’s two words I want to say to you.”
“Oh God, not you as well! It’s all anyone’s talking about.”
And we collectively laughed/cringed at how often that village mentality kicks in in the Kingdom of the United, and we all must be interested in the same topic that’s on everyone’s lips. We are, aren’t we? Be there or be square, right?
She was eventually freed, while her conman fiancé ended up being carted off to the same prison. We’ll gloss over the fact that mixed gender prisons didn’t exist then, but hey, this is soapland after all. It’s only real when it wants to be.
Deirdre’s dilemma captured the public imagination in a way that a Corrie storyline hadn’t managed to since, well, since Deirdre’s love triangle with Ken Barlow and Mike Baldwin back in the eighties, actually. Free The Weatherfield One was the biggie which set a template that Corrie would go on to replicate more than once. A bit too often perhaps.
Deirdre’s demise finally came in 2015 with Kirkbride’s death from cancer. By then she had become the heart and soul of the cobbles, part of the lifeblood of the Weatherfield soap for 43 years, surviving affairs, tragedies, prison and even marriage to Ken (twice).
There lay a narrative arc that took her from hairnet-confounding hottie to fag-smoking, specs-mad, croaky-voiced, red-wine-at-three-in-the-afternoon-drinking British institution.
Latterly, she became to the Manchester soap what Tammy Wynette became to country music: captivatingly raddled, deceptively libidinous, straight-talking, with a voice that told you that she had lived, and then some. You can keep your upmarket Joanna Lumleys and your Princess Dianas and your downmarket Barbara Windsors, too, come to that. Deirdre, be she Deirdre Hunt, Deirdre Langton, Deirdre Rachid or Deirdre Barlow, was – is, and will remain – the true working class national treasure, the queen of our chesty hearts.
With the earlier death of her screen mother Blanche Hunt (the comic genius that was Maggie Jones), the programme lost the last of its great one-liner battle-axes. Probably.
Ken’s still there, of course. I have the feeling he’ll be there come what Theresa May, Boris Johnson and several future Prime Ministers to boot. Some point out that Ken Barlow’s character is the most venerable in Corrie, having been in the soap since its first episode in December 1960, and that the actor who plays him, William Roache, is in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest-serving living television actor in a continuous role.
All this, while true, is useless as an argument to undermine Deirdre’s centrality in British popular culture. Ken’s misfortune is to be – and there’s no easy way to say this – a man and therefore not the soap’s emotional core, rather, at most, an ankle bracelet accessory to its dramatic centre.
If the bracelet fits.