Everyday Folk and Inflation

Jack Kibble-White on high drama in Coronation Street and EastEnders

First published June 2000

On 18 June 1986 inflation began to bite British soap opera – and things started to go wrong. With demographic significance, two of Coronation Street‘s young ‘uns were shown via an unusually high craned camera shot returning from an all night party. Somehow, to my eyes, the picture quality seemed different to usual: more realistic, more contemporary. It was 5.30am and taking advantage of the solitude that such an hour brings, Kevin and Sally frolicked around the empty streets, seemingly unaware that in those days location footage in Coronation Street was usually a precursor to disaster. On this occasion, the informed viewer had been sufficiently briefed to expect something spectacular. What followed – the fire at the Rovers Return – was that. A hint of the grotesque from a burning Julie Goodyear, coupled with very uncharacteristic direction ensured that the Street was beginning to take on a new identity.

Impending disasters on Coronation Street had always made for uncomfortable viewing. I recall with startling clarity, my young mind suddenly being able to interpret all the warning signs – an irresponsible lorry driver, an ironic argument between Alf and learner driver Rene, and a myriad of winding county roads – that had preceded the death of Rene Roberts (in a road accident) some six or seven years prior to the Rovers Return blaze. On that occasion I had felt compelled to flee our living room even before the fatal event occurred. With the fire, however, I was able to see that the Street was flexing its muscles for the first time in response to the phenomenon that had been escalating in Albert Square for the previous 16 months.

EastEnders and (before it but with less of an immediate impact) Brookside had pitched themselves as fraught soap operas, portraying “everyday folk” with a deal more harshness then meted out in Weatherfield. There was an authenticity to these early forays in to high angst, making the inhabitants of Brookside Close and Walford seem – if not realistic – then at least relevant.

In an otherwise poor reminiscence on British television, Stuart Jeffries’ Mrs Slocombe’s Pussy ably dissects the original constraints that undermined Brookside‘s attempt to recreate “reality” on our television screens; “I was tempted by this feelgood pretence of a radical political agenda … [However] any projection of a single mood onto a group of people will flatten the differences between individuals and is likely to be sentimental. Young people have never, en masse, asked for nothing more than a job.” This socio-political view of the world (in which everyday folk existed in constant conflict against a Thatcherite government) certainly allowed for the highly emotional scenes that appealed to Brookside‘s burgeoning audience, and indeed a similar strategy appears to have been adopted by the BBC. Desperate for a ratings winner, yet looking for an artistically acceptable alternative to Coronation Street, it would seem that EastEnders‘ creators Julia Smith and Tony Holland deliberately amalgamated the community spirit of Coronation Street with the social credibility of Brookside.

1983 was also something of a significant year for Coronation Street, beginning with the infamous Ken-Deirdre-Mike love triangle and concluding with the death of the one of the programme’s most important characters – Len Fairclough. Reviewing those episodes today is instructive in identifying the major differences between soap operas pre and post the commencement of the EastEnders/Coronation Street ratings battle. The concluding episode of the Ken-Deirdre-Mike saga was famously prĂ©cised at Old Trafford during half-time. It would be difficult to repeat such a feat of summary with any of today’s plot lines. Here, the drama of simple betrayal was deemed sufficiently engaging without having to add various ironies and complications such as those appended to the geometrically similar plotline involving Sharon, Grant and Phil some 11 years later. The effectiveness of the Street‘s story was mainly derived from the ordinariness of such events, and our ability to recognise – if not sympathise – with the protagonists (even the genuinely upset “Uncle” Albert Tatlock). Conversely, the operatics surrounding Sharon and Grant’s relationship (including arson, domestic violence and shootings) ensured that their story resided outside the realm of most of our experiences. Both stories successfully engaged the public, yet only the former allowed the characters and the programme somewhere else to go. Sharon and (in particular) Grant remained too narratively scarred to ever be employed in convincing drama again. The apotheosis of this was laid bare in Grant’s final, over-the-top storyline. The visible towrope attached to the river-bound car, was an unwitting metaphor for the lumpen, mechanical storyline that had driven him to this point.

Later permutations of the Ken-Deirdre-Mike saga betrayed Coronation Street‘s formative intentions to compete against EastEnders’‘ bigger and better stories. Across the spring of 1986, the soap decided to cash in its chips and begin a new affair – this time with added irony. In retrospect, even Coronation Street‘s producers now concede that Mike Baldwin’s relationship and subsequent marriage to Ken’s daughter (Susan) was a bridge too far. The suspect acting ability of Wendy Jane Walker didn’t contribute to the credibility of the storyline, and desperate manipulation of the unfolding strand was required to extricate the Street from this poorly conceived, knee-jerk story. Famously, the death of Martha Longhurst had come about due to a bet between some of the scriptwriters. With the Susan plotline, we could see an early example of Jimmy McGovern‘s diagnosis of British soap: “Inflation has set in. The Street used to be immune to it but even there writers are losing faith in actors, and the actors are losing faith in the characters. So people have to place great faith in the stories. But that’s when inflation sets in because one story has to top another.” To stretch the Longhurst metaphor – this was now a card game with high stakes.

Ironically, at the same time EastEnders tapped a vein that allowed them to present sensational stories yet retain the context of a recognisable environment. Okay, so the unfolding, and rather contrived story of Michelle’s baby was exploited for all its worth. But even here the story’s momentum was built through a logical plot construction as opposed to a series of “overheard” confessions, or gratuitous ironies. Undoubtedly the year’s finest story, the breakdown of Arthur Fowler relied on little more then the increasingly desperate actions of the character to fuel its escalating drama. In Christmas 1990, Coronation Street had to rely on all manner of twists and turns to take Ken Barlow to the same place. However, his attempted suicide was able to evoke at least some of the resonance captured by Treacher’s much praised performance. Whilst an ably scripted story, there was an undoubted sense that Ken Barlow’s fate had been decided well in advance of his deteriorating course. It was to be symptomatic of storytelling in the ’90s for both soaps.

Through the latter part of the ’80s and on to the ’90s there was a sense that EastEnders and Coronation Street were each trying to acquire something of the other. In the case of the former, the introduction of characters such as Trevor Short (a Doctor Who nut – and a mite simple), followed later by Nigel Bates (wet-look curls and endearing innocence), were visible responses to complaints that the programme was too depressing. Here at last we saw the arrival of the programme’s Jack Duckworths or Derek Wiltons: frivolous and – unlike early Albert Square buffoons Wilmott-Brown and Debs and Andy – non-politicised. Inexorably, EastEnders has since entirely moved away from adopting the young and upwardly mobile as figures of fun. Now, disturbingly, the ugly people (such as Robbie Jackson and Ian Beale) are the focus of the soap’s ridicule. Meanwhile, the influx to Coronation Street of youth was a deliberate attempt to acquire some of the audience demographics of EastEnders. Once again, over time, the acquisition of attractive youths has been thought essential to retaining audiences. The relationship between Nick(y) Tilsley and Leanne Battersby providing the most obvious example of such intent. Most disturbingly was each programme’s intent on trumping the other – and themselves: Evil Wilmott-Brown begat terrifying Alan Bradley; accidental fire graduated to arson, and each member of each family was encouraged to enter in to a string of illicit relationships with each other. The obvious battleground of addressing social issues (spearheaded by a reinvigorated mid-’90s Brookside) ensured that incest, AIDs and transexuality all formed part of the Albert Square or Weatherfield ratings initiative. Thus, we currently find ourselves with a pair of highly charged, out of control soap operas.

It is very difficult to summarise much of the activity in either place over the last five years. Certainly Radio Times’ recent celebratory EastEnders publication had to recourse to complicated tables to portray the full extent of the contrived twisted relationships that have blossomed in the recent past. After all, how many families can boast a daughter who has had an affair not only with her own dad, but also her mother’s latest boyfriend and once lived next door to someone who had slept with two half brothers having already married the third? Such complicated plotting in itself is not necessarily an indication of poor storytelling. However, as an occasional viewer, it is difficult not to feel somehow dissociated with current events. Whilst the culmination of EastEnders” recent pot boiler involving Steve Owen’s attempt to escape justice for the killing of a troublesome blonde may have made for gripping viewing (as Matthew, his unwitting patsy returned for some revenge), the contrivances dealt out and baroque language used during the final showdown (talk of revenge and retribution abounded) ensured that there was little that was real or dramatically challenging at a human level. Coronation Street‘s tendency for spinning parables out of Curly and Racquel’s star-crossed relationship deprived too, the audience of a genuine honest confrontation to conclude this long running storyline.

In conclusion, consider this: regular viewers greeted the death of Arthur Fowler with something almost akin to shock. However, just two years later, the advance news of the demise of Tiffany induced lip-smacking anticipation. Good drama will entertain you, but on occasion should also move you. It should not always be about cheap visceral thrills and forever escalating stakes. When I happen upon the residents of Albert Square or Weatherfield these days, it is to check in with the few remaining, believable characters that still remain. One cannot help but wonder if Emily Bishop, or Pauline Fowler, or even Ken Barlow ever look around them, wondering exactly how they have ended up surrounded by so many ciphers. For them, crossing the road holds no danger, for it holds no cruel irony to be exploited by the programme’s writers. Yet of course, that killer vehicle could perhaps be driven by some loved one temporarily estranged through some unfortunate misunderstanding.

Such easy dramatic fodder ensures that these days, potential killers are always with us in soap operas. Unknowingly supping at the other end of the bar awaiting the scriptwriters’ bidding.