Pat Stacey: The genuine tears shed in Coronation Street for Deirdre Barlow's funeral reflect unique bond with loyal viewers
The genuine tears shed in the Coronation Street funeral scene this week reflected the unique bond between the characters, the cast and the loyal viewers
MANY of us could happily go through the year without clapping eyes on most of the soaps. The majority of them are so awful that spending an hour to an hour-and-a-half every weekday watching them seems like a shameful waste of time.
EastEnders is a miserable, squalid, constantly spinning wheel of misfortune. What shall we do this month: rape, addiction, infidelity, domestic violence, maybe another murder?
Emmerdale, on the few occasions I’ve had to endure an entire episode, always seems to be desperately dull, not to mention horribly overacted by a cast that includes a disproportionate number of loud women with long hair and too much make-up.
By the way, maybe someone can tell me one of these days why so many of the characters in a small Yorkshire village speak with Scouse and Geordie accents? On second thoughts, never mind — I can live with the suspense.
Fair City continues to be a running joke, a soap set in Dublin and featuring predominantly Dublin characters that still, after almost 26 years on air, can’t manage to convey an even remotely convincing impression of what the capital city or its people are like. That’s probably why it’s so popular in rural Ireland.
Which brings us to Coronation Street, the longest-running (55 years and almost 8,700 episodes) and most consistently popular of the soaps.
Created at a time when the gritty kitchen-sink dramas and novels of John Osborne, Shelagh Delaney, Alan Sillitoe and others were electrifying theatre audiences and readers, Coronation Street was given a remit to realistically portray life in a working-class Manchester community.
That original noble purpose disintegrated a long time ago.
And yet, despite all this, it still has strong pulling power. Not all year round, obviously. Coronation Street is as guilty as the other soaps of absurd storylines and lengthy stretches of tedium.
Both usually involve the ongoing travails of the most irritating family on television, the Platts.
But every now and then, it comes up with patches of genuine dramatic poignancy that emotionally connect with viewers in a way the other soaps never do and even more ‘respectable’ dramas manage only fitfully.
The Hayley Cropper right-to-die storyline last year, which culminated with Hayley (Julie Hesmondhalgh) drinking a cocktail of lethal drugs while husband Roy (David Neilson) held her hand as she slipped away, was a stunning example.
The writing in that scene was sensitive, measured and truthful, and the performances by the two actors superb. It’s unlikely we’ll ever again see a soap moment so powerful and moving.
That said, this week’s two episodes focusing on the funeral of Deirdre Barlow came close.
Coronation Street fans won’t need reminding that Anne Kirkbride, who played Deirdre for 42 years, died of breast cancer at the age of 60 back in January.
Writing out a well-loved soap character, when the equally well-loved person that played them dies, is always going to be problematic. It requires a delicate balancing act on the part of the writer.
It’s difficult to see how Coronation Street could have handled the departure of Deirdre/Anne any more sensitively than it did.
As Deirdre’s husband Ken (William Roache) delivered the eulogy to her, it doubled up as a moving tribute to Kirkbride.
It was obvious the tears Roache and other long-serving cast members who worked alongside Kirkbride for many years shed during these scenes were painfully real.
It added huge emotional heft to what was already an emotional viewing experience for many in the television audience.
People who don’t watch Coronation Street might find the notion of real life, including a real and exceedingly sad premature death bleeding into fictional on-screen drama, crass. But that would be to misunderstand the relationship between the soap and the viewers.
Coronation Street’s sheer longevity (it’s been around almost as long as commercial television itself) makes it unique. It’s considerably older than many of the people who watch it every week.
Viewers grew up and grew old with some of the characters, all the while watching the actors playing them do the same.
The career of William Roache, who’s played Ken Barlow from the very first episode in 1960 and is listed in the Guinness World Records as the longest-serving living actor in a continuous role, gives a whole new meaning to the term “performance of a lifetime”.
Is it any wonder viewers become so attached to the characters that they practically regard them as old, close friends?
I can think of no other drama with such an umbilical connection with its audience.
But then, no other drama has lasted 55 years.
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