I think I finally called time on Coronation Street about sixteen years ago. There were too many episodes, too many silly storylines, and after about 25 years viewing I’d noticed a definite decline in quality.
I know it’s still there, and that Ken, Rita, Gail, Audrey, Kevin and Sally are still on the cobbles they probably all wanted to leave far behind.
For several months now, since 2nd October 2017, ITV3 have been showing two episodes a day of classic 1980s Corrie, starting with a storyline which is about to reach its lengthy conclusion – the arrival of arch-villain Alan Bradley (Mark Eden).
This was on the 15th January 1986, when he was a fairly mild-mannered man, reunited with his daughter Jenny (Sally Ann Matthews, who these days has returned to the cobbles as a forty-something lady causing as much trouble as she did as a teen).
Fast fact one: the social worker who engineered this touching reunion, and incidentally gave the widow Fairclough (Barbara Knox) a bit of rough and romance, was no other than the actor who returned as Gail’s third husband and smarmy serial killer Richard Hillman (Brian Capron).
Aside from Bradley, those 80s episodes introduced the threat to the Rovers of the grotty Graffiti Club, run by Alec Gilroy (Roy Barraclough), who chased the leopard-printed and huge-bosomed Bet Lynch (Julie Goodyear) like a little tiger cub, until financial ruin, a job in sunny Spain waiting tables, and a touch of vulnerability, united them in marriage.
This marriage was a joy to behold as this couple were a rich source of comedy, as well as one of the shortest but saddest storylines: they found themselves prospective older parents planning a baby bedroom, then having a tender moment after the pain of miscarriage before picking themselves up and going on as before.
Fast fact two: Julie Goodyear’s second marriage ended at the reception, as her new husband left her for his own best man, after she had put everything she owned in his joint ownership.
Later in the run, the Gilroys would have a divorce scare due to their mutual jealousy, but soon grew together again. Their reign in the Rovers was a high point of the late 80s and early 90s, even if Barraclough took a lot of time away from the programme due to other commitments in a busy career – he was half of the double act Cissie and Ada with the fabulous Les Dawson, and a regular in the theatre.
Youngsters Kevin Webster (Michael Le Vell) – whose family had upped and left him, following the marriage of his father Bill to Elaine, the niece of local busybody Percy Sugden – and Terry Duckworth (Nigel Pivaro) fought over pretty Sally Seddon (Sally Whitaker) until Kevin married her and Terry went through a succession of married ladies including his own father’s mistress, horny Dulcie.
The Duckworths were growing from grasping and selfish to national treasures during this period. Jack (Bill Tarmey), a layabout who once bedded Bet Lynch and sees himself as a wise lothario, and Vera (Liz Dawn), a loudmouthed, spiteful chav who thinks the sun shines out of her son, have some great storylines on the periphery, but their best years are ahead of them.
Fast fact three: Bill Tarmey was an accomplished singer despite Jack’s lack of talent, and Liz Dawn had also started her career as a nightclub chanteuse. Jack’s on-screen death memorably had him visited by the ghost of his beloved Vera, as they dance to Matt Monro’s ‘Softly As I Leave You’.
Vera works at Baldwin’s Casuals factory alongside Ivy Tilsley (Lynne Perrie), Ida Clough (Helene Palmer), Shirley Armitage (Lisa Lewis), and Emily Bishop (Eileen Derbyshire). Over this re-run we have seen Ivy deal with the scandal of her son Brian’s split with daughter-in-law Gail (Chris Quentin and Helen Worth) when Gail, bored, has a fling with an Aussie, Ian Latimer (Michael Loney) and thinks the resulting pregnancy might be his.
After an age, the Tilsleys reconcile, only for Brian to be killed in a knife attack. In the episodes currently being shown, Gail is living with Martin Platt (Sean Wilson) who was previously a teen dating young Jenny Bradley, before suddenly growing up and finding himself able to support a family of three.
In the meantime, (poison) Ivy, who is a strict Catholic with a range of expressions from darkest disapproval to the sunniest of smiles, has hooked herself husband number two to help her forget her first, Bert, in fiery taxi driver and gambler Don Brennan (Geoff Hinsliff). We will see his story arc develop into obsession and madness over the next decade.
As the Websters get closer together as they lodge with the wonderful Hilda Ogden (Jean Alexander) and her ‘muriel’, the twittery Mavis Riley (Thelma Barlow) and the dithering Derek Wilton (Peter Baldwin) also make their way to the altar (fortified by a lot of Dutch courage in Derek’s case, as he gets completely blotto at the stag night). Mavis and Derek will offer another ten years of amusement in the show., as well as the second union of a Barlow to a Baldwin (albeit utilising real names).
Another marriage does not fare as well, as Mike Baldwin (Johnny Briggs) falls for Susan Barlow (Wendy Jane Walker), daughter of his sworn enemy, Ken (William Roache). Why enemies? Well, in the early 80s, Mike had availed himself of the bespectacled charms of the dull Deirdre (Anne Kirkbride) and nearly caused Mrs Barlow Number Three to escape to more exciting climes.
Fast fact four: the Ken-Deirdre-Mike storyline was the talk of the North West, and even caused the message “Ken and Deirdre reunited. Ken 1 – Mike 0” to be displayed on the scoreboard at Manchester United’s ground during a football match!
Still, with Ken showing what a pompous man he really is, up on his moral high ground, he can’t stop Susan and Mike being happy for a year or so, even when he plans a 21st party full of bright young things to show up the 40-something boyfriend. It’s enjoyable watching the starchy Barlow fail in his machinations, but less enjoyable later watching him put down his wife when she successfully runs for council, then start an affair with Weatherfield Wendy Crozier (Roberta Kerr).
After the Baldwins plot to bring Alan Bradley and Rita Fairclough back together (Alan’s been straying, with barmaid Gloria Todd (Sue Jenkins), who puts herself about so much she goes – via Baldwin – to her own tempestuous exit after stealing the beau of mousy cleaner Sandra (Sally Watts)), they part following Susan’s decision to abort the baby Mike so desperately wants after his previous girlfriend Maggie stopped him seeing their son, Mark.
It’s another powerful storyline (showing even the brash Mike has a soft side) somewhat cheapened these days by the 2001 retcon that Susan did not in fact abort the child at all. I prefer to believe the original storyline, which was played out beautifully by all concerned, particularly Anne Kirkbride’s Deirdre who still, at this point, wants a child with Ken.
Fast fact five: Mike Baldwin’s life was retconned more than once, as his long-standing status as an only child was changed to give him yet another son he did not know about (Danny, played by Bradley Walsh). Mike’s eventual exit was in true King Lear style, dying in the arms of his arch-enemy Ken Barlow on the Street’s cobbles.
The Bradley-Fairclough relationship takes several turns – Jenny proves a problem teenager, who briefly and amusingly gets engaged to a comedy Frenchman; Alan shows a tendency to violence when he batters Terry and threatens Martin, and further romantic excursions when he starts an affair with a married woman, Carole. He also tries various business ventures, always leeching off his unsuspecting partner – you even realise his attempt to marry her had financial gain in mind.
Rita, who confesses to Mavis that Alan reminds her of her late husband Len, isn’t put off by all the red flags, and even grovels to tempt him back for her money. Barbara Knox plays the vulnerable core under the steely front of Rita brilliantly, and Mark Eden’s Bradley develops in a terrifyingly realistic way from a man with a wandering eye and a bit of temper to a psychopath.
Fast fact six: Mark Eden (Alan) and Sue Nicholls (Audrey) were and are a real-life couple, having been married since 1993 and together for some years previously. Mark Eden (born Douglas Malin) was previously married to Joan Le Mesurier, the widow of the Dad’s Army star John. Sue Nicholls is styled ‘The Honorable’ due to her father’s status as a Life Peer.
I’m sorry we didn’t see more of Jean Alexander’s Hilda during this period, as she left in the Christmas episode of 1987. Looking back now, she could have had a future in Formby with Sally’s nice but boring Uncle Tom, but for dramatic licence she had to be nearly murdered (by the chap who returned in this week’s repeats, now playing a police officer, Mark Jordan) before deciding to move from the street. She was a great comic character who was also capable of pathos, Spoonerisms, and a motherly disposition and gossip.
Gail’s mother, Audrey (Sue Nicholls) is at this point married to the most decent man on the cobbles, grocer Alf Roberts (Bryan Mosley). She’s a grasping social climber while he’s a miser who can hardly believe he’s caught this vivacious party girl, even if she regularly causes him grief. Their mutual love was obvious in the storyline where Alf has a heart attack, leaving Audrey clearly worried and devastated.
Aside from a silly, but fun, interlude, where Audrey is tempted by Canada, a son we never knew about, and a chancing Canadian widower (Shane Rimmer, returning after playing the chap who widowed Elsie Tanner for the second time in 1970), they settle into a companionable union often characterised by ‘Alfie’ having those secret little smiles – although he will always have a yen for Rita.
The older characters are not neglected in 80s Corrie, either. We meet Vera Duckworth’s shop-lifting mother, Amy (Fanny Carby); the pious parents (Kenneth Waller and Angela Rooks) of Norman ‘Curly’ Watts (Kevin Kennedy), former dustman, student, and eventual supermarket supremo; Don Brennan’s mother Bridget (Pauline Letts); and already mentioned Tom (Len Marten).
These were fleeting appearances, but more solid were the two would-be lovebirds Percy Sugden (Bill Waddington) and Phyllis Pearce (Jill Summers). The actors playing these two were old sparring partners from the days of music hall, and their naturalistic portrayals gave strength to the characters, even if Phyllis was occasionally tempted away by Sam Tindall (Tom Mennard), a meek man who might have a bit of money stashed away.
Percy’s barricade of his flat at the Community Centre gave him a sense of purpose which is now put to good use as a lollipop man, and nicely judged lodger of Emily Bishop – the two remain on formal terms, although you suspect Percy might yearn for something a little more.
Money was also a motivator for cafe owner Alma Sedgewick (Amanda Barrie), who isn’t particularly likeable at this point, but has already thrown her cap and more at Mike Baldwin, before he dumped her for another younger partner, Dawn Prescott (Louise Harrison).
Dawn is only back for the conclusion of the Bradley saga, though, as his early release from prison to terrorise poor Rita will lead him to the seaside, very soon, and his demise under that tram.
Alan Bradley’s run on The Street came to an end in the second episode to be shown on the 30th July 2018, on ITV3. It originally aired 8th December 1989.