I started writing this on the day Anne Kirkbride died. When a few of the tabloids suggested that she was to retire from Coronation Street, I like other Corrie bloggers, started thinking about her impact on Coronation Street and television as a whole, and to ponder life without Deirdre.
If only the big news last week was that she had retired. Still, I've started so I'll finish. Here's what I cobbled together...with a couple of personal memories to finish with.
They are a dying breed. That truly legendary type of soap star that comedians impersonate, fancy dress costumes are based upon, and for whom the nation goes into mourning after their inevitable TV demise. You know they've made it when they get a waxwork at Tussaud's and their own tv special: Goodbye Blanche, Goodbye Jack, Rita and Me...a celebration of both the actor and the character. Indeed Jack and Vera Duckworth mattered so much to the TV audience of Britain and beyond, that writers temporarily suspended reality, bringing Liz Dawn out of retirement and Vera back from the dead to collect her beloved Jack.
The superheroes of soap become the character they portray and whether on or off screen, Julie Goodyear is now Bet Lynch, Barbara Knox is Rita and June Brown from Eastenders is Dot Cotton - whether they like it or not. Just like to me, Julie Andrews will always be Mary Poppins - that's the character that stuck in my head, no matter what other roles she played later. Anne Kirkbride, in the same way, will forever be Deirdre Barlow.
The secret to becoming a soap superstar is in part down to the type of longevity and work ethic you see less and less of in continuing drama. Just when we see glimmers of a new soap superstar in the making, such as Becky McDonald, played by Katherine Kelly for example, bigger, brighter opportunities are sent their way and it must be difficult, however loyal to a soap, to resist new challenges. We live in a different world, with greater opportunity and increasing numbers of media outlets shining a spotlight on talent.
This is the very opposite of why our soap superstars are elevated to almost mythical status. They tend not to crave limelight outside of work. They are rarely seen at award ceremonies or on television chat shows. Soap superstars go to work to earn a living and once the wig is removed and the makeup is washed off, they are mortal again. Anne Kirkbride once commented in a rare interview that her work at Coronation Street was just a job, and that she hadn't wanted to be an actress at all. How ironic that she became one of television's most recognisable and loved faces.
It tends to be a woman's thing - this soap superstardom. Think of Pat Butcher, Elsie Tanner, Ena Sharples, Dot Cotton, Bet Lynch, maybe even Bianca Butcher and a handful of others. Corrie, probably more so than Eastenders, is based around and would be lost without strong, troubled and formidable women so it makes sense that the women become the real stars.
The future of soap doesn't necessarily depend on the new alumni of actors becoming superstars, but it certainly helps. Unique characters are Corrie's U.S.P. and it is funnier and generally more enjoyable when they stretch the boundaries a little with characters who are slightly cartoonish but with real world problems. The longevity is the key thing though. If a soap character is as familiar to you as a member of your family, chances are that you will root for that character and become invested in their storylines. We were certainly invested in Deirdre's, and Anne Kirkbride's death has hit us hard as viewers and fans.
We who write and read this blog didn't know Anne Kirkbride, but we loved her work and we will always love Deirdre. I was however lucky enough to meet her when I worked for Bev Callard, Anne's dear friend and familiar to us all as Liz McDonald. Anne would sometimes come in for a gossip with Bev. The two friends would sit in a quiet corner, have a good old laugh about who knows what, smoking away as if in one of those famous scenes from Corrie or the First Wives Club. Two soap superstars sitting in the corner giggling away, like any other pals having a laugh. This was one of the first memories that came into my mind when Anne passed away.
My only other personal memory of Anne, although she wasn't directly involved, was when I was in a car with former Corrie writer Daran Little on our way to Blackpool for a day out (to Tussaud's incidentally). We set off on our way down the motorway. Daran was driving and his phone rang so he asked me to answer it. I said hello, and a familiar voice came back: 'Hello Annie?' sounding slightly confused. I know Anne had quite a deep sounding voice but I'm slightly less raspy shall we say. The person on the other end of the phone was Bill Roache and god knows how, but he'd called Daran by mistake expecting to speak to Anne. I had a brief but memorable chat with Bill, who I'd never met and haven't since, and after making it clear that I wasn't Anne, and that I didn't look anything like her, I presume he hung up and went to find his glasses to get the right number. I was then left with the unusual but amazing right to boast that for a split second, Ken thought I was Deirdre.
I of course took it as a compliment...
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