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Tuesday 29 October 2013


In many ways, 1997 was a pivotal year for British society.  Tony Blair became Prime Minister, ending 18 years of Tory rule.  Princess Diana and Mother Teresa died.  Britain won Eurovision for the first time since 1981, and the first Harry Potter novel was released.  Meanwhile, on Coronation Street, everything started going a bit mad.

The show was in its late thirties, and seemed to have a bit of a mid-life crisis.  Its soap rivals were  eclipsing it in every way.  EastEnders was lording it over all and sundry, dominating the headlines with its storylines and characters.  Emmerdale was newly resurgent, the air crash on the village in 1993 having captured a different audience.  Brookside's commitment to being as insane as possible at all times was leading to numerous stories about "droogs" and surrogacy and incest and violence.  And Hollyoaks had started in 1995, filling the screen with pretty, dumb actors doing pretty, dumb things, usually with their shirts off.

Next to all of this, the Street seemed old fashioned.  It was still getting massive viewing figures, but the audience was aging, and so was the cast.  Most of the cast of Hollyoaks wouldn't remember figures like Elsie Tanner or Annie Walker; they'd left when they were barely out of nappies. 

A new producer was appointed, Brian Park, and he went to work on the show with a bloody axe.  His most famous cull was Derek Wilton, who'd worked his way up from minor incidental character to well-loved resident over the years.  Park decided to kill Derek, for what seemed like no reason other than spite.  In fact, it was a shot across the bows, a sign that he was going to shake things up.  Killing a well-liked older character was his message to viewers that things were changing.  It had the incidental effect of outraging Thelma Barlow so much she immediately handed in her notice, sending Mavis off to run a B&B.

Meanwhile, Park split up Kevin and Sally, one of those soap couplings you thought would be together forever, and Don Brennan was blown up in Mike Baldwin's Jaguar.  Brennan's funeral saw the return from Canada of Nicky Tilsley, now reshaped into a vaguely human-shaped piece of Play-Doh.  This was the second prong of Park's vision for the show - sex.  The new Nicky had floppy hair, a vaguely befuddled personality, and a fatal allergy to shirts; he apparently existed in his own microclimate where it was permanently 90 degrees in the shade and so he had to wear the bare minimum at all times.

Also introduced at this time was Chris Collins, a garage mechanic straight out of a low-rent gay porn, and a new lodger for Emily Bishop.  Percy Sugden was packed off to sheltered accommodation and replaced by Spider Nugent, an eco-warrior who bore a legally just distinct enough resemblance to the then popular Swampy.  Over the road, Ashley Peacock took over the Wilton's house with Maxine, while the Mallets moved in Zoe to be their surrogate mother.  Everywhere you looked there were suddenly Clearasil'd teenage faces.

Everywhere you looked that wasn't Battersby shaped, anyway.  Emmerdale was having a great popular success with its nightmarish Dingle family, and so Corrie stole the plans, photocopied them, and made their own version, the Battersbys.  For a while Les, Janice, Toyah and Leanne were all over the show, either driving the Street's residents mad or forming unlikely alliances.  By Christmas, Leanne had replaced Mavis in the Kabin and was spooning with Nicky, a coupling that was just sexy enough to get them on the front of teenage magazines.

The biggest storyline of course was Deirdre Rachid being imprisoned.  At that time Deirdre was a bit of a floating character, still in the show but without much purpose, and hanging on in there mainly through good will from the audience.  Park realised that if he wronged Deirdre, there would be outrage even among people who'd stopped watching the show, though I doubt he realised that wrongfully imprisoning her would end up in Hansard.  The Free Deirdre campaign caught the public's imagination and was milked for all it was worth.

By now it was 1998 and Brian Park's storylines were really yielding fruit.  Corrie was being talked about again as a popular show, not as the preserve of your mum or your nan.  He began pushing the envelope even further.  The first transsexual on a British soap opera was introduced, which got instant headlines about "sensationalism".  True, Hayley was little more than a punchline at first ("Roy's finally found a girlfriend - but she's a MAN!") but Julie Hesmondhalgh's excellent performance and careful writing turned her into a much-loved character (admittedly, mainly after Brian Park left).  Nicky and Leanne married, got pregnant, got an abortion, and divorced, all within about six months.  Les Battersby found he had an improbably handsome long-lost son, Greg, who subsequently turned out to be a psychopath.  Anne Malone froze to death in Freshco's freezers - still one of the most macabre and out-of-nowhere soap exits.

Even long term characters began to do strange things.  Ken Barlow became an escort.  Emily Bishop climbed a tree.  Jim McDonald was pushed off some scaffolding by Steve. 

The final straw came with the Cult of Nirab, which Countdown fans will recognise as an anagram of "Brian".  Poor Zoe Tattersall - who'd lost her baby and then her mind - became a sex slave to Ben in the worship of a strange God.  This was frankly bonkers, and worse, not even original (Brookside had a cult at number 5 for months).  The storyline was half-hearted, unrealistic and just plain stupid.  It was Park's last throw of the dice; he departed the show to create well-known bastions of realistic storytelling like Footballer's Wives and Bad Girls.

The weird thing is, though he is still spoken of in horrified tones by some Corrie fans, he genuinely did what he meant to do.  Brian Park took the show, shook it up and gave it a future it might not have had.  Now, in 2013, Britain's in bits over the loss of Hayley; Leanne is a pillar of the community; Nicky's on his third face.  There are young people in the show all the time, but they fit well, and have been allowed to grow into regulars. Tyrone, Fizz, Chesney, Sophie, David, Tina - they were all introduced as youngsters and have been allowed to mature into mainstays of the programme, something that very few characters under the age of twenty were allowed to do before (think of the ever disappearing Tracy Barlow).  His cull wasn't all bad, either; he got rid of Bill Webster, which seemed like a loss at the time, until he returned a decade later and reminded us that no, he was useless after all.

It was a strange, strange time on Coronation Street.  And it's useful to remember that, no matter how crazy the plotlines get these days, no matter how many comedy murderers there are or falling trams or who's the daddy babies, things will never, ever, be as bad as that cult plotline.

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Barrie.T said...

I think the mark/marcia storyline was probably worse than cult of nirab. Betty williams being landlandy of the rovers being another. Darren Little ex-writer said on the corrie years that the decision to axe derek was made by sue pritchard the executive producer before she left in 1987, not brian park.

Tvor said...

There is always going to be a clunker of a storyline now and then. Be that as it may, even if one producer planned to axe Derek, the new producer could always have given him a reprieve.

I actually think splitting up Sally and Kevin was a good thing even if it was totally out of character at the time, because they had become very stale and boring. Ever since then, they have not been! Casting Nick with a non-competent actor was a big mistake. Sometimes you start with one of those and you can see them progressing and getting better. He never did. Over time the Battersbys proved to be a good addition and the addition of and casting of Hayley was probably his best idea.

David the Wavid said...

First of all, great post.

Barrie T is right about Derek being axed by Sue Pritchard - it's only come to light recently that Thelma Barlow quitting came first, and they didn't want Derek without Mavis so Peter Baldwin was given the boot. Brian Park was the one who told him they weren't renewing his contract.

Interestingly, early plans for the Battersbys also predate Park taking over.

It's a hit and miss era for me too. There's no denying he did what he set out to do, but looking back it's sad to see the door closed so firmly shut on a more gentle era.

Glenda Young said...

Brilliant post!

Anonymous said...

I can remember all too clearly being worried about the street in 96. There was the endless escapades of the square dealers, Liz McDonald was turning into a gangsters moll, Bet had gone leaving a huge great hole behind the bar in the rovers and the biggest storylines were made up of Fiona becoming a singer and Ken getting Denise in the family way, it was hardly the street at its best. When Brian Park came i n I was still initially horrifed by some of his decisions, not helped by the press jumping on the band wagon making out he was about to take a machete to the green room. I then began to feel as though there was a breath of fresh life being pumped into the street. People were talking about it again and everyone seemed to up their game. I was pleased that his reign was a brief one but am still of the opinion that had it not happened the street itself may not have lasted and tPTB may have given up on this tv institution. - Micky


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