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Friday 23 May 2014

Why do I love Elsie Tanner? Ah, now there's a question!

I watch a lot of classic Coronation Street episodes on Youtube, mainly because I think the overall standard and quality is often superior to the Corrie output in 2014. It might be more old-fashioned, move at a slower pace and feature fewer characters but it has a gritty honesty and a terrific warmth that is frequently missing today.

For me, nobody else sums up those two qualities better than the late, great Patricia Phoenix as street siren Elsie Tanner. Of course Elsie is a legendary Corrie character, featuring in the very first episode and being at the centre of the programme for many years until she finally departed for good at the beginning of 1984. 

Pat Phoenix was one of the biggest stars Corrie had in those days, her life off screen was often as dramatic and eventful as what happened under the roof of number 11 Coronation Street.

I've recently been watching the episodes leading up to Elsie's final exit over the Christmas period in late 1983/early 1984. I was a baby at the time so have no recollection of Elsie at all. What strikes me is that it is a relatively low key exit compared to the dramatic, explosive departures we see today. It was beautifully played though, Elsie's love from twenty years before, Bill Gregory, returned to pay his respects to Rita over Len's death and managed to sweep Elsie off her feet all over again. As 1984 began, Elsie traded the back streets of Weatherfield for the sandy beaches of Portugal. 

Pat Phoenix was legendary for wearing clothes on screen that her character could never have afforded but the back street glamour she made famous just worked and nobody questioned it. When I think of Elsie I picture her, fag in one hand, gin and tonic in the other, bemoaning her latest fella, battling in the street with Hilda Ogden or showing Gail and Suzie who was boss. There was always such a raw, honest quality to Pat Phoenix's performances. You almost felt like she'd just turned up and gone straight into it, it felt so real.

So here's why I will always love Elsie Tanner, in no particular order:

1. When Elsie returned to Weatherfield in 1976 the writers created a wonderful new home life for the newly separated Mrs Howard. Moving in Gail Potter and Suzie Birchall gave Elsie a new lease of life. She was a mother figure to both girls but also a big sister. The chemistry between all three women was terrific, with Elsie seeing a lot of herself in the balshy, flighty Suzie. They embarked on many comic storylines together while Elsie was also there to pass on her experience with the fellas. I loved it.

2. Elsie's fellas. Elsie was rarely without a love interest. While she married Alan Howard and eventually fled to Portugal with Bill Gregory, there were many others in between. So popular was her character that when she married on screen in 1967, the man she married had to have the surname Tanner so Elsie's name wouldn't change! There was also Ron Mather, the Irish taxi driver, Ted Brownlow, Wally Randle (played by future Alan Bradley actor Mark Eden) and Wilf Stockwell. A low point for Elsie came in 1978 when a businessman called Bernard Lane chatted her up in a bar, presuming she was a prostitute. This shocking event led to a great deal of soul searching and the licking of wounds however before long Elsie was back at her strong, glamorous best. 

3. Elsie and Ena Sharples were often at loggerheads. They were towering personalities and complete extremes and as they lived in the same small street, they often clashed. Most famously, Elsie and Ena fought in the street after Ena became Elsie's landlord and tried to evict her. During the very public argument Ena smashed Elsie's window with her handbag, with Elsie having the last word informing Ena that as her landlord, she could pay for the broken window! As in real life, both women mellowed slightly in later years and it was a joy to see them share scenes in the late 1970s that were touched with warmth and affection, reflecting on their spats in the past with humour at what had been.

4. Elsie and Len Fairclough were always friends and while there were hints at romance at various points the writers never quite took them there. I loved their enduring friendship and it was typical of Elsie that her closest friend and confidant was not a female character but one of the men. They understood each other and shared some touching, heartfelt scenes. An extra dimension was added to this relationship when Len married Rita. Elsie and RIta's spiky relationship was a joy with both women tinged with jealousy and suspicion. 

5. Elsie's exit in 1984 is a lesson in underplayed departures. It was beautifully written and stylishly played out with Elsie's final scene seeing her reminisce on a dark street, taxi waiting to take her to her new life. It also felt so right with a link back to one of her earliest romantic storylines. A fitting tribute to a great lady.

I always find it hard to decide on my favourite female character in Corrie, I keep changing my mind. I'll always love Annie Walker for her presence behind the Rovers bar and her pithy one liners. Betty was a natural and brought so much warmth every time she appeared. Hilda Ogden was iconic - Jean Alexander managed to craft a character blending comedy and pathos in every appearance. Ena Sharples was the original battle axe with a heart of gold. Elsie Tanner though is always right up there, towering above the rest.

So what are your favourite memories of the wonderful Elsie Tanner?

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Humpty Dumpty said...

It's Elsie for me, too. There's something about these larger-than-life females whom we first meet on film or tv in black and white. Diana Dors is from the same era and equally charismatic. It's the charisma that these actors exude that sets them apart from the others. Len Fairclough had it buckets and, currently, the Corrie male is Chris Gascoyne. I can't think of a female equivalent. They have to be older and therefore lived a little - which rules out Michelle Keegan. Maybe Audrey.

Hilda, Bet and others touched our hearts but Elsie has the edge.

Bloo Bird said...

I have a recollection of a black and white scene with Elsie and the then young turk Dennis, rowing about cigarettes or something. Surprised as the history with Gail, she and Dennis never had any interaction at all when he returned.

Carry On Blogging! said...

Yes I thought it was a shame Gail and Dennis didn't have scenes together, another wasted opportunity

Carry On Blogging! said...

I agree Humpty, Audrey is the closest. Sue Nicholls did share some of her first scenes as Audrey with Pat Phoenix too

Sunny Jim said...

I love your description of Suzie as 'balshy'. A conflation of 'ballsy' and 'bolshy' which really sums her up.

Rosie said...

It was her hair and style, as you say not what you would expect in a small back street. She had a presence, an aura. I loved her with our Dennis and Suzie and Gail. When Dennis came back I was looking forward to lots of Elsie references, shame, missed opportunity.
I remember a scene with Emily, she was lodging with Elsie and had put jam in a little dish ready for the breakfast toast, Elsie couldn't see the point of dishing out the jam and then putting back in the jar for tomorrow. Emily soon found somewhere else to live saying they weren't really compatible.

Carry On Blogging! said...

Completely accidental Sunny Jim but I'm going with it now!

Tvor said...

Don't think Gail and Dennis ever knew each other back in the day, he'd left in 1969 and she didn't come in until the mid 70s.

Carry On Blogging! said...

Yes that's true, but I meant she might have mentioned she'd lived with his mum - and of course Elsie was also Nick's godmother :)

Anonymous said...

I remember when Dennis returned back in 2011 and he was watching his old home from the Kabin, Gail walked by and was watching him and they both made eye contact. Its a pity Gail never interacted with him later as he was the son of her old lodger and Nick's godmother, and I am sure Elsie told Gail about Dennis.

Only 1 time I recall them sharing a scene was when they sat at the same table together in the Rovers, that was it but no talk about Elsie.

Anonymous said...

Re Elsie's plutonic relationship with Len - such a shame that character aren't given that kind of relationship any longer. It's more realistic after all. How many of us in real life have friendships with people of the opposite sex and even with people we're attracted to but it's never acted upon. I'm married but one of my closest friends is a man who is also married. If we were characters in 2014 Corrie we'd have had an affair by now. It's been said before but if Carla & Peter had just stayed friends it would have been far more interesting and character driven - seeing her support him through his alcoholism (and perhaps pay more than lip service to hers) and maybe some uneasy friendship with Leanne (just as my husband and my mate's wife tolerate us for the sake of their spouses, if that makes sense). I've also over the years been attracted to colleagues and even my then-partner's mate but have never ever acted upon it. Totally unrealistic to portray so many affairs and friendships that always seem to turn into romance or simply sex.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 22:11 I think you've hit the nail on the head. It's as though the characters have absolutely no self control. If you're attracted to someone, you have to end up in bed with them, no matter whether you're married or they are. I think this is what I find so distasteful about the Peter and Tina story, but they aren't the only ones.

Anonymous said...

Even if both are unmarried and 100% single, as myself and my aforementioned friend were when we first become close. Both straight, both single, we'd ask each other dating advice!

Frosty the Snowman said...

Have to agree with the sleazy way Corrie is portrayed these days. Elsie always had a man - a 'fella' but they were from outside, she didnt mess on her own doorstep by sleeping with all the neighbours like the characters seem to do nowadays. Is there anyone Tracy hasnt slept with - David, Nick, Steve, Dev etc. Its just tacky lazy writing.

Talia said...

Frosty you're right; to allude to an affair was so much more realistic.
You didn't need to see the 'fellas' to know they existed and it was just "Elsie's" nature.

Corrie's getting more dizzily homogenized as it goes along.

I find it tiring to see a merry-go-round of mix and match ups using ( and I mean 'using') the more formerly stable characters.

Carry On Blogging! said...

I think you are all right, Elsie's love interests mostly came into the show from elsewhere, rather than the rather incestuous show we have today.

Muriel Ducks said...

I have always been a major Elsie fan, it is great to see how fondly she is remembered.
She always had great style and of course she worked in fashion for many years.
She was a strong person with a vunerable side and a heart of gold.
She did not need to tell everyone she was strong or put others down to prove it, she showed it in how she lived her life.
I was sad to hear, through Dennis, that the character had died but pleased she had found the happiness that eluded her for so long.
Elsie will remembered with affection long after most of todays cast are forgotten.

Beth said...

Elsie was Nick's godmother as you say - I'd be surprised if any of the writers actually knew this sadly, the state of the street these days. The lack of connection and attention to detail is so poor!

Carry On Blogging! said...

Yup :( I'm sure there's a great photo of her somewhere, done up in her finery with Gail and Brian at the christening

Anonymous said...

Appropriately enough, when I posted the link to the above picture, one of the robot-checking words was "goddess".

Anonymous said...

It appears that my link to the picture of Elsie at Nick's christening didn't make it past the moderator. However, for anyone who's interested, Google "elsie tanner christening".


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