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Tuesday 31 October 2017

Weatherfield's Heart of Darkness and Light

There have been many occasions in the lifetime of Coronation Street where it has evoked outpourings of emotion on the part of fans. It’s unsurprising, as this is more than just a television programme to us. For many, this weekly commitment has occurred over the course of our lives, and we now invest three hours a week in it, which is not insignificant.

Despite our shared love and collective loyalty, however, we as fans naturally differ in terms of how we want to see certain plots play out, and it could be argued that we can have no expectation, for example, that our favourite characters will get the stories we would want for them. Where our expectations should and do play a part, however, is in what we can envisage as likely to occur in this particular fiction. Like any unique programme or drama, Corrie is its own world built on a combination of principles or values which have sustained life for almost sixty years, including normality, heart, comedy, stoicism, grittiness, earthiness, tragedy, humour and drama. What a viewer needs to see is adherence to the framework that makes it what it is; otherwise, it becomes something else, and no longer Corrie.

On Friday 27 October, we witnessed two of the most viscerally shocking episodes in my memory. There have been angry reactions with some viewers feeling it was a bridge too far, and even vowing never to watch the programme again. For others, it was just the type of edge-of-the-seat drama they wanted on their screens. Such was the reaction, that Coronation Street released a statement which sought to defend the drama and assure us of impending justice.

I needed to process both the episodes and the reaction, and consider both in the context of how Coronation Street has been developing over the past few months before I felt I could write anything. I also watched the episodes in question again, and continued to follow the reactions in their wake. 

The other reason I wanted to take time to write a considered blog is out of thorough respect for what I saw. I thought the performances on the part of Connor McIntyre, Oliver Farnworth, Ian Kelsey and Nicola Thorpe were absolutely outstanding. Together with Owen Lloyd-Fox’s script and Duncan Foster’s direction, I thought it was drama of the highest quality. For me, there was no question of this. Nor is their any question in my mind that Pat Phelan is Corrie’s greatest villain, and of the immense talent of Connor McIntyre who has continued to skilfully unpeel layer upon layer of this complex character in the most compelling of ways.

When dealing with such quality, it felt important to give it the consideration it deserved. Personally speaking, I really did enjoy it, but, having thought about it, this was on its own terms as a piece of drama rather than something that felt a natural part of this particular programme. In thinking about writing this blog, therefore, the most productive response I felt I could offer would be to consider why it evoked certain reactions from viewers, and what needs to happen to restore the balance.

One of Coronation Street’s most wonderful attributes has been the earthiness of its inhabitants and their storylines. The statement Corrie released on foot of the reaction to these episodes noted 'Coronation Street has always been recognised for its mix of drama and comedy, as well as hard hitting storylines.' Sadly, of late, there hasn’t been much comedy, and if Corrie’s magic formula is this mix of both, then an imbalance results in it feeling like a different programme.

For me, the misery being visited upon its residents over the past few months has been relentless, and there isn’t sufficient lightness or comedy to offset it. With an added episode, this is sustained over three hours a week meaning it can be a tough watch for us viewers. This might work for an otherwise serious drama, but not in the case of Coronation Street.

It’s worth mentioning that this isn’t saying we fans can’t handle shocking scenes. This is a programme which has seen innumerable murders in its time, some of them rather gruesome. But what we do expect to see is a combination of light and shade. Unfortunately it seems the predominance of the latter has some of us fatigued and unreceptive to any more of it.

Indeed, it feels as if comedy has been gradually relegated to subplots and light relief. I’ve argued over the past couple of years for it to have a more central role. Sadly, now it feels we’re lucky to get some via a selection of one-liners, or panto-esque japes, which isn’t enough.

Friday’s episodes saw the murderous scenes take place in an abandoned paper mill, and Nicola learn from Lydia that she was a product of rape, while unwitting street residents made goujons, chatted at Roy’s and threw darts in the Rovers.

Under normal circumstances, joy might be found in those intervening scenes to offset the drama occurring. This is a mechanism which has worked wonderfully in the past. Instead, however, we had Fiz of the hot chocolate and innumerable pints using her child’s former illness to defraud generous souls of thousands, making it impossible to take any enjoyment from her or Tyrone’s presence, Luke attacking Aidan in the Rovers after he tried to kiss Alya, and Aidan finding himself in a sorry state with nowhere to live as a result.

When this comes on the back of Bethany’s dreadful ordeal (which was brilliantly done), Seb’s family crisis, Billy’s violence, Michelle’s kidnap nightmare, Robert's imprisonment, Summer’s drug taking, Chesney’s collapse and Katy’s off-screen death, to name but a few scenarios of late, there is nothing to feel good about or reassure us that the world of Corrie isn’t all bad and the comforting normality at its core will sustain us. We need this if we are to believe in the reality of Coronation Street which should pivot on a grounded axis of heart regardless of the absolutely necessary dramatic diversions it takes along the way.

One of the biggest frustrations about the outcome of this storyline seems to have been why Phelan would keep Andy locked up all that time only to kill him. For me, when Pat learned that Nicola had found out the truth about him from Anna and Lydia, he had absolutely nothing to lose. I felt the reason he couldn’t kill Andy for all those months was because Nicola was a positive light in his life and he wanted to be a better man. With this light extinguished, Phelan made his final transformation into a wholly villainous man; a transition strikingly portrayed by Connor McIntyre. It’s believable to me and works as part of the story arc. But, when it comes to soap, people feel very strongly about justice being served and I can understand viewers' frustration at this. While we're assured justice will be done, I think, had Andy taken Pat down in those moments before his death instead of the other way around, fans would possibly have seen the drama and its conclusion in a more palatable light.

As things stand, Pat lives, and I for one am glad of that as he's been a big highlight of the programme for me and I’m not ready to see him leave just yet. For me, it’s important to recognise that what we saw on Friday was drama of the highest quality. But it’s also completely legitimate for us to feel that the incessant tragedy and misery that we witness on the street needs to be lightened by some normality, and the comedy it is so good at and which we so love. Otherwise, we find ourselves fatigued, and struggling to recognise our favourite programme.

So, where do we go from here? I think the show’s ability to combine the dramatic and the comedic should be fully exploited. Drama should not be considered more important than comedy, but rather, the same. It's not sufficient for mere nods to humour to constitute evidence of the show’s reputation for it. Give comedy a central role. Root it in character so it’s true, earthy and believable; we need look no further than the classic episodes from 1986 currently showing on ITV3 to see how sublime this can be. Acknowledge that it can be as powerful as drama. Allow it to take centre stage via a storyline which goes on for more than a few episodes. And, when it comes to drama, sometimes that which is not screened can have greater power.

Were all this to be considered, perhaps viewers, who have shown themselves to be so passionate about the programme, would feel they were watching the Corrie they know and love. Then the tragedies and dramas which the show does so impeccably well might be received with the full weight of admiration and enjoyment they deserve.

By Emma Hynes
Twitter: @ELHynes
Facebook: @EmmaHynesWrites
Instagram: emmalouhynes

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Canadian watcher said...

Great article, Emma. There has been far too much dark drama in Coronation Street for the last couple of years. Other than Tim, Gemma and Kirk, the comedic moments have been few & far between. I've been watching since 1985 and the change in direction has saddened me. Thank goodness we are behind in Canada - I read this blog so I'm forewarned of what I should fast forward through.

KAOS said...

I stopped watching years ago. Corrie now is a poisonous mutation of Brookside in its dying days, and Hollyoaks. The sad thing is things won't get any better, thanks to the quantity over quality approach, and the need to constantly top the last "spectacular". Characters will get nastier and the storylines sicker.

Thank God for ITV3 screening real Coronation Street from the mid-80s (shame they didn't start earlier).

Arya said...

Great write up Emma. Throughly enjoyed reading this and I agree with you whole heartedly. I’m glad you took the time as you said, to thoughtfully express your ideas which was a credit to the tantamount effort that was put into those episodes from the cast and crew. I enjoyed the episodes as you said, as a piece of drama. I also understand viewers frustration at too much doom and gloom on the street and had their been a balance of comedy perhaps the episodes would have been received in a more favourable light by other viewers.

maggie muggins said...

The current downward spiral of Corrie has, ironically, engendering some top-notch blog posts here. Emma, yours is one of those. While I agree with almost all you said, I still think we need to be more fulsome in expressing our dislike.

I maintain that all the wondrous dramatic scripts in the world cannot make watching them now a positive experience. For many, many weeks we've had this litany of heartache on the show. I can't say in honesty that I can split myself in two and say I enjoyed watching Phelan and Andy in the midst of this long onslaught of misery, violence, cheating, destruction and untreated mental illness. I'm talking about stories previous to the current ones, such as you listed.

I think if we keep saying how great the writing and performances were, the ptb over at Corrie are going to take that as a tacit sign that we like what they're doing. We don't! Well, I don't.

I will not acknowledge good acting and writing while it continues to be enmeshed in this toxic sludge of negativity. What is wrong with Kate Oates? I'm trying to understand how the production team work out in their minds continuing plans to form Corrie into this distorted shape. Fame and money can't really be all there is to it.

I've been watching over 20 years, and have watched several years worth of the 80's episodes. I love Coronation Street. I don't want to stop watching. I think this tradition deserves more respect. I know things change, but this is beyond the pale.

I'll try to end on a bit of positivity. I did "enjoy" many of the recent darker stories, like Bethany's grooming cycle. But see, that had some purpose, was redeemed by being potentially helpful to anyone in the same situation. Phelan's story, and this was his story, does not help viewers in that way.

I do like well-done murder mysteries, but the bungled basement story was not that. Anyway, how could Phelan be 'redeemed' by the love of a daughter he knew was conceived by rape? Sorry, I tried, but the positivity left me again.

abbyk said...

Emma, thank you for reining in the random thoughts in my mind. I am one of those fans who loved what we saw but don’t want to see that all the time. Extraordinary events do happen in real life but not everyday. Don’t make us viewers go careening from one disaster to the next; that’s just not how life is.

Conner McIntyre has to be commended for the outstanding job he has done creating and portraying a complex villain, esp when you remember he is an accomplished abstract painter and this might be considered a side gig. I would like to see more layers in other characters. Consistent, interesting bits of their personalities pushing their inner dramas. Without it, we get nothing but the superficial. Think about it. A few years ago, Tracy was the villain, perhaps the most boring, flat villain ever written. Unlike Pat who wanted money at first and then later to be a better man, Tracy was nasty for no reason other she was nasty. That made her battles with Carla and everyone else nothing but an irritation. She was an insect that needed to be flicked away. Or fast forwarded.

Of all characters, I think we have a surprising ray of hope in Kirk. At the end of his (ridiculous) campaign, he realized that he wasn’t up to the job and did his best to get Sally elected. He’s a simple man but has shown great understanding over the years. There’s not much to him, he is simple after all, but he knows people and he knows himself and he is consistent. More of that, please. Lumpy pottery and stuffed marrows. We don’t need a thieving vicar or a head librarian pouring coffee. I want to see Peter, who has gained soulful wisdom through his recovery, continue his wise older brother time with Daniel but also deal with the devil drink before him and be frustrated at Liz chipping away at his dream. I want Mary back on her lithium building that oddball marriage with equally quirky Norris and working through the strained relationship with Jude and family. Gail is more than a babysitter, she needs a job and to find her long lost smarts. You get where I’m going. From these layers, different aspects of the characters, we’ll find the real stories. The good ones.

Canadian watcher said...

well said, maggie muggins and abbyk. If I want torture, rape and murder, there is more than enough of that coming from across our southern border (both real and on TV). I started watching Coronation Street because it was different. It used to have many shades of drama, well balanced with comedy and ordinary little vignettes of everyday life. There have been so many wasted opportunities to do this (as you and many other bloggers have pointed out) while they concentrate in sinking us into depression. I'm so close to giving up.


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