One of the great joys of long-running soaps is when they indulge themselves – and their audience – by mining their own past, and Coronation Street has more past to mine than any other.
Even in 2011 a handful of the current cast reach back to the 1960s: Betty to 1969, Rita to 1964, Emily to episode 15 in 1961, and Ken to the very first edition, aired live on 9 December 1960. But predating them all – even Ken, by just one scene – is a “new” face on the street this week: Dennis Tanner, played by original actor Philip Lowrie.
Reviving Weatherfield’s long-gone bad lads has become a trend. In 2005, Ray Langton (Deirdre’s ex and Tracy’s dad) came back after 27 years, only to slump dead in a Rovers banquette. In 2008, Kenneth Cope reprised his immensely popular character Jed Stone. A ne’er-do-well tamed long ago by sweet-as-pie pensioner Minnie Caldwell, he returned after a 42-year interval for a run-in with knicker-factory maniac Tony Gordon.
Now after 43 years away, it’s the turn of Corrie’s original bad boy, who turned his back on the Street in 1968 and hasn’t been seen since. But Rita spies familiar features under the grime and grizzle of a homeless geezer stooping to inspect the graffito “DENNIS TANNER 1951” that’s suddenly appeared on the sill outside No 11, the Tanners’ former gaff.
If, like me, you’ve sat through the entire 1960s Corrie box set (not insurmountable, more magic than tragic – it should be required viewing for TV historians), you’ll know Dennis Tanner was by far the most entertaining youngster in 1960s Corrie, far outstripping dreary Ken.
Dennis began as a workshy Brylcreemed teen, fresh out of prison, rowing with his mum, soon-to-be soap icon Elsie Tanner. She accused him of nicking two shillings from her purse. “A fine son, you are. That judge was right about you. One of these days that tongue of yours’ll get you ’ung!”
He quickly developed a nose for humour, delving into the Northern backwaters of showbiz. Which is where Rita first came in as an exotic dancer! Dennis put sea lions in Annie Walker’s bath. He also hosted a mock-up This Is Your Life for the Rovers’ frosty landlady.
Lowrie left in 1968, complaining that the scripts had become “unbelievably bad. The last two years were sheer hell for me.” But now he’s delighted to be back on those hallowed cobbles. “Dennis was a Jack the lad, always flying by the seat of his pants. I do hope he becomes a comedy bad boy – a real rogue.” Watch out, Rita!
So who else could be resuscitated from Weatherfield’s monochrome past? Most key players are long since dead. Maybe Dennis’s brassy sister, Linda (Anne Cunningham), also in episode one and last seen in a 1987 made-for-video special. Or Concepta, the Rovers’ first barmaid, who last appeared in 1975. Actress Doreen Keogh recently played daffy neighbour Mary in The Royle Family. Any other folk?