Will Coronation Street suffer without its older characters?

Safety is paramount but the lack of oldies will have a huge impact, says Johnathon Hughes.

coronation street claudia ken

The news that Coronation Street resumes filming on 9th June is certainly a cause for celebration, as fans feared the soap would be forced to go off air for the first time in its 60-year history once episodes filmed before the UK lockdown ran out.

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Thankfully, after ITV stablemate Emmerdale’s phased return proved successful, Corrie cast and crew will be back in the studio keeping their two-metre distance and portraying life on the cobbles in the age of coronavirus.

However, there is one big caveat – no cast or crew over the age of 70 will be allowed on set at first, with individual risk assessments being carried out to ascertain when it will be safe for them to return.

Clearly this is the right and responsible thing to do, and hopefully it won’t be for long, but it means Corrie will be a very different place once these oldie-free episodes hit our screens in July.

As Maureen Lipman, AKA Evelyn Plummer, told producer Iain MacLeod recently amidst fears the older cast could be neglected once production resumes: “Don’t ditch the oldies because the oldies is what Corrie is all about.”

The actress, 74, is not wrong. Corrie was built around strong figureheads of the community – mighty matriarchs, powerful patriarchs and bolshy battle-axes. Characters like Ena Sharples and Annie Walker from the early days, to current distinguished favourites such as Audrey Roberts and Rita Tanner provide the wisdom, wit and warmth The Street is famous for.

Safety measures mean they won’t be around for a while, and the idea of not seeing sole surviving original resident member Ken Barlow peruse his copy of The Guardian over his morning Earl Grey at No.1 just doesn’t bear thinking about.

Characters who have seen a bit of life, endured tough times and come out (mostly) smiling to pass their knowledge onto the next generation are the ones long-term fans connect to the most, having grown up with these legends they have come to regard as surrogate family members.

Crucially, they are also still central to storylines – soaps is one of the few genres to put older characters at the heart of the drama, particularly Corrie with its gallery of plucky pensioners full of depth and complexity, played by some of the most experienced actors in any TV ensemble.

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Life in Weatherfield post-pandemic will be altered in many ways – will the Rovers be providing a takeaway hot pot service? Can Dev’s corner shop successfully observe social distancing? – but the absence of the over-70s is surely set to be one of the most keenly felt adjustments in the soap’s new normal. Their advice, links to the past and air of cosy familiarity from their mere presence are vital ingredients to the fabric of the show.

It also means storylines will have to be tweaked to explain where the likes of Ken, Audrey, Rita, Evelyn and Roy Cropper are.

Perhaps their younger relatives will slip in a line about them being shielded in the back bedroom, with occasional one-sided conversations to a door that’s slightly ajar? Or, as Emily Bishop has been doing in recent years, they’ll only appear on video call scenes shot safely in the actor’s home?

In all seriousness, several current plots are either going to have to go on pause or need rewriting: Evelyn’s tentative romance with old flame Arthur was just hotting up. Maybe they’ve thrown caution to the wind and run off together to the Lake District? Then there’s David Platt’s meltdown and wife Shona’s amnesia, which is sure to feel strange without the family’s self-appointed boss, Audrey, around.

And how can Corrie talk around original character Ken, played by 88-year-old William Roache, not being there? It’s not like he can jet off to visit a relative somewhere else in the world. And he’s on the periphery of one of the biggest storylines of the moment – daughter Tracy’s stepson Oliver Battersby is set to be diagnosed with life-threatening condition mitochondrial disease, but her sage, seen-it-all father won’t be around for support.

Ken’s brief recent secondment to retirement village Still Waters with ex-girlfriend Claudia Colby and old pal Norris Cole was pure Corrie comedy gold, a spin-off of a story that put older characters in the spotlight and reminded Mr Barlow of how important the Street was to him. Might he end up back in the swanky sheltered accommodation to do battle with rival Charles off screen?

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Coronation Street’s 10,000th episode earlier this year bathed fans in warm nostalgia with beautifully written and performed scenes between Ken, Audrey and Rita as they mulled over old times, old plots and old classic moments.

It reminded us of some of Corrie’s defining values – the sense of history, continuity and integrity, all embodied by characters we’ve known for decades. Could all that be lost without our senior citizens?

Looks like we’ll have to rely on the next strata of Street icons to carry the veterans flag – we’ve still got the likes of Gail Platt, Liz McDonald, Sally Metcalfe and Jenny Connor to remind us of the good old days.

Let’s hope Ken and the rest of the oldies are soon back where they belong to join in the reminiscing.

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