Michael Parkinson: Corrie is now more horror than soap
The legendary chat show host says torture, murder and Pat Phelan have no place in a family show
Exclusively for Radio Times, Michael Parkinson shares his concerns about Coronation Street's latest storylines
I never imagined I would recoil from watching Coronation Street, but the storyline of the kidnapping and torture of Andy and Vinny and their brutal murder by Pat Phelan had little to do with that gentle, funny reminder of life in the North Country I discovered and so admired in the early 1960s when I joined Granada Television.
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In those days, Ena, Minnie and Martha dominated the snug, Elsie Tanner was everyone’s idea of the good-time girl with a heart of gold and, later, Hilda Ogden made three pot ducks flying up a wall a fashion statement.
In the 60s, Hilda and Stan formed an unforgettable comedy couple. Who can forget Hilda experimenting with a new perfume. “What’s that smell, love?” asked Stan. “Woman, Stan, Woman,” said Hilda. Jack and Vera arrived in the 70s. Yet more comedy gold and a vivid and warm reminder of the people I once shared a life with.
It’s important to understand that the Street’s winning ratings, the international success, were neither expected nor planned. In fact, Granada’s founder Sidney Bernstein and his largely southern-bred collective of acolytes based in London thought if they visited Salford, they’d fall off the edge of the earth. They never believed Coronation Street would work. Consequently, it crept onto ITV more or less unannounced.
Ironically, its overwhelming success carried seeds of change that would transform Tony Warren’s wonderful idea into a gold mine and sadly stimulated the beginnings of a change that allowed Pat Phelan to become a major player in a storyline more suited to a horror channel than a family show.
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The storyline is made even more shocking by Connor McIntyre’s performance as Phelan. His basilisk stare, the unnerving certainty of his murderous intent, is enough evidence of his ability to play a psychopath and worthy of a series about this murderous nutter – hopefully, far away from Coronation Street.
I arrived in Granadaland from Fleet Street in the early 60s when Coronation Street was hitting its stride. There were delicious rumours of Elsie Tanner and Ena Sharples confronting each other about who was the real boss lady of the Street.
I was having dinner with my wife Mary and Pat Phoenix (who played Elsie), when she started moaning about how she might be considered a box-office star but was, in fact, shabbily paid. I asked about her public appearances when she attracted multitudes to the opening of a new Granada store. “Follow me,” she said and we all traipsed upstairs where she showed us a room packed back to front with about 30 TV sets. “That’s all I’m given for an opening.”
Once when Harold Wilson was prime minister, I was reporting on his visit to Liverpool when I was joined by Sandra Gough, who played Irma Barlow, née Ogden. She happened to be in the same hotel where the PM Harold Wilson was staying and when she saw me she came across just as he arrived.
He ignored the official greeting party and headed for Sandra. “I know you,” he said. “You’re on Coronation Street.” Without blinking, Sandra replied: “I know you too and you’re a tricky pig.”
Which is why I am affronted by what I see as a gem like Coronation Street in danger of becoming just another formulaic soap. Those I offend by my opinions must understand how I feel and why. At Granada, I worked with a young production trainee called Michael Apted whose distinguished career as a director of Hollywood movies was yet to happen. Summing up his career, he wrote: “Those pieces of Granada I carry with me through my daily life are invaluable signposts when I need to remind myself who I am and where I came from.”
I know exactly what he means.