A week is a long time in soapland, two years a virtual lifetime, but can you recall the mess that Coronation Street was in before Kate Oates took over? Carla slut-shamed out of Weatherfield, heroines scythed down in their prime (think Hayley, Tina, Kylie), a seen-it-all-before body-under-the-floorboards saga and a dreary minibus crash that left Sinead paralysed for a fortnight. In short, Corrie was hardly covering itself in glory.
Fast-forward to 2018 and Coronation Street is a show transformed. From David’s rape to Phelan’s reign of terror by way of Bethany’s sexual exploitation, it’s once again become talked-about, compelling TV. And yet there’s still dissatisfaction. “Too dark, say viewers”. “Bring back the old Corrie, blast fans”. And the focal point of this outrage? Boss Kate Oates who, if some reports are to be believed, has been offering up something close to a hellish ‘Upside Down’ Stranger Things-style vision of Weatherfield.
Well, with Oates now set to move on, it seems apposite to ask: just what kind of Coronation Street will she be leaving behind? One too macabre for 7.30pm? Or a show more relevant to its viewers than the one she inherited? Well, first up, let’s take Corrie’s current key plotline – the rape of David Platt. Now, rape has been explored on the soap before, most notably when Toyah Battersby was sexually assaulted in 2001. But back then, Toyah’s rape was queasily plotted as a whodunnit in a misjudged response to EastEnders’s Who Shot Phil? mystery. Now, call me a killjoy, but I’d much rather see David wrestle with his emotions than play Spot the Rapist. Seems to me that what we have now is a far more mature take on highly sensitive subject matter.
Then there’s the supposed lack of humour – Phelan’s killing spree accused of having robbed Corrie of the wry comedy that once set it apart from its rivals. Here, the critics may have a point. Oates herself has admitted that she favours a “darker” storyline and that she isn’t a fan of what she calls “comedy strands”. But the laughs are still there should you choose to look for them: Mary’s flights of fancy, Gemma’s zingers and Sally’s Malapropisms all sprinkled through an average episode, even though they’re not always in focus. And a one-liner is never going to the hit the headlines in the same way as Phelan shooting Luke dead is bound to do.
All of which brings us on to the big baddie at the centre of Oates’s tenure on Corrie, the man who made Parky “recoil” and who had 541 viewers registering concern to Ofcom. But did Patrick James Phelan push things too far? Well, in a sense yes, in that he murdered quite a few people. But Alan Bradley once tried to suffocate Rita with a pillow, Jez Quigley savaged Steve McDonald in a multi-storey car park and Richard Hillman drove the Platt family into a canal. And I don’t remember fans threatening to storm the gates of Granada back then.
The reason, I think, for the outcry over Phelan is due to the amount of time we’ve spent in his company. A killer on the Street isn’t a new concept, but six episodes a week of Corrie is. Back when Alan Bradley was subjecting a certain flame-haired former chanteuse to a campaign of vicious intimidation, Coronation Street was broadcasting just twice a week. We’re now living in a different world, one where ITV has become increasingly reliant on Corrie, Emmerdale and Simon Cowell for both ratings and advertising revenue. For Coronation Street, there’s a demand for cliffhangers and lots of them: how else to lure fans back in for the second episode of the evening and then again for the double bill airing later in the week? In this kind of TV landscape, pithy observational comedy will only get you so far. For better or worse, it seems that ITV would much rather have you on the edge of your seat than sitting back smiling at a honed joke.
But amid such pressures, Oates has still been able to effect so much positive change. Tracy is no longer solely defined by her hatred for Carla. Kate and Rana have become a fan-favourite couple. Bethany’s drama brought in a new generation of viewers who were rooting for her to extricate herself from the clutches of evil pimp Nathan. Narcissistic, psychopathic (and dare I say it, hypnotic) Pat Phelan has truly become a villain for our times. Oh, and strong women are no longer being slaughtered just for the sake of it. Which is always a bonus.
True, Coronation Street is no longer the nostalgic land of lost content that it was. And yes, the dramatic peaks jangle nerves with more frequency than they once did. But in an age where viewers can easily opt to spend their evenings with Breaking Bad on Netflix, Corrie faces the tough task of keeping pace or being regarded as an irrelevance. A producer’s job is to keep Corrie both up to date and affectionate: a big ask in our hardened, unsentimental society, especially in a pre-watershed timeslot. But what Kate Oates did is make us care about Coronation Street again. Why else would fans be rallying round #Kana on Twitter or getting agitated about Phelan? Whether you agreed with her storylines or not, Oates putting her characters through the emotional wringer has proven just how much the residents of a grimy northern backstreet still mean to millions of people.
You can watch a 60-second rundown of next week’s drama on Coronation Street below. Beneath that, there’s our Week in Weathefield review show
And visit our dedicated Coronation Street page for all the latest news, interviews and spoilers.