Accidental Heroes of the 20th Century - 31: Elsie Tanner, soap opera heroine

THE CREATOR of Coronation Street, Tony Warren, is not only gay, he declares that there has never been a closet big enough to hide him. Indeed, he asserts that only a gay man could have created Coronation Street. As a small boy, confused about his sexuality, he scrutinised men and women to see what made them tick. And from those detailed observations were born the programme's original characters, and its staple mix of feckless men and strong women.

The legendary Ena Sharples was based on Warren's grandmother. And to play her, Warren, a former child actor, suggested a semi-retired actor who'd once smacked his bottom on Children's Hour, the formidable Violet Carson. For Warren, though, as for most of the nation, the goddess of Coronation Street was the quick-tempered but warm-hearted Elsie Tanner, as promiscuous as her regular sparring partner Ena Sharples was puritanical.

In the first episode, in December 1960, Elsie was introduced by Ena as a woman of loose morals. At that time she was working at Miami Modes in the Slightly Better Dress Department. She later became a model, a croupier, a launderette manager, a florist, a machinist, and a supervisor at Mike Baldwin's sweatshop. Her many lovers included Len Fairclough, Norman Lindley, Alan Howard and Bill Gregory, who in 1983 persuaded her to move with him to Portugal.

For most of the Sixties, we knew Elsie was a scarlet woman but never quite how scarlet. In 1969, however, with the introduction of colour television, Britain discovered that she was a redhead. And her hair wasn't just red, but blazing red. For the colour stock, at first, was a little too vivid. The corner shop looked like Rainbowland. So Granada quickly slapped grey matt paint over the entire set.

Elsie, of course, had always been colourful. And, like Bet Lynch after her, she became, to Tony Warren's immense satisfaction, a gay icon.

In due course the actor who played Elsie, Pat Phoenix, became almost as famous as her alter ego. Phoenix was born plain Patricia Pilkington, in Manchester, but she romanticised her past shamelessly, claiming to come from County Galway. Her role models were Bette Davis and Ginger Rogers, and she played the part of a glamour queen to the hilt.

At the same time, she became inhabited by Elsie. In 1967, Jack Rosenthal produced the episode in which Elsie married Steve Tanner, an American army sergeant. When the time came to shoot the scene, word reached Rosenthal that Phoenix wouldn't come out of her dressing-room. He went to see what was wrong. "I can't go through with it," she said. Rosenthal explained that it was just another scene. "But you don't understand," she protested. "This is my wedding day."

By holding her hand and telling her she looked beautiful - in effect, by becoming the father of the bride - Rosenthal finally coaxed her down the aisle.

In 1981 the series producer, Bill Podmore, decided that the ageing Elsie should become less glamorous. Naturally, Pat Phoenix disagreed. So when Podmore had the writers invent a jealous wife to cut all Elsie's clothes to shreds, a device to get rid of her tight skirts and plunging necklines, the resourceful Phoenix made sure she was wearing her raunchiest outfit, and stayed in it for the next umpteen episodes.

Pat Phoenix died of cancer in 1986; by marrying the actor Tony Booth on her death bed (with a devoted Tony Warren present as best man) she, albeit briefly, became Cherie Blair's stepmother.

Elsie, as far as anyone knows, is still flaunting her elderly cleavage somewhere on the Algarve.

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

    They fled war in Syria...

    ...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
    From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

    Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

    Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
    Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

    Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

    Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
    From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

    Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

    From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
    Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

    Kelis interview

    The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea