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

Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?