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

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The Independent Culture
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.