TELEVISION: Coronation Street (ITV)

Jasper Rees joins 18 million viewers for the soap's first hour- long outing
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The Independent Culture
Does anyone actually believe the television ratings? They seem to be counted by a method that is at once technologically mindboggling and comically primitive. The power surge measured by the National Grid at the end of a popular programme tells them that "x" million cups of tea were brewed as soon as the credits rolled. How do they calculate in a heat wave, when audiences have recourse to libations that don't come out of a kettle?

This necro-scientific headcounting technique claims a week-in, week-out audience for Coronation Street that oscillates either side of 18 million. That's more than one Briton in three, which is a lot of Britons. It's a professional risk to confess it, but your correspondent belongs to the 34 million whose movements at 7.30pm on Monday, Wednesday and Friday cannot be traced. But last night was its first hour-long episode in 35 years - not including the two half-hours that were glued together not long ago to do head-to-head battle with the rescheduled EastEnders (OK, I had to do some homework). So like it or not, Coronation Street is up for review.

The 18 million are probably so far in that they no longer know nor care whether what they're watching merits enslavement. But coming to it fresh, yes, let's be honest, you can see what all the fuss is about. Of course, being an anniversary edition it may have set snares for virginal prey: for the red carpet of an anniversary double edition, the storyline was presumably richer, the narrative rhythm more deep-breathing. But the welcome felt genuine, though not overdone, as it should in any good pub.

The road test that a soap has to pass is simple: can passengers leap on to the moving vehicle? Whether they want to stay on is of secondary relevance. Within a few lines of dialogue last night the complicated sexual arrangements past and present of several characters had been explained to the Martian newcomer. Des looked particularly active in this department. "If I was getting any more, Jack," he bragged to a bloke called, er, Jack, "I'd have to take a lad on."

Last night, Dirty Des used slightly less practical language to parlay a path into the underwear of the waxen goddess Raquel, who felt so wronged by this wrong'un that she was married on the rebound by Friday. Is it safe to assume the show's not this pacey every episode?

The happy groom is Curly, who has "loser" written all over his pebble lenses. He is presumably so called because one day they knew they would be able to use last night's most phonetically jarring line: "Curly, you're early."

After an hour in their company you feel you've got the measure of these characters. And they must be as fascinating as they seem, because 18 million people can't all be wrong. They can't be immortal either: for every three Britons who pop their clogs, The Street loses one viewer. And that's not counting all the emigrations that happen to real people just as much as surplus soap characters. So like a deep lake out of which water is constantly trickling, the audience is in need of perpetual replenishment. It's a very attractive proposition. But a lifetime commitment? Not sure I'm ready for it yet.