Mark Eden can vividly recall the day he was sentenced to death. He'd just been voted the most hated man in Britain by Sun readers, so things were looking good. But his Coronation Street character Alan Bradley was becoming increasingly despicable - beating up Rita and so on - and the viewers were demanding bloody revenge. 'I was sitting in the pub with a friend from Granada,' he remembers, 'and he said: 'I'm not supposed to tell you this, but I've got some bad news.' ' At the memory of this, a frail melancholy seeps into Mark's voice. 'I said: 'What is it?', and he replied: 'They're going to . . . kill you.' '
Mark put up a valiant struggle for his life: 'I said to them: 'Why can't I just disappear? Then you can have me stalking Rita on the telephone. You know, just phoning up and not saying anything. What a story that would be]'
' But it was to no avail. The episode in which Alan was run over by a Blackpool tram won the soap's highest rating ever, 29 million.
You'd think that would be that. But, as if such a brutal demise were not vengeance enough for his heinous crimes, Mark still finds it difficult to go out without being assaulted by enraged pensioners. Recently, in a department store, he felt a whack on the back of his head. He turned around to discover a pensioner bludgeoning him with her umbrella. 'You're a bugger, you are,' she said. 'It was only pretend,' he replied. 'Oh yes, I know all about that]' she yelled. 'All that pretend business]'
We Brits are notorious for not grasping the distinction between soap characters and the actors who play them: a lamentable axiom that casting directors are all too aware of. When Hilda Ogden (Jean Alexander) left the Street, offers of work as a live-in housekeeper came flooding in: 'From posh people in Cheshire,' exclaims Mark incredulously, 'not lunatics . . .' But acting roles did not. Similarly, Mark himself has found his post-Alan Bradley career to be unjustly tainted with typecasting - or, indeed, no casting at all. 'I thought that after years in the RSC and the English Stage Company, I'd be offered something, but playing Alan Bradley saw to that.' He is the victim of a pitiable irony peculiar to soap stars: the more memorably you play a character, the less chance there is of ever playing another. His wife, the actress Sue Nicholls, has fared better: she died in Crossroads, and has been miraculously reincarnated in Coronation Street, running the corner store. She's well-liked, by all accounts, and is safe for the forseeable future from fatal accidents with precariously stacked displays of baked-bean cans.
But in this increasingly perilous 'Live Fast, Die Young, Leave a Good-Looking Viewing Figure' world of soap plots, Sue's successful transition is a rare one. The only other Brit to have been headhunted from one soap to another is Gloria Todd, who got the sack from the Rovers Return, changed her name to Jackie Corkhill and is now happily working at Ron Dixon's Trading Post on Brookside Close.
For some actors (Brookside's Sue Johnston and Ricky Tomlinson among them, both of whom have enjoyed success on stage and sudless television) there is life after soap, but most are not so lucky. It was over a year ago that Brookside's very own wife-beating rapist Trevor Jordache (Bryan Murray) paid heartily for his wrongdoings by being poisoned, stabbed, wrapped up in bin-liners and buried under a patio. But, as if subsequently playing a singing leprechaun in a Radio 4 production of Finian's Rainbow were not penance enough, Bryan is now compelled to endure torrents of wisecracks every time he leaves the house. 'I was in a restaurant the other week,' he says, 'and the waiter said: 'Ah, sir, I could seat you here, or perhaps you'd feel more comfortable . . . out on the patio.' Bryan shakes his head.
'It's been tough going - 'patio' this and 'patio' that. 'Oy, mate] You should be under the patio]' That sort of thing. One man came up to me and said: 'My wife fucking hates you. She's glad you're dead.' '
Sometimes, desperate measures are required. It was 17 years ago that plucky Ernie Bishop was brutally gunned down while attempting to protect the week's takings at Baldwin's Casual Wear, but the actor Stephen's Hancock's antipathy towards Coronation Street is so intense that, even now, he refuses to mention his long tenure on his CV. (Perhaps his bitterness is inflamed by familial camaraderie, for his real-life brother is yet another dead soap star: Charlie Cotton, hit by a truck, EastEnders).
In the programme of a recent production of Once a Catholic at the Oldham Coliseum (known locally as 'the retirement home for ex-Corries') there was nothing but a gaping chronological void between Stephen's short stint at the Durham Cathedral Choir School and post-Street cameo roles in Happy Feet and And a Nightingale Sang (Newcastle Playhouse). 'Perhaps it's a mistake,' he mumbles when confronted with this flagrant omission. 'It was certainly deliberate. I guess I'm prouder about being a chorister than being on the Street.' He pauses, and adds, grumbling: 'I suppose I'll have to put it back in now.'
There are small blessings, however; at least Stephen has never been callously assaulted by a viewer (unlike the actor playing the armed robber who killed him, who has been beaten up on a number of occasions). Ernie's gallant, if futile, attempts to protect Mike Baldwin's weekly takings have won him an undying admiration from the Coronation Street Fan Club, 30 of whom excitedly turned up to see him one night last month at the Coliseum.
'They didn't come and say hello,' mumbles Stephen. 'The whole thing's very strange.'
Of course, this unwelcome adoration can work in your favour. The restaurateur Paul Henry had enough commercial acumen to understand the market value of being, in a previous life, Benny from Crossroads, but he was in a quandary. He didn't want his venture to be seen as a cheap gimmick: a low-rent Planet Crossroads. Then he came up with a solution. Call it 'Billy's'. That way, he could avert bothersome criticism while still cleverly reminding devotees of his illustrious past. The ruse was a triumph.
Crossroads fans come from miles around, and Billy's Special Shepherd's Pie is fast becoming a much sought-after dish.
Post-soap international stardom, though, remains almost exclusively the privilege of the antipodeans. The accomplishments of Kylie and Jason have been well-documented, as has, to a lesser extent, that of Joe Mangel, who now presents The Big Breakfast. But we Brits must not hang our heads in shame. Ben Kingsley, Michael Ball and Davy Jones, of the Monkees, were all given their big breaks in Coronation Street, albeit in bit parts. And lest we forget Eileen Perkins, who was betrothed to Ken Barlow for seven months in 1973. At the last moment she had cold feet, believing she could make it in the outside world. Ken was heartbroken, of course, standing alone - forlornly - at the altar. And Eileen Perkins packed her bags, left the Street, and became Joanna Lumley.
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
Lynne Perrie as Coronation Street's Ivy Brennan, who departed for a nunnery.
After plastic surgery, Perrie is now big in Stockport Paul Henry: 'Benny' now runs a restaurant that is definitely not Planet Crossroads Joanna Lumley: a short stop in the Street is safely in the past.
Stereotyping still a worry though Bryan Murray: Brookside's murdered Trevor Jordache: 'It's been tough - patio this, patio that'
Jean Alexander: posh people offered her housekeeping work when Hilda Ogden left the Street Jon Ronson's 'Clubbed Class', pounds 9.99, is published by Pavilion
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