Gail McIntyre (previously Potter, Tilsley, Platt and Hillman) was arrested last night on suspicion of murdering her latest husband. This was in Coronation Street, where normal rules of human misfortune don't apply. You know from the profusion of surnames that Gail has led an eventful life, but unless you've been Weatherfield-watching since the early 1970s, you don't know the half of it.
Gail has had one husband murdered, and later married a serial killer, followed by a depressive. Her only properly functional husband was Martin Platt, who was merely an adulterer. Her daughter Sarah-Louise had scarcely given up hopscotch before she got pregnant, and her son David is such a bad lot he makes Pol Pot look like Michael Palin. Another son, Nick, keeps going away and coming back as somebody else. Her mother is Audrey Roberts – enough said. And her first mother-in-law was Ivy Tilsley, who became a religious maniac and married Don Brennan, who became a homicidal maniac. Gail would be the unluckiest woman in the world, if it weren't for Deirdre, Rita and Emily across the street, whose personal lives have been at least as cataclysmic.
Gail is played by the excellent Helen Worth, who sent me a very sweet note the last time I wrote about her, or rather Gail's, tumultuous life. She thanked me for reminding her that she, or rather Gail, had been deflowered in the stock room at Sylvia Separates more than 30 years ago. That was when Gail first gazed into the middle-distance, blue eyes watering, jaw trembling and voice dropping to a whisper, and she's been doing it more or less ever since, right up to last night's session in Weatherfield police station, where she was accused of pushing her late husband Joe off his boat on Windermere. I could write a thesis on the way the women of Coronation Street respond to tragedy. Deirdre Barlow (previously Rachid, Barlow, Langton and Hunt) bawls like a stevedore.
But it is Gail I feel for most. She's a decent woman who deserves some sustained happiness, and if I had the time, I'd petition the writers to give her some. Still, at least it wasn't misery all round down Weatherfield way last night. Cute little Simon Barlow (Alex Bain), who'd made the TV news after going missing, turned up on his father Peter's doorstep after travelling all the way home from Blackpool on his own. "Ah've been on two trains and a bendy bus," he said. "Nightmare. Don't suppose there's any chocolate milk going?" It was a line that sums up the sweet-and-sour storylines that have kept Coronation Street going for nigh on half a century: 50 years of chocolate milk and nightmares.
I had a memorable tea in Manchester once with the man who got the Street on the road, Tony Warren. He told me that by inventing the likes of Ena Sharples and Annie Walker he'd intended to re-create the Northern terraced streets in which he'd grown up during the 1950s, full of strong, domineering women, and weak, feckless men. Which is not a view of domestic history shared by the film-maker Vanessa Engle, who seems to think that the 1950s housewife was almost by definition an abused chattel, and took pains in Women to suggest to modern housewives, or stay-at-home mums or however they categorised themselves, that they were living anachronisms, betraying the sisterhood by washing their men's socks.
In last week's opening programme of this three-part series, Engle took a fascinating look at the history of the feminist movement. Here, though, she revealed herself as the most narrow-minded kind of feminist, the kind that doesn't see, or chooses not to see, that, taking economic necessities out of the equation, true feminism should afford a woman the right to choose whether to go out to work or stay at home, without being judged either way. This programme, in which she interviewed – interrogated might be a better word – lots of women and their partners about the division of domestic labour, was little more than an exercise in judgmentalism, woven out of her flawed generalisation that 1950s housewives "were desperate to escape that enslavement". Some were, of course. As we learnt last week, that's where the feminist movement sprang from. But there were also some who didn't consider themselves remotely enslaved. And some did a fantastic job raising their children, which remains a job that many women consider themselves privileged to be able to do, full-time, whether Engle can understand that impulse or not.
Still, I take the point that men do not, as a very general rule, assume their fair share of the domestic strain. I like to think that I'm better than most, but we do have a friend whose husband goes abroad for 10 days every year to play golf, and on being asked whether she missed him round the house, smiled sweetly and said that if someone would only invent a vibrator that collects Chinese takeaways and puts the bins out, she wouldn't miss him at all.