Last Night's TV - Coronation Street, ITV1; The Little House, ITV1; Giles and Sue Live The Good Life, BBC2

From beer to eternity
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Jack Duckworth died last night. If you go as far back down Coronation Street as I do, you'll remember when Jack (Bill Tarmey) was introduced, so long ago that Ron Greenwood was still the England football manager and Cheryl Cole hadn't been born. He slotted right into the Weatherfield tradition, as conceived by Tony Warren a lifetime before that, of lazy, feckless men bossed around by mouthy, domineering women. Jack's wife, Vera (Liz Dawn), was already a regular character, and they became the new Stan and Hilda Ogden, much as Janice and Les Battersby were later brought in to become the new Jack and Vera. Coronation Street has to have a resident fishwife, married to a workshy schemer; it's written in the cobbles.

Nor was Jack too faithful as a husband; in fact, if memory serves, Bet Lynch was his bit on the side in those early days. But all those pints of Newton & Ridley can do strange things to a fellow. By the end, Jack had become something of a sage, a marriage-guidance counsellor even, and only moments before he snuffed it was dishing out worldly wisdom to Molly, who hasn't told husband Tyrone that their baby son, also Jack, is actually Kevin Webster's. Old Jack's advice was to get the hell out of Weatherfield and Molly should undoubtedly do just that, before little Jack starts sprouting a moustache, growing a monkey wrench at the end of his right arm and omitting every third consonant, alerting everyone in the Rovers Return to his real father's identity.

In one way, last night's double-header showed how far the Street, 50 years old next month, has come since that sepia-tinted era when not even Jack Duckworth was a twinkle in a script-editor's eye. It's hard to imagine Ena Sharples and Minnie Caldwell carrying a storyline concerning Christianity's attitude to lesbianism.

But in other ways, Jack's passing was a celebration of everything that has made Coronation Street great, not least the time-honoured counterpoint between high jinks in the Rovers and tragedy elsewhere. I've lost count of the number of characters who have departed for the celestial snug during a party at the Rovers, though Jack at least had the rare distinction of shuffling off the mortal coil during his own party, a 74th-birthday shindig that he unobtrusively exited to be at home with his memories, and indeed with his dead wife Vera, his "little swamp duck", resuscitated by the writers in the kind of poignant scene that they do so very much better than their EastEnders counterparts.

Following hard on the heels of all this was the concluding episode of The Little House, Ed Whitmore's top-notch adaptation of Philippa Gregory's novel, and that too finished with a death, as Elizabeth (Francesca Annis), the mother-in-law from hell by way of Harvey Nichols, met her maker by plummeting through the bannisters.

By the way, I once asked a friend of mine, a writer for Vogue, to explain the point of those fashion shows in which some of the creations paraded on the catwalk are so preposterous – the dress made from rubber washers and seaweed, the inverted wastepaper basket as a hat – that nobody would ever be seen dead in them in real life? She patiently explained that catwalk outfits do reach the high street, but in more muted form. The catwalk, she told me, is the showcase for outlandish ideas that are ripe for everyday interpretation.

I thought of this rationale while watching The Little House. Hardly anyone has a mother-in-law who, while outwardly charming, is internally harbouring such loathing that she tries to convince the world that you are mentally ill, and when that fails tries to poison you. And yet I should think that plenty of viewers related to The Little House as an extreme version of their own issues with a slightly controlling or faintly oedipal in-law, though I hasten to exclude my own wife's mother, with whom I get on splendidly, and who reads this column.

So I like to think of The Little House not just as high-class shlock, but also as a form of therapy. Whatever, it was very well done, and Annis in particular was marvellous. It's not easy to make a psychopath entirely believable, but she pulled it off expertly. And though the ending has been criticised as too low-key, I thought it worked perfectly. It would have been nice if the other members of Elizabeth's family – son Patrick (Rupert Evans) and husband Frederick (Tim Pigott-Smith) – had come to realise what a fruitcake she was, but it was even more satisfying that only Ruth (Lucy Griffiths) knew the truth, taking exquisite revenge by moving into the big house, and indeed Elizabeth's bed.

Speaking of revenge, Giles Coren once crossly blogged that my criticism of him in a TV review could be explained by the fact that he had sacked me, years earlier, as a columnist for Tatler magazine. It's true that he did, but that's not why I criticised him then, or indeed now. I truly wanted to enjoy Giles and Sue Live The Good Life, in which Coren and Sue Perkins try to recreate suburban self-sufficiency as famously practised by Tom and Barbara Good 35 years ago. Moreover, I've written two books about townies embracing country life, and another book celebrating 1970s telly, so it should have been right up my hedgerow, but sadly I just found it boring, self-indulgent, and devoid of anything like the wit and charm of the original. Sorry, Giles.