In the battle of the soaps, has 'Coronation Street' finally lost its crown to 'EastEnders'?
Sunday 20 September 1998
'Coronation Street' makes us glad to be alive, says Roy Hattersley
THESE DAYS my hymn of praise to Coronation Street is played on muted trumpets. It's still the best "soap" on British television. But there is a Grisham's Law of broadcasting which drags down the best programmes to the level of their inferior competitors. When Coronation Street tries to become a northern version of EastEnders, or Neighbours played out in a Lancashire back street, it loses the homely charm on which its reputation was built.
But when it is true to the idea on which it was created - a closely knit community, making the best of each other's failings and foibles - it is living proof that popular entertainment and high quality drama can go hand in hand.
There is plenty of angst in Weatherfield, and sex as well. But then, there always was. Elsie Tanner provided both essential ingredients as she moved from marriage to marriage. Now Sally Webster, once a loving mother and devoted wife, has sacrificed her family in the pursuit of Greg Kelly. But watching the agonies in Weatherfield, the viewer never gets the feeling that they were invented purely to make a lump come into 18 million throats. They are characters with character, mixtures of good and bad, the sympathetic and infuriating.
That is not to suggest that Coronation Street portrays life as it really is. If it did, we could look into our neighbours' windows instead. It reflects reality through a distorting mirror. But the mirror produces a mass of colour. When was there last a scene in EastEnders which made you laugh? Jack and Vera Duckworth aren't the funniest couple ever to take a drink in the Rover's Return. But they are in the great tradition of Stan and Hilda Ogden and those Dickensian marriages which were held together by mutual dislike.
The quality of Coronation Street is summed up in the development of Janice Battersby from cardboard-cutout member of a problem family into a woman with deep and complicated emotions. While the Street can renew itself like this, it will stay top of the soaps.
Of course, the "old stooges" help to make viewers feel comfortably at home. We can forget their improbable moments (Emily Bishop's husband murdered by bank robbers, for one) and marvel at their durability. But it is the serious generosity of spirit that is its real attraction: Kevin Webster's fierce affection for his children, Ashley Peacock's heroic attempts to save Zoe Tattershall from herself, Martin Platt's patience with demanding Gail. They are all people whom we would be happy to see living next door. Who would want anyone from EastEnders as a new neighbour?
Soaps are fairy stories and Coronation Street knows it. We are not supposed to believe that a hole is being knocked in the wall dividing Alec from Rita or that Curly Watts will be wrongfully convicted of putting powdered glass in the pickled cabbage. EastEnders is too keen on a down-market version of social reality. And the "real world" which it tries to represent is universally unpleasant.
Both series are remarkably well written and acted. The difference in the two lies in their spirit. Coronation Street, despite the endless sexual betrayals, makes us glad to be alive. EastEnders makes us despair at the future of the human race.
'EastEnders' is a model of economy and tension, says Alison Graham
THERE WAS a scene in last Sunday's hour-long EastEnders special on BBC1 when the rain-soaked Grant Mitchell looked to the heavens and let out a silent scream. The camera shot upwards, revealing Mitchell's agony as he struggled to reconcile the irreconcilable - his love for his wife's mother. It was as compelling as popular television gets.
Here was a model of economy, drama and tension. Proof that when EastEnders brings out its big guns, the shots hit home. Coronation Street had little defence against the firepower of this episode. All it offered were a couple of careworn hairdressers bickering over a manipulative moron, and an ageing bimbo casting glances at her crippled husband's physical therapist.
In fairness, this was a piece of mean-spirited scheduling which annoyed viewers who enjoy both soaps - Sunday is not an EastEnders night - but it threw the differences between the soaps into dramatic relief.
All soaps go through peaks and troughs. Coronation Street has had some fine moments - its 1983 love-triangle episode between Ken and Deirdre Barlow and her lover Mike Baldwin; the recent imprisonment of the same Deirdre for a crime she didn't commit. The subsequent campaign to win her release was endorsed by Tony Blair. It was daft, but it was fun and involving, something the Street has not been for some time.
Too often these days Coronation Street trades on its past glories. But goodwill is running low. Current storylines are mired in the preposterous; an unbelievable supermarket blackmail plot engineered by an unconvincing madwoman now dominates.
People (generally those who haven't watched Coronation Street in years) will always point to its great warmth, its humour, its strong women. But they see it through the prism of nostalgia, to the days when Elsie Tanner, all fake fur and no knickers, was no better than she ought to be and when the Rovers Return was dominated by a coven of ageing, rebarbative women. Everyone looked after everyone else, everyone left their doors open. Now the strong women have gone. Now they are predatory sluts who wound each other at every turn.
Coronation Street's women now only exist through their men. All right, so Elsie Tanner went round the block a few times, but she had a personality well outside that of any man she was sleeping with. The men themselves are, as ever, emasculated figures, but without the humour and self-deprecation they used to have.
Anyone who has ever loved Coronation Street mourns. It gives little pleasure to point to the relative new kid on the block, EastEnders, and say "this is how it's done". Sunday's episode was perhaps EastEnders' finest hour. Potential melodrama became real human drama. These were real, flawed people fighting against real human emotions.
The blackness was lightened by a string of beautifully edited scenes in the local pub, and a darts match. Not much scope there, you might think, but it was funny and knowing. The acting was classy, the writing truly fine. The whole episode felt like more than just a ratings-grabber, as these specials can so often be. It was a watershed, for EastEnders and Coronation Street.
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