Free at last. After 20 years' addiction to the `Street'

I've been loyal to Coronation Street most of my adult life. As I grew up, so did the show, maturing from one to two and eventually to three episodes a week. As soon as I was grown-up enough to live on my own with my very own VCR, I taped it, and it wasn't long before this taping had developed from a luxury into an obsession. I've spent hundreds of hours shuffling back and forth through videotapes trying to watch saved episodes in the right order. I've recorded over the beginnings of The Godfather and Annie Hall because I had no blank tapes.

I explained away my devotion to the show as ironic, pretending that I only watched it to make fun of it, really. And of course, there is something deeply camp about it - that's why characters like Ivy Tilsley and Bet Lynch have become gay icons. But secretly I knew that I watched it because I loved it, unironically and for keeps.

Up until a couple of years ago, I felt my Street addiction was containable, even rewarding. Then I started living with someone else. A man who had no interest in my friends on the Street (he had no interest in any of my real friends, either, but that's another story). For the first few months he indulged my need to view each freshly taped episode as soon as we got home, regardless of the hour. Eventually, however, the first flush of indulgence wore off, and he started to leave the room at the mournful sound of the opening theme music.

Undeterred, I continued to watch, three times a week. But even I couldn't ignore the fact that over the last year or two, the standards of the show seemed to be dropping. Prime story lines were accelerated over a few episodes which once would have been allowed to build over months. Sizzling action such as the reunion of Ken Barlow and Deirdre Rashid was thrown away almost as an afterthought, while the footling saga of Mavis and Derek's kidnapped gnomes was maddeningly extended. Joke characters like Curly were expected to carry big serious story lines, and there seemed to be a new glut of non-characters like boring Bill Webster, with no discernible personalities.

And, worse, the cast kept changing. Tanya. Denise. Raquel. Each of them potentially as complex and smouldering as Pat Phoenix in her prime, and each one of them gone as soon as we had fallen for her. What made them leave? Didn't these escapees know that while Amanda Redman may have flown Brookside for Silent Witness and Joe McFadden swapped High Road for The Crow Road, no one ever left Coronation Street to "show their range" in anything other than Hello! magazine - and then it was their kitchen range. Even the redoubtable Julie Goodyear, who as Bet Lynch bestrode the narrow bar of the Rovers for 25 years, recently had her talk show turned down by the BBC as untransmittable.

And why the new burst of commercialisation? Where once Street-related merchandise was restricted to the odd witty bootleg T-shirt with a slogan that only insiders would appreciate - "Reg Holdsworth: Knowledge is Power", for instance, or "Je M'appelle Racquel, Supermodel" - suddenly we were bombarded with spin-off videos, talking books, games and foodstuffs. This reached its zenith in 1996 when out of the eight Christmas presents I received, four were pieces of officially approved Street merchandise, including a presentation box of beer and a 499-piece jigsaw (sadly minus a piece of Ray Langton's face).

Last autumn, even the show itself fell victim to its own frenzied commercialism, and started to come wrapped in a Cadbury-sponsored animation so sentimental that the subsequent episode looked like a Ken Loach film by contrast.

So when ITV made their fateful decision to go ahead with an extra fourth episode a week, on Sunday nights, they were dipping into a well of goodwill that, in my case, had already begun to dry up. As I settled down last November to watch the historic first Sunday night broadcast go out live, a creeping sense of unease overtook me. The gentle, almost humdrum nature of life in Weatherfield just didn't fit into the rhythm of Sunday night viewing, with its classic drama, antiques shows and wildlife films. Worse, watching the Street eroded that special Sunday-night feeling, traditionally a bulwark against the working week ahead, because it made me feel that it was already Monday.

From there, the end was sudden and unexpected. Monday's episode followed so hard on Sunday's heels that I hadn't had time to develop a proper sense of anticipation about it, though I struggled through it dyspeptically. Wednesday's I fast-forwarded through, and by Friday, I reached the momentous decision before leaving for work not to tape that night's show.

And that's how easy it was. I just stopped watching and overnight my world became a richer place. Like Sophocles, who compared losing his sex drive in later life to being unshackled from a maniac, I was suddenly free.

Going cold turkey felt a little weird at first - when you've spent regular time with people for 20-odd years, you don't just forget them overnight. Occasionally I would wonder what was happening in the only story of any interest (Ken's custody battle with Denise the hairdresser). Then I stopped wondering.

And apparently I'm not alone. The viewing figures for the Sunday-night episode are far lower than those for the weekday shows, and EastEnders is now regularly beating the Street in the ratings, albeit with the advantage of a weekly omnibus. Granada has brought in a new "chief", Brian Park, to spice things up and to kill off some dreary regulars, including Derek (and, let's hope, whoever came up with the kidnapped gnomes storyline).

In the months since I kicked, I've been positively giddy with all the extra time I have to play around with. I've worked my way through the Irving Berlin Songbook for Easy Ukelele. I've taken swimming lessons. I've exfoliated. Now, I wonder what happened to that maniac Sophocles used to hang around with? n