Happy birthday, chuck! Fifty years of a Northern TV legend

For 50 years, it has enthralled a nation with its hotpot of tears, drama and laughs. Tony Livesey salutes Coronation Street

Marilyn Monroe never came to Nelson, Lancashire in the early 1970s. Neither did Dietrich, Princess Grace or any of Pan's People, despite the obvious lure of one of the first Arndale Centres. But it didn't matter. Because one summer's day at the dilapidated, corrugated home of Nelson FC – and part-time stock car track – she arrived.

She who must be lusted after, gossiped about, fought over and have her fags lit by every local handsome stud; the Northern amalgam of those Hollywood or capital creations not fit to strap on her slingbacks.

Two thousand of us – mostly unwashed – at the opening of Nelson Gala almost 40 years ago craned our necks to see. There she was. Waving. Just behind Jimmy Clitheroe. Clad, neck to toe, in fur. Her, not him. A gasp erupted as Elsie Tanner arrived centre stage. Where she belonged. The Queen would not have been more wanted at that point.

Like Our Brian, Our Ashley, Our Gail and Our Vera, this was Our Royalty. Pat Phoenix, for it was she, had been subsumed by a character she played so precisely and bitchily that her real name had little impact on us. It was Elsie, not Pat, who was alive and well... and among us. The true, Wagner-walloping power of Coronation Street came home to me that afternoon, a power and influence way beyond the reach of today's fame-craving X Factor generation.

These people are legends, ladies and gentlemen, legends. All of them. From Ray Langton, whose devotion to duty included seducing Deirdre while she wore spectacles that even Ted Moult would not have been able to draughtproof, to the extra in the hairdressers who reads Hello with tin foil in her hair while Audrey plots a £5-an-hour tryst with a gigolo.

Critics of Corrie say that its popularity relies on its scheduling. It's there, on ITV, every week, rain or shine, Ant or Dec. It has, they say, won us over by osmosis. Can that be true? Cliff Richard has been in my earhole since I was a foetus but I don't turn on the telly every Monday night to see if he's bought a barm cake at Roy's Rolls.

The same critics say that the soap's plaintive theme tune has a Pavlovian effect on a a nation. Maybe so. But if the time slots and the titles are soothingly predictable, then the lives within are not. Just like ours.

One moment you're dating the Street's flame-haired songstress, formerly of the cruise ships, currently of The Kabin. The next, you're hit – head-on, mind – by a 'lectric tram to Bispham. One moment you're the skivvy at the Rovers, the butt of all jokes, the Mrs Mop with lipstick applied in the dark and a blue overcoat that Columbo rejected. The next, you're safely home in the arms of your Stan, whose kisses taste sweetly of haddock and chips.

Is it a northern thing? It's certainly a northern phenomenon. Fifty years old with hundreds of faces, some in headscarves, some in pearls. And some looking beautiful in both.

It's ITV's regional accent, an accent, by the way, I've identified with all my life. Ashley's wife Claire comes from my hometown of Burnley. Hayley Cropper, he hails from five miles away, while Chesney supports the Clarets, as I do. But don't get the idea the North is a closed shop.

Corrie has made us universal. Eddie Waring made it on to BBC2, for goodness' sake! These people don't engage us because they keep pigeons, eat hot-pots or model their earrings on Blackpool illuminations like Bet Lynch or Liz. They engage us because they live our lives in all their glory – and here comes the brilliance – in all their mundanity too. Love triangles with Dev? Or cheese triangles at Dev's? Take your pick. Better still, enjoy both, all within the same half-hour.

Soap boffins will tell you the programme holds a mirror to our lives. Well it does, but it's a Daily Mirror, complete with an unfinished crossword by Kirk, moistened with a dab of Fred Gee drool and a tear from Mavis, emotionally at odds whether to give herself bodily to paper-clip king Derek ... or have a perm.

Corrie has been a milestone along my life. The moment Ernie Bishop was gunned down accidentally by blaggers in his own office was ingrained on my schoolboy mind. Forget JFK. Where were you when Emily's bespectacled, side-burned hunk of love got wasted?

It's a philosophical instrument to be savoured and digested. Who can forget the universal relevance of Percy Sugden and his budgie Ringo? How about this for a nugget as Percy shouted: "Stress! Stress! Until you've made suet pudding for Monty under shellfire you'll know nothing about stress!"

It's a reminder of a generation long gone. For Ena Sharples read my Aunt Agnes. To be kept in line as kids, we all needed a matriarch who looked capable of eating us.

It's an Eddie Yeats-sized warning. Let one bin-man into your house and his string vests will be hanging over your bath for the next 10 years.

It's a collection of curiosities and keepsakes. Like Alf Roberts. He was the only man I ever saw on the television, apart from Windy Miller, who never removed his hat. Fittingly for a man of his size, it was the pork pie variety. Don't you just love that attention to detail?

Most of all though, the cobbles provide a voyeur's delight. When Mike, Ken and Deirdre were swapping duvets, the nation held its breath and devoured every moment. Never before had a three-way tug of love transfixed everyone from the Prime Minister to the landlords of empty pubs, bemoaning the fact their regulars wouldn't turn up to sup until they'd turned off that's night's Street.

It is the same today. For Mike, Ken and Deirdre, read Molly, Tyrone and Kevin. Throw in a baby of dubious parentage for added value. Every furtive look, every rueful, shameful moment is captured on the faces of three brilliant young actors (Well, Kevin's no spring chicken but he does look younger without that ferret on his top lip).

I don't subscribe to the school of thought that cheapens soap stars in the presence of their more illustrious movie counterparts.In my idle moments, I don't find myself caring too much about Tom Cruise. Eileen Grimshaw on the other hand, I'm passionate about.

I shared a lift with Ken Barlow recently at the North's Royal Television Society Awards. With him on the 30th floor of the Hilton Hotel was a well-set man with a smiley face and a familiar air. To my eternal shame now, I couldn't quite put a name to the face, although I got the impression he recognised me from regional television.

Later, as this man collected an award and said it was his proudest moment because the award reflected the views of his northern peers, I realised it was Tony Warren, the creator of this jewel of a programme. The man whose genius and legacy has put hundreds of famous names to hundreds of ordinary faces, ordinary until they were granted the gift of a Coronation Street moniker.

As I wandered past Tony towards the one lift for all of us bow-tied guests, I cracked a gag comparing the scene to The Towering Inferno. He smiled politely. I was lucky I got that. After all, with 50 years of The Street and a grateful nation hanging on to his and his descendants' every word, there's nothing at all you can teach this man about blockbusters.

Tony Livesey broadcasts on BBC Radio 5 live Monday to Thursday, 10.30pm-1am. 5 live's family week starts tomorrow

The 70s

Ratings flag, from a mid-60s high of 20 million to eight million in 1973. Phoenix walks out (for a spell). Carson takes ill (for a spell). Which clears the way for some lesser faces, such as Gail Potter, Vera Duckworth and Mike Baldwin. It in't half glum, though, chuck. Bill Podmore, a former comedy producer, brings a bit of fun back with characters like Eddie Yeats and Jack Duckworth.

Tracy is born to Deirdre Langton in 1977 and is on the Street to this day. The little 'un nearly meets her end when a lorry crashes into the Rovers in 1979. (A pity, the uncharitable might say of the slattern).

The 60s

Kenneth Barlow wins a place at university, and gets where one of soap's longest-running characters has always been – above himself. He marries Valerie, the first of four wives, having twins soon after. The Purge of 1964 puts paid to several much-loved characters, including Martha Longhurst. In protest, Ena Sharples (Violet Carson) nearly leaves the Rovers Return's snug for good.

Elsie Tanner – "the sexiest thing on television", according to James Callaghan – cocks a snook at Ena and fellow harridans and takes a husband.

The 80s

Never mind Ken marrying Deirdre in 1981 (two days before some wedding down south), Brookside has swearing and Scousers, and EastEnders has Cockneys and – ee! – gay characters. Out go Elsie and Ena, and in come Bet Lynch, Percy Sugden and thumping storylines: Ken and Mike Baldwin feud over Deirdre! Fire at the Rovers!

It works – when Alan Bradley meets his death under a Blackpool tram in 1989, 26.9 million tune in to wish him good riddance.

The 90s

You can't move for issues round here, love... transsexuals, yuppies, drug-dealers, eco-warriors and the show's first proper non-white family (the Desais), following criticism of content and casting.

Bet Lynch calls time at the Rovers in 1995, and two years later it's curtains for Percy Sugden, Thelma Barlow and a clutch of others on producer's Brian Park's first day. The decade's biggest storyline is ever-suffering Deirdre's imprisonment: "Free the Weatherfield One!"

The noughties

Corrie retreats into gentle storylines and humour – apart from that wrong 'un Richard Hillman. After a couple of murders and a few other attempts, Hillman tries to bump off his wife Gail, and family in an episode watched by nearly 20 million.

Vera Duckworth dies in 2007 followed, this last month, by her layabout husband, Jack. All the talk's of the tram crash to mark the 50th anniversary, killing off four main characters. Coronation Street – who'd want to live there, pet?

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