The soap that washes its hands of real life

It has taken 43 years to acknowledge the passion that might beat in the breast of one man for another
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The Independent Online

Yesterday's report that psychotherapy can make heterosexuals of gays and lesbians troubled by their sexuality, will perhaps be of interest to Todd in Coronation Street, who on Sunday night planted a gentle kiss on the lips of a drowsy Nick Tilsley only to find, to his considerable mortification, that he had been reading the signals all wrong, and that Nick is as straight as one of the "arrers" in the Rovers Return.

In last night's episode, Nick tried to persuade Todd to come clean about his sexuality to his girlfriend Sarah. As most Independent readers will surely be aware, Sarah is Nick's sister, which complicates matters terribly. Still, once she finds out that Todd prefers her brother, Sarah might at least seek consolation in the arms of her mother Gail, from whom she is currently estranged, and who has herself been decidedly unlucky in love, the most recent of her three husbands having turned out to be a serial killer. Gail attracts tragedy like alcohol attract alcoholics.

All of which is a diversion from the main event: Coronation Street's first gay kiss. It has taken 43 years for the venerable soap to acknowledge the passion that might beat in the breast of one man for another. Murder, rape, fraud, bigamy, adultery, miscarriage and fatal traffic accidents have long been deployed to drive the plot forward; so have wrongful convictions, burst watermains, kidney transplants, incontinent animals and rigged meat-pie competitions.

But homosexuality has never reared its awkward head. Which is ironic, as the credits still tell us that Coronation Street is based on "an idea by Tony Warren". And Warren is a man so deliciously camp that he likes to inform folk there has never been a closet big enough to hide him.

Moreover, he once told me that Corrie could only have been created by a gay man. "Because I was confused about my sexuality, because I wanted to know what I was, I used to watch very closely what made men tick and what made women tick. Out of those very detailed observations, which I'd been making since I was five or six, came the original Coronation Street characters. My grandmother, for instance, was the basis for Ena Sharples..."

As a young scriptwriter at Granada in 1960, Warren was seconded to the adventure series Biggles, which he loathed. So one day he clambered to the top of a filing cabinet in his boss's office and refused to come down until he was allowed to write about a subject closer to his heart. Out of that heroic fit of petulance, Coronation Street was born. And its cast of bossy Northern women soon attracted a devoted gay following.

"For a lot of gay men, characters like Elsie Tanner and Bet Gilroy were role models," says the comedian Paul O'Grady, the artist formerly known as Lily Savage. "They'd constantly get knocked back by men and pick themselves up again. When you were finding your feet on the gay scene, having one-night stands and being rejected, you could relate to their survival instinct."

Yet the soap has always washed its hands of life's realities. Long after every other terraced street in the North of England had black or Asian residents, Coronation Street remained determinedly white. And when there were attempts to drag the serial into the same decade as those of us watching it, they were often embarrassing. The way the existence of ethnic minorities was acknowledged 30-odd years ago was by Billy Walker and Ray Langton cracking jokes about "Pakis".

It is par for the course, then, that as Weatherfield finally does encounter gay love, it is unrequited and considered rather shameful. On the other hand, as those of us who play golf are aware, par for the course can on occasion be a very good thing.

By admitting to a fondness for both Coronation Street and golf, incidentally, I realise that some Independent readers will consider me trapped in a Venn diagram beyond redemption. But let's get back to poor young Todd. I have no idea how this storyline will develop, but if Todd does not shift his attentions from Nick and cop off with Ashley Peacock instead, if he is assailed by loneliness and torment, then for once the Coronation Street scriptwriters will be grasping the nettle of realism, while spurning the dock leaf of political correctness. For the first gay crush in 43 years to be unrequited and laden with shame might be considered a missed opportunity, but life is very often like that. That's why Robert Spitzer, professor of pyschiatry at Columbia University, believes there will be more takers for the therapy he recommends. Of the 200 homosexual in his study, some reported distinct changes in their sexual orientation.

What Coronation Street now needs is for someone to apply the Spitzer therapy in reverse. Comedy is the one area in which it consistently outguns its rival soaps, and what could be richer in comic potential than a Jack Duckworth-Fred Elliott love nest?