Johann Hari: Why 'Coronation Street' fills me with pride

In America or France, you simply do not see the poor on TV except as mugshots on the news

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Last December, I came closer to a religious experience than at any other point in my life. I actually walked - I actually walked - on the cobbles of Coronation Street. I had been filming for a television programme in a dusty Granada Studios lot a few doors down from The Street (it is always capitalised in my heart), and when I finally escaped on to the set, I rushed about like Julie Andrews at the start of The Sound of Music, eyes wide open, in near-song.

The Kabin! The Rovers Return! Kevin's Garage! It was like finally coming home. When I caught a glance of Rita Sullivan's immense red wig, I was in a more rhapsodic ecstasy than any Catholic wandering through the Vatican or any Muslim on his first Hajj.

Like 20 million (count 'em) other Brits, I inherited an addiction to Corrie as a child, sitting on my grandmother's lap. Whenever those periodic and faintly pointless debates about what "Britishness" means crop up, my mind always returns to The Street as one of the few national institutions I feel genuinely proud of.

In America or France or Italy, you simply do not see the poor on television except as mugshots on the late-night news. Their soaps focus on multi-millionaires with yachts in Antigua and names like Alexis Carrington-Colby. But in Britain, ordinary, broke people are at the core of our top-rated show, and its icons are not pouting, botox-heavy, breast-enhanced supermodels but little old Northern ladies with names like Emily Bishop.

Of course, there has always been a certain snotty condescension about Corrie. Famously, a critic greeted the first episode back in 1961 by writing: "The programme is doomed ... with its dreary signature tune and grim scene of rows of terraced houses and smoking chimneys." But in fact it is one of the great art works of our time, alternately profound and hilarious.

You can see some of these qualities in the storyline that has just stuttered to a close, the tale of the cracking and breaking of wide-boy Street stalwart Mike Baldwin into dementia and death. A soap can do Alzheimer's perfectly because it can draw on the collected memories of it audience in a way no other art form, except perhaps the epic novel, can.

When Mike loses it and starts crying for Alma - the ex-wife who died years ago - we remember her too. When we see him breaking from his dementia-fever for a moment and asking his old flame Deirdrie to dance - an almost unimaginably sad scene, as he beams in mid-dance and says: "This is lovely", while she quietly weeps over his shoulder - the performances are layered with literally decades of shared experience.

And, at the risk of buying a one-way ticket to Psueud's Corner, I think Corrie has a distant political resonance too. All British soaps serve up a mythicised working-class community for us to plug into, long after the claustrophobic old backstreets have been demolished and real working-class communities scattered.

Anybody who thinks discussion of class doesn't resonate in Britain any more should - after they have looked at all the endless academic studies showing it determines your life and death more now than it did in the 1950s - watch Coronation Street for a week. After sex, the storylines that get the biggest response always focus on the blurred, stirred ambiguities of class.

Think of Sally Webster, gripped with contempt for the "chav" Street where she grew up and endlessly saving to send her spoiled kids to private school and A Better Place. Watch Ian McKellen, who - in his month-long guest role as novelist Mel Hutchwright - comparing Ken Barlow with a D H Lawrence character, a man who left his working-class community for university but returned, feeling forever superior and confined.

"You're the Angry Young Man who turned into the slightly peeved old man," he said. "Not so much 'Look Back in Anger' as 'Look Back in a Faintly Bad Mood'."

Indeed, Coronation Street and EastEnders offer politically-opposed ways of imagining the British working class. Coronation Street presents a socialistic community where people basically want to help each other out, and suffering is greeted with compassion. (Even the Corrie serial killer, Richard Hillman, did it because he loved his wife too much). EastEnders offers a blackly Tebbit-flavoured vision where everybody is perennially poised to rip off their neighbours, and anybody who does show even a flicker of compassion - like Dot Branning - is invariably exposed as a dupe.

As one Corrie scriptwriter put it: "If you are run over on Coronation Street, somebody will take you in and give you a cup of tea. If you are run over on Albert Square, they'll steal your wallet and shag your wife while you bleed to death."

EastEnders has now taken this social-nihilism to its logical conclusion and descended into a non-stop Krayathon, crammed with brain-dead gangster storylines. Every episode these days could be summarised with the line: "I'll do you if you stay on my bleeding patch!" The show harks back not to solidaristic working-class communities, but to the tyrannised working-class communities of the old Kray-run East End.

By reanimating the disgusting Barbara Windsor and bringing back her gangster sons, Grant and Phil, they are doing this quite consciously: "Babs", of course, chummed up with these murderers and describes the era in which their suppression and slaughter was at its height as a golden age, just as her show today presents gangsterism as noble, even necessary. Of course, the real working class heroes from that golden-age-that-never-was - such as "Mrs X", the barmaid who testified against the Krays after watching them turn her pub into a human abbatoir - are still living in hiding, rather than cashing in on prime-time BBC 1 to the tune of a cool million quid a year.

I wouldn't want to make too much of it, but I think it is quietly revealing that Corrie's leftish vision is thriving, while EastEnders' vision of a society spiralling into mutual suspicion is languishing in the ratings. Almost everything about Corrie is a standing reminder of the inherent tolerance of the British working class, in sharp contrast to the jeering middle-class notion that they are all racists and bigots.

Long before Hollywood congratulated itself on its mumbling gay cowboys, The Street had a resident transsexual who - according to all the surveys - is one of the most popular characters with its overwhelmingly working-class audience. While EastEnders' ethnic minority characters could be listed in the credits as "Token Black" and "Token Asian", Corrie's are just funny or warm or weird people, like everyone else in Weatherfield.

As I leaned against the door of the Rovers Return, beaming like a fool, I realised I could never love somebody who did not love Coronation Street.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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