Coronation Street (2016) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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At a time when it might be expected that the soaps might be easing off the gas before unleashing their big autumn story lines upon us Coronation Street have decided to explode over the last week with the demise of Kylie Platt.  I liked Kylie and thought she was brilliantly played by Paula Lane, who in a way filled the gap that was created in the programme by the departure of her sister Becky, played by the ubiquitous Katherine Kelly  but, and there’s a big but here, I did not want to know that she was being killed off.

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Paula Lane (Kylie) and Katherine Kelly (Becky)

I’d seen online teasers suggesting character was about to meet its maker but had chosen not to click to find out more.  In the queue in my local Co-op my eyes found themselves latching onto a whole row of TV/women’s magazines saying “Kylie Dies!” Why do people need to be told before the showing of the programme?  It really is one of my television bug-bears.  When Coronation Street aired its last live episode in which bad boy Callum was killed off, people were full of praise, largely because “they did not know that was going to happen”.  I thought then that a lesson might be learnt and that fans did not need to be spoon-fed storylines months in advance.  Is it because programme makers fear we will not watch if we don’t know what is happening? But why watch something when you know all that is about to occur, anyway?

Here’s a revolutionary idea- don’t give away big storylines and let us watch and those that have missed out can find out by word of mouth and watch on catch-up (which apparently most of us do anyway, according to programme makers).  The casual audience can still be picked up and the programme fans can get the full enjoyment of the programme.

Luckily, on the day of transmission I didn’t see the copy of the “Daily Mirror” which, with all that is going on in the world, decided to go with a photo on its front page of Kylie sprawled on the cobbles before the programme was transmitted.  Right, rant over (but don’t get me starting on BBC swapping the tennis over without notice when Andy Murray plays from BBC2 to BBC1 meaning that those recording the tennis got “The One Show” and “Masterchef” and fans of those shows got the tennis.)

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My motive for this review is to highlight one of the most under-rated actors on British television who has played an absolute blinder this week, Jack P Shepherd.  Jack often appears on shortlists of soap awards but is sidelined by the genre’s big-hitters (usually Danny Dyer or whoever is the central male character in “Eastenders” at the time).  He has been a regular in the programme for over 16 years, since he was 12 years old.  The eagle-eyed amongst you would have spotted him earlier than that.  I’ve mentioned this before in my review of Happy Valley  but back in 2000 the BBC series “Clocking Off” had an excellent episode in its first series called “Yvonne’s Story” which had “Happy Valley” future stars Siobhan Finneran and Sarah Lancashire as friends with both Jack P. Shepherd and Tina O’Brien playing Lancashire’s children.  Obviously the chemistry was there from the start as soon afterwards both were cast to play the Platt children, and both are still playing these parts 16 years later.

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David and Sarah meet a royal visitor

At the end of last Friday’s episode we left Kylie, stabbed in the street following a  scuffle outside the kebab shop and before the 8.30 episode we were warned that we might find scenes upsetting and that was certainly right.  I cannot remember when “Coronation Street” was as upsetting as the second episode that evening (and I’m even including Hayley Cropper’s assisted suicide).  David cradled Kylie as life slipped away in what was a tour-de-force for both actors.  From the opening moment when David charged down the surprisingly deserted cobbled street to clutch hold of his injured wife the tension never let up.  David’s shock and lack of comprehension, aided by a lot of close-ups, was palpable and even though the A-list of the Street appeared to hover around the scene the most accomplished performances were from Shepherd and Lane and when the life ebbed away there was a bestial howl which was almost Shakespearean in its intensity.  “Coronation Street” is often compared to Shakespeare and Dickens as all human life is there and it is one of Britain’s most important cultural markers.    Two great things about these particular characters have been their ability to use humour, Jack is one of the funniest characters on the show, even if his humour is often in the darker realms and Kylie’s words to him that “as far as doctors go, you’d make a great hairdresser” at such a dreadful moment could not help but bring about a smile.  With Gail (Helen Worth) and Audrey ( the great Sue Nicholls) arriving the scene played out with the intimacy of characters who had spent many hours together- with the relationship between David and his mum always particularly strong- as it must be in real life the things these two actors have shared.  This is where continuing drama can shine above drama serials- there is so much shared history, going back years.  The ensemble acting which the Coronation Street “families” can produce is so often sublime.

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I’ve just watched the culmination of this death scene again for the benefit of this review and tears have once again filled my eyes.  This does not happen to me with television very often and it’s probably because part of me can still remember the pre-teen who went off the rails after his pet rabbit, Barney, died.  What will happen now he has lost the love of his life?

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We watched David sitting on the sidelines as paramedics tried to revive his wife and, almost too painfully, lying down next to her.  In the ensuing episodes we have seen absolutely appropriate reactions – the shock, the telling of the children, the anger of discovering the man who killed Kylie and nearly battering his head in with an iron bar.  We all know how dangerous David can be.

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This is the man who pushed his mother down the stairs, who has smashed all the windscreens of cars in the street and whose past has been decidedly troubled.  We haven’t seen Psycho David for some years but he might not be too far away over the coming months.  Whatever the scriptwriters have in store for the character we know that Jack P Shepherd will shine.  On Wednesday’s episode the couple were reunited in the funeral home –which I don’t think in the 55 year history of the programme had ever been done before in a scene which was almost too difficult to watch – once again in close-up to register every reaction on David’s face and switching to the now expressionless one of Kylie.  Difficult television- yes, but fantastic television.

David and Kylie

Comedy character Keith Lemon always refers to Jack as “the little northern cocky bastard” and that is part of his character but it is time to salute one of the best performers on television who is has been absolutely pitch perfect over the last few episodes.

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“Coronation Street” is aired on ITV and these episodes should still, at time of writing, be available on ITV Hub catch-up services.

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Scott and Bailey – Series 5 (ITV 2016) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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I love Scott and Bailey.  I had thought that with Suranne Jones’ success in “Dr Foster” that we might have seen the last of this Manchester-set Police drama so I was delighted to see it back for Series 5.  There are only three episodes but I know that for the next three weeks this is going to be the highlight of my television viewing.

There have been changes.  Amelia Bulmore is no longer in it as Scott and Bailey’s boss, DCI Gill Murray and I still haven’t got over the departure of Tracie Bennett who was absolutely brilliant as Rachel Bailey’s Mum.  Also, Sally Wainwright, writer of the exemplary “Happy Valley”  who created this alongside Diane Taylor has handed on the script-writing duties.  The whole conception of the show is fascinating, if a little complex.  The idea was originally drawn up by Suranne and co-star Sally Lindsay, who plays her sister,  who were lamenting the lack of strong parts for women.  They took it to Nicola Schindler of Red Productions who commissioned Sally Wainwright to produce a script.  ITV felt it needed a bit more work before they green-lighted it so Wainwright joined up with Diane Taylor, an ex Detective Inspector from Greater Manchester Police to add that touch of authenticity.  It shows that it is very much a labour of love from all the women concerned and its strength has always been in its depiction of women, aided by a superb cast.  By the last series Amelia Bulmore had written a number of episodes and put her character very much through the wringer as she struggled to cope with alcoholism.

Scott and Bailey’s two Sallys – Wainwright and Lindsay

This is a drama which has always held its “Coronation Street” credentials close.  Set in Manchester with Jones and Lindsey and Bulmore all much- loved Street alumni.  This connection goes further as writer of this episode (and a number of others) is Lee Warburton, who apart from being the first man I have mentioned in relation to this programme also took his turn in the Street as Tony Horrocks (1995-8).

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At the start of the episode Rachel (Surrane Jones) has returned after a year in London, where if the brief montage shown was anything to go by she had a good time.  She turns up back at her old job after her secondment in vice without having told best friend Janet Scott (Lesley Sharp) that she was back.  I was initially a little concerned because what you need in this programme is someone to rankle Rachel and put her back up as this is what Jones is so superb at (cf: “Dr Foster) and I thought that their boss had always served this role but new character Anna (Jing Lusi) will fill this gap with aplomb.  There was (as there was in “Happy Valley”)  a wonderfully excruciating moment when someone takes banter too far .  In this case it was Anna who had got inappropriate by saying “the bitch is back” about Rachel and got the Suranne Jones hard stare which may even eclipse the force-field of a Sarah Lancashire “Happy Valley” hard stare.

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Keeping the comparisons with “HV” going is that both shows have real humour in the blackness and the humour is driven by the writing and characterisation.  When Rachel arrives at the crime scene after a year away she is greeted by  the on-site pathologist, Scary Mary, with “Hello stranger.  Put on weight?  We need to crack on.”  Rachel, whose sister is staying with her at her flat has a fondness for air fresheners, Bailey tells Scott, “The other morning I woke up, I thought I’d been embalmed” and when Rachel is appointed Acting Detective Inspector for the case she is told by her superior, Supt. Julie Dodson (Pippa Haywood), “Be ready to brief a Gold meeting at 12 and don’t come dressed like Little Mix”.  Warburton in his scripts has not abandoned the two locations which really brings out the best in the characters – the ladies loo (about 20 mins in) and having a cigarette in the alley (about 30 mins).  These are Scott and Bailey essentials as it is the scenes between Jones and Sharp which add much to its greatness.

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There’s a pretty explosive plot going on as well, it’s not all fag and loo breaks.  This is intense, modern crime where phones and computers play a part.  There’s serial killing going on, fairly randomly and it becomes evident from the Dark Net (still never sure what that is although as Rachel says “It’s not illegal to use the Dark Net” it always seems to bring up things that are) that someone is killing and filming and it could be a grisly version of “Dare” that the police officers are dealing with.  Technology is moving so fast that the police cannot keep up with it.  A potential love interest for Rachel if the twinkle in his eye is anything to go by SCAS Neil Simpson (Gregg Chillin who despite his name previously smouldered throughout “Da Vinci’s Demons”) tells her, “In terms of internet crime the police are like your granny trying to programme the video player.” How our use of modern technology is impacting our lives is also brought home dramatically for Janet whose family is plunged into chaos caused by boundaries being overstepped.

I would imagine (although I don’t want to know) that this plot line will continue for the three episodes as it is a crime spree which has continued for seven years I don’t imagine it will be solved too quickly but I will be there hanging off every line and watching the best girl-cop duo ever (yes, it far eclipses “Cagney and Lacey”) and some of the best performances you’ll see this year on television.

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Scott and Bailey Series 5 began on ITV at 9.00 pm  on Wednesday 13th April.  It is available on catch-up on the ITV hub

The Road To Coronation Street – ITV 3 (2010) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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Jessie Wallace, David Dawson, Jane Horrocks, Lynda Baron, Celia Imrie

I concluded my recent tribute  to writer Tony Warren who passed away in early March by hoping that this 2010 drama first shown on BBC4 would be repeated.  This week it made an appearance on ITV3 and it was good to see it again.  It tells the story of how twenty-three year old Warren under contract as a writer at Granada television came up with perhaps the most important television programme in British history.  I think this was first made as part of the celebrations for 50 years of Coronation Street, but it did provide a very fitting tribute to the man behind it.

Granada Studios set up in Manchester with the remit to make programmes in the North of England and to support Northern writers.  Warren (ably played by David Dawson) announces his arrival with “I’m a writer, I’m Northern and I’m ready to be nurtured.”  This leads to him writing scripts for series such as “Biggles” which is not really what he had to mind.  What he has in mind (which came to him after he barricaded himself in his superior’s office by refusing to come down off the top of the  filing cabinet) was a tale set around Manchester, “the story of a back street terrace and all the people who live in it.”

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Jessie Wallace and David Dawson as Pat and Tony

The green light was not immediate.  There were reservations about this young writer, about using Northern actors in a drama, “North Country accents- it’s the language of comedy” and certainly the name of the piece (originally Florizel Street- cue the much quoted story of the cleaner who said it sounded like a disinfectant) but eventually casting began and a pilot episode was commissioned.  The most fascinating aspect of the programme was the casting, both in terms of the original “Coronation Street” cast and who was chosen to play them.  Warren was keen to use Doris Speed who he had worked with on radio.  Doris had more or less given up acting but came on board to play Annie Walker.  Celia Imrie played Doris with just the right level of haughtiness.  Ena Sharples was originally played by Nita Valery in the pilot but she didn’t have enough edge and it seemed as if no-one would be able to play the character to the team’s satisfaction.  Warren remembered another performer who had terrorised him as a child – Violet Carson.  It was made clear that she was going to be difficult but was perfect for the role of the harridan with a heart.  Lynda Baron played her beautifully. Most inspired of all was East End Soap Queen Jessie Wallace (Kat Slater) as Weatherfield Soap Queen Pat Phoenix.  This was a pitch perfect performance of the woman who was central to the show’s early success and became a great friend of Tony Warren.  These were performers who had struggled – Pat’s professional career had become a round of auditions where she was told to “Come in, flash your tits, piss off-it’s no life.”  Tony Warren’s creation certainly gave the actors life.

Pat Phoenix, Doris Speed, Violet Carson

William Roache was played as a go-ahead young actor who was roughing it for a while until his big break in films came alone:  “It’s only a week.  What harm can it do?”  This said by the man still a mainstay of “Coronation Street” fifty-seven years later.  His part was played by his son, James, so this portrayal must have Roache’s approval.  For me it ended too soon with the transmission of the first episode.  I would like to have known how the instant stardom after years of struggling affected the cast and , indeed, Tony himself.  With only a 75 minute running time  for “The Road To Coronation Street” events were obviously condensed.  It chose to focus on just a handful of the performers- yet a number of the other original cast were fascinating – Jack Howarth who played Albert Tatlock, Margot Bryant who played Minnie Caldwell could have a ninety minute docu-drama all to herself as far as I am concerned but these were barely visible here.   Philip Lowrie who played Dennis Tanner from the first episode has said that Warren wrote that part for himself and subsequently found it hard to write for Lowrie but this was not touched upon here other than him reading the part in Pat Phoenix’s mesmerising audition.

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Margot Bryant as Minnie Caldwell with beloved cat

“The Road To Coronation Street” was written by a man with a pedigree, Daran Little.  Script writer and for many years a historian for the street this is a man who knows his stuff well and was a perfect choice to script it.  He is also a great friend of cast members and I have read a number of books he has written which has chronicled the life of the street over the years.  He also co-wrote Betty Driver’s autobiography.  It was directed by Charles Sturridge who also worked on “Coronation Street” so it was  obvious that these people knew what they were doing.  In 2011 it won the BAFTA for Best Single TV Drama and both Jessie Wallace and Lynda Baron were nominated for Best Supporting Actress.

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It was great to see this again both as a tribute and as an example of a piece which is superbly written, acted and with a real feel for the period.  ITV3 does tend to show things over and over again so keep a look out for it.  Now all we need is to get Warren’s novels republished.

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The Road To Coronation Street was shown on Monday 14th March at 10pm on ITV3.  It is currently available on catch-up on the ITV hub. It is also available on DVD.

 

The Novels Of Tony Warren – A Chick-lit from a male point of view review

 

heartimagesTony Warren, in his early twenties began work on an idea which would revolutionise British television. His idea of a twice-weekly continuing drama featuring characters loosely based on those he knew from growing up on the streets of Manchester became Coronation Street. The first episode, scripted by Warren and performed live on ITV in 1960 is still consistently the best programme on television fifty-five years later. His initial set of characters including Elsie Tanner, Ena Sharples, Annie Walker and Ken Barlow instantly engaged with the viewing public and have had a central role in British popular culture. He worked on scripts, with decreasing frequency until the late 70’s but very much remains a figurehead for the programme, its originator.

In the 1990’s Warren produced four novels which remain somewhat under-rated. Maybe at the time it was unclear how to market them. They are not quite the “bonkbuster” type novel, favoured by the likes of Jilly Cooper and the Collins sisters, Jackie and Joan (probably fading a little in popularity by the mid 90’s), not quite the warm saga and not quite chick-lit, although there are elements of all three genres.   I have recently re-read all four and think they deserve a wider twenty-first century audience. Here is my guide to the novels of Tony Warren…..

manchester The Lights Of Manchester (1991)

The title always brings a smile to my face. On publication it probably sat on the same bookshelves as books featuring glamorous locations such as Monte Carlo, Cannes and Monaco. Right from the title Tony is showing us he’s just on the right side of kitsch. There’s a delightful sense of chutzpah before even opening the book. My paperback copy, however, does possess one of the most pointless and inappropriate front covers I’ve seen. I can’t fathom out the marketing department which would okay this cover- maybe that’s the difference between the early 90’s and today. However, once the reader has got over the slight snigger at the title and ignored the cover, which would have done Warren no favours and embarked upon the book she (and with that cover it is most likely to have been “she”) would have discovered a very good example of the showbiz saga, spanning forty years in the lives of Sorrel Starkey (not Pat Phoenix) and Micky Grimshaw (not Tony Warren). The author himself feels the need to point this out in the introduction and it would be an easy assumption to make being the tale of the writer of a continuing television drama “Angel Dwellings” and its early sensational star. I do admit it has dated a little since it came out and this type of doorstep sized saga is not as popular as it once was but it is highly enjoyable throughout and Warren really does put his main character through the wringer. Yes, it is melodramatic at times and imbued with a British kitschness which Warren pulls off , intentionally or not with aplomb. There’s a raft of memorable characters, some of whom may have had real life parallels and the backstreet world of Irlam O’Th’ Height comes to feel as familiar to the reader as Armistead Maupin’s San Francisco.   fourstars

rainbow Foot Of The Rainbow (1993)

His second novel is not as good. It lacks the “Coronationstreetesque” sparkle of its predecessor and main character Rosie Tattersall is not a patch on the Pat Phoenix-ish Sorrell Starkey. Warren’s writing is actually very detailed and makes for a denser read than expected but quite a bit of it here is trivial. When the affluent Tattersall family splits, Rosie’s mother and twin brother head off to America whilst Rosie is housed with an ex-member of staff, Nora Hanky. It is set in the era of the British pop Invasion of the early 60’s so it’s no real surprise when Nora’s son Zav becomes an International Pop sensation- heralding from Irlam O’Th Height. Rosie sets her sights, however, on finding a man, preferably the one she once drew as her ideal man at Sunday School. Here lies for me the weak thread of the novel as I find the love story between her and the cartoon- made-real character totally unbelievable. There’s a move to Berkeley for the summer of love and drugs, family reunions and not-very well concealed family secrets. I hope I haven’t undersold this novel – it is enjoyable nonsense.                 threestarsbehindclosed Behind Closed Doors (1996)

Novel number three is his best. This is a rich, gossipy tale of three Manchester school children grouped together at the end of the war when they are labelled “misfits” on their first day at secondary school by the uniform outfitter. There’s Vanda Bell, the tubby girl with the tarot-reading grandmother. Vanda yearns for the stage and becomes a stripper. There’s pint-sized Joan Stone possesser of an over-vivid imagination and literary pretensions and tall, skinny Peter Bird, the child everyone knows is gay before he works it out himself. Solid characterisation in both main and supporting characters, good twists and a real sense of period spanning from the late 40’s to early 60’s make this a compelling and highly enjoyable read.

fourstarsfullsteam Full Steam Ahead (1998)

To date this is Tony Warren’s last novel and I’d rank it his third best. A transatlantic crossing on the QE2 is the setting and we catch up once again with Manchester’s Mickey Grimshaw and his best friend and star of “Angel Dwellings”, Sorrel Starkey. Mickey (not at all modelling Tony Warren) is now a novelist and Sorrel’s much loved husband had died. There’s concerns about her health and a shipboard romance but a new character is given a good share of the limelight here. She is also on the QE2 and also heralds from Irlam O’Th’ Height. Much is devoted to Dinah’s back story to explain why she is onboard and stalking another character familiar to Warrens’ readers. Rises to fortune, thwarted love ambitions and life-long loyalty to individuals are all areas Warren excels in writing about together with his warm characterisations. We get a few cameo walk-on parts from characters from the other books. It does feel a little bit “more of the same”, which is why I do not rank this amongst his best but he writes with a cosy familiarity which I do find very appealing.

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All She Wants – Jonathan Harvey (2012)- A Chick-lit from a male point of view review

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This for me promised much. After all, here is a man whose plays I have really enjoyed, the film adaptation of one, “Beautiful Thing” is one of my favourite films and likely to appear on my 100 Essential Films list and who also is responsible for some of the most sparkling scripts on “Coronation Street”. (Okay, I might not have been such a huge fan of his 1999-2001 sitcom “Gimme Gimme Gimme” but you can’t have everything!) He has chosen to place his first novel firmly in the chick-lit genre, unusual for male writers but here goes with a male point of view review for a chick-lit novel written by a male. I was soon feeling a little disappointed that he has chosen, with his debut, to go along what feels like very standard comic chick-lit lines. Main character Jodie is a soap opera star and the beginning of the book feels like we are in the territory of Tony Warren novels. (Warren is the originator of “Coronation Street” and wrote four novels in the 1990’s, all of which I have read and will post reviews in the future). A Tony Warren feel would be no bad thing and would be quite fitting but it soon takes a more predictable Bridget Jones chick-lit turn with a foolish heroine getting in all sorts of scrapes. It’s amusing rather than laugh out loud funny (and this, with Harvey’s pedigree for comedy was the biggest surprise. His “Coronation Street” scripts, for example, are full of laugh-out-loud moments). I had hoped for more. Jodie plays a nun in “Acacia Avenue”, and although the soap (together with its resulting press attention, Soap Awards etc) play a part we are more concerned with her disastrous love life. Prat-falls a plenty. It is enjoyable but its adherence to genre lines makes it seem some distance away from the originality and freshness of “Beautiful Thing.”

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