Ey up chuck, has Coronation Street finally gone too far? The complaints have been flowing after a violent and gruesome mid-evening double episode last Friday, and even Michael Parkinson this week rowed in with disappointment.
Controversy is the lifeblood of soap. If they’re not talking about you, it’s time to worry. They’ve had pretty nasty villains in cosy Corrie before. Etcetera. But was Friday’s grisly double killing, after eight months of captivity in a basement, followed by body disposal in a lake, just a touch too close to Tony Sopranos-meets-Fritzl on the mean streets of Weatherfield? And all before 9pm.
Parkinson thinks so. Writing in the Radio Times, the former broadcaster says the soap needs to rediscover its original spirit.
"I never imagined I would recoil from watching Coronation Street, but the storyline of the kidnapping and torture of Andy and Vinny and their brutal murder by Pat Phelan had little to do with that gentle, funny reminder of life in the North Country I discovered and so admired in the early 1960s when I joined Granada Television, "
The soap is a long long way from Ena and Elsie and Hilda these days, and has been for years
"In those days," he wrote, "Ena, Minnie and Martha dominated the snug, Elsie Tanner was everyone's idea of the good-time girl with a heart of gold and, later, Hilda Ogden made three pot ducks flying up a wall a fashion statement."
This is the man who founded the British League for Hilda Ogden in 1979, in tribute to Jean Alexander’s long-running character.
So come on, Parky, the soap is a long long way from Ena and Elsie and Hilda these days, and has been for years.
Corrie’s like an old friend that I haven’t seen properly in a long while but am always glad to catch up with – what on earth has happened while I’ve been distracted?
It was always the gentle, humorous cousin of EastEnders. You could easily envisage Phil or Grant Mitchell doing somefink like holding an enemy hostage or brutally topping them, but not Corrie. Along with its character-driven plots, Coronation Street's USP is its gentle humour, which is singularly lacking in shouty Albert Square.
Pat Phelan (actor Connor McIntyre) is a businessman, builder and con artist who’s been in and out of the long-running soap since 2013. He’s a great soap baddie – he has variously scammed neighbours, raped a friend, left someone to die, blackmailed various people and had Kevin Webster’s garage burnt down.
Back in January he kidnapped a fella called Andy who had some evidence against him. And chained him up in a basement, for months. Some time later Phelan added his own former business partner. Then last Friday he manipulated one into killing the other, then killed the second captive and disposed of the bodies in a lake.
It’s sure is a long way from Hilda’s ducks. “I am affronted by what I see as a gem like Coronation Street in danger of becoming just another formulaic soap,” says Parkinson.
Soaps have to compete in an environment where the best or most popular TV dramas have upped the public tolerance for what would in the past have been left unseen
Former UK TV presenter Fern Britton also rowed in, tweeting "Oh #Corrie, this is too grim and just not right. Yes performances, script and storyline good but ITS NOT CORRIE!" And the British TV regulator Ofcom got 390 complaints after the broadcast, which was before the 9pm watershed, about the levels of violence.
Soapland has gradually become nastier and coarser as competition between them has increased – there is more pressure on producers to hold audiences.
The latest outbreak of violence in Weatherfield has to be seen in context. Television and film have become increasingly graphic and gory in general, and soaps have to compete in an environment where the best or most popular TV dramas have upped the public tolerance for what would in the past have been left unseen. In Psycho, we never actually saw the stabbing (and it was all the scarier) ; if it were being made today there would be plenty of blood, and an army of CSI would be combing over the shower afterwards.
Soaps are always on the lookout for challenging storylines, and more attention from the tabloids
Today the most popular TV – from Breaking Bad to Game of Thrones – has upped the ante in terms of where the line is drawn. Real life has become grittier too; stories of serial killers and long term captivity pepper the news and our consciousness.
Soap operas work hard to stay relevant, and regularly deal with difficult and delicate human topics sensitively, and they’re always on the lookout for innovative, challenging storylines, and also on the lookout for more attention from the tabloids. So it’s a thin line they straddle, between sensation and audience comfort.
When something bad happens to a familiar soap character, the viewer feels it more keenly than in a more remote TV drama. When a new soap opera sets out to mine the grittier side it’s not as shocking as when your old friend suddenly wields a bloodstained knife. So, for example, Red Rock (though it probably doesn’t qualify as a soap any longer) set out to be more hard core from the off , so it is less of a shock to the system than when Fair City goes for the guts.
Fair City also had a long-running kidnap and incarceration story last year, where character Katy O'Brien (Amilia Clarke Stewart ) went missing but was later discovered held captive in a local garage by another of the soap's characters, Ciaran Holloway (Johnny Ward, who was also in Love/Hate). Mind you, that incarceration went on so long it was in danger of boring rather than disturbing the audience.
The shock of Fair City or Coronation Street going all dark is greater because the streets of Carrigstown or Weatherfield are so familiar and the characters, for the most part, still warm.
But remember there have been lots of pretty bad 'uns in Corrie over the years. Alan Bradley who tried to suffocate Rita in the 1980s. Scam artist Richard Hillman in the early 2000s killed his ex-wife with a shovel and buried her under flats he was building, then took up with our Gail, tried to kill his mother-in-law Audrey, bashed Emily Bishop over the head with a crowbar, tried to kill Gail and her family by tying them up in the car in the garage and gassing them, and then drove the car into the canal.
Those two villains were smooth and middle class-ish and wore suits and a bit of charm. Phelan is a rough diamond that wouldn’t fool anyone (though he managed to marry long-running character Eileen, who always seemed to be a bit more savvy).
Coronation Street's producer Kate Oates addressed the mixed reaction to its gore extravaganza: "I knew that people would find it very dark. Of course, one of the things that Corrie viewers always keep close to their hearts is Corrie warmth and Corrie humour. If you touch that or mess with it, people are bound to go: 'What are you doing to our Street? This isn't right'.
“Obviously passions have run high with it but I don’t mind that. I hope that viewers will see there is a balance of stories and other characters are giving you that traditional warmth.”
Actor Connor McIntyre, who plays Phelan, hinted at his character’s ultimate comeuppance. “The fans are very cool. They get it. And there’s a certain sense of ownership about it - if you’re a Corrie fan, you enjoy your villain. Knowing full well that he’ll inevitably get his comeuppance. It’s a very moral universe - and quite right too. The reaction I usually get is: You’re so horrible. We really hate you. But we don’t want them to kill you yet.”
I’ll just put t’kettle on.