Soap opera. From Dallas to General Hospital, these shows gained popularity and notoriety over the years for their extreme melodrama, exaggerated acting, and multitude of characters. Yet if we hop over that Atlantic pond and travel back to the 1960s, British soaps were an entirely different animal.
The year: 1960. The show that started them all: Coronation Street.
First aired in December 1960 on ITV, Coronation Street introduced Britain to the people, experiences and dialect of Northwest England. The characters are hard, resilient, working-class people, and the black-and-white transmission reflects the grittier aspects of class distinction. Corrie still has the hallmarks of “soapy” television: a huge, sprawling cast, heightened drama, and extreme emotion. There’s even a fainting scene in the fourth episode.
Yet it’s grounded in its sense of community. The various characters may have their individual issues and plotlines, but they’re all tethered to the same place, an aspect further emphasized by the repeated use of specific settings. Friends had their Central Perk; the folks on Coronation Street had Rover’s Return.
This close-knit, everybody-knows-your-name community has been critcized, by some, to be “nostalgic fantasy.” Viewing through my 21st century lens, however, I found the first season of Corrie to be progressive in its representation of women, and it brings a power and poignancy to the ordinary life.
It’s also absurdly addicting.
The late 1950s and early 1960s witnessed the rise of British New Wave, a film movement rooted in gritty, socially-conscious realism. On television, as well, class struggle and social issues were showcased, most notably in BBC’s The Wednesday Play, a program that spotlighted new writers and television dramas that reflected and confronted “the challenges of modern Britain.” For example, the series brought forth Cathy Come Home, a TV drama that depicted the London housing shortage and homelessness, and Up the Junction, another drama that focused on backstreet abortions in Battersea.
Corrie both follows this pattern and offers an escapist break from it. It’s similar to its screen contemporaries in that it portrays the lives and struggles of the working class. Money is brought up more in the first season of Corrie than any other topic. Characters are frequently asking neighbors for loans or putting purchased goods on “slate” (read: credit). Many characters exhibit concern over how and where they spend their hard-earned money.
One of the primary storylines of season one is that of Ken Barlow—the only person from Coronation Street to go away to university. From the very first episode, we see the division and tension his education causes between him and his family. His father resents Ken’s snobbish intelligence and says that he “ought to learn how to live in his own class.” Ken’s brother calls him the “local genius,” and Ken himself is embarrassed to bring his girlfriend home due to his socio-economic background. The rest of the neighborhood views Ken differently as well—some with near-awe and others with jealousy and rancor.
Despite this emphasis on money and social class, Corrie is no Cathy Come Home or Up the Junction. There is a charming wistfulness to Corrie, even for the 1960s. In fact, there are moments when it feels as though the show takes place in the 1950s rather than the early 60s. This is the decade that brings forth Swinging London, the Beatles movies, James Bond and The Avengers. Compared to the vibrance, optimism, cosmopolitanism and experimentation of the decade’s screen media, Corrie seems outdated before it had a chance to grow old.
This outdated sense fuelled the show’s biggest criticism – that of not adequately addressing the social issues of its time. (It’s frequently compared to the grittier UK soaps Brookside and EastEnders, which premiered in the 1980s.) Even when watching the first episodes myself, I expected Linda’s husband to be guilty of domestic abuse; she had run away from him and described him to her mother as “violent” and “with a temper.” When it’s revealed that she left him because she was pregnant – and believed him to not want children due to a lack of money – I felt let down. Obviously I didn’t want Linda to have an abusive husband, but her high emotion led me to believe much worse about her husband than he actually was. Linda is a bit of a drama queen. But there’s soap opera for you, right?
Even though Corrie avoids the grittier aspects of social reality in its early years, there is something to be said of the issues it does focus upon. They are mainly familial in nature – challenges, fights and tensions within the home. Sometimes called kitchen-sink dramas, these storylines offer validity to viewers experiencing the same situations in their own lives. Not everyone can relate to drug abuse, domestic violence, hate crimes and teenage pregnancy. But nearly everyone can relate to sibling arguments, nosy neighbors (or coworkers), financial stress, and parental expectations.
The poignancy and power of these situations reside in their ordinariness.
Corrie also excels at placing women front and center. Strong women dominate the show and storylines, giving women a voice and influence on television. Granted, this is in large part due to its genre. The very name of “soap opera” refers back to the
advertisers or sponsors of these programs, namely laundry soap, detergent and other
household good companies, who were targeting their ads at women. However Corrie doesn’t minimize female roles into typical caricatures, nor does it shove women into merely romantic storylines. Instead of sexual scandal, marriage plots and romantic pursuits, the women of early Corrie are shopkeepers, pub owners, sensible and strong-willed mothers, caretakers, machinists, and beer-drinking foul-mouthed café workers.
Sure you still have the acerbic busybody and the pleasant, aproned housewife, but women are allowed to operate outside these stereotypes, which is refreshing to watch, especially for a program in 1960.
Class conflict, nostalgia, community, high drama, gossip, family tension. Corrie’s got it all. As a friend recently said: “It’s pure crack. Be careful.”
You’ve been warned.