Coronation Street: A Slippery Soap?

As a long-time fan of Coronation Street, I recently read with interest Stuart Jeffries’ column in The Guardian, Soap Operas: Has the Bubble Burst? (1 October 2013)

 While a loyal fan (it continues to be the only programme which I refuse to miss), I have felt a growing frustration with the programme I love of late, and find it disappointing that this is my general feeling as the credits roll. I know the reasons for my current unease with the soap, and wondered if Jeffries would articulate them. As he did not, it gives me the opportunity to speak for myself here, as well as to discuss some of his observations.

The first glaring point that caught my attention was his claim that the ratings of traditional soaps have fallen to disastrous levels. He points out that in 2010 Coronation Street could attract an audience of more than 14 million, and that today the soap struggles to draw half that figure. This would certainly be a sad state of affairs, if it were entirely true. Coronation Street did indeed attract 14 million viewers on 9 December 2010 for their 50th anniversary live episode. This was its most watched episode for 7 years with the exception of the tram crash episode which pulled in over 12 million viewers. These figures, in anyone’s book, are extraordinary. Both of these remarkable ratings aside, viewers in 2010 averaged at 8 million.

So how does this compare with today’s viewers? On Friday the 13th of September this year, an audience of 8.85 million tuned in to view the climax of the burning of the Rovers Return storyline, proving that viewing figures are unchanged since 2010 and Coronation Street remains extremely popular.

Claiming, as the Daily Mail’s Christopher Stevens does in his article of August 2013 about the demise of Coronation Street (, that the soap once attracted in excess of 25 million viewers 25 years ago, and using this as a comparative figure to today’s is unfair considering that at that time, there were a limited number of stations and programmes to choose from, and the means with which live television could be recorded was limited to VCR. People were more likely to watch it “in the moment”. Indeed Jeffries acknowledges the “audience-fractured, multi-channel, on-demand, increasingly net-based viewing milieu”, but he does so to highlight the irrelevance of the soap in today’s world where we apparently no longer tune in together, rather than as an explanation as to why viewing figures don’t reach the dizzying heights of the pre millennium era.

To better contextualise today’s viewing figures of over 8 million, it is perhaps more useful to compare them to other popular shows like, for example, X-Factor which has an audience of over 9 million viewers on Saturday nights. When audience ratings for both shows are compared, Coronation Street’s 8 million looks impressive indeed, especially considering the soap manages to attract this audience for 5 episodes a week. Can it therefore really be said that the death of soap would no longer matter? I think not.

In addition to the misleading viewing figures, I was surprised to read that Jeffries deems today’s soap stalwarts as “no longer fit for purpose” and describes how we await “the how and when they get rubbed out”.

With such voluminous viewing figures, it is impossible to envisage the demise of Coronation Street any time soon. So what does Jeffries base this assertion on?

Offscreen events, its social role, developments in televisual narratives and its place in the modern televisual landscape are all viewed as problematic and potential contributors to the destruction of the soap, leading him to conclude that “the whole genre seems spent”.

Yes, offscreen events concerning Coronation Street actors, which do not necessitate any further mention here, have dominated the headlines. But can they be said to have any real effect on the soap itself besides possibly necessitating rewrites or plot changes? Characters regularly disappear from soaps for various reasons, sometimes for lengthy periods of time, sometimes permanently, and yet the soap carries on with storylines encompassing other characters. The absence of certain characters and the reasons for it can generally be seen to have little impact on the audience experience considering the viewing figures. When you think about it, why should it have any effect? A programme with strong narratives, quality writing and production, and a large cast of enduring characters with depth, portrayed well, should make events occurring offscreen irrelevant to the enjoyment of or engagement with the show.

Brookside’s Phil Redmond asserts that soaps only continue to exist to fill schedules, and the melodrama, cliffhangers, comedy, social critique, narrative excitement and suspense of the past are considered lacking today. I personally don’t feel that this can be said of Coronation Street which, at any given time, can demonstrate examples of all of the above. However, in acknowledging that certain such storylines have proved problematic in their depiction of late, we are coming closer to the crux of my dilemma. If I wish to argue against the points made thus far, what then is the source of my own personal frustration with the programme?

Professor Christine Geraghty of the University of Glasgow voices her frustration with the increasing intensity of plotlines which results in lending an unreality to the drama. The motivation cited is the desire to compete with other formats through larger than life stories. This, she explains, can result in a soulless portrayal. As the article says, reality on British soaps has to some extent always been a fantasy; indeed, how many murders, fires, disasters and affairs can take place on one street. However, I wish to argue that while unrealistic and often extravagant plotlines may be deemed necessary for entertainment purposes, it is essential that reality is portrayed where it should naturally occur; in the minutiae of the way the characters interact with one another. No matter how over the top the storyline, their relationships, reactions, decisions and responses to catastrophes are where the real humanity and believability lies. To neglect this aspect of the drama while focussing on the plotline at large is a dangerous flaw, and can lead to viewers finding it difficult to believe in the drama. To demonstrate this, I wish to look at the above mentioned storyline concerning Karl Munro and the burning down of the Rovers Return.

As above, on Friday the 13th of September, 8.5 million viewers tuned in to see the climax of arguably the biggest story of 2013 on Coronation Street; the burning down of the Rovers Return and subsequent aftermath. Fans had been treated to a fantastic episode on the Wednesday which saw beleaguered Craig finally revealing all, Karl trying to maintain a calm veneer in advance of his impending nuptials to Stella, and Dev storming into the wedding seconds late to confront his wife’s murderer. Friday therefore promised to be an explosive conclusion to months of deception and intrigue; indeed, it took Jason to remind us just how long we’d been waiting for the truth to be uncovered when he pointed out that the Rovers had been burnt down in March of this year – six months.

John Michie’s performance as Karl Munro was uniformly fantastic throughout and he truly shone in his final week on the soap. It was a performance which warranted a great send off, and a story worthy of a powerful conclusion, but I was left feeling that he did not get the departure he deserved and rather unfulfilled after its conclusion which left me asking myself why this might be.

Firstly, this was a big storyline, and a central feature of the drama for most of this year involving the majority of characters. Friday arrived, and viewers awaited Dev’s big reveal in the presence of Stella and her family at her wedding, but instead, he confusingly embraced the happy couple and offered to drive them to the Bistro. He dutifully deposited them on the cobbles, and off they trotted, Stella blindfolded and none the wiser as to what was going on; in this at least, I could empathise with her. This was the first of a number of confusing decisions throughout both episodes that night.

Dev remained with them at the surprise reception at the Bistro, and throughout Karl’s speech, which did invoke sympathy when he asserted the realisation that Stella’s delight at marrying him may mean that he isn’t all that bad, and reminded us of the Karl tortured by his actions, and remaining silent out of fear as opposed to self-servitude.

Dev’s subsequent confrontation of Karl in the Rovers was powerful indeed, and Jimi Harkishin was tremendous, but after resisting admission for so long, Karl appeared to confess to the crime with a simplicity and ease that betrayed his months of meticulous deception, and desperation to have the grimy truth buried forever. There wasn’t even an indication that his admission was borne out of not being able to keep it to himself anymore; this at least was one thing we could be confident about – Karl’s initial struggles of conscience had long since dissipated, and self-preservation had been his only concern for some time, evident in his recent deplorable treatment of Craig. The moment we had all been waiting for arrived, but his revelatory line, “No-one was supposed to get hurt”, is not powerful enough to do justice to such a weighty and long awaited admission.

Karl tells us he wished he had died instead, and that he was consumed with guilt. We know both of these admissions to be true, and the matter of fact way he advises us of both is brilliant in demonstrating the gaping chasm between the man he was and the man he now is; at first trying to cope with the dreadful truth of what he has done, then striving towards survival, and finally relegating morals, honesty and decency in favour of self-interest and self-preservation. The manner in which John Michie delivered these lines was sublime in conveying this entire transformation. He even asks Dev to let him go. The reward? Never having to see him again; Karl is still thinking of himself and unwilling to surrender.

As his phone rings, Dev demands that he answer it and tell Stella he’ll return to the party where he gets to “…see the look on her face when I tell her that you torched her pride and joy, that you caused two people to die. I want to see her love fade away right before your eyes. This is when you’ll find out what loss really means.” Dev verbalises what every viewer wants to see, yet we are sadly denied as the scene never materialises. The suggestion of what would have been a fantastic scene to watch and the realisation of its omission naturally invokes frustration and disappointment.

If Karl’s confession to Dev was a missed opportunity for drama, the manner in which he revealed his guilt to Stella was extraordinarily frustrating. As with Dev, his admission is arrived at in an anti-climactic manner and left to deduction rather than being an astounding, gasp inducing confession. “If I’d known you were upstairs I’d never have put you at risk”, he tells Stella, and it is her that deduces from this, “You started the fire?” Again, disappointment abounds at the thought of the scene this could have been.

As both Stella and Dev are rescued from the Rovers by Jason, who falls from the pub with the injured Dev in tow, Sean and Eva are coming from the Bistro to find the newlyweds. The revelation of Karl’s guilt is simply a rushed line from Jason with an instruction to get Gloria and Leanne from the Bistro.

We are again denied a golden opportunity for high drama, as this scene is never shown; Gloria and Leanne simply arrive on the scene knowing all. There’s not a viewer out there that would have passed up the opportunity to see their faces when the shocking truth was revealed, and yet we are not afforded this opportunity.

Having carefully built dramatic tension over half of the year, with audiences investing in the story and tuning in in their millions and with great anticipation for the climax of months of viewing, it is hard to understand the omission of scenes which offer glaring opportunities for the portrayal of the exquisite drama Coronation Street is well known for and clearly capable of delivering, or the inclusion of lines of dialogue which fail to exploit the full dramatic possibilities of crucial scenes. The climax of this storyline proved unfulfilling because the full potential of its conclusion was not borne out. The devil is truly in the detail, and it is essential when it comes to larger than life storylines that all dramatic possibilities are explored, and that realism and truth can be found in the characters which we are supposed to be able to believe could walk among us.

When Jeffries cites Christopher Steven’s abovementioned Daily Mail article on Coronation Street, one thing he omits to make reference to is this: “The characters are unappealing, and their stories are too often sordid and nasty.”

This is another of my reasons for feeling disheartened with Coronation Street of late. The soap has rightly and deservedly always been known and admired for its combination of drama and comedy, the tragic and the humorous. At the heart of its warmth are its characters. While each character must go through an unrealistic number of obstacles in any soap lifetime, it is the manner in which they respond to them which defines their character. If we pause to consider the current cast of Coronation Street, the truly good hearted people in the bunch are hard to identify. In fact, with the death of the wonderful Hayley Cropper (Julie Hesmondhalgh), the only truly good hearted person on the show, comes the symbolic death of goodness, honour and integrity. Yes, there are none of us infallible, and the residents of Coronation Street, like us, are only human, but the increase in genuinely nasty, unlikeable characters, or existing characters increasingly displaying such qualities lends an unlikeable tone to the Street. In order to maintain its well-earned reputation and retain its loyal viewers, it is essential that the gaping void which will be left behind when Hayley departs is filled. Characters showing genuine humanity, heart, integrity, goodwill and kindness must form the backbone of the Street to offset the villainous among them, who should always be outnumbered.

Jeffries concludes that it is clear that soaps must reinvent themselves, and asks how.

With regard to Coronation Street, it is clear that contrary to perceptions, viewers are still tuning in in their droves, and it is largely undeserving of the criticism levelled at its door. It is a fantastic show which continues to deliver, and is not going anywhere anytime soon. However, as far as reinvention goes, the soap needs to turn to its past to ensure its future by conveying reality through the believability of its characters’ reactions to the unreal, maximising dramatic potential through the inclusion of essential scenes and powerful dialogue, and ensuring that humanity and goodness continues to lie at its core.

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