Friday, 13 March 2009

1982: Enter The Rival!

From the "Sun", February 2, 1982. Actually the provisional title for this show, which turned out to be "Brookside", was "Meadowcroft", not "Meadowcraft" and the creator was Phil Redmond not Redmund! Still, "Coronation Street" producer Bill Podmore's confident attitude is worth noting: "I enjoy competition... especially when we are going to win."

Gordon Collins, played by Mark Burgess, was the first regular gay character in English TV soaps; Tracy Corkhill (Justine Kerrigan) got into trouble with telephone chatlines, parents, teachers - you name it; Annabelle Collins (Doreen Sloane) faced a move down in status from the leafy Wirral to rough and tumble Brookside; but for working class mum Sheila Grant, played by Sue Johnston, the Close marked a move up in the world from a grotty council estate.

Brookside is no longer with us. The socially relevant Channel 4 saga of the 1980s, which broke taboos and sought to show what life was like in modern day England, away from lovely "muriels" and cobbled streets, was compulsive viewing for the first eight years or so. However, in the 1990s, the show became increasingly sensationalised and was finally laid to rest in 2003.

For me, one of the most shocking things about Brookside was the fact that its characters actually watched soap operas! Seeing Sheila Grant doing the ironing whilst watching Coronation Street came as a great shock to me!

Brookside had quite an effect on Coronation Street and the other soaps, and without it there would probably never have been EastEnders. The soaps became grittier, more relevant, and a heavy left-wing bias often seemed evident. The trouble is, as the soaps entered the 1990s, the desire to be political and to responsibly explore controversial issues was gradually replaced by a desire to shock and sensationalise.

But the '80s era in Brookside Close really was worth watching. In my humble opinion, of course!

Sunday, 8 March 2009

1981 - Real-Life Crimpers Say: "Give Aud's Back Room Salon The Snip!"

Good old Audrey Potter was always dipping in and out of daughter Gail Tilsley's life in the early-to-mid 1980s. Here's the Daily Mirror reporting on the start of one of her visits, September 23, 1981:

Sue Nicholls, who returns to CORONATION STREET (ITV 7.30) as Audrey Potter, reckons she's the only unmarried gran on TV at the moment.

She said: "I'm unmarried in the script and unmarried in real life. Not that I'm complaining either way. And I'm glad I'm in for a good chunk of the action in The Street for the next few weeks."

Tonight Audrey leaves her boy friend and moves in with daughter Gail Tilsley and family, with no sign of her stay being a short one.

"Sleeping on someone's couch wouldn't bother me," said Sue. "My sister once rented a room big enough for one with a bed that folded into the wall. I stayed with her for months without any problems."

Within a few weeks, our Aud was attracting unwelcome attention. From the Sun, 11/11/1981:

Coronation Street's Audrey Potter should hang up her hairdressing scissors, real-life crimpers said yesterday.

Audrey's back street "shop" in the series is exactly the kind of salon the Hairdressing Federation has been trying to close for years.

Blackburn Chamber of Trade in Lancashire have backed the crimpers' cause and asked Granada TV to tell Audrey - played by actress Sue Nicholls - to shut up shop.

Chamber of Trade Secretary, Albert Green, said: "The back street salons don't pay tax, rates, and are often a serious health risk."

Happy Aud in 1985 - facing the prospect of marriage to Corner Shop keeper Alf Roberts - and security at last!

Monday, 2 March 2009

Minnie Caldwell And Her Bobby

Was there ever such a sweet and gentle soul as Minnie Caldwell, who moved into No 5 Coronation Street from nearby Jubilee Terrace in 1962? Already well known in the Street as a Rovers regular, the widow Caldwell had cared for her invalid mother for years, and was a long-time friend to Ena Sharples, who lived in the vestry at the Glad Tidings Mission Hall, and Martha Longhurst of Mawdsley Street.

The three old ladies were, on most days, to be found in their second home, the Snug bar at the Rovers, drinking milk stout, keeping an eye on their neighbours, and gossiping. Well, that is to say, Ena and Martha gossiped - Minnie would usually sit there, smiling obliviously, and chipping in with occasional, often inappropriate, comments. A bit "away with the fairies" was our Minnie.

Whereas Ena and Martha's views on life and human nature were pickled in vinegar, Minnie beamed sweetly on all and sundry, seeing life as something rather lovely.

Margot Bryant, the actress behind Minnie Caldwell, was a member of the original Coronation Street cast, and made her on-screen debut in episode two.

Jean Alexander (Hilda Ogden) recalled how the character of Minnie originated and developed in her 1989 autobiography, The Other Side Of The Street:

Her introduction to Coronation Street was as an extra - an old lady who never said a word but submitted to Ena Sharples's withering comments on her intelligence. Then she was occasionally given the odd line which, in her inimitable way, she made funny; and so Minnie Caldwell became the character who earned so much sympathy from the viewers. What they did not know was Margot's ability to forget key words in her dialogue and substitute others that frequently made no sense. "My father had a dog once," she said. "It was a ferret..."

In the story, Minnie had always loved cats and the wedding present from her husband, Armistead, was a small, tabby kitten. Minnie and Armistead were not blessed with children, much as they would have liked them, and so the Caldwell household always included a cat for Minnie to dote on.

When she moved into Coronation Street, she brought with her a large ginger tom called Bobby. As Street producer and writer Harry Kershaw observed in his 1977 Corrie novel, Early Days, Minnie would have "cheerfully died before inflicting the slightest pain on Bobby"!

Bobby first appeared in The Street in 1962, and was originally to be called "Skippy", but Margot changed the name to Bobby. The original Bobby (left) was actually called Toby!

Toby died in 1968, and Margot Bryant was deeply upset. In the story-line, Minnie's Bobby disappeared. She thought she spotted him up on the viaduct and Stan Ogden rescued him, getting scratched in the process. Sadly the viaduct moggy was not Bobby. However, the cat was a stray and Minnie adopted him, calling him "Sonny Jim" (or "Sunny Jim", if you prefer!), which had been her affectionate nickname for her lodger, Jed Stone.

In 1969, with a little nudge from Ena Sharples, Minnie renamed the viaduct stray "Bobby".

The new Bobby did not endear himself to Albert Tatlock when he ate Albert's pigeon, Gilbert, in 1975!

Unlike Minnie, Margot Bryant never married, but, just like Minnie, she absolutely adored cats. When Eileen Derbyshire (Emily Nugent/Bishop) brought her new baby into the studios, Margot commented: "What a pity it isn't a kitten!" She took cat food out to feed the hungry strays of Venice, and grandly dubbed her own large ginger tom "The Earl of Hammersmith". She adored him so much, she gave him a life peerage, and was devastated when he died at the age of eleven.

"Of course cats understand me," she once said. "Cats are super-intelligent animals. It depends on how you treat them. If you never spoke to a child, it would never learn anything. It's just the same with cats. If you speak to them all their lives, then they understand you."

Oh dear - Minnie's in trouble! Another happy evening in the Snug at The Rovers with Ena and Martha. Ena (Violet Carson) ruled the roost, Martha (Lynne Carol) constantly sought to usurp her, but never succeeded, and Minnie, at first glance, seemed the helpless focus of barbed comments from her two "friends". But the situation, according to Harry Kershaw, was a little more complex than that. He once wrote that Minnie saved her biting wit for appropriate moments, and then her barbed comments had an edge that even Ena envied!

But despite this, a worrying weakness for gambling, and a prominent stubborn streak, Minnie was mainly sweet, meek and mild. However, Margot Bryant was exactly the opposite. "I'm tough. Very tough," she once said. Miss Bryant was well known for her tendency to prove this statement, and for her usage of what Corrie Producer Bill Podmore called "barrack room expletives". Ken Irwin in his 1970 book The Real Coronation Street, entitled his chapter on Margot Bryant The Pussy-Cat Lady... With Fangs Of Her Own.

Many are the stories detailing Margot's "tough" side and I must say when I first read of it, I was stunned. Her playing of Minnie Caldwell was so effective, the character's air of simplicity and meekness flowing out of the TV screen so strong, that I found it hard to believe Miss Bryant's own character was so different.

I can only put it down to superb acting!

Born in Hull, doctor's daughter Margot followed her sister onto the stage. During her years as Minnie Caldwell, she bought a flat in Brighton (or Hove, according to one source), rented another in the Hammersmith district of London, and displayed a strong spirit of adventure - travelling all over the world. Her love of travel came about during her time as an entertainer with ENSA during World War II. Of the Coronation Street cast, she was probably most friendly with Jean Alexander - who shared her love of cats!

Back to the on-screen story: Jed Stone was a cheeky Scouse lad, out to make a bit of brass, and not too choosy about how he went about it. Of course, he had a heart of gold and was devoted to Minnie. He called her "Ma", she called him "Sonny Jim", and he moved into No 5 as a sort of lodger/substitute son figure.

Minnie was heartbroken when he went to prison for receiving stolen blankets in 1966.

Kenneth Cope, who played Jed, presented the Margot Bryant tribute programme Remembering Minnie Caldwell, after her death in 1988. In the 1990s, he said: "I think Margot liked Jed because it gave her a good story-line. If she had a lodger she suddenly wasn't one of a trio, she had a background which was not necessarily involved with the three of them in the Snug. I found playing with her smashing because I could rabbit on quickly and she'd bring me back with the slowness of it all."

Eek!! December 1970, and Minnie and Bobby were held hostage by American serviceman Joe Donnelli (Shane Rimmer). Joe had murdered Steve Tanner in 1968. Lodging with Minnie in 1970, he pulled out a gun and confessed. It was a messy affair - far different from the usual evenings at No 5, with Bobby lazing by the fire whilst Minnie told him the day's events. Stan Ogden became involved and, finally, Joe turned the gun and shot himself.

April 1976, and Rita Littlewood (Barbara Mullaney) had a bit of a gob on her because of yet another hitch in her stormy love life. Because of this, she was uncharacteristically hard-hearted when Minnie dithered over choosing an Easter egg for a friend's great-niece. Rita told her, quite forcefully, that she really hadn't the time to stand there whilst Minnie agonised over two eggs which were basically the same.

The Kabin scene occurred in Margot's penultimate Corrie episode, broadcast in April 1976, and was, I believe, the very last time Minnie was bullied in Weatherfield!

Minnie was absent for some months, and the story was spun that she was away staying with an old friend called Handel Gartside (Harry Markham), who had appeared in the show some years before. In October '76, Handel turned up in the Street to tell Ena that Minnie was staying with him. The reason for Minnie's non-return to say her farewells was, apparently, that she wanted to give Ena no chance to persuade her to stay at No 5.

The real-life reason behind Minnie's absence from her own on-screen farewell was that Margot Bryant had been in increasingly poor health for some years and was having great difficulty in remembering her lines. Street Producer Bill Podmore wrote in his autobiography, Coronation Street - The Inside Story (1990), about Margot's return to The Street after a period of illness:

Margot came back for a while, but it became increasingly difficult for her to memorise her lines. She began cutting them from the script and sticking them to the back of her handbag. But when it became obvious to everyone that she was reading during a recording, it had sadly reached the stage where it would have been unfair to ask her to carry on a moment longer. She wasn't at all well. There were more periods of illness, until finally we found her a place in a beautiful Cheshire nursing home where she spent the remainder of her days happily and in comfort.

Back to Minnie's final departure in the story-line of 1976, and Handel Gartside told Ena that Minnie would like her to have some item of her personal paraphernalia as a keepsake. Ena selected a picture of a cat (of course!) which had hung in Minnie's living room for many years - one of several!

"Take care of her for me..." - Ena, speaking to Handel Gartside.

Despite her bullying ways, particularly in the Street's early years, Ena cared a great deal for Minnie. And Minnie had said, back in 1969: "I wouldn't like to live to be a hundred. Ena mightn't be alive. And I wouldn't want to be alive if Ena wasn't alive."

The two women had been friends for many years and, when times were hard or personal problems pressing, had always been there for each other.

Ena closes Minnie's door for the last time. When she next visits the house, it will belong to a brash London businessman called Michael Vernon Baldwin.

Things certainly changed, as Mike's brief time at the house - shared out of wedlock with Rovers barmaid Bet Lynch - was followed by the Langtons' - Ray, Deirdre and baby Tracy's - brief "happy families" era (before Deirdre was attacked under the viaduct and Ray had an affair), then by the turbulent Tilsleys.

Minnie - and, of course, her Bobby - faded into Street history. And, in today's Coronation Street of explosions and serial killers, a very distant piece of Street history they seem!

This blog post is dedicated to the memory of Margot Bryant - 1897-1988.