Wednesday, 26 May 2010

The Death Of Martha Longhurst

Regular readers of this blog will know that my favourite Coronation Street era is the 1960s. Many modern day Street fans can't understand this, some declare that the crackling old black and white episodes and occasional rough edges are interesting, even enjoyable, but find it hard to cope with the sometimes naff sound quality and the fact it was in black and white until 1969.

"Black and white? Well really!! How... how... archaic..."

Others feel, as I do, that the Street lost some of its grittiness when it went into colour, and that the golden era was definitely, beyond any shadow of a doubt, its first decade.

Watching Ena Sharples (Violet Carson) confronting Elsie Tanner (Pat Phoenix) in the street whilst the Salvation Army band played, Mr Swindley (Arthur Lowe) and Miss Nugent (Eileen Derbyshire) struggling along at Gamma Garments, or Valerie Barlow (Anne Reid) being confronted by an escaped convict in her own home, absorbs me far more than anything that came later.

And yet I'm too young to actually remember the '60s era in the show!

Thank goodness for VCRs (the Street's very first video release, which contained early 1960s episodes, dates back to 1982) and DVDs, which have both given us wonderful opportunities to witness the Street as it was in the black and white days. Thanks also to the three Coronation Street novels written by HV Kershaw in the 1970s - all set in the 1960s, which, along with a special clips episode of the show, featuring Annie Walker (Doris Speed) and Betty Turpin (Betty Driver) reminiscing, first aroused my interest in the mighty first decade.

The '60s had great comedy (contrary to Wikipedian myth, the Ogdens had wonderful comic story-lines from their very early days onwards), and brilliant drama. The acting was usually top-notch and still makes a tremendous impact on viewing the episodes all these years later.

Wondrous days.

A grotty backstreet with a nice publican and his snobbish wife, a grumpy old First World War veteran, a cheeky scouse rascal with a flat cap, a pompous lay preacher, a gossipy little shrew in curlers, and a dress shop employee who was "no better than she ought to be"!

What a setting! As Mary Malone of the Daily Mirror once wrote:

The Street is either a place you would like to live in or be glad you got out of. It is intimate, nosey, brutally sharp-spoken, and no-one gets away with a thing.

And in the middle of all the action, often desperately craning their necks to find out the exact details, sat three old ladies in the Snug of The Rovers Return - one, the leader, a hair-netted battle axe, one a cat-loving whimsical sweety, and the third a vinegary feeder on the misfortunes of others.

The three old ladies were, of course, the aforementioned Ena Sharples, Minnie Caldwell (Margot Bryant) and Martha Longhurst (Lynne Carol).

They provided the Street with some of its funniest scenes ever, and were a tremendously popular ingredient in the show's already rich brew.

They reigned supreme from 1960 to 1964.

Illustration from a Coronation Street jigsaw puzzle - c. 1963: the scene is Rosamund Street. Gamma Garments can be seen in the background (was Mr Papagopolous visiting that day, we wonder?!) and outside Minnie Caldwell helps her beloved Bobby across the road, with Albert Tatlock officiating as lollipop man. Martha Longhurst and Ena Sharples look on.

Eee, the old Snug days...

Gossip and milk stout. Fierce arguments and milk stout. Ramblings about Bobby the cat and milk stout.

It was bliss.

And then, in May 1964, Martha Longhurst died of a heart attack all alone at the table the three ladies usually shared in the Snug bar.

An absolutely stunning tragedy for the show and its viewers.

And with the actress Lynne Carol, who played Martha, in good health and happy to continue in the role at the time, it's a puzzle to work out why it happened.

What was going on?

During the reign of producer Tim Aspinall, a decision was taken to shake-up the show. Coronation Street had taken a slight tumble in the ratings, and several established characters, including Florrie Lindley (Betty Alberge), Frank Barlow (Frank Pemberton) and Concepta and Harry Hewitt (Doreen Keogh and Ivan Beavis) were to be written out.

And Martha.

Some who faced the axe - including Albert Tatlock (Jack Howarth) and Ken Barlow (William Roache) - were reprieved, but Martha was not so lucky.

Lynne Carol came from a family containing six generations of actors. She was born in Usk, Monmonthshire, where her parents were on tour in a stage play.

Miss Carol auditioned for the role of outgoing Corner Shop keeper Elsie Lappin in November 1960. She didn't get it, but instead was awarded a week's work as a temporary character called Martha Longhurst.

Upon leaving the Granada TV studios after completing her week's stint, Lynne Carol was stopped by Margot Bryant, who remarked that Martha had a lot to say in next week's scripts.

This came as news to Miss Carol, who was not even aware that Martha was in the following week's episodes!

Had the part been recast? She returned to her dressing room to find the script for the following week awaiting her.

Martha was vinegary and not the kindest of souls. But she was also quite a sad character. She doted on her daughter Lily and Lily's husband Wilf, and boasted of their achievements to her friends, but truth to tell Lily and Wilf simply saw Martha as a free babysitter - when they saw her at all.

One had the feeling that, given a bit of care and attention, Martha might have been very different.

But it was not forthcoming.

And so there she was, taking on a cleaning job at The Rovers to eke out her meagre pension, and living alone in misery at Mawdsley Street.

Martha: "You know, the more I think about the way Ena's behaving, the madder I get. I wouldn't care, but I know for a fact that in her own mind she thinks she's beautiful."

Lynne Carol said of her character: "She is such a pathetic old thing, you can't help feeling sorry for her. She is crusty and very disappointed with life. She has a daughter she idolises, but who is clearly not interested in her. But underneath, Martha is quite a sweet old soul, though the sweetness doesn't get much chance to come out."

In early 1964, the Corrie cast read newspapers rumours of cast changes to come, but were told by Granada to ignore them.

Lynne Carol recalled a few years later:

"At one time there were about ten of us supposed to be due for the axe. We read rumours about it in some of the newspapers, but we were told by Granada not to take any notice of the Press because they didn't know what they were talking about. But it turned out the Press were right. The artists themselves knew nothing about it until quite suddenly one day when a number of us were told, 'You, you, you and you... are all going out!' "

Violet Carson protested strongly to Granada against Martha's proposed demise: "You cannot take one of Ena's cronies away from her. Martha is essential to Ena."

In the story-line, Martha's death tied-in with the farewell story-line of another of the Street's original characters: Frank Barlow had come up on the Premium Bonds and was celebrating his good fortune and planned move to Bramhall with a party at The Rovers.

Martha had gone along to the party, clutching her brand new passport. Lily and Wilf had invited her to go with them and their kids on holiday to Spain.

It was a moment of glory for poor Martha, despite Ena's taunts that she was only wanted as a babysitter and wouldn't be seeing much of Spain outside of the hotel room.

At Frank's party, nobody seemed that interested in Martha's passport.

And she didn't feel well.

No, she didn't feel well at all.

As Ena led the regulars in a sing song round piano, Martha retreated to the Snug and sat down at the old familiar table.

Eileen Derbyshire, the Street's Emily Nugent/Bishop, recalled many years later:

"Even at the filming, everybody was having that outside hope that there would be a reprieve for Lynne Carol the actress and Martha the character. There was this terrible double bind of having to be singing and laughing whilst your throat was being constricted by the tears. It was a really horrible emotional experience."

Despite the hopes still flickering at that late point, there was to be no reprieve.

In the little Snug bar, Martha was overcome by a heart attack. Knocking her best hat from her head, revealing her hair net, she slumped down on to the table, all her dignity gone.

And her life.

Peter Adamson, the Street's Len Fairclough, bet five pounds that Granada would not go through with Martha's death story-line. It was Len who pronounced Martha dead in the Snug at The Rovers, and he deliberately paused before delivering the fatal line, so that it could be cut and Martha rushed to recovery in hospital.

Said Lynne Carol a few years later:

"It seemed like an eternity waiting for Peter to say that last, awful line. I can remember lying there thinking, 'Well, say something, mate, if it's only goodbye!' "

The episode complete and in a state of some distress, Lynne Carol joined her husband, the actor Bert Palmer, who was also working at Granada at that point. He retrieved Martha's hat and glasses from the Coronation Street set (they belonged to Lynne) and made a cine film of Martha's death from the television screen the night the episode was broadcast, 13 May, 1964.

Miss Carol said of Martha's death and funeral episodes: "It's a funny thing to watch yourself dying on the screen. I don't think the death was morbid, but the way they did the funeral was outrageously morbid. They took the body through all the rubble of the back streets. It was depressing."

Interviewed about her ousting from the Street later in the 1960s, Lynne Carol said:

"I didn't blame Tim [Aspinall] particularly. Everyone passed the buck. Nobody would really admit who was responsible for the sweeping changes they made in 1964. It was, as far as I'm concerned, Mr Nobody who ordered the big reshuffle."

In 1981, HV Kershaw's book, The Street Where I Live, stated that the decision had been Mr Aspinall's, and Mr Kershaw lamented the decision, pointing out that the famous trio had been reduced to "a rather sad duet" because of it - and that many future stories had been denied the writers. But, balancing out this negative aspect of Mr Aspinall's reign, Mr Kershaw also pointed out that Stan, Hilda and Irma Ogden - "the best dramatic inventions since the original characters were conceived by Tony Warren" - had been introduced during that time. And Mr Aspinall had been largely responsible for their casting and characterisations.

Corrie Producer Bill Podmore appeared with Lynne Carol on the BBC's Open Air programme in 1988, to pay tribute to the recently deceased Margot Bryant. Ironically, Miss Carol could still have been appearing in the Street as Martha at that point, preserving a link to the original trio of the early years.

Mr Podmore and Miss Carol discussed the idea of her reappearing in the show as Martha's twin sister, who had been living in Australia. The idea never came to fruition.

For many years, the killing of Martha has been seen by many as the greatest mistake ever made in Corrie's history.

And watching Ena Sharples and Minnie Caldwell together in the Rovers in later years, it was evident that something rather wonderful had been lost. They really were, as HV Kershaw stated, "a sad duet".

On one occasion, in the early 1970s, Ena asked Minnie if she was looking after herself. Minnie assured her that she was.

"Good!" replied Ena. "Because there aren't that many of us left!"

After leaving the Street, Lynne Carol bought a house near Blackpool's South Shore.

She named it "Longhurst".

This blog post is dedicated to the memory of Lynne Carol, 1914-1990.

1 comment:

  1. The sixties were my favourite period of Coronation Street, especially 1964 when the legends that were the Ogdens were introduced. I hate Corrie today with its obsession for serial killers, rapists and murderers. I believe that many of the roots of Coronation Street have been lost forever.