Coronation Street: Gangster Soap is Murder

Pat Phelan  —  Guns, violence and murders

It was in the early 1970s that I first started to regularly watch Coronation Street (the UK’s longest running soap opera). This was after my school drama teacher said it had some of the best acting and script writing on television. Acknowledged at the time as the ‘classic’ era, with its strong, distinctive female characters such as Hilda Odgen, Bett Lynch and Elsie Tanner, ‘Corrie’ has been a part of my life ever since. While there have been several short periods over these past 40-odd years when the plot and story lines lost their way, it’s always managed to come back strong and keep delivering great drama with memorable comedy moments.

Yet recently I’ve become somewhat disillusioned with Coronation Street’s direction. It has morphed into a chaotic ‘gangster soap’ where every character’s life appears to be in a perpetual state of turmoil. Such is the rise in brutality that episodes now regularly begin with the ominous voice-over warning, “Now on ITV with some violence and scenes some viewers might find distressing…”. This changing scenario has meant that the soap now incorporates police stations, prisons, courtrooms and hospitals as regular extensions of the street’s scenery and set. It’s seems no coincidence that these changes coincide with Kate Oates’ elevation to series producer in early 2016 with a mission to produce “greater breadth of story lines”. This ‘greater breadth’ takes the form of increasingly inconceivable and ludicrous story lines given, in particular, to the career criminal character with gangster tendencies, Pat Phelan, expertly played by Conner McIntyre. But it is not the obsession with gangster story lines that bothers me the most, it’s that the mystery and humour has disappeared. Coronation Street plots and resolutions were always difficult to second guess and they were peppered with witty lines and humorous quips. Nowadays story lines have become predictable, where you fear the worst and the worst always happens.

For me, one of the areas of greatest deterioration is character coherence. Qualities that elevated Coronation Street above other soaps were the believability and constancy of the characters developed during the course of their on-screen lifespan. Indeed, the soap has always been character-led not story-led. But, in recent years, this has no longer been the case. Characters have become schizophrenic; their personalities appearing to metamorphosise erratically to suit the outlandishness of the scriptwriters imagination. Historical backstories emerge which are inconsistent with characters personality traits developed over years. Take for example the character Billy Mayhew, vicar at St. Mary’s Church, who has been a sincere and morally driven Christian since he joined in 2014. Within the space of a couple of months he has; violently assaulted a neighbour; admitted to a historical car crime while drunk that (incredulously) led to the death of a female member of the Barlow family. Then, after he is stabbed in the leg by a thug and thinks he’s dying, reveals this incident to a Barlow family member who then locks him in the boot of a car and accidentally allows him to fall from a cliff to his supposed death… but he ‘miraculously’ survives and, while recovering in hospital, discovers his boyfriend/partner has disappeared with his in-care goddaughter. But at least he still has his faith… for now at least! (although by the time this is published, that may have gone too).

Another quality that has afforded the Street greatness over other soaps is the camp humour and witty scripts. I have always considered it to be one of the best comedies on TV and laugh-out-loud funny. This is partly due to the aforementioned clever and adept character development because believable characters actually accentuate the comedy moments. However, recently the humour has virtually disappeared. I can’t recall the last time I laughed out loud. Maybe this is a deliberate ‘less comedy’ policy by the new incumbent producer but, even on the rare occasions that they attempt it, the current scriptwriters seem incapable of turning a potentially humorous plot into a classic comic moment. A case in point was the recent storyline where a female character accidentally imbibes magic mushrooms, which produced a predictable, flat and unimaginative few scenes. The humour was thrown away.

The writers have also begun to fill the soap with excessively implausible story lines such as the sudden re-emergence of Andy Carver, kidnapped by Phelan, who, unbeknownst to the viewer, had not (yet) been murdered but had been secretly chained to a wall and kept captive by Phelan in the basement of a derelict house for months. Mercifully for us he was not method acting as he looked well fed, healthy and in decent physical shape given that he’d be sleeping rough in dirt and with rats all of this time. This improbable plot development felt like the result of a panicked brainstorming session initiated as the result of ‘scriptwriters block’ and the inability to conceive of some credible gangster behaviour to up the ante. “We need more outrage and shock!”, they must have shouted.

I regulary balk with incredulity at Phelan’s ceaselessly despicable behaviour, including three murders, bullying, rape, and kidnap. His obstruction from justice just beggers belief and is now well beyond plausibility. Indeed, the script writers don’t appear to want the Pat Phelan story line to end. It feels as though they are scared to bring it to a conclusion because they don’t know how to fill the ‘Phelan brutality vacuum’ that will inevitably be left when he is found out, arrested, killed and/or written out (or maybe abducted by aliens?). I’ve now reached the stage where I don’t care anymore how it all ends just as long as it ends soon.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not the murders that shock me (though many viewer complaints were logged when it happened). There have been several over the years. It’s the manner, frequency and explicit level of violence and brutality to which they have been committed that irks. According to Wikipedia, up until October 2017 there have been 19 murders or deaths from violent incidents on Coronation Street in just under 57 years. That’s statistically around one every three years. In the last three months, from October 2017 to January 2018, there have been three murders and two attempted murders (both on Billy Mayhew). These are the statistics of a ‘gangster soap’ not progressive evening entertainment.

Over the years I’ve vigorously defended Coronation Street many times against culture snobs who seek to denigrate it. But the soap is now dominated by an over-reliance on gun violence and a distinct lack of humour as a counterbalance. Therefore, I may find this difficult to defend it in the future. Its dependence on increasingly far-fetched storylines has becoming irritating and frustrating to watch leading to an increasingly dismal and dull experience. Some might say, “if you don’t like it then don’t watch it”. But this is my Coronation Street that I have invested much time and gained so much enjoyment and pleasure over the years. I’m all for evolution and realise soap series cannot stagnate or remain the same otherwise they die a slow death (unlike the recent Phelan murders!). But I’m angered by the new direction of the Street. What was initiated as a mission to give “greater breadth” to storylines has, ironically, become either predictable or highly implausible. I’m not giving up on it yet but realise that, sadly, under stewardship of the new producer, there is probably no going back from the gun violence and gratuitous brutality. However, for me, there is more than one way to skin a cat and ‘gangster soap’ is not the future.

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