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Coronation Street, I have always maintained, is the best television soap and has been since its beginnings in 1960. No other soap has its depth, lent in part by its extraordinarily long tenure but also fleshed out by superb characters and great writing which has often lurched beyond the excellent into the brilliant.
Recently however, things have not been as rosy down Weatherfield way and the last few years have not been a golden epoch for Corrie watchers. There are still some fantastic characters, to be sure; Fred Elliot and Roy Cropper are a joy and others, such as the Duckworths, remain entertaining and interesting and each in good measure. But it has always been the characters themselves that have been the reason for Coronation Street's success: the characters and the interaction between them. EastEnders is plot driven, in my opinion, to a far greater degree whereas in the Street the plot follows the characters and does not - usually - lead them.
But what can you do with this format when the characters are either too dull, too ordinary, too boring, too humourless, too relentlessly unentertaining to have them engage in anything of interest? Where can they lead us then? Recent storylines have been plagued by these desperate qualities. Maxine Peacock's affair with the doctor, for example, was monumentally uninteresting (a medical frisson with Hayley Cropper however, would have been worth watching) and even stories involving the likes of Fred and Roy - such as the recent historical recreation for the Jubilee - have seemed farcical and overly contrived (and tellingly had removed them from their home environment; Corrie works best on its own doorstep).
Granada producers are not daft though and all of this must have been focused powerfully in their minds when they decided upon the course of action to help rectify affairs. What they have done, however, is neither original nor inspired as it is something I am sure most Corrie fans have either wanted or expected: they brought Bet Lynch back.
Last night, across two special episodes, the bold brassy Bet made her return to the Rovers as part of an effort to on the one hand mark the departure of a long standing character and on the other to reinvigorate a perilously lackadaisical show. I am happy to say that I believe she did both extremely well.
One of the attributes that Coronation Street can luxuriate in to a far, far greater degree than any other soap is its history; its hinterland of stories and characters that provide a powerful air of reality and continuity. This is partly the reason why new characters have to be introduced very carefully and cautiously and how older characters can be reintroduced very easily. So when a character who has been gone for seven years needs to make a reappearance then the plot device utilised to allow for this can be pretty straightforward. Luckily, just such an opportunity arose allowing for the return of a great character from the Street's past. The retirement of Betty Williams (nee Turpin) from the Rovers after 30 years threw up the perfect opportunity for the re-emergence of her former employer. And in she came to the fray, wafted on a cloud of fag smoke, her gold jewellery clanking like Alan Bradley's tramcar, a leopard print bouffant of clichés and anachronisms.
Almost the entire second episode (she emerged from the train station at the end of the first to lead us by the nose into the second) took place in the Rovers with only a couple of scenes happening beyond its flock confines. Unfortunately the principle stories outwith the Rovers involved two of the most deathly dull sets of characters currently on the go: the perennially and eternally annoying Gail Platt and her godawful family and Curly Watts and his wife Emma with their ongoing vermin control worries. Neither are of the slightest interest and were an unwelcome diversion from the main attraction in the pub.
Of course, as well as one character arriving there was one leaving. Betty's character's always been interesting in that although she's featured for over 30 years and had several storylines, she only ever seemed to be a supporting feature. If some incident she was involved in rose to prominence it tended to be also swiftly resolved and always to her advantage (when Annie Walker accused her of stealing £45 from the till for example, Betty stormed out and threatened to sue: Walker apologised and she returned to the pub). In fact, Betty stormed out of the Rovers four times over the years, was Alf Roberts' mayoress, was discovered to have an illegitimate son who had been thought of as her nephew and had been to Buckingham Palace again with Alf as he got his OBE. Oh no, Betty's time was not quiet on the Street but it did tend to be background noise (John Shuttleworth memorably claimed that her single line in the show had always been, "Pint, luvvy?") so her send-off did not need to be as powerful or heartfelt as that of Hilda Ogden's, say. And it was the perfect time for another great moment.
When Bet walked back through the doors it became the picture of the western saloon as everyone stopped, looked and listened whilst she announced she was back. Some faces lit up and some fell but everyone took notice: especially me.
Over the course of the next half-hour we had a reintroduction of the character for the uninitiated: who liked her (Ken Barlow and Audrey Roberts), who didn't (Rita Sullivan and, brilliantly, Les Battersby) and who didn't know any better. "Who's the old slapper?" asked Janice Battersby of Lynch, at least demonstrating that Julie Goodyear is unafraid of a little criticism of her coiffed visage. We also got some great lines from her (in response to Vera Duckworth saying, "I see your still smoking," she replied, "Vera, I'm still everything!") and some idea of what has been going on for the past seven years plus hints at some tragic events. All sauce for the goose.
Some say it's hackneyed and unimaginative to reintroduce Bet Lynch (Gilroy emphatically no longer) and many see the character as no more than a joke, a nonsense. But I must say for myself that since her arrival back in town last night, Coronation Street is already a far more interesting place.
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