For the first time in a few blue moons, I watched an episode of Coronation Street the other night - because a friend was appearing with a line or so in a supporting role. And he was very good, completely natural and a credit to his profession, as I knew he would be. If only I could say the same of the episode as a whole. But alas, in truth, I cannot. It was utter rubbish.
I was brought up watching "Corrie", gazing rapt at a flickering black and white screen as Ena, Martha and Minnie gassed away in the Rovers snug and Elsie Tanner played out her Taylor and Burton on/off romance with Len Fairclough. Every episode was a joy, raw and full of northern grit, spiced with working-class passion. It was compulsive viewing that held a nation in thrall twice a week after tea.
How things have changed, and I can't help thinking that the decline in everything that used to be good about Corrie is a reflection of what we have come to know and loathe as "Dumbed-down Britain". Nowadays, it seems that Coronation Street is populated by a set of caricatures rather than the flawed and earthy characters we knew so well. There are the obvious butts of humour, the fussy shop assistant and some woman with a ridiculously pedantic delivery that would get her kicked out of the local amateur dramatic society. Don't get me wrong, the Corrie of the past had its stock figures of fun too. Back then, the fussy shop assistant was Mavis, the inspiration for a thousand impersonations. But she was a proper, rounded character - not just a cardboard cut-out whose only real job is to provide some light relief as the plot lurches unsteadily from one unlikely crisis to another.
And those plots - give me strength. This is at the heart of the tragedy that has befallen Coronation Street. As a programme with a massive regular audience, it used to reflect real life in an authentic northern street; it used to glory in the mundanity of its little dramas which were nevertheless clearly of such towering importance to the finely-drawn characters. This very ordinariness, portrayed with a sense of vital meaning, was the secret of Corrie's success. We could all identify with the issues coming to life before our eyes; we recognised the language of domestic strife and of brawls and disagreements down the pub. It resonated with us, because we could see ourselves reflected in it, just as we could in the mirror hanging above our own mantelpiece.
Now, there's no more of that; it's been replaced by a steady diet of murders, assaults, kidnappings, even the odd heavy traffic calamity. The mirror above our mantelpiece has been superseded by a cheap reproduction of The Scream by Edvard Munch. Because Coronation Street has become a dreadful place to live, fraught with danger and the abode of shallow and vicious people who achieve no more depth in their portrayals than cartoon baddies. It's nothing to do with us any more. And yet it still has its following, people are glued to it much more than twice a week now, watching inferior acting around ridiculously thin story-lines. It's probably some kind of rough TV justice; if we like whatever we're given, we deserve whatever we get.
Some things are better. There is now a ponderous determination to reflect ethnic and personal diversity, which has to be a Good Thing. But the price of such improvements is heavy; a lot of what was always original and admirable about Corrie has been sacrificed on the altar of endless cheap thrills for jaded, sensation-hungry palates, impatient for the next inferno or plummeting aeroplane.
Coronation Street is no longer, as it was once described, "the best of kitchen sink drama". Now it's a soap-opera in the original meaning of that phrase, shoddily and gaudily-packaged consumer-oriented tat, the main function of which is to showcase whatever commercial concern sponsors it. Where there used to be ordinary looking people who could act, there are now too many easy-on-the-eye Hollyoaks types, who can't. It's so dreadfully bad, I can almost hear Ena and Minnie and the rest spinning in their graves - and don't even get me started on what Annie Walker would say.
Based on what I saw the other night, Coronation Street has sadly lost its soul. Or, more accurately, it's sold its soul. And for that tawdry transaction, those of us who used to love the Street are so much the poorer.