COBBLED END OF THE MOTORWAY
COBBLED END OF THE MOTORWAY
by Norman Warwick
The new sponsors of Coronation Street (Amazon deliveries) have created a clever little advert shown before the programme´s title scenes and during the ad break of their postal services delivering to addresses on Coronation Streets all over the country. It is true, of course, that there are streets of that name throughout the UK but perhaps it is mostly in a relatively small area of North West England that we find houses most like those on Coronation Street, the tv soap opera. In Rochdale and Heywood, where I lived for fifty odd years until a few years ago, there were streets of back to back terraced two up two down houses, where pigeons ruled the roofs, teasing the cats on the walls around the back yards in which old Hercules bykes leaned against the privy door.
For a long time I believed that every such street in the borough had its own version of the mutton dressed aa lamb glamour of an Elsie Tanner, a brassy hairdresser like Audrey and a young Jack The Lad like David Platt. Every street perhaps had its dreamy wordsmith writing for nothing just like Ken Barlow. I should know: I was / am my street´s version of Ken.
Living as close to the Coronation Street set at Granada as we did, we always knew we were the kind of people the characters on the show were based on. Sometimes, real life even seemed to follow the programmes plot lines.
Fiction and real life were intertwined. My dad used to drink in his local pub with the wonderful Bernard Youens who for many years played the hapless Stan Ogden. In fact my dad was even once mentioned on the programme when Stan was in a scene in the Rovers´ Return, propping up the bar with Len Fairclough.
The two were shown having their conversation being interrupted by another character as Stan said, ´I was talking to that Ralph Warwick the other night,….´
Julie Goodyear lived just up the hill from us so when, a few months after becoming assistant manager in a shop, and finding us needing a celebrity to make a prize presentation on the premises I contacted this lady who played Bet Lynch, who worked behind that bar in the Rovers´. On the day of the event I, literally, rolled out the red carpet across the pavement, so that when she stepped out of the studio limousine on to the trail of honour I was able to drop a stylus on to a recording of the theme tune of the soap opera, so the music could be heard as she walked towards the door. Well not so much walked, rather strolled, Goddess-like in tight leather trousers and thigh high boots probably worth thousands. She was wearing a gorgeous cape. broached at the neck on a ´gold´ chain and she was smoking some kind of cigarillo through a long and dainty cigarette holder. Hundreds of people had lined the street to see the arrival of this girl who was usually seen on the programme in her rollers and a pinny and rubber gloves. As she swivelled and swayed through the throngs, wearing thousands of pounds worth of clothes, hair coiffed and eye-lashed like a giraffe, an old lady at the front of the queue shouted out ´eeh, Bet, luv, you look just like you do on t´telly.´
My abiding memory of that day, though, is of how professionally Miss Goodyear presented that cheque for £3,000 and how aware she was that such a sum then could be life changing for a middle aged couple, one of whom (I swear this is true) was a mattress stuffer in a factory whilst her husband was a chicken plucker !
Julie Goodyear was wonderful with that couple and put them totally at ease over a slap up lunch at Manchester´s then poshest hotel.
A couple of years later I performed my own Ken Barlow impression and declared I wasn´t going to continue working so hard as a shop manager to earn only a small wage. Oh no. I was going to become a writer and work twice as hard for nothing !
In that capacity, several years later, my ´career´ gave me the opportunity to conduct interviews with a few of the Coronation Street cast in front of live audiences of hundreds for three successive Annual Rochdale Literature And Ideas Festivals. I was in my fifties by then, and was still an avid viewer of Coronation Street, so in the first year when I was asked to interview Kevin Kennedy it was an ambition coming true. I had by then interviewed manyof my musical and literary heroes and to meet with the stars of my favourite programme was wonderful.
Like most of the nation I had been gripped by Kevin´s character´s romance with Racquel, played by Sarah Lancashire, who has gone on to star in so many roles in major tv drama series. It was a fine romance, sweetly played, but the star-crossed lovers were doomed from the start, we all felt. Racquel was a slightly air-headed but beautiful would be actress / model / celebrity and Curly Watts was a faux-intellectual, short sighted, former bin man, then working in a supermarket. It didn´t bode well. It didn´t end well.
Kevin Kennedy left the soap opera after battling with alcohol but later enjoyed fabulous West End Success. We met only ten minutes before the interview but he was receptive to my questions and allowed me to conduct a question and answer session with the audience. He unspokenly let me know he trusted me and at the same time somehow reassured me that I could trust him,, and the audience loved him.
They loved my guest the following year, too, when Jane Danson, currently very involved in a strong and very moving plotline as I write this piece, (eight years later) also joined me for an on stage interview.
She was charm personified and full of praise for fellow cast members and script writers. It made it very obvious from her responses that she is a family person surrounded by her partner and children and there were no pretensions about her. Therefore when I and Steve Cooke, my partner at the time in all across the arts, attended a subsequent acting workshop she was conducting on site at the festival we were not surprised to hear her teaching life-skills and mind-sets as well acting techniques. Her students were all under sixteen and although kids today are perhaps not as overawed by stars as we were in my generation, they were nevertheless aware of her high profile. Within an hour there was a visible difference in their self esteem and they were all left adoring her.
In my final year of living in England I was able to interview Bill Ward, who had played a fairly scary character in Corrie, being finally killed by Tracy Barlow, and had also starred in Emerdale as a farmer. It was in a very different role, though that Steve Cooke and I interviewed him in front of a live audience in an art gallery. Bill Ward was exhibiting a collation of a slice of his landscape photography, for which he undoubtedly not only has a great passion but also a real talent. There is an incredible solitude about all his photography, and an uncanny stillness in most of it, and we have one of his photographs of Aysgarth Falls in Yorkshire framed on the walls of our living room here on Lanzarote. It is a beautiful reminder of scores of Sunday afternoon drives we took over the years. He spoke of his love of the outdoors, his favourite locations and the pleasure he takes in solitude.
I´m still following Corrie (and Emerdale) on telly over here and am still fascinated by the Street´s sink-holes, compulsory purchases and siblings locked in a fridge story-lines.
And although I mentioned earlier that I am always slightly suspicious of any character moving into Coronation Street from any further away than just round the corner, such newcomers invariably win me round. I was therefore very sad recently to learn of the death of an actor who played one of those newcomers. Although he flashed his cash, seduced various wives and took a punch from the cuckolded Ken as Dierdrie looked on, wide eyed through massive glasses, Johnny Briggs played Mike Baldwin with a twinkle in his eye and walked that thin line, perfectly balanced, between wheeler-dealer and business and property owner with a big car.
An excellent obituary for Johnny informed us that Johnny Briggs’ acting career began with minor, un-credited roles in some of the most critically-acclaimed British films of all time.
But it was on the small screen where Briggs, who died aged 85 following a long illness, found fame and fortune.
He played unscrupulous businessman Mike Baldwin on Coronation Street for thirty years and his character’s tangled love-life and long-standing rivalry with Ken Barlow made Briggs a household name.
Born in Battersea in South West London in 1935, Briggs was evacuated during the war and on his return to the capital won a scholarship, aged 12, to the Italia Conti stage school. Some of his earliest roles included bit-parts in David Lean’s classic 1948 adaptation of Oliver Twist and, three years later, in renowned Ealing comedy The Lavender Hill Mob. He would go on to appear in three Carry On films and a big screen version of On The Buses, while his TV credits included roles in The Saint and Crossroads.
In 1976 Briggs (left) landed the role of Mike Baldwin, who was initially a cocky market stall holder, but would later go on to own the street’s textiles factory, known as Underworld.
It was a part he would play in 2,349 episodes and he frequently starred in some of the soap’s best-remembered story-lines.
They included the murder of Ernest Bishop in 1978, when Mike burst in and knocked the gunman’s arm with the door, the 1983 love triangle with Mike and Deirdre and Ken Barlow, which helped the soap pull in 21 million viewers and was famously commemorated at Old Trafford when the words ‘Ken and Deirdre reunited. Ken 1, Mike 0’ flashed up on the scoreboard as United were playing Arsenal. There was also a 1987 storyline when Mike’s wife Alma was kidnapped by Don Brennan, resulting in their taxi plunging into the canal.
Ladies man Mike was married four times and it’s been estimated had around 25 girlfriends during his time in the soap.
Baldwin´s final scene came in 2006 when, suffering from Alzheimer’s and after having wandered off from hospital, he died in the street in the arms of his old enemy turned best friend Ken.
A year after his retirement, Briggs was made an MBE, collecting his medal at Buckingham Palace from the Queen. Speaking at the time he said he still watched Corrie and missed the cast and crew.
He said: “I miss the crew very, very much. Working 30 years in any company, you see them come in as young boys. It’s one big happy family. I never saw any arguments the whole time I was there. The joy of the Street is there isn’t what you would call a star. I think the star of Coronation Street is the Rovers Return. Even though the cast changes, the Street is still strong, and I put that down to the writers.”
His last appearance on the cobbles came in 2012 when he appeared in a Coronation Street sketch to raise money for the charity Text Santa.
A keen golfer, during his time in Corrie, Briggs lived in Salford, but in later life split his time between a home in Portishead, North Somerset, UK, and a house in Florida.
The father-of-six was married twice, to first wife Caroline Sinclair from 1961 to 1975 and Christine Allsop from 1977 to 2006.
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