Elsie Tanner had big hair, two wig big. She could backcomb for England. She wanted to get married in a way I don’t think people want today, and she did, four or five times, each less successful than the last. Her first husband was at least twenty years older than her. She married him during the war when she was sixteen and pregnant. They’d have a different name for that these days, but times change. So when Coronation Street began, in 1960, she wasn’t yet forty with two grown children. Forty meant something different in 1960 to what it means today, too. Forty was an age of closed doors and few chances.
I’ve watched Coronation Street, almost without interruption, since around 1967, when I was nine-ish. Growing up in a leafy, suburban part of North London, the terraces of Weatherfield seemed as foreign as Bagdad or Tokyo, although they spoke a form of English I, at least mostly, understood. It was a place of strong women holding their homes together and weak men sloping off to the pub, whatever that was, for a pint of mild, whatever that is, I still don’t really know. I rarely miss an episode, although in recent years, when it’s become full of murders and people-trafficking and drama, just like every other soap on tv, I mind missing it less. I like it best when it’s two people bickering over a shop counter or falling out over a misheard word, when it’s small and domestic. It was always brilliant on the comedy of the quotidian.
Nancy Banks Smith said Elsie seemed to be in Technicolor even when Coronation Street was black and white*. Her features were large – big nose, generous mouth – and added up to a very provocative sort of beauty. She wasn’t just sexy, Elsie promised something rarely seen on British tv; passion. She was the Madame Bovary of the cobbles.
She always looked smart and groomed, other than when her heart was broken, which was often. Her genius was for choosing badly. She’d been a great friend to GIs during the war, and, even twenty or thirty years later, they’d return, wanting more Elsie. They’d start by being sweet, end by being swines. She picked men who already had wives or just wanted a fling. Elsie Tanner’s men would make a fine Mastermind specialist subject.
The men of Coronation Street are often next-door handsome, rarely handsome handsome, They won’t make your heart miss a beat. When their edges are rough they’re useless, when their edges are smooth they’re scoundrels. She turned builder Len Fairclough down, even when he had a Mexican moustache. Len would have treated her well (probably). She married Alan Howard, with whom she’d been on and off for some time. He had a lovely speaking voice and a fine set of sideburns. He wore cravats and double breasted jackets with brass buttons. He was almost handsome handsome. She moved to Newcastle with Alan where he drank and chased other women. The actress who played her, Pat Phoenix, married the actor who played him, Alan Browning. He died of liver failure. As in all soaps, actor and character can become entwined.
I think what we loved most was the way Elsie crumbled. She’d sit, in a black slip, hair untidy, with a ciggy and a bottle of gin, and feel sorry for herself. It took a good talking to from Ena or Bette or that other bird of paradise, Mike Baldwin, before she put on a thicker layer of lippy, a tighter pencil skirt, a blouse with flouncier ruffles and go to the Rovers. Those ruffles were insolent.
Elsie ended up living in the Algarve with Bill Gregory, after years of back and forth, him disappointing her, disappearing, then knocking on her door again. Pat’s life ended married to long-lost love, Tony Booth, who is Cherie Blair’s father. Elsie, I mean Pat, ended up as the future prime minister’s step mother-in-law. Which is a very Elsie thing to do. And that’s why I love Elsie Tanner.
* The short piece the link leads to is brilliant and worth reading