Tag Archives: Coronation Street

Caroline Aherne: A class act

Caroline Aherne presented a mock chatshow in the guise of Mrs Merton
Caroline Aherne presented a mock chatshow in the guise of Mrs Merton

This week the UK is mourning the death of Caroline Aherne, the comic genius behind memorable shows and characters such as The Royle Family, The Mrs Merton Show and ‘Checkout Girl,’ who appeared on iconic sketch comedy series The Fast Show.

Many of Aherne’s colleagues and collaborators, expressing their grief at her untimely death, have held her up as a comedy pioneer, which she undoubtedly was. However, she was also part of a great Northern tradition that includes the likes of George Formby, Stan Laurel, Les Dawson, Eric Morecambe, Alan Bennett, Shelagh Delaney, Morrissey, Julie Walters and Victoria Wood, another gifted female comedian who died this year.

Aherne’s humour was built around immaculate comic timing and close observation of the human condition. While rooted in her experience of growing up in the North, her insights were universal and, for the most part, benign. It would have been easy for her work to mock the working-class people it portrayed – but instead it celebrated them for their stoicism, loyalty and optimism. Her characters were people you could turn to with a problem.

This resonates with an interesting study conducted in 2009 by comedy expert Rosemarie Jarski, who set out to explore why the North of England has been such a rich source of relatable comedy. Her conclusion was that the North has developed a unique brand of wit that relies on self-deprecation, the desire to prick pomposity and the ability to find humour in the sadness of everyday life. “Northern humour is above all the humour of recognition,” she said in an interview with the Daily Telegraph. “Northern comedians don’t try to be cleverer than us. There are no airs and graces, no upmanship. They are one of us.” It’s notable that, in her interview, Jarski cited both Aherne and Wood for their ability to spin “comic gold out of pain and misery.”

Aherne (left) starred in The Royle Family, which she wrote and created alongside co-star Craig Cash
Aherne (left) starred in The Royle Family, which she wrote and created alongside co-star Craig Cash

In the wake of Aherne’s death, there has also been a rekindling of the debate about whether the UK television industry does enough to encourage distinctive working-class voices like hers.

At one level, this has never been a better time for working-class voices – if by that we mean on-screen representation. In comedy, we have the colossus that is Peter Kay – whose observations carry the same wit and wisdom as those of Aherne. And Aherne’s collaborator on The Royle Family, Craig Cash, is currently out in the market with his new Sky1 football-themed sitcom Rovers.

But the genre of comedy only scratches the surface in terms of the working-class characters we’re seeing on the small screen. In drama, Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley and Paul Abbott’s Shameless are both brilliant interpretations of working-class life, combining the comedy and struggle Jarski refers to above.

Similarly, a big change since Aherne first came onto the scene is the rise of reality TV. While this form of programme-making often polarises opinion, there’s no question that series like Benefits Street, Educating Essex, The Dealership and 24 Hours In A&E all tackle truths about what it’s like to be working class in 21st century Britain (both north and south of Watford). And then, of course, there is Gogglebox, narrated by Aherne. While not exclusively focused on working-class families, it is a natural successor to Aherne’s work (with Craig Cash) on The Royle Family.

Another element that must be factored into this debate is the rise of celebrity- and talent-show culture. Even a woman of Aherne’s undisputed abilities would have struggled to find a way to comment meaningfully on the circus that surrounds Big Brother, Geordie Shore, Got Talent, Take Me Out, I’m a Celebrity and the like. How do you create character comedy when TV and social media are filled with people you couldn’t begin to make up? This, after all, is the era of Ronnie Pickering, the road-raging cult hero.

Aherne as 'Checkout Girl' in hit sketch comedy The Fast Show
Aherne as ‘Checkout Girl’ in hit sketch comedy The Fast Show, which first aired in 1994

On top of all this – and most importantly – is the centrality of soaps on British TV. Just this week, for example, ITV announced that the UK’s most successful and popular soap drama, Coronation Street, will add a sixth weekly episode from late 2017. Commenting on that decision, ITV director of television Kevin Lygo said: “I am a life-long fan of Coronation Street and one of the first things I wanted to explore when I became director of television was taking the production to six episodes a week. The soaps are the cornerstone of the ITV schedule, and Coronation Street continues to produce some of the finest drama and comedy on television. It is a hugely important part of what has defined ITV throughout its history and I want it to continue to be right at the heart of what ITV defines in years to come. As a viewer, I have watched the soap as it has continued to evolve, entertain and grip the nation with fantastic storylines and this move will be the next exciting chapter in Corrie’s story.”

Rooted in the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ city of Manchester, Coronation Street has brilliantly encapsulated the changing face of working-class culture in Britain since the 1950s. It is unquestionably cut from the same cloth as Aherne’s comedy. And it is complemented by the BBC’s London-based EastEnders and ITV’s Emmerdale, which has charted the UK’s rural experience.

The late writer and actor also played a weather presenter in The Fast Show's 'Channel 9' sketch
The late writer and actor also played a weather presenter in The Fast Show’s ‘Channel 9’ sketch

So, in fairness, the issue in the UK is not about the depiction of the working class on TV, which is there – warts and all – for everyone to see. There is, however, more of an argument about whether working-class people get an opportunity to tell their stories from the privileged position behind the camera.

Tim Hincks, former president of Endemol Shine Group, raised this issue in July 2015 when he called the UK industry “hideously middle class” during a lecture delivered to Bafta members.

Here, the question is whether the business makes enough of an effort to create entry points for working-class people. Breaking into the business is much easier if you know someone who already works in it. Or if you have enough family financial support to spend a couple of years establishing yourself in the business (training courses, low-paid work placements in big cities and so on – the kind of things that working-class people generally don’t know exist, and if they do, they can’t afford to take advantage of).

This isn’t an easy issue to address, especially when it sits alongside the debate about BAME, LGBT and disabled access to the industry – and not forgetting the issue of gender equality. However, it’s important for a couple of reasons. The first is that the industry is in a risky position when it relies on middle-class people to tell working-class stories. The danger is that, without the benefit of working-class insight, it strays into the mocking and judgemental territory that Aherne’s work astutely avoided. The second is that there is a possibility it will miss the next Caroline Aherne, an oversight that would leave the world a much drearier place.

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GLAAD shines spotlight on LGBT progress

Orange is the New Black 'boasts more LGBT regular and recurring characters than any other scripted programme'
Orange is the New Black ‘boasts more LGBT regular and recurring characters than any other scripted programme’

In the US, an organisation called GLAAD – formerly the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation – has spent the last 20 years tracking the number of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) characters on television.

Each year it uses the data generated to create a comprehensive report entitled Where We Are On TV. The 2015/2016 edition of the report came out this week and shows that the TV industry is moving in the right direction – but still has a lot of work to do.

As GLAAD CEO and president Sarah Kate Ellis points out, fair representation of the LGBT community on TV isn’t just about the number of LGBT characters in TV dramas, but also how they are portrayed: “As each of us lives at the intersection of many identities, it’s important that TV characters reflect the diversity of the LGBT community,” she says. “

It’s not enough to include LGBT characters; writers must craft those characters with thought and care. They must reject outdated stereotypes and avoid token characters that are burdened with representing an entire community through the view of one person.”

So this week we’re taking a look at which shows and writers are making the most headway towards LGBT equality.

Empire’s Jamal Lyon is played by Jussie Smollett

US broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, The CW, Fox, NBC)
GLAAD’s figures show that out of 881 regular characters on 118 primetime scripted series, 35 were LGBT. This is up from 32 characters last year. GLAAD counted an additional 35 recurring LGBT characters in the same pool of shows.

Gay men make up a slight majority, though lesbian representation is up 5% year-on-year to 33%. Perhaps surprisingly given the prominence of the transgender agenda, “there are currently no regular or recurring transgender characters expected on broadcast networks’ primetime scripted programming.”

The organisation singles out Fox hit Empire as one of the best performers in terms of its LGBT character credentials. With a writing team headed by Danny Strong and Ilene Chaiken, season two sees gay musician Jamal Lyon “taking on more of a business role as the head of the family music label, Empire,” says GLAAD. “Tianna, a bisexual artist signed to the label, was upped to a series regular this year. Several other gay, lesbian and bisexual characters will recur (during season two).”

There are also plaudits for Fox’s new show Rosewood, with a writing team headed by creator Todd Harthan: “While crime procedurals have long been a place where LGBT characters were most often included as villains or victims, this season introduces lesbian couple/pathology experts Pippy and TMI.”

GLAAD also singles out CBS sci-fi drama Person of Interest, created by Jonathan Nolan, for the burgeoning lesbian relationship between hacker Root and assassin Shaw. It also finds encouragement in the superhero genre, at least on TV – film is a disappointment by comparison.

“Arrow (developed by Greg Berlanti, Marc Guggenheim and Andrew Kreisberg for The CW) will resurrect bisexual heroine Sara Lance before moving her over to mid-season series DC’s Legends of Tomorrow as a lead character, the White Canary. Her former girlfriend Nyssa will continue to recur on Arrow, and the series will add the recurring gay character Curtis Holt. ABC’s Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D (showrunners Jed Whedon, Maurissa Tancharoen and Jeffrey Bell) will introduce recurring gay character Joey Gutierrez, who has the power to melt metal.”

Penny Dreadful has killed off its Angelique character
Penny Dreadful has killed off its Angelique character

US cable networks
The number of LGBT characters on scripted cable programmes continues to rise, says GLAAD, with 84 regular characters, up from 64 last year. This trend will presumably continue with the growing number of scripted shows being commissioned and the industry’s increasing awareness of the diversity debate.

Recurring characters were also on the rise, up to 58 from 41 previously. Echoing the situation in broadcast TV, gay men dominate, though in this universe lesbian representation dropped 3% to 22%. “Three characters are transgender,” says GLAAD. “Unfortunately one of these is the now-deceased Angelique on Showtime’s Penny Dreadful (created/written by John Logan).”

According to GLAAD, “the teen- and young adult-skewing ABC Family and premium channel Showtime are set to be the most LGBT-inclusive networks on cable, with each network boasting 18 regular or recurring characters (including all of the transgender characters counted on cable).

“The returning drama The Fosters, which follows a lesbian couple raising their biological, foster and adopted children, is ABC Family’s most inclusive show, with seven LGBT characters including trans teen Cole – played by transgender actor Tom Phelan.” The Fosters was created by Bradley Bredeweg and Peter Paige, who continue to be directly involved in the writing of the series.

GLAAD praises ABC Family for upcoming series Shadowhunters (which has Ed Decter as showrunner) and Recovery Road, in which gay actor Daniel Franzese will play a gay man struggling to combat an addiction. There is also a positive report for AMC’s The Walking Dead, which has a gay couple and a lesbian in its extended pool of characters. “The new season will also introduce Paul ‘Jesus’ Monroe, a gay character from the comic books series that provides the show’s source material.”

Toby Stephens as Black Sails' Captain Flint
Toby Stephens as Black Sails’ Captain Flint

Other shows to get the GLAAD stamp of approval include Starz pirate drama Black Sails, where it is revealed that lead character James Flint has previously been involved with a man. Created by Jonathan E Steinberg and Robert Levine, the show also features a number of other bisexual characters.

USA Networks’ critically acclaimed new series Mr Robot, created by Sam Esmail, boasts “several LGBT characters,” says GLAAD, “including cybersecurity firm CEO Gideon, Evil Corp’s VP Tyrell, and hacker/activist Trenton.” It’s a similar case with BBC America’s Orphan Black (created by Graeme Manson and John Fawcett), which depicts a lesbian romance between Cosima and Shay, and FX’s American Horror Story: Hotel, in which Lady Gaga does her bit for the LGBT community by playing a character engaged in a same-sex relationship.

In terms of where the sector could do better, GLAAD wants to see “more racially diverse characters.” Of 142 regular and recurring LGBT characters analysed, 71% are white, which is a bit high for a country with the USA’s multiracial profile.

Jeffrey Tambor takes the lead in Amazon's Transparent
Jeffrey Tambor takes the lead in Amazon’s Transparent

Streaming content providers
This is the first year GLAAD has analysed Amazon, Hulu and Netflix. Due to the lack of defined seasons on such platforms, it looked at shows that premiered or are expected to premiere between June 1, 2015 and May 31, 2016. Across 23 series, GLAAD found “43 regular LGBT characters and an additional 16 recurring characters.” Lesbians had a higher representation than on broadcast and cable, while the transgender community is represented by four characters.

“Notably, two of these four characters are leads: Maura in Transparent and Nomi in Sense8,” says GLAAD. “Transparent show creator Jill Soloway also paid special attention to ensuring diversity both in front of and behind the camera by employing trans writers, crew members and several trans actors in recurring roles.”

Other LGBT-inclusive Amazon series include Mozart in the Jungle and Red Oaks, while Hulu’s most LGBT-inclusive series, interestingly, are imported British soaps Coronation Street and Hollyoaks. “The two series include 10 LGBT characters between them, with Hollyoaks, notably, including a gay character who is HIV-positive. Hulu also airs Australian series Neighbours in the US, which includes two gay characters.”

Kieron Richardson as Ste, one of a number of LGBT characters in Hollyoaks
Kieron Richardson as Ste, one of a number of LGBT characters in Hollyoaks

Hollyoaks works with the Terence Higgins Trust charity on its HIV storyline. The show’s executive producer Bryan Kirkwood says: “We have wanted to tell this story for a long time and while HIV can affect anyone, infection rates in young gay men remain too high and to ignore that is to do the gay audience a disservice. Hollyoaks is in a unique position to talk directly to millions of young viewers and if the safe-sex message is not coming through education, we can help with that on screen and through multiplatform support.”

According to GLAAD, Netflix series Orange is the New Black (created by Jenji Kohan) “boasts more LGBT regular and recurring characters than any other scripted programme.” Other LGBT-inclusive Netflix shows cited include Sense8, Grace and Frankie, Degrassi: The Next Class, The Fall, Bojack Horseman, House of Cards, Master of None, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Wet Hot American Summer: “We’ll also be keeping an eye on upcoming series Jessica Jones,” says GLAAD.

Aside from the lack of racial diversity in LGBT portrayal, GLAAD noted that people with a disability are underserved. It also called for better representation of the HIV issue (keeping in mind the only HIV-positive character in the report is from a UK show).

GLAAD’s Ellis concludes: “We’ve witnessed tremendous progress, but there is still work to be done. We will continue to applaud networks and streaming services telling (LGBT) stories – and hold their feet to the fire when they don’t.”

Footnote: There isn’t anything like the GLAAD report internationally. But there are good examples of LGBT-inclusive shows. A classic case from the UK is the Russell T Davies 2015 trilogy Cucumber, Banana and Tofu. Also worth noting is the Norwegian drama Eyewitness, distributed internationally by DRG, and CBC’s Schitt’s Creek – a mainstream show that includes a pansexual character. Another standout example (mentioned briefly above) is Allan Cubitt’s The Fall, in which Gillian Anderson portrays bisexual detective Stella Gibson.

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