Close Encounters Of The Stirred Kind

Back in the day, during the Thatcher era, in the comedy clubs, I sometimes opened my set with a bit that went: I want to begin by talking about the deep divide in Britain at the moment. There is a big split and it’s causing a lot of tension. Because there are two types of people in the country. There are those who watch Brookside mid-week, – and there are those who watch the Saturday omnibus edition. And it’s like, those who watch mid-week won’t keep their fucking mouths shut!

It usually got a big laugh, which was partly down to the sheer relief of the deliberately caused tension being broken. But there was also recognition there too, because if those early alternative comedy crowds did watch any soap operas, it would most likely be Phil Redmond’s ground-breaking, Liverpool based, zeitgeisty, issue based one. Set in a real close in Liverpool, (the TV company bought all the properties) Brookside first aired on Channel 4’s opening night in 1982, and ran for 21 years. At it’s height, it was the channel’s highest rated show, regularly pulling in over 9 million viewers.

When the show gets a mention now, it’s usually in reference to one of handful of controversial storylines, including, the body under the patio; the lesbian kiss; Sheila Grant’s shocking sexual assault; the incestuous siblings, Nat and Georgia, or the untimely demise of every fan of the show’s favourite scally, Damon. Aww Damon..

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Bill Dean- Harry Cross

But there were many other great, often skilfully underplayed characters kicking about the Close. Such as the splendidly misanthropic arch-grump Harry Cross, and his forbearing missus, Edna; the smirky, oily gangster with the menacing drawl, Tommy McArdle, and, a particular favourite of mine, Alan Partridge. Nothing to do with Steve Coogan, (his AP came later), Brookie’s Alan was a hapless, unlucky-in-love computer programmer, imbued with an affecting, lumbering man-child pathos, by actor Dicken Ashworth.

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Dicken Ashworth and Dinah May

This week, by the miracle of YouTube, I stirred up a few memories of those bickering familial scousers, lovable rogues, long suffering wives, wine-bar Yuppies and lace-curtain twitching pensioners, in all their sparky dialogue-toting, phonologically distinctive, t-glotalling, come ‘ed-ic glory. And I must say, it was nice to be able to watch an old show from my past, without a cocky, mocking celeb popping up every two minutes, to interject with some ‘It Was Alright In The 80’s/90’s’ type eye-rolling, and snarky quips. Having said that, it was quite amusing to see some of the now, decidedly retro-looking props..

In the episode I watched, Barry Grant’s ‘plucky girlfriend’, Lindsey Corkhill has been kidnapped by local gangsters. Back at the rendezvous, the gang boss makes a call to Lindsey’s father, perennial loser, Jimmy. Ransom demands are snarled into a giant brick of a mobile phone, complete with curses at the bad signal, whilst on the other end, Jimmy listens intently, clutching an unfeasibly large and tacky ornamental house phone.

Gangster: You’ve got till 6 O’ Clock.
Then, after checking with an accomplice what time The Simpsons is on:
Make that 7 O’ Clock.

In another scene, Brookie stalwart, matriarch Sheila Grant beseeches Jimmy’s world-weary wife, Jackie about her feckless hubby’s petty criminal past, asking why he couldn’t have had more sense like his brother Billy, who Sheila is now with.
Jackie: When you leave school at 15 with no exams, the drainpipe is easier to climb than the career ladder..  Great stuff.

What prompted this urge to mooch once again amongst that motley bunch of Merseysiders? I could say that I just happened upon a link,  but maybe there was more to it than that; to do with the ongoing election and all that business. Perhaps subliminally I wanted to feel grounded again. Being one of the current head-scratchers, puzzled and aghast at the electorate’s seeming lack of  interest in safeguarding the NHS and the welfare state, amongst other things, and telling the Tories exactly where to get off,  maybe I was searching for a temporarily welcome and comforting diversion; somewhere to hark fondly back to  – a time when the political landscape seemed much easier to traverse. Even if election results couldn’t be safely called, and even if your side lost,  it still felt like you knew where you stood with people, what motivated them, where they were coming from, what they wanted and why they voted how they did. Even when it was for Maggie. You might not like it, but you got it. These days, more and more, I don’t get it..

For all the social unease, it felt like a simpler time I suppose, when people were still seen as either working class, middle class, or aspiring middle-class. (there were also the upper classes of course but not many of those hanging around Brookie). And when it came to polling day, you had your Labour, your Tories, that new-fangled SDP thingy, or the Politically Disenfranchised/Criminal Non-Voters. All fairly easily identifiable, indeed, you could probably have pointed at each and every character on the Close and nailed their voting preferences in one, including the aforementioned body under the patio, should you be inclined to dig it up..

Nowadays of course, it’s all much more fractured, with more parties, more splits, less lifetime party allegiances, more fake news, more media bias, and more people stuck up a political cul-de-sac, with everyone’s at each other’s throats. Meanwhile bad things happen. I’ve been trying to work out how we are going to get out of it, how to break the tension like in my old comedy bit. But as yet I haven’t even gotten close..

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