Friday, June 29, 2007

It was SO John Reid, wasn't it?

"Gie ma job to Jacqui Bloody Smith, would ye? Right, Carine, load the gas cylinders into the Merc - ah'm off down Picadilly circus tae see how the bitch deals wi' this!"

Thursday, June 21, 2007

"Roy and Hayley are such popular characters, we gave them an exterior of their own"


Here's a feature I wrote eight years ago about a visit to the Coronation Street set.

Where The Street Has No Shame
from The Big Issue, August 2 1999

I'm standing with a man wearing a three-foot-tall plastic head which makes him look a bit like a fictional character, on the set of a TV set of a fictional street, which is supposedly in a town called Weatherfield which is really Manchester - in Manchester. And just behind a barrier at the end of the street is a large warehouse where the actor who plays that fictional character is currently acting out scenes which are supposedly taking place inside the houses on this fictional street. My brain hurts.

A woman approaches, clutching a blond toddler by the hand. 'Excuse me', she demands of the plastic-headed figure. 'Who are you supposed to be?'

'I'm Jack Duckworth', comes the reply, slightly muffled by the head, which is so uncomfortable that he is having to hold it up with both hands.

'Oh, of course you are,' she says, smiling at her son, who looks terrified.

'Do you want your photo taken with me?' asks Jack.

'No,' she says, turns on her heel and strides off down the cobbles of Britain's most famous street.

I'll come clean now: I've never really got Coronation Street. A wussy southern EastEnders man by birth, I've never acquired the committment and background knowledge that Corrie requires. Last year my housemate banished me from the sitting room for asking in the middle of an episode 'Who was Don Brennan?' It's a secret society, and I don't know my Ena Sharples form my Elsie Tanner. This leaves me in the minority here at Granada Studios, on this hallowed ground, the two-thirds sized street where the programme's exterior scenes are filmed every Monday. I am in the presence of die-hard pilgrims, who would take Bill Roach over Brad Pitt any time. America might have Madonna and Cher, but we've got Julie Goodyear and that woman who used to be Nadia Popov in Rentaghost. This is the cult of celebrity, British-style.

The first rule is to know your stuff. Even the guides who patrol the set can't compete with the expertise of some of the visitors. 'The worst thing is when people just remember something wrong,' one guide tells me. 'You know you're right, but they're totally insistent that Minnie Caldwell lived at number four, or something. In the end you just have to give up. And quite often they say to me, "No, you remember this", and I have to stop them and say, "Actually, er, I wasn't born."'

Certainly the tour group I joined know their stuff - one particular group of girls, who can barely have been out of nappies when Brookside started, can recite every landlady of the Rovers Return. According to my guide, 'The worst ones are the ones who actually believe it's real. They're convinced that the people really live in the houses, and whatever you say, they carry on thinking that. When Kevin went bankrupt, we had people coming up to us with cheques for £20 or £30 and asking us to pass them on. And a couple of months ago when Des died, people were coming up and laying wreaths outside his house.' She lowers her voice to a whisper. 'It's not like a normal programme, you know. It's a religion.'

So is she actually a fan of Coronation Street? She checks to see that there are no Spanish Inquisitors within earshot before pulling a face. 'I could tell you what's happening in EastEnders.'

Corrie atheists like myself can brush up with the help of a series of plaques attached to the drainpipe of each house, which give a potted history of their various occupants. This being soapland, crises that would destroy the average person are reduced to single, apologetic sentences. 'Unfortunately, he turned out to be a bigamist, and was arrested after trying to kill Emily,' is accompanied by smiling pictures of the cast in their best clothes. The braver amongst us lift up the odd letterbox and squint through. One child announces 'I've found the Battersbys' and their hall's a tip!'.

If you follow the back alley all the way down, you end up in an alternative Rover's Return next door to Emmerdale's Woolpack, both of which do a good trade in beers from their respective (and fictional) breweries. Down a few here and you wouldn't be overly surprised to step out onto what the site map calls a 'typical New York Street', which seems to be mainly an excuse to give Burger King a lucrative on-site catering franchise. Or, if you head the other way out of Weatherfield, past Roy's Rolls (according to the tour guide, 'Roy and Hayley have become such popular characters, producers gave them an exterior of their own') you find yourself transported back a couple of centuries to the time of Moll Flanders, and a 'typical London Street' from the ITV series. To add to the surrealness, it is here that I meet three Victorian Cockneys who are taking a breather from Sherlock Holmes' Baker Street next door. They're not real Cockneys, I discover, but three Mancunians called Keely, Emma and Jill.

'We're strictly from the Dick Van Dyke school of comedy,' Jill tells me. 'It's a good laugh though. I've been working here about three years now.' Suddenly a family go past with a pushchair and the girls leap into full-on Chim-chim-cheree action. 'Allo darlin,' they shriek in chorus. 'Gorblimey, you 'avin' a nice day?' They watch the group walk away before continuing their conversation. 'Keely's quite new. Emma and me are a duo: we do weddings as well.'

Surely, though, it can't all be fun. Performing the same Pearly Queen act eight times a day must get wearing. And it must be hard to work up enthusiasm for the Old Joanna when you turn up for work with a hangover. 'Oh, mostly we just sit around till a manager comes by,' Emma confides. 'But the worst thing is the bloody inflatable hammers. The kids buy them and then bash us with them as soon as we come near them.'

This seems an understandable reaction to anyone singing I'm Getting Married In The Morning. But the Cockney Lovelies aren't the only ones objecting to the hammers. Shortly after I arrive at Granada Studios a stern voice comes over the tannoy: 'This is a warning. It has come to our attention that inflatable hammers are not being used sensibly. If security see you being careless with your hammers, you will be removed from site.'

The hammers aren't the only big sellers. No tourist attraction is complete without an array of overpriced branded tat, and Granada Studios does not disappoint. Equally, no British tourist is complete without a good moan about the prices. "Five-fifty for one pot!' an elderly lady tuts over a display of Corrie-themed food. 'Well, you're paying for the label, aren't you,' her companion clucks. Yes, if you're stupid enough to want a picture of Nicky Platt on your biscuits, chances are you'll be stupid enough to be fleeced.

And the commercialism doesn't end here. One of Granada's latest attactions is Futurevision, a 'stunning, interactive presentation of tomorrow's technology'. Well, I have seen the future, and it doesn't work. It consists of a few flashing lights, metal flooring and computer monitors plastered with 'Out of Order' signs, over which floats the voice of Dale Winton playing Reverse Reveal - whatever the future might hold, it's good to know we'll still be watching Supermarket Sweep. Futurevision is, in other words, a plug for OnDigital, a company half-owned by, er, Granada TV.

They can make the gogglebox as interactive as they like, but nothing will compare to the real thrill of walking down a street which appears four times a week in your sitting room. Knowing it's fake just makes it better- I can't see coachloads of tourists flocking to Paddington Green, scene of the BBC's latest barrel-scraping docusoap, or camping out on the lawns of the Animal Hospital to see how many hapless critters they put down when Rolf's not looking. The success of Coronation Street lies in how real it is - it genuinely looks like the streets which surround these studios - but TV gives it that inexplicable glamour that makes sane individuals line up to peer through a grimy window, their day made by a glimpse of a phone that the man playing Mike Baldwin has pretended to use. Even better would be a glimpse of the phone-user himself, as one tour-guide tells me. "We get groups, of kids mostly, who wait at the end of the road by the studio building for three or four hours, sometimes, just for the chance of maybe seeing one actor go in our come out.'

And if they do, the reality is inevitably disappointing. One disgruntled girl brandishes a small bit of paper at one of the tour guides. 'I got Jack Duckworth's autograph,' she complains. 'But he signed it with someone else's name.'

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

And annoyingly

This one doesn't seem to have made it in in any form...

In case you have somehow failed to keep up on the most important story in the world (487 items in the national press in the last month), we offer a brief guide to the highlights of Paris Hilton’s incarceration so far.

Prior to her imprisonment Hilton was “petrified”, according to Rav Singh of the News of the World. “A friend of the heiress told me she’s not eating and is always in tears.” Nevertheless, according to the Sunday Express, she managed to plan “a champagne-fuelled farewell do in a defiant gesture to critics jubilant over her jailing for drink-driving.” It was to take place on Tuesday 5 June.

She checked in to prison on Monday 4 June, the day of the Sun’s exclusive revelation that she will “be banged up tomorrow.” Having “employed an army of stylists to ensure her entrance to jail is as dramatic as possible” and arranged to arrive “a day early so pictures of her will be in time for the deadlines of the US celebrity magazines.” (Sun), she “managed to dodge the massed ranks of photographers hoping to capture her moment of humiliation by handing herself in at the men’s jail” (Mirror).

She was forced to share a cell with “her creepily obsessed no. 1 fan… We can reveal that the Twit girl’s new roomie is Kelly Matthew,” (“Goss” column, Daily Star, 4 June), although she still managed to“be spending 23 hours a day in solitary confinement as there is enough space for her not to have to share with a cellmate,” (“Goss” column, Daily Star, 5 June).

On 7 June she was released for medical reasons – namely, “fears she was suicidal” (Sun), “a mystery rash on her body” (Star), “claustrophobia” (Sunday Mirror), “a sexually transmitted infection” (News of the World), “dehydration” (the Sun again), or possibly a combination of all the above. This may have been because “her billionaire grandfather donated money last year to the sheriff who released her” (Mail on Sunday), or merely the result of “a secret deal thrashed out THREE weeks ago, shortly after Paris was sentenced” (Mirror), but whatever it was, it didn’t work, because she went back in again two days later. She has since alternated between “crying a lot and being given psychoactive drugs” (Sun), being “sullen and despondent” (Mirror), “learning and growing” (Daily Mail) and “finding God and planning a new life after jail” (Guardian). She is expected to remain in prison for at least one more week, during which time no one has a clue what will happen. They will continue to write about it none the less.

I'm taking requests now...

and this one is for Damien, in the comments section a while back. There's a much-shortened version of this in the new Eye (out tomorrow), but I thought you deserved the full horror....

“All 137,500 tickets for the Glastonbury festival sold out in a record 90 minutes yesterday,” reported the Guardian, which just happens to sponsor the festival, on April 2. And that, you might think, would be that for the 60,638,738 residents of the UK – at least a million of them readers of the Guardian – who did not buy them. But you would be wrong.

21 April: “Going to Glastonbury this year?” enquires the paper’s motoring page, apropos of nothing. “You'll need Land Rover's new Freelander 2, then. No other car has got its festival head so well sorted.”

7 May: Stop the presses, there’s a hot scoop in the news section: “Glastonbury plans new stage”.

28 April: Kate Moss launches a range of clothes at Top Shop. There are some people queuing outside. They are wearing wrist bands. This is enough to prompt deputy fashion editor Hadley Freeman to wonder “has Glastonbury come early this year?” How unlike her coverage of the Primark Sale three weeks earlier, which she pointed out caused “a stampede rivalling the competition for tickets for Glastonbury.”

28 May: Vital information in the home news section: “Hundreds of metres of fence at the Glastonbury festival will be decorated it with tapestries showing the history of radical protest”.

1 June: “Dame Shirley Bassey once said that she was happiest when sleeping three to a bed in Cardiff's red light district and working in a sausage packing factory,” observes the paper’s news section. “Such stoicism will shortly serve her well. In three weeks, the spangle-clad septuagenarian will perform her most unlikely gig yet: sandwiched between James Morrison and the Manic Street Preachers on the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury.” Over in the Film and Music section, the entire line-up of the festival is exhaustively listed. “If you weren't one of the lucky 177,500, look away now,” the paper enthuses. The vast majority of readers promptly oblige.

2 June: Millets is offering a new “eco-friendly camping range.” Who would be the ideal customers for their recycled sleeping bags? Yes, “sleep-deprived Glastonbury visitors”.

6 June: Maev Kennedy pens a 900-word profile of the Welsh singer Shirley Bassey, who will, we are reminded, be appearing in “the living legend slot at Glastonbury”.

6 June: England are to play Estonia – fortunately it is an away game, for, as the paper’s sports section observes, “at Wembley the pitch is so bad it has been compared to playing football at Glastonbury.”

9 June: New website offers car-shares for environmentally-friendly travellers. This is particularly useful, the paper notes, if you “need a lift to the Glastonbury festival.”

14 June: A scoop for the Arts section: “A photograph published exclusively in the Guardian today… Banksy's latest installation, a replica of Stonehenge built on the site of the forthcoming Glastonbury festival.”

15 June: In the fashion section Jess Cartner Morley has advice on how to put together a summer wardrobe. “'Summertime, and the living is easy.’ Not any more it's not, sunshine. Clearly, George Gershwin never tried to pack for Glastonbury.” Over in Comment, Simon Jenkins muses on the politics of the food industry: “Yoghurt, sesame and nut extract were once strictly for beards, sandals and Glastonbury. Now they have taken Kensington High Street by storm.”

16 June: The paper’s Business section reports on a campaign against the private equity industry. “The GMB union… said the next stage of its campaign would arrive in Glastonbury next week where the expected 175,000 revellers will be allowed to vote for the ‘worst rogue’ in the industry,” notes Phillip Inman.

18 June: “Thanks to its frequently muddy conditions, reminiscent of a first world war battlefield, revellers at the Glastonbury festival have long considered the event as much a war as a celebration, a four-day skirmish against the forces of nature and the ever-present mud,” muses Esther Addley over an entire page of the news section. Staff on the paper’s G2 section clearly consider this insufficient: that day’s “The Question” column asks “Will Glastonbury be a mudfest?”

The gates of the festival open this Thursday. Guardian readers are advised to look for their news elsewhere over the long weekend.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

It's like a Haiku...

The 'top stories' on the Sun website at this moment

PAEDOS - Chemical chop
PRINCES - Still miss mum
WIDOW - Tribute to cop
MADDIE - 'Taken by paedo'

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Keep it Local

This week's Hastings and St Leonards Observer - a newspaper so carefully put together that it actually features the headline "Children's Minister praises youth proj-" - features a letter from one Jeremy Wells, of South Street, St Leonards, which provides the finest piece of ammunition against the environmental lobby since Tom Utley noted in the Daily Mail that when the ice in his G&T melted, it didn't overflow, so we'd all be fine come the end of the polar ice caps.

"On Friday I bought a packet of kipper fillets from the Co-Op store in London Road, St Leonards. Imagine my astonishment when, upon opening the pack, I discovered that it contained not the normal two fillets but THREE of them.

So much for all those doom-and-gloom marine biologists who keep telling us that fish stocks are dangerously low due to man's incessant plundering of the oceans. I think my experience gives the lie to that line of eco-propaganda!"

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

And my piece on Andy Coulson in the new Eye...

... is better than Peregrine Worsthorne's even if the First Postdid bump me off the front page to make way for him.

I'm not watching this year...

... but it doesn't stop me writing articles about what goes on behind the scenes.