Monday, 16 September 2013

Monday 16 September 1963

As Coronation Street makes such intermittent appearances at TV Minus 50, I think a chunk of exposition might be in order to help make sense of the events of tonight's episode (goodness knows it took me long enough to work out what it was all about).  In the last few months, Gamma Garments manager Leonard Swindley has temporarily left behind the Weatherfield store to take up a position at head office, rubbing shoulders with Mr Papagopoulos and other big names (though it's doubtful anyone else had a name quite that big).  In his absence the store's been managed by a much younger man, Neil Crossley - a caddish Casanova who toyed with the affections of Gamma employee Doreen Lostock's flatmate Sheila Birtles.  Heartbroken by Crossley's departure upon the return of Swindley, Sheila's tracked him down to declare her love - only to be told, in no uncertain terms, to get lost.  The normally happy-go-lucky Sheila's been left utterly destroyed, and tonight we begin with her locked in the flat above the corner shop, a half-empty bottle of pills at her side, staring into space.

The residents of the Street remain blissfully unaware of what's going on over the shop: at the Rovers, Annie Walker's sharing rather too much information with Albert Tatlock about her husband's current uncomfortable condition: "When Mr Walker has a touch of flatulence you'd think he'd got the worries of the whole world on his shoulders."  "It can be very disturbing, wind," sympathises Albert.  Annie's condescending response leaves him hopelessly confused: "Not wind, Mr Tatlock, flatulence."

And there's a topical reference to the recent Great Train Robbery as Len Fairclough finds Harry Hewitt closely inspecting a postbox for the collection times: "It'll be mailbags next!"

Suspense starts to mount over whether anyone will get to Sheila in time to save her life.  Lucille Hewitt's desperate to get hold of her to borrow the latest issue of a magazine featuring a serial she wants to read the conclusion of.  "There's more to life than serial stories," tuts shopkeeper Florrie Lindley, a possibly tongue-in-cheek line from writer H V Kershaw.  There's a funny smell in the air -could it be gas? No, it's just the perfume Florrie's slathered herself in before heading out to bingo: "It's only cheap, love.  It's the expensive sort as doesn't smell much."  Florrie and Lucille try to rouse Sheila, but conclude she's just feeling sorry for herself and doesn't want to see anyone.

Doreen comes close to discovering her friend's perilous state, but is waylaid from going up to the flat to get change when Lucille offers to lend her some instead.

Next to visit the shop out of hours is Dennis Tanner (it seems Florrie doesn't actually lock up, she just expects people to abide by her opening hours), looking to borrow Doreen and Sheila's record player.  Florrie's had enough of people marching in and out and leaves him and Lucille to it as she stomps off.  I'm especially keen on Florrie's cosy ensemble.

Elsie Tanner and Concepta Hewitt, passing by the shop, wave Florrie off, Elsie amused that the extent of her social life's a weekly game of bingo.  She'd be more up for what a passing young necking couple are doing.  Concepta tuts over the young people of today all having an ever-changing stream of partners.  Elsie's just envious.

Meanwhile Lucille and Dennis try once again to rouse Sheila, to no avail.

Dennis suspects something's horribly wrong, and decides to break into the flat through the window.  Lucille and Elsie alerting the street that something's amiss, Len and Harry decide to break down the front door.

The rescuers discover a near-catatonic Sheila, and the fuzzy shot of them from her point-of-view's a good example of the formal experimentation quite common in the Street at this early stage.  This episode's directed by Christopher McMaster, who tries out several other interesting things - as you'll shortly see.

A doctor's sent for and Sheila's taken to hospital.  She's going to be OK, physically at least.  It was originally intended that her suicide attempt would be successful, and the episode was filmed with her dead body being discovered.  However, the storyline leaked to the press and the immense negative reaction from the public led to the episode being re-recorded with a happier outcome.  Packed off to live with her parents, Sheila would return to the show several times in future, eventually ending up married to Neil Crossley.

With Sheila out of danger the Street residents deal with the aftermath.  In Dennis's case the results are an injured arm and a free drink at the Rovers (the winning gaucheness of his character's illustrated by his line "I wonder what makes 'em do it.  I mean, there's nowt really wrong with life, is there?").

The show's three leading ladies reflect on the incident: Annie Walker's full of condemnation for Crossley, Ena Sharples thinks those who interfered in his and Sheila's relationship, trying to convince her he was no good, are equally to blame.  "There were a lot of folk hated the sight of my husband," she says, piquing our interest in just what the late Mr Sharples was like, "But I got on all right with him, and that was all as mattered."  Ena's words leave the ultimately soft-centred Elsie worried that she might shoulder some of the responsibility for what's happened.  This scene consists of surely one of the most striking images in Coronation Street's history: a perfect three-shot of the grim faces of the three great totems of the show's early years (let's not focus on the fact that in reality it would be extremely strange to have a conversation with two other people from these positions).

Although she makes quite a late entrance, this episode develops into quite the showcase for Violet Carson as Ena.  Later on she's seen giving Florrie Lindley the benefit of her uniquely harsh brand of wisdom: "There are some things I don't butt into.  When a girl's deciding between life and death, it's a matter for her and her maker."

When Doreen happens by and vents the guilt she feels at Sheila's suicide attempt, Ena responds with a simple "By gum, some people are big headed".  She reassures Doreen (in her less than reassuring manner) that anyone who's brought to the extreme of taking their own life must have a lot more going on in their head than just a row with a friend.  When left alone on the street Ena, magnificently, starts talking directly to camera: "Ee, I dunno. I seem to spend all me time these days contradicting meself."

With Ena's archenemy Leonard Swindley returned, their eventual locking of horns is inevitable.  It takes place in Ena's natural habitat of the Rovers snug as Swindley buys her a milk stout, clearly as a prelude to telling her something she won't like.  There's some more priceless dialogue here, with Swindley admitting he doesn't have the knack of pouring a bottle of stout:

SWINDLEY: There's some things I never learned...
ENA: I'm glad to hear you admit it.

Swindley tries to delicately bring up the extent to which Ena's caretaking of the mission hall has fallen beneath his high standards:

SWINDLEY: Some people have called me finicky...
ENA: I've heard 'em.

The lay preacher leaves Ena to reflect on the need to buck her ideas up.

As was common with the Street at the time, the episode ends with the abrupt introduction of a new storyline.  Here it's the unwelcome arrival in the street of the sour-faced Mrs Tyson (Susan Field), upstairs tenant at Frank Barlow's hardware store, armed with some harsh words for her landlord about her living conditions (Len Fairclough refers to her as "a lovely bit of crackling", whether ironically or not I'm unsure).  The outcome of Mrs Tyson's showdown with Frank won't be covered here, but her entrance into the Rovers leads to one fantastic moment as she bursts into the snug in search of Frank, only to retreat on being comprehensively out-glowered by the freshly chastised Ena.

This is a spectacular episode, perhaps the best example yet of Coronation Street as an utterly perfect blend of comedy and drama.  You can watch it here, and I can't recommend highly enough that you do so.

Now, from the female-dominated world of Weatherfield to ultra-masculine domain of the boardroom.

If you've been following TV Minus 50  for a while you might remember the appearance here, months back, of the first episode of The Plane Makers. That was all that remains of the show's first series.  It was successful enough to achieve a second hot on its heels, but with a total change of format.  Where the show started out as an anthology series, each episode giving an insight into a different department at aircraft manufacturers Scott Furlong, from series two onwards the episodes would focus on the company's uppermost echelons, and in particular its ruthless Managing Director John Wilder (Patrick Wymark).  The episode begins at a meeting where Wilder's putting before the board the name suggestions for Scott Furlong's latest jet.

Horrified by the marketing consultants' suggestions (including the Scott Furlong Fairy), Wilder plumps for the Scott Furlong Sovereign (he thinks the "strong moral overtones" will help sales).  The rest of the board have no say in the matter whatsoever, Wilder steamrollering the name through regardless of any objections they might have.  This especially scandalises Keble (Martin Wyldeck) and Cunliffe (Tom Macaulay), who take their objections to Scott Furlong's chairman Sir Charles (Lloyd Pearson).  The gentleman's club world inhabited by these three is a world away from the thrusting, dynamic management of Wilder (which embodies Harold Wilson's "white heat of technology", despite coming some months before he spoke the phrase): but unlike the other two, Sir Charles is of the belief that Wilder's autocratic style is what's needed to drive the company forward.

But the main focus of Too Much to Lose is the conflict between Wilder and Henry Forbes (Robert Urquhart), Scott Furlong's test pilot.  Nicknamed "Auntie" for his fussiness and perfectionism in everything, tweedy, pipe-smoking Forbes is driving Wilder bonkers with his insistence on carrying out endless checks before he'll take the Sovereign up in the air.  He wants three more weeks before the test flight: Wilder, who desperately wants the Sovereign on the market before a rival French plane, insists it must be in two days time, or he'll put Forbes' co-pilot in charge instead.  Forbes grudgingly agrees, but delights in getting a rise out of Wilder when he reminds him of the company's tradition of the MD going up on the first test flight too.

In the world of The Plane Makers, women exist purely as an adjunct to the male characters,illustrating the differences between them.  Wilder's married to Pamela (Barbara Murray), whose expert hosting of cocktail parties for investors and Whitehall bigwigs makes her a key member of the Scott Furlong workforce.  Away from the guests, the Wilder's relationship is a brittle one, both partners acutely aware that Wilder married out of his class.  Despite reaping the benefits of Wilder's position, Pamela considers John's desire to grab and hold on to power (the Plane Makers' better-remembered sequel series featuring the couple was called The Power Game) childish, while he remains deeply paranoid that she's still in touch with the posho he stole her from.

Displaying the gulf between his and Wilder's backgrounds, Forbes is still looked after by his over-solicitous old nanny (Aimée Delamain), forever pressing food or a nice pair of comfy slippers on him.

Meanwhile, Scott Furlong's Sales Director, Peter Humphreys (John Arnatt) hangs out with a string of "popsies", the latest of whom is Dorothy (Linda Marlowe), whom Wilder hurriedly ejects from his latest cocktail party, deciding she's hardly the type for the Aviation Minister to encounter (mind you, though, this was post-Profumo...)

As the day of the test flight arrives, Wilder makes it clear that he will not be on the plane.  Pamela, in her ever-so polite way, makes it clear to her husband she considers him a coward.  He insists there are other reasons he won't go up, but she isn't interested.

As the Sovereign prepares to leave the ground, Forbes' nanny, afraid for her young man's life, recites the 23rd psalm, and Wilder too seems to be offering up a prayer, of the silent kind (also seen below, the familiar faces of John Ringham as air traffic controller Ken Swanson, and Reginald Marsh as works manager Arthur Sugden).

The Sovereign makes it into the air...

...but has trouble landing, only Forbes's skill averting a major accident.

Wilder's gained new respect for the pathologically cautious Auntie, but his fury at those responsible for the fault isn't pretty...

Wilder arrives home after midnight, Pamela sitting up, one feels, purely for the pleasure of rowing with him.  Once more he insists it wasn't cowardice that kept him on the ground, this time giving his reasons in a speech that definitively establishes his character: "I've got too much to lose.  Romantic gestures went out with the Crusades.  I've worked too hard on what I am to chuck it away.  I'm at the top of the tree."  His words do nothing to change ice cold Pamela's opinion: "And you're afraid of falling, no matter what," she wearily responds.

To me, at least, a series about the tensions between management at a plane factory doesn't sound a hugely enticing prospect.  But thanks to some fantastic writing and performances, Too Much to Lose is truly gripping stuff.  And Patrick Wymark's facial expressions are something I'm especially looking forward to featuring more of here.

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