When you are a writer – rather like when you are a journalist – you never really take a day off. Forgive me: I may have made this point once or twice before.
But here is another example of the principle in
action. Last week I did something I have longed to do for a long time: the
official tour of the former Coronation
Street set in Manchester.
Some friends may be surprised at this. After all, I
am a self-confessed cultural snob. Apart from the odd high-end drama or artsy
documentary I watch very little TV and I prefer my fiction… well… literary. But
I’ve long had a soft spot for Corrie,
which I think surpasses most soaps and many TV dramas in its writing, its
humour and its characterisation.
It occurred to me as I wandered, a little awe-struck, around the famous cobbles how much a new writer can learn from a quick tour around the former set of this TV legend. It would be a perfect day out for a class of brand new creative writers.
Visitors get to see the sets for the homes of a number
of the principal families - smaller than they appear on TV and without a fourth wall, because that's where the camera is. What it teaches a new writer is how in a very direct way, these homes reflect the
characters, their personalities and their aspirations. Factory boss Carla
Connor’s former pad was not meant to be on The Street: it was in the new yuppie
flats nearby and it was a clear reflection of her glamorous, edgy character.
For example, it was decorated in dark reds and blacks with a chandelier. Its
designer granite kitchen was spotless, because Carla never cooks.
Would-be social climber Sally Webster would probably kill for that chandelier, though she will never get one. But she knew she’d gone up in the world when she bought a house with a conservatory at the back. All her social pretentions are reflected in her possessions: including the lip-shaped sofa that she hated until she learned it came from a designer label.
Jack and Vera Duckworth’s lurid wallpaper and built-in
mini-bar and bohemian actress Martha’s canal barge home make it absolutely
clear what kind of person lives in each place. Using details like the pristine
kitchen or the 1970s-style mini-bar are ways in which writers show, without telling,
what a character is like.
Fiction and creative non-fiction writers all use details in this way. It's an often-used 'character-writing' exercise to describe a room. What possessions are around them? What would they always carry with them? What's the one thing they would save from a fire? Next time you watch a TV soap, check out the background details. What do they show us about a character, before you've even spoken to them?
Perhaps you are one of those people who looks down on soap drama and considers it an inferior form of entertainment. I’d like to see you sustain a drama for 55 years. And if I could write dialogue like Corrie’s, I’d be very proud. Can you really beat lines like, ‘Manchester’s like a Lowry painting brought to life, except everyone’s put on ten stone’ (Bethany Platt); ‘Good looks are a curse. You and Kenneth should count yourselves lucky’ and ‘You’re going to have to learn to take pleasure in the misfortunes of others or you’re going to have a very miserable old age’ (Deirdre’s mother Blanche) and Mary’s occasional venture into the surreal: ‘My piccalilli just fell on your bishop’. Quite regularly, the writing is pure Alan Bennett.
Once again I tried to take off my writer’s hat to have a break - and failed. But I did come home inspired. And I watch Corrie even more closely than ever before, now that I know some of its backstage secrets.