Several weeks before Brookside disappeared from the screens, whilst languishing in a purgatory-like late-night slot, came a hilarious but somehow poignant confrontation which epitomised the overpowering sense of culture clash of the soap’s final few years.
The confrontation takes place on the suburban Liverpool cul-de-sac where the show was mainly set, between Jimmy Corkhill, one of the stalwarts of the soap, and an unpleasant new figure, Jack Michaelson, a drug dealer despised by the local residents.
Jimmy, a former small-time drug dealer and renowned hard man himself, takes it upon himself to tell Michaelson to behave himself. Unimpressed, Michaelson simply stares Jimmy out with the following words: “Fuck off!”
It’s a superb moment: it’s a genuinely funny moment, but probably largely because of its incongruity. Jimmy finds it shocking, and we share his surprise. Jimmy’s shocked for two reasons.
Firstly, he’s being told to fuck off inside the confines of British soapville. Even in Brookside, controversial though it might have been, there are rules preventing that kind of language.
Secondly, it’s as if some code of honour has been broken. 1980s Brookside might have been edgy and ‘gritty’, if you will, but it certainly wasn’t vulgar. It was darker, harder, and perhaps more working class, but if it was, it was generally a ‘respectable’ working class. Something had changed.
I’m reminded of Mary Whitehouse’s naïve but rather quaint belief that dock workers never spoke a stronger word than ‘bloody’. Some kind of artificial frontier’s been crossed, and as the camera pans in to Jimmy’s astonished face, he realises it too.
With the news that Brookside’s 30th year anniversary will be marked by a new retrospective DVD of its best storylines and the houses that made up the close currently for sale after years of neglect, it’s worth briefly considering just what Brookside stood for.
Brookside’s twenty-one year history as Channel 4’s flagship soap opera ended in late 2003. The final few months were somewhat ignominious; for a drama previously applauded for its ability to reflect genuine social concerns into a mainstream format, with high ratings throughout most of its tenure, to end its days in a graveyard slot doesn’t quite seem fitting. Having said that, the writing had been on the wall for years.
For a supposedly working-class soap, Brookside had a lot of ambiguities that haven’t always been recognised. Most of these manifested themselves during the final decade of the show, but scratch the surface of the soap and its ‘working-class’ identity becomes ever more dubious.
Liverpool, it seems, has long walked the line between lamented post-industrial depressed city and proclaimed ‘city of culture’, a city modernised both culturally and artistically. Brookside served as a form of connective tissue between the two poles.
There are those who would argue that Brookside’s biggest artistic legacy was as a snap-shot of gritty working class life, a mainstream, serialised Boys from the Blackstuff, particularly in its critical heyday in the 1980s. But for those who would try to characterise the soap in such terms, a brief history lesson may be in order.
The producers would no doubt argue that Brookside’s identity changed over the years to reflect the time. But Brookside was always essentially a middlebrow production.
Brookside Close was built specially for the show before production started in 1982, partly because of practicality, but largely to aim towards ‘realism’. But when the words ‘1980s Liverpool’ flare up, a leafy, self-contained suburban cul-de-sac isn’t the first image that springs to mind.
Even in the 80s, there was a sizable yuppie contingent in the cast, which remained with the show throughout its run. Talking about hard-edged characters like Barry and Sheila Grant, Jimmy Corkhill and Jack Michaelson is fine, but let’s not take our eyes off the ball. One of the soap’s most popular 1990s character was an upper-class old fellow called Bing Crosby.
But how does a popular national soap, noted for its strong regional cultural slant, reflect big changes in culture? Awkwardly, is the answer. Liverpool’s cultural make-over – real or imagined – promoted two very big changes to Brookside in the mid-1990s.
The action became more focused on a new ‘parade’, a nearby development of shops, bars, nightclubs and restaurants. This was an obvious attempt to broaden the remit into a more glitzy, suburban format, ostensibly reflecting Liverpool’s rejuvenation and recovery programs.
Then, in 1995, Hollyoaks emerged. Like Brookside, Hollyoaks was created by Phil Redmond. Crucially, though, it was set in Chester, not Liverpool. Hollyoaks was plush, upmarket, had a much younger cast, and was more fashionable and media-friendly.
Brookside, meanwhile, had a lot of baggage. It wasn’t sexy enough, wasn’t modern enough and carried with it too much class history. Louder, dumber, noisier, faster, stupider… say what you will, but Hollyoaks is still going strong.
Hollyoaks is what Brookside latterly tried to be, and failed: a generalised, national, truly middlebrow soap opera.
Hungry for more Brookie? Try our review of Ron Dixon’s top five storylines