Our Deirdre: a love letter to the Street’s first modern woman
I’ve been trying to work out why I was terribly moved by the death and subsequent tributes to Anne Kirkbride.
I could only come up with this: I felt like I knew her. Of course I didn’t know her, never met. Apart from rare sightings in Manchester streets ‘n’ supermarkets, I never in actuality or pragmatically socialised with her. Never jangled over a bevvy, never went on holiday, not so much as choux-pastry passed our lips, not a drizzle of tea, a mizzle of coffee, don’t share a history, never shared a newspaper, nothing. I did however know and share a history with Deirdre Hunt, Langton, Rachid, Barlow, I proper knew her. I did have a cuppa ‘n’ a bacon barm in Roy’s Rolls, drowned plenty of bevvies in The Rovers, disco-danced down town, bumped into her flicking through Take a Break in The Kabin. I even had a ringside seat when her marriages fell apart.
I’d watched Corrie with me mum since infancy. It had always been there, we’re both huge fans of the show, devoted. I remember a young and quietly glamorous polo-necked Deirdre, slim, lank-haired, elegant, bespectacled and true. She was refreshingly different from the Grande Dames lording, stilettoed clacking ‘n’ hacking about the rain-stained weather-worn cobbles of Weatherfield.
There was a lot less of her (or so it seemed) but it just goes to show, quite often, less is more. Paradoxically this lack of obvious red-brick cabaret made her stand out, gave her a different place to be in. She looked very real to me, like my brother’s girlfriends, like one day she could be my sister-in-law. Even then I remember liking her independent casual confidence; she was forward, brusque, flirty and although incredibly attractive, she let being attractive take a back seat. She most certainly wasn’t a puffed, preened, quaffed pre-war pantomime heroine. Here was the Street‘s first truly modern woman.
I remember she was an immediate hit, certainly with the women I knew and, as a child, impressing me mum ‘n’ sister-in-laws was good enough for me. Deirdre was a lot like them – spiky, opinionated, witty, ribald ‘n’ street-smart charming. She had a hand-on-hip stance and very still swagger, a thin distinctive lithe silhouette. One of those characters who could set up, command and end a scene with appropriate aplomb, not easy to do in soaps, not with all those over-costumed stagey ex-repertory egos demanding close-ups and the funniest lines. She also had the good sense to go out with Ray ‘bad-boy’ Langton, who also stole my heart.
Without labouring the point, Deirdre seemed instinctively as well as intellectually clever, able to do almost anything she wanted, a be-cobbled, tongue-whipping feminist. There was a capable and forward-thinking flair to the character, in tune I think with a lot of working class women of the time who were also getting used to making their own decisions. In many ordinary and extraordinary ways Deirdre was and continued to be a thoroughly modern day role model.
I loved the acting style Anne Kirkbride chose, that slightly heightened stage-craft awareness of the ‘other’ way of playing the drama or humour of a scene. Never over-acting but vivid and knowing enough to be purposely entertaining, always the pin-point intuitive side of camp. Playing the gravitas or comedy with total reality but able to turn it up a notch so it becomes tangibly embellished within the moment, never throw away, never dull. Again hard to pull off, especially within the intense confines of a TV screen, demanding an enormous amount of instinct, guile, style and skill. In this world of ultra-stoic naturalism, it’s an acting style I respond to and truly admire. She also had that old filmic way of working a camera, a movie-star quality, I think coming from repertory times when cobbles were painted on reused hessian, stuck down with gaffer-tape and spot-lit from above.
Although a real and natural woman, Deidre also broke the mould. There was a shadow hint of the masculine about the character, a woman-man in the man-woman’s world of Coronation Street. There was certainly no desire to over-feminise that brilliant voice, a voice becoming gruffer, huskier and more commanding as the decades took their toll. A voice becoming a trademark.
Although we loved her and she was tremendously popular, Deirdre wasn’t an easy character. She was shaded ‘n’ vixen, a multiple of complicated traits which, in the hands of a less experienced, less empathic actor, could come off as seemingly unpleasant. Deirdre had a determined roving eye for the fellas and often acted on it, she was covertly sexually liberated, on the look-out as it were. Sometimes infidelity doesn’t work while you’re watching it unfold on screen but it most certainly did with Deirdre. With Deirdre’s affairs the nation was always behind her, they actually wanted, nay prayed, she’d be unfaithful and, when she was, boy-oh-boy the ratings rocketed. Perhaps that’s because the viewers wanted to be unfaithful too, precariously living out their moon-lit alleyway fantasies though the conniving machinations of our goggle-eyed temptress.
Deirdre was an every-woman but more than that, maybe what every woman wanted to be. Whatever Anne Kirkbride did with the character, no matter how seemingly socially unpleasant, was always a huge ratings winner. The country absolutely loved and trusted Deirdre, even when she was shagging behind her husband’s back. Never was she branded a super-bitch or other such ghastly soap monikers. The audience loved her mistakes because they were the mistakes they had made or wanted to make. Deirdre was making their mistakes for them. This was something both the actor and viewer were in on and I think that’s the biggest compliment any performer could garner.
I most definitely didn’t know Anne Kirkbride but I did know the multiple-surnamed Deirdre. I grew up with her, she was a friend. A televisual constant and, in a real world of actual instability, those so-called fictional characters are far more than just fictional, they’re necessary, showing you how to get through life. Thing is though and this is odd, Deirdre wasn’t fictional to me, far from it. She was real, strong, flippant ‘n’ funny, could put groups of men in their place with a growl ‘n’ glare, kind wily ‘n’ sly, wanted what she wanted and often got it. Things I admired and wanted to reach for in myself.
It really is very hard to create a successful soap character – just look at the thousands of superb actors who haven’t pulled it off. The ones who do put something of themselves into the role they’re nurturing. So maybe in a small way I did know Anne Kirkbride because there’s simply no way I didn’t know and completely fall in love Deirdre Hunt, Langton, Rachid, Barlow.
By Gerry Potter
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