Queen of the Shrews: a tribute to Jean Alexander and Hilda Ogden
The thing with shrews is this: no matter how piercing or shrill, they’re very clever.
Shrews know, y’know. They know they’ve been given a raw deal and instead of hiding it, it’s vividly there, in everything they do and are, so completely there in their voices. Hilda Ogden was queen of the shrews, Shakespearean as cobbles, fags as Marlowe. For all her dowdy, for all her cleaner, for all her curlers, Hilda was a simply sensational shrew, an icon, she led the way, cut the path for all hard-done-by, bird-like working-class shrews. And I adored her.
Like the great women of Coronation Street (and there haven’t been that many), Hilda had the perfect silhouette: an under-nourished raging sparrow, soon as you saw her, it was defiantly Hilda. Wiry, head-scarfed and be-curlered, Hilda Ogden was real and, in a bizarre way (for an under-nourished raging sparrow), incredibly regal. Hilda carried herself with the concerned hurried grace and aplomb of a late bill-payer and concealed a vivacious presence. But when she was in the room she was most definitely in the room. Hilda really did think ‘something’ of herself. She may not have been able to completely work it out but, deep inside, this shrew knew she and Stan mattered. It was in her ‘haughty beak in the air’ mannerisms, in the sing-song of her conversation; not only did she matter, Hilda ‘wanted’ desperately to matter, wanted to be important, and she was. There was a damaged realised nobility in all she was.
Jean Alexander was a consummate actor, incredibly precise and trickily creative, intelligent in the way it matters, a brilliant crafts-woman. It’s extremely difficult to create a successful soap character, lots of great actors haven’t, only very few do, Jean Alexander most certainly did. If Elsie Tanner was what every woman wanted to be (and who Hilda secretly wanted to be), then Hilda was what a lot of women were. Hilda embodied the brittle dreaming of an elevatory working-class, she wanted more, thought she deserved more, and that’s where Jean Alexander excelled.
For all the obvious comedy, Hilda was a great tragedian. Jean knew her pain and was able to eek it out so subtly, so perfectly; it was pain of the under-achieved, agony of dreaming, gnawing reality of so much of the working-class experience. For all her acerbic pavement-stoic gossiping, Hilda was a hugely unfulfilled dreamer. In that sense, I think it was a politicised performance – and that’s why the character worked so brilliantly, Hilda was attached to the aspirations of so many viewers, she was the viewer, and in TV Soap that matters. Hilda was often unpleasant, that whiplashing shrew tongue of hers could painfully scar skin. She was obviously jealous of others, her Valkyrie-like temper forever on her face. And yet Jean Alexander gave us a tender, often hurt, frightened, broken little bird.
In many ways, and this really is the genius of Jean Alexander, Genius Alexander, Hilda was also a musical theatre performance, a mini operetta of a character, the Gilbert and Sullivan of Weatherfield. Her singing was not only an integral part of who she dreamed of being, but a continuous melody woven into her narrative; this broken bird was flying high in the freedom of the songs. When you think of singing in soaps, Hilda is the first character who comes to mind. Writing this now, I can’t think of any others for whom singing was such a defining character trait. She was the very model of shrill singing soap character.
I want to say thank you to Jean Alexander. Thank you for excelling at your craft and sharing that consummate skill with so many millions of viewers. We loved you, we loved what you did with poor beleaguered be-curlered Hilda. We loved the high comedy and gut-wrenching drama. That scene where you unwrap Stan’s hospital parcel will live with me forever. Thank you for wholly understanding the generosity of acting, a lot of actors don’t but you did. Thank you for letting that generosity seep twice-weekly through our television screens. You really did profoundly touch us all.
Thank you Hilda Ogden, Queen of the Shrews.
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Supported by funding from @HeritageFundUK, Betty’s Back! will explore James’s life and works in the context of the 1920s, when the portrait was painted, and will also reveal artwork by Betty Durden Green for the first time.