On 22 November a resident of No. 1 Coronation Street will become the longest running fictional character in television history and next month, along with the soap opera in which he appears, he will celebrate his half century. And yet still the nation refuses to love him. Never mind that he has had the sort of eventful love and working life that would give most of us nervous breakdowns. Ken Barlow remains our national archetype of a boring man.
Only, I don’t find him boring at all. Rather, I think Ken Barlow is a fascinating prism through which to read the political and cultural history of the last half century. In the first episode of Coronation Street we saw him living at home while studying at Manchester University, clashing with his postman father over the snooty look he gave the HP sauce bottle on the dinner table. I don’t know if the Street’s creator, Tony Warren, had read Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy, published three years earlier, but Barlow was certainly the incarnation of Hoggart’s scholarship boy: the “uprooted and anxious” figure whose education had alienated him from his working-class origins.
The last few decades have been even more difficult for Ken. He was, after all, part of the left-liberal intelligentsia against whom Margaret Thatcher launched her long kulturkampf, blaming it for decades of national decline. And had he not already left the public sector, he would, as this newspaper’s most famous fictional reader, have been worried by Norman Tebbit’s prediction this summer that the spending cuts would “fall on Guardian readers, not Mirror and Sun readers doing essential jobs”. But Ken’s biggest problem is that, after 50 years of consumer populism, his own self-image as the street’s intellectual makes him seem so priggish and humourless. Clever people are now supposed to respond to contemporary culture with savviness and sarcasm, not judgmental earnestness. It is hard to imagine Ken watching a programme like The X Factor with the requisite combination of knowing irony, kitsch enjoyment and casual cruelty.
Ken’s life also sums up our equivocal attitudes to places like Coronation Street. The serial may have been instantly popular with viewers but Granada’s first chairman, Sidney Bernstein, thought its bleak imagery was the wrong image for “Granadaland” and many northerners agreed with him, blaming it for perpetuating southern stereotypes of the region and dissuading businesses from investing in it. Harold Wilson embodied this ambivalence by promising to demolish the nation’s Coronation Streets while professing to love the programme itself. The soap’s millions of viewers were still expected to follow the advice of the Tory MP Charles Curran in 1967 and rely on mortgages and the consumer boom to take them on “the escalator from Coronation Street”.
One stubborn soul failed to follow this advice: Ken Barlow. In that first episode, he was embarrassed about letting his new girlfriend see his humble surroundings and he has flirted with leaving the street many times, recently taking the drastic step of cancelling his order for the Guardian at the newsagents in preparation for going off to live on a barge. But once again he could not bring himself to leave. Unlike James Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life, who is rewarded for staying in his home town of Bedford Falls by a visit from an angel who reminds him how rich and fulfilled his life of thwarted ambition has actually been, Ken simply carries on with his imperfect marriage and dull life. He has been, among other things, a teacher, a journalist, a taxi driver, a waiter, a supermarket trolley pusher, a male escort and a Father Christmas. Rather than taking the escalator out of the class into which he was born, he has led what Hoggart once called a “carousel life”, a life not of the upward trajectory of the professional career but of living from year to year and taking whatever job turns up.
This is why Ken is so out of his time. He has refused to go along with the last half century’s stress on consumer aspiration and meritocratic elitism. Today’s young Ken Barlows might be lucky enough to win places to study at prestigious universities, but these institutions, as the recent Browne Report makes clear, will now be conceived solely as engines of economic growth and as places where students will pay higher fees in return for higher salaries when they graduate. By these lights, Ken has wasted his education and his life. He has played little part in “wealth creation” – 50 years ago, they didn’t call it wealth, they called it money – and is still stuck in the same house he lived in when he was a student, leading his carousel life, stoically and decently. What a dinosaur. No wonder we think he is boring.