Let’s honour our soap stars – in life as well as death

Double act: Bill Tarmey and Liz Dawn were much-loved characters Jack and Vera Duckworth in the Street for four decades - REX/Shutterstock
Double act: Bill Tarmey and Liz Dawn were much-loved characters Jack and Vera Duckworth in the Street for four decades - REX/Shutterstock

The death of Liz Dawn last week produced encomia from across the entertainment industry. Usually, such moments elicit bland platitudes – but the tributes to the Coronation Street actress, who had played Vera Duckworth almost consistently for 33 years, were different. They were heartfelt, certainly, but they also articulated something that had gone  unheralded before: Liz Dawn was a remarkable actress.

Nevertheless, you won’t see Dawn on a roll call of past Bafta nominees: only one Coronation Street actor has ever achieved that accolade: Jean Alexander (Hilda Ogden), who was nominated after she bowed out from the soap in 1987 (in truth, Alexander should have won three years earlier for her devastating study of grief after Hilda’s husband Stan died). Meanwhile, June Brown (Dot Cotton) is the only cast member of EastEnders to have been similarly honoured. No one from Emmerdale (or Hollyoaks for that matter) has ever come close.

Soaps allow actors to immerse fully in a character over decades

This is, I think, snobbish. Some of the best TV performances from the past half century have been wrought in the fast-turnaround, emotionally unvarnished world of soap opera. Pat Phoenix, Sue Johnston, Jessie Wallace, Charlie Brooks, Sue Nicholls and Michelle Collins are among the performers who spring to mind, but the list could go on and on. You’ll notice that I immediately think of female actors, and this is no accident. Soap famously thrives on strong women, and it’s the matriarchs, minxes and murderesses that have really got into the nation’s psyche. Think of Kat Slater revealing to her “sister” Zoe that she was actually her mother, or Elsie Tanner confronting Ena Sharples in the most public manner after the Weatherfield battleaxe accused the street siren of wanton harlotry.

June Brown as Dot Cotton in 'EastEnders'
June Brown as Dot Cotton in 'EastEnders'

Above all, such women have always provided great entertainment, and entertain was certainly what Liz Dawn did. Brilliantly. But that also contributed to her failure to be taken seriously. Together with Bill Tarmey as her work-shy, pigeon-fancying husband Jack, she created one of TV’s great comedy double acts. Dawn was never trying to portray Saint Joan or Mother Courage in Vera’s front room, but through humour as opposed to eyebrow-furrowed intensity, she could often cut to the quick and provide poignancy too: who would not have shed a silent tear over Jack and Vera’s last dance?

The effectiveness of Dawn’s performance was also due to Vera’s longevity. Over four decades, audiences were able to familiarise themselves with the vicissitudes of the Duckworths’ marriage – those ear-shattering slanging matches which could be heard all the way to Lime Street, the lovely tender moments as they reflected on a relationship which had somehow survived all sorts of setbacks. Jack and Vera made each other laugh and they made us laugh, too.

This skill, of developing a character over several decades, is peculiar to soap. No other format allows an actor to immerse themselves so fully in a character – and the results are often formidable. Coronation Street, which has been running since 1960, is particularly good at holding on to its actors and one, in particular, has lived an entire life on TV. We have seen William Roache’s Ken Barlow transform from angry young man to corduroy-wearing teacher to éminence grise of the Street – a clever working-class man, slightly too old to embrace the Permissive Society, who has remained steadfast to the community that raised him. In Ken, we not only have the history of an entire character, but a history of the changes in contemporary British society, too.

The graduate: Sarah Lancashire in Happy Valley 
The graduate: Sarah Lancashire in 'Happy Valley'

Apparently, Roache tried to get out of his Coronation Street contract very early on for fear of being typecast, and that has been a perpetual source of anxiety for soap actors. For many years, a long spell in soap was regarded as career suicide. More recently, actors have proved such received wisdom wrong, however. Suranne Jones, Sarah Lancashire and Katherine Kelly (again, it’s the women) have found success post-soap in roles that have showcased their range and banished any associations with the parts that made them famous. Not once when watching Last Tango in Halifax or Happy Valley do you see Lancashire and think of the ditsy, kind-hearted barmaid Raquel whom she played for nearly 300 episodes.

But while it is great to see a talent such as Lancashire’s soar, I can’t help thinking that, when we praise her, we are also saying: “Hasn’t she done well to get off the treadmill and succeed as a serious actress?” Indeed, I have previously thought that in the past. However, the death of Liz Dawn has reminded me that soap actors like her should be praised for a sort of selfless commitment to their roles. It’s an anti-careerist approach without ego, expressing a devotion to that most important aspect of drama – characterisation. Dawn will always be our Vera – and there is absolutely no shame in that.

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