by Andrew Cobby
"Flirtatious by nature, she was all woman and she knew it."
In the early 1980s, when Coronation Street was a wondrous piece of television, there was talk of Laurence Olivier taking a bit part in it as a tramp. At the time Olivier could justifiably be considered The Greatest Actor In The World but the producers wisely realised that a decent storyline took precedence over a star name and decided there was no room for him in the Street. Anyway, they probably thought, we have managed to secure the services of the great Sam Kydd and that's as close as we want to come to hiring a star name.
Now the Street plays a game with which I am not familiar. Things move on, I understand that, but it doesn't mean I have to follow them. If you find yourself unable to sleep, instead of counting sheep, you could try counting the number of extraneous celebrities who have trodden the cobbles in the last ten years or so. I tried this once and got as far as Norman Wisdom before becoming distracted with thoughts of how a man who made some marvellous comedies could end his career as a curiosity jogging past the Rovers.
1980s vintage Coronation Street was an ensemble piece, played out by recognisable characters in recognisable situations. It wasn't glamorous but it wasn't supposed to be. Those who wanted glamour could watch Dallas. Of course, there was the odd resident who emigrated in search of a better life (some even as far as Viaduct Street on the other side of the, er, viaduct) but the majority preferred to seek refuge in the Rovers Return. I am grateful that they did because they provided marvellous entertainment which introduced me to the wonders of Suzie Birchall.
Played by the lovely Cheryl Murray, Suzie helped me to get over the tragic death of Ernie Bishop with indecent haste. For those who don't know, Ernie was Emily Bishop's husband. For those who don't know, Emily Bishop is....I could go on but I won't. Ernie was a former photographer, lay preacher and some-time pianist. Yes, that piano in the corner of the room wasn't there just to impress Ena Sharples, Ernie could actually play the thing and he proved it by providing musical accompaniment to struggling songstress Rita Littlewood before she opened the little goldmine that is The Kabin. Ernie's final job was as a wages clerk at Baldwin's Casuals. He didn't know that it would be his final job until he was made aware of the fact by, if memory serves, a double barrel shotgun, during a wages snatch at his workplace.
With her red hair and tight fitting clothing, it wasn't really a surprise that Suzie replaced Ernie Bishop in my affections. She had an effect on my adolescent loins that I would have labelled troubling had I not enjoyed it so much. She was a great character. Flirtatious by nature, she was all woman and she knew it (and she made sure everyone else knew it too). I was going to write a few short lines detailing what I would like to have happened between me and Suzie but I have been advised by my advisor that it's advisable to save this for the Playboy version. My advisor never lets me down, apart from that time when he thought it would be a good idea to go and see the film Confetti at the pictures. It's not the wasted time I mind so much, it's the money. That's £8.20 including parking I'll never see again (just like that film). Confetti aside, I have taken his advice so, saving the fruitier prose for Playboy, I'll say that Suzie would have made mincemeat of me but I would have died a happy teenager and leave it that.
Suzie was originally introduced as a friend of Tricia Hopwood in the late 1970s. Tricia, played by Kathy Jones, was soon usurped as Suzie's best friend by Gail-Whatever-Her-Surname-Is-Now. Back then she was plain Gail Potter, spinster of this parish who had not yet begun her quest to hunt down and marry every eligible man in the UK.
In truth, the writing was on the wall for Kathy when Gail gave her a can of Oust! air freshener as a birthday present. The rumour mill, that is to say Minnie Caldwell, suggested that Kathy intended to meet the challenge head on by giving Gail a reciprocal can of Gertcha! rat poison, as endorsed by Chas and Dave, but Minnie was mistaken and poor Kathy was soon on her way. Regular readers will be aware that Kathy Jones was also elbowed out of the hot seat at A Handful of Songs so I sense a pattern emerging for the unfortunate Kathy.
Few men were safe from Suzie's womanly wiles and those that she ensnared went happily to their doom with a song in their hearts, probably not too dissimilar to the soldiers in the early days of World War One. It might be a long way to Tipperary but it's not half so far to Suzie's boudoir.
Some men were immune to her, though. Forward thinking Jack Walker was out of harm's way but only because he took the precaution of dying seven years before her first appearance on the Street. Battling pensioner Albert Tatlock was only safe from her because he produced a medical certificate from his doctor stating that any strenuous exercise would put his life in serious danger. I, and probably a fair percentage of the viewing public, found Albert to be a bit of a misery guts and I always hoped that Suzie would disregard his medical certificate and pounce on him while he was polishing his war medals. Albert had lived with Ken Barlow for so long that Ken must have forgotten that he wasn't even a blood relation (and crafty Albert wasn't going to remind him). Ken dutifully referred to him as Uncle Albert but he was actually a relation of Valerie, one of Ken's doomed loves. She was so doomed that she electrocuted herself with a faulty hair-dryer. Electrocution was a popular way to go in those days. I seem to remember there were numerous rock stars (well, I can think of at least two) who ended their days on the wrong end of an electric current. Did no one know how to wire a plug in the 1970s? When Valerie died Albert knew a good thing when he saw it so he refused to budge and spent the rest of his days being a burden to Ken.
"everyone else was fair game for Miss Birchall."
Rovers pot man Fred Gee was free from danger because, well, he was Fred Gee, Rovers pot man, and no right minded woman would touch him with a ten-foot pole. Thinking about it, I'm being a little unfair on old Fred. He did find love, in a giving-a-starving-dog-a-rubber-bone sort of way, with divorcee Eunice Nuttall. She must have thought that hitching up with Fred would help her fulfil her plans of making it big in the brewery business but this was destined to fail because of her previous light fingered ways in other jobs. Eunice left the Street in disgrace and was last seen living under an assumed named in Emmerdale. My last memory of Fred is the time he drove Annie Walker's cherished Rover into a lake and there are worse ways to be remembered. Just ask Brian Hillman.
These three aside, everyone else was fair game for Miss Birchall. She worked in Mike Baldwin's shop, The Western Front, selling all things denim with Gail (or, to give her the name by which she was known in our household, Little Miss Bossy Boots). Baldwin was a chip off the old block. He liked the women, did Mike. His dad Frankie obviously did as well because I remember him turning up from the smoke, in the form of the afore-mentioned Sam Kydd, with a blonde floozie played by Debbie Arnold on his arm. Like Suzie, Mike was not averse to a bit of illicit grappling and I think he was more than a match for La Birchall. It would have been a case of irresistible force meets immovable object except that they were both irresistible forces, irresistibly compelled to have knowledge of each other amidst the flailing denim.
In a bid to make herself appear all edgy and up to date, Suzie was not above making the odd reference to Ian Dury. All her hard work was in vain, though, because she insisted on pronouncing his surname as Drury. Never mind, I'll forgive Suzie anything, even her affair with Mike Baldwin's underling Steve Fisher. Suzie disappeared from the Street in the late 70s and exiled herself in London, no doubt from the shame of realising that she had been mispronouncing the name of Ian Dury for the last couple of years. She returned in 1983, a wiser, sadder woman with a broken marriage and a black eye from her ex-husband. I'd like to have got my hands on him. I would have tutted at him like he'd never been tutted at before.
Suzie was taken in by Elsie Tanner who probably saw something of a kindred spirit in the feisty redhead (are redheads ever anything other than feisty?). Her return was short lived because she unwisely tried to seduce Brian Tilsley. Yes, I'll repeat that because I couldn't believe it in 1983 and I can't believe it now – she tried to seduce Brian Tilsley, lifeless husband of best friend Gail. Played by a Teesside actor, Brian was the Street's car mechanic, much given to admiring himself in wing mirrors and looking unconvincing with a spanner in his hand. I am not one to disrespect the work of a fellow-Teessider but it wasn't the most complete performance you'll ever see. It must be quite a feat to be out-acted by a can of WD40 but he managed to pull it off, twice-weekly, for most if not all of his ten years on the Street. And talk about wooden... So, as it turns out, I am one to disrespect the work of a fellow-Teessider after all. Who'd have thought it?
Turfed out by Elsie Tanner, Suzie was banished from the Street and was last heard of heading down Blackburn way. I'll always remember her time in Weatherfield. She brings back my teenage years, a time when I was clueless and when I would sooner have used a plug wired by a 1970s rock star than talk to a girl. Poor Suzie, all she wanted was a bit of fun. On her headstone there will surely be inscribed the words 'Here lies Suzie Birchall. She just couldn't help herself, except that she quite often did, and usually to married men' and this viewer can imagine the inscriber etching out those words and shaking his head at the hollowness of the human condition.
Andrew Cobby 2016 for Television Heaven