The gossip began as soon as Coronation Street did, back in December 1960. Original cast member Pat Phoenix became one of British TV’s first ever pin-ups with her sultry, earthy portrayal of Street siren Elsie Tanner – forever frowned upon by her judgmental neighbours for her loose morals, errant offspring and bold, brassy demeanour.
Phoenix broke the rules right from her audition. An unemployed actress up against 5,000 hopefuls for the part, she gave short shrift to a producer who asked her to remove her coat so he could get a better look at her figure. “Cheeky devil,” she replied. “You'll just have to guess at it, won't you?”
Phoenix feared she’d blown her big chance but, in that moment, Coronation Street creator Tony Warren was convinced she had the spark to breathe life into the pivotal role. Warren later said the first time he heard Phoenix speak Elsie’s lines “was like sex”. Prime Minister Jim Callaghan later hailed her “the sexiest thing on television”. Steady on, PM.
Yet Phoenix’s real life was almost as tempestuous, soon becoming fodder for the tabloids. Her first marriage lasted only a year. Her second, to co-star Alan Browning, fared a bit better at six years before alcoholic Browning died from liver failure. It was third time lucky when Phoenix later married Liverpudlian actor Anthony Booth, star of sitcom Till Death Do Us Part and father-in-law of former Prime Minister Tony Blair.
They’d first met in the Fifties when starring together in stage play A Girl Called Sadie. Booth played a vicar, Phoenix a tart, and they had a passionate backstage affair, despite Booth being married. They did finally marry three decades later, even if it was on Phoenix’s deathbed.
A 60-a-day smoker, she was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1986. She’d been reunited with Booth for several years but only when Phoenix was seriously ill in hospital did she agree to marry him. She died a week later. Fittingly, her funeral was no morbid affair, as a Dixieland jazz band followed her coffin through rainy Manchester. In death as in life, Phoenix brought vibrant, convention-defying colour to the city’s backstreets.
Yes, chuck, it’s not just on-screen where the Corrie scandals happen. In its six decades on-air, the ITV institution has seen almost as much drama when the cameras have stopped rolling. They’re lucky it’s a soap because there’s been a lot of dirt to wash off those Weatherfield cobbles.
Phoenix was succeeded as Street siren by ex-model Julie Goodyear, aka glamorous blonde barmaid Bet Lynch. All beehive hairdo and leopard print, tart-with-a-heart Bet eventually became the almost-respectable landlady of the Rover’s Return Inn.
Goodyear’s private life was even more a rollercoaster than Bet’s. She had a son when she was just 17 and married four times. It eventually emerged that these were “lavender marriages”, at least in part, because she was bisexual. As well as four husbands, Goodyear had four long-term relationships with women.
The love of her life, she said, was ex-girlfriend Janet Ross – her housekeeper and “soulmate”. After Ross died of cancer and left Goodyear devastated, she finally agreed to marry her present husband, Scott Brand, a “toyboy” who proposed every day for 11 years. Brand is 25 years Goodyear’s junior and eight years younger than her son. She has joked that he “only does half a job but half’s better than nothing”, adding “he’s been the best of a bad bunch”.
The early Eighties saw Salford’s foundations rocked by two less than salubrious scandals. In 1981, openly gay actor Peter Dudley, who played Bert Tilsley, was charged with gross indecency after exposing himself to another man in a public toilet. Despite having pleaded guilty to a similar offence before, Dudley claimed he was innocent this time and had been set up by police.
He opted to be tried in the Crown Court, making the case highly public. When the jury failed to agree a verdict, the judge ordered a retrial. The saga put Dudley under strain and he suffered a stroke, losing the use of his left side and, for a time, his speech.
He was keen to continue acting, so a storyline was devised where Bert was injured in an explosion. However, Dudley’s disabilities became too much to hide and he was soon written out. Before the retrial, he suffered two heart attacks, a further stroke and died aged just 48.
Around the same time, actor Peter Adamson – who played rugged tough guy Len Fairclough, a builder married to fan favourite Rita – suffered his own seedy downfall. In 1983, Adamson was charged with the indecent assault of two eight-year-old girls in a Haslingden public baths, where he assisted as a part-time swimming instructor. The charge alleged that Adamson's hands had strayed while giving swimming lessons
The trial at Burnley Crown Court was reported in lurid detail by the press. A policewoman on observation duty at the baths gave evidence that Adamson had not misbehaved in any way, and he was acquitted. Adamson was defended by celebrity barrister George Carman QC, but saddled with a huge legal bill. He tried to raise funds by selling behind-the-scenes stories to the tabloids and was sacked for breach of contract. His character’s exit was devised to ensure no sympathy from viewers, with womanising Len dying off-screen in a motorway crash after visiting his mistress.
Adamson has long battled the booze – he’d been suspended from the show without pay in 1969 for appearing inebriated during a scene – and hit the bottle hard. In a drunken, rambling account of the trial given to a Sun reporter, he appeared to admit his guilt: “I am totally guilty of everything the police said. But what I hope you will print is there was no sexual intent.”
The next Street star to fall from grace was Lynne Perrie, who played Bert Tilsley’s pocket rocket wife, Ivy. Just like “Poison Ivy”, Perrie suffered her own fair share of misfortune. She was diagnosed with cancer of the womb and a faulty heart valve, and her only son became HIV-positive and terminally ill with AIDS.
Perrie also had substance problems. At various times, she was addicted to tranquillisers, slimming pills and alcohol. Her capacity for brandy with Babycham (which she drank “by the caseload”) and “Screaming Orgasms” (a potent mixture of Cointreau, Kahlua and Bailey's) led to her being nicknamed “Champagne Perrie” and the show being dubbed “Intoxification Street”.
Matters came to a head when she took unofficial leave to have cosmetic surgery on her lips. Trout-pouting Perrie returned to work looking, as a colleague put it, “like her face had been inflated with a bicycle pump”. She’d ordered the doctor to inject double the usual dose of collagen. In an acrimonious departure, Perrie was written out in 1994. After threatening to expose details of cast members’ private lives, she was barred from Granada Studios property.
She never acted seriously again but didn’t disappear from public view. She made an ill-advised appearance on Nineties post-pub “yoof” programme The Word, performing a drunken rendition of I Will Survive complete with lascivious tongue-thrusting at young male dancers. It was voted one of “100 TV Moments from Hell”.
By the 21st century, the drugs had become more hardcore than slimming or sleeping pills. Red Dwarf actor Craig Charles, who joined in 2005 as cheeky cabbie Lloyd Mullaney, was suspended from duty just a year later after a tabloid exposé on his crack addiction.
Pictures showed Charles slumped on the back seat of a car, smoking 60 hits of crack cocaine on a four-hour journey from London to Manchester. En route, he got the driver to buy him pornographic magazines. He was cautioned for possession of a Class-A drug and checked into The Priory shortly afterwards, describing the images as “mortifying… a massive wake-up call”. He returned to the cobbles six months later.
The following year, castmate Bruce Jones, who played motor-mouthed ex-roadie Les Battersby, was axed over allegations that he insulted Corrie fans during a drunken night out. Jones launched into a foul-mouthed rant about his co-stars and spilled top-secret storylines – including the outcome of Tracy Barlow's murder trial.
He denied the allegations, saying he was stung by an undercover reporter and his comments were taken out of context, but admitted he was drinking 15 pints per day. Jones continued to battle his demons and in 2010, received an 18-month suspended sentence for drink-driving.
When the work dried up, his tax bills and mortgage repayments went unpaid, resulting in Jones becoming homeless. “After I lost my job, nothing went right,” he said. “I tried to drink my depression away. I was in suicide mode. I used to be famous for being on Coronation Street. Now I’m going to be living on the street.” He was last seen in a documentary titled Celebs On Benefits.
In the past 10 years, Street scandals seem to have been occurring more frequently. The proliferation of cameraphones and social media has contributed, of course, making it more likely for missteps to be captured. Either way, it’s been a rocky decade in dear old Weatherfield.
Veteran star Michael Le Vell, who has played mechanic Kevin Webster for 37 years, was arrested in 2011 over child abuse allegations. He was cleared of all charges two years later but during the trial, admitted to struggling with alcohol, using cocaine and cheating on his wife. Le Vell was also declared bankrupt, despite earning £250,000 on the soap. Producers suspended him, warning him to clean up his act or face being written out.
There was clearly something in the water at Webster's Autocentre. In 2013, actor Chris Fountain – who played fellow mechanic Tommy Duckworth – was sacked after posting online videos where he posed as masked rapper “The Phantom” and spouted obscene lyrics, including vile references to rape.
Another social media shocker came in 2016 when Marc Anwar, aka businessman and patriarch Sharif Nazir, was unceremoniously fired for a racist rant. In a series of Twitter messages, the Pakistan-born actor described Indians as “p**s drinking c**ts”.
Axed with equal speed was Bruno Langley, who played Todd Grimshaw, the soap’s first openly gay character. In 2017, he pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting two women at a Manchester nightclub. The actor was sentenced to a 12-month community order and 40 days of rehabilitation activity. He was also required to observe a curfew, wear an electronic tag and register as a sex offender. Langley left the acting profession in disgrace. His character has just been recast.
There have also been a pair of sex tape kerfuffles in recent years. Former X Factor winner Shayne Ward, who won a string of awards for his role as factory boss Aiden Connor, was left “humiliated” after a clip of him pleasuring himself leaked online. Castmate Kym Marsh, aka Aiden’s cousin Michelle Connor, was similarly shamed when someone tried to sell a video to the tabloids, asking £30,000 for the 57-second long clip of her performing a sex act on a man.
Marsh seems to have recovered from the embarrassment. While celebrating her 43rd birthday in a Warrington restaurant last summer, she was struggling to blow out the candles on her cake. “Blow harder!” shouted her friends. Quick-witted Marsh replied: “I can't blow any harder! Haven’t you seen my video?”
It's a comeback worthy of a Coronation Street script. As the show celebrates its 60th birthday – an astonishing achievement in these times of fickle tastes and fractured viewing – let’s salute the soap opera’s sheer resilience. It has ridden out more scandals than the Royal Family and remains just as loved.