Tuesday, 10 June 2014

When Elsie Tanner came to the Middlefield Estate

On Saturday 27th of March 1965, the actress Pat Phoenix (a.k.a. Coronation Street's 'Elsie Tanner') visited the Middlefield Lane estate to officially open 'The Precinct', the estate's new block of shops. I was there, though I only vaguely remember being on my Dad's shoulders on the edge of a big crowd, and half recall seeing Pat walking into one of the shops there, the Parkhill off-licence. I'm actually not sure if she ever came out again. But now, thanks to some fantastic photographs in the collection of the Gainsborough Heritage Association, which they've kindly let me reproduce here, we have a wonderfully evocative visual record of that day, and of the fact that she did eventually emerge from the offy after all. 

The Precinct looked like this back then - to my mind a pretty bold piece of provincial modernism by local architect, Neil Taylor:

'Parkhills', as we knew it, took up the last shop unit on the row, complete with its cool concrete and picture glass display window embedded in the end wall. And here is Pat in glorious Kodacolor just seen above the crowd as she entered into the shop:

This photo brings back so many personal memories of the shop itself. The black and white signage with its mixture of slab serif and modernist fonts was a graphic feature of my childhood and youth, and of a shop that was a sparkling, effervescent, pleasure house of Sixties abundance: Whiskies, Advocaat and Babycham, Hamlet cigars, Tartan bitter, boxes of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk miniatures, giant bags of Glacier Fruits. I would go there as a kid to buy 10 Park Drive Plain with the money wrapped up in a note from my Mum. If the camera had moved to the right a bit, we would also be able to see a clock that advertised Guinness with an image of the famous Guinness toucan and the slogan, 'It's time for a Guinness'.

Just above the shop, you can see part of a balcony that belonged to one of the maisonette flats there, and here's Pat again, appearing to the crowd on that very balcony like a Northern Sophia Loren, 'charming the crowd', as the Gainsborough Evening News put it a few days later, in a 'brown suede duster coat trimmed with fur collar and cuffs':

I'm also excited by this photo because it shows the Precinct in a still unfinished state. The maisonette next door is yet to be occupied. Imagine what a fabulously new, up-to-date way of life this home would have presented to one of Gainsborough's working-class inhabitants, with its glass front and a balcony that commanded a view across the rest of the estate and the open countryside beyond. The front of the shop unit next door to Parkhills (which was to become Philip Clark's TV and Radio rental shop) is also yet to be properly fitted out. 

All the promise of these postwar years is encapsulated in this photo. Securing the appearance of perhaps the most famous British TV star of the period is a measure of the importance and pride that the Gainsborough Urban District Council had for this still-very new estate back then - and of what still holds for me to be a perfect social and cultural state, finely balanced between a modern, consumer society and sound, forward-looking, social and communal planning by the local authority. 

At the end of Pat's visit to the Middlefield estate, according to the news report, she had 'a quick sip of champagne', and then a 'waiting car' slowly 'edged' her 'through the throng and away to lunch at the Gainsborough Old Hall.' The off-licence's manager laconically reckoned that 'It all went off very well considering there was nothing in the shop at all up to Wednesday' while, in a final speech after the civic lunch, 'Miss Phoenix thanked Mr and Mrs R.L. Cobb for the excellent catering.' What a strange, transitional, yet fundamentally sociable and optimistic world it was. 


  1. Pat Pheonix liked doing civic openings, I think she did one in Middlesbrough too. I really liked what you wrote about a strange, transitional etc world.

    1. Thanks for the comment Richard. I should think Pat got lots of requests to do things like this as one of the biggest TV stars of the time. It was a strange, transitional time - that balance between the post-war social contract and up and coming out and out consumerism. Consumerism has won now I think, sadly.

  2. Fascinating photographs, Ian. You describe the event most poetically, as always. I wonder what will be the signature items from a 2014 shop that could find their way into a blog like this written in another 40-odd years: instead of "Avocaat and Babycham, Hamlet cigars, Tartan bitter, boxes of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk miniatures, giant bags of Glacier Fruits" we might find Chemical "energy drinks", e-cigarettes and frozen ready meals, plastic bottles of cheap "white cider" and cheese strings. As time goes on, life becomes more and more prosaic.

    Allen Walker