I feel so sad writing this. Late last night we all heard with such sadness that Jean Alexander passed away yesterday at the age of 90. She had turned 90 only three days before. It has been so touching to read tributes to Jean across social media and in the press. She was, and is, held in such high regard – a marker of a legend and an icon. Hilda Ogden, to which Jean will be eternally known for, is one of Coronation Street’s most iconic characters as well as television’s most iconic creations. To me, Hilda was part of my own “Corrie quartet” which featured Ena Sharples, Elsie Tanner and Annie Walker. Four fabulously strong women who have gone to that Rovers Return in the sky.
Hilda was way before my time. As a child, I was completely unaware of the Corrie greats. But thanks to the Granada Plus repeats (a channel which should never have closed down), aged 6 I discovered a wealth of incredible characters – Hilda being one of them. One of the first episodes I saw was Stan’s funeral. I still have that episode on a well-worn VHS that I taped from the repeats and it was beautiful. Of course, as the years have gone by, DVD’s of classic episodes have become available as well as hundreds of episodes uploaded onto YouTube so I’ve been able to see Hilda in her full glory.
But how can I sum up such an iconic character? It’s funny seeing Hilda in her earliest episodes. Joining the show in 1964, Hilda, along with hubby Stan, were COMPLETELY different. They were common as muck for the existing residents of the street, shouting and arguing but very quickly they settled in and as Elsie remarked in Hilda’s first episode from July 1964 “they’ll fit in here like a glove”. And they did. Hilda quickly got a job as the Rovers cleaner, a job she would keep for the next 23 years so she instantly became part of the fabric of the show.
Not only this, Hilda provided vital, and fantastic, humour to the show with her singing, malapropisms, nosiness and life with her beloved Stanley. Several moments stick out for me. The famous Muriel on the wall is always mentioned, and deservedly so. But the Oggies looking after some chickens in their back yard thanks to lodger Eddie Yeats’ crackpot schemes is wonderfully hilarious, especially with Hilda coming back to no.13 after visiting son Trevor to find a chicken on the table! Another moment sees Stan and Hilda enter a Mr and Mrs contest at the Rovers. Hilda is convinced they’ll win but, as usual, Stan puts his foot in it and they lose to Gail and Brian (the first of Gail’s many doomed marriages). To the modern viewer, these stories may seem uneventful, or maybe even boring. But they are funny, natural and well written. And the moment where Hilda holds a seance in 1977. It has to be seen to be believed, exceptionally hilarious.
But it is not just humour that made Hilda a legend – the drama also played a vital part. Jean was an incredible actress and her acting range was shown through many incredible episodes. Two stick out in my mind. First, in October 1976, when Hilda discovers that Stan has been stealing money from her gas and electric tin. Prior to this she has, again, become the laughing stock of the street when her “red rotten mac” has been used on a guy for fireworks night. Jean gives a masterful performance. She is wretched, the anger is evident in her voice and she can’t stomach the sight of Stan any longer. For all of their ups and downs, and there were lots, this is the most powerful. Stealing from Hilda’s tin, money that she had slaved over for weeks on end, valuable money that the Oggies desperately needed in order to survive had been squandered to give Stan beer money – a disgusting act on behalf of Stan. But, despite this, Hilda adored him. And when Stan died in November 1984, Hilda was now alone for the first time. Those entire November ’84 episodes is Jean’s acting masterpiece. Stan became extremely ill and was taken to hospital. Hilda couldn’t bear the idea of Stan being in hospital and was frightened he would never come out; which sadly turned out to be true. For all of his faults, Stan was her life and her world. His funeral episode is a masterpiece in both drama, script and acting. Throughout the episode Hilda is strangely calm, something Ivy and Vera both remark on, and it is obvious she is putting on bravado for the neighbours. At the end of that day, and when son Trevor hurriedly leaves, she is completely alone in a house full of memories. Fiddling with a package of Stan’s belongings from the hospital, she takes them out one by one. She then comes to his glasses case but there are no eyes behind them. Stan has gone and the glasses are just another object. She breaks down having kept her tears in all day. This scene earned Jean a prestigious Royal Television Society award and is a scene that has gone down in television history for its simplicity and emotion.
While her performances made her an icon, the image of Hilda is the most iconic. She had a voice like a foghorn and an equally grating singing voice which was always met with disdain from the street’s residents. I’m reminded of Bet shouting “Hilda belt up chuck there’s a good un!” while she cleaned out the Rovers select in 1983 (for her own anniversary party!) and singing at the top of her voice, proud to have marked her ruby wedding anniversary with Stan. But this sparrow-like woman with curlers, a pinny and a scruffy mac always seemed to act as if she was a cut above the residents. She always bragged about something whether it was cleaning for the Lowther’s or acting refined while staying at a posh hotel for the Oggie’s second honeymoon in 1977. Ah that famous line. “Woman Stanley. Woman!” Legendary. But let’s not forget that Hilda could be judgemental, which often caused several arguments, as well as ruthless and was fiercely protective of Stan; even spitting on the Rovers floor in 1972 after Stan was accused of being a peeping Tom. She was a sad character underneath it all; lazy husband, endless bad luck, a son who wanted nothing to do with her or Stan. Jean’s acting ability made Hilda a three dimensional character and we always sympathised with her even when she was being a nosy cow!
Despite this, she was deeply loved by the residents and the affection and love for Hilda was apparent when Stan died. The neighbours rallied round helping Hilda and gave her love and support. And when the time had come for Hilda to leave the street, on Christmas Day 1987, the residents threw her a surprise party. They had come to see her as a massive part of their lives and were used to her being there. And even when she sang ‘Wish Me Luck as You Wave Me Goodbye’ they all cheered and joined in. Hilda had them in the palm of her hands, a captive audience at long last.
Hilda is up there with Ena, Elsie and Annie; forever locked in time as television greats. Dickens could’ve created Hilda Ogden – a tragic, comic heroine who audiences come to love and adore. With the death of Jean Alexander, for me, the old Coronation Street has died with her.