Local Author, Matthew Jacobson reflects on 1980s Liverpool and his favourite TV Soap, Brookside.
Teacher: “Jacobson, why are you late for Geography?”
“I’ve been to Brookside Close, Sir.”
Teacher: “Why have you been to Brookside Close?”
“I was worried about the residents, especially Damon and the Grant family.”
Teacher: “For Goodness sake, Jacobson, again? Don’t be late in the future, all lessons are important. Geography, amongst other things will help you make sense of the world around you.”
“But Sir, Morrissey does that for me – he’s the singer from The Smiths.”
Teacher with a sigh: “Brookside, Morrissey… Jacobson, stop this dangerous dreaming! Books out please, pen at the ready and don’t be late again regardless of television soaps and singers”. I sit down and open the battered and bruised book. I then notice my contribution to the last Geography lesson – I had scribbled down with a determined grip that cut through two pages: The Smiths & Brookside, Kings of the 80’s
As the lesson continues for others and starts for me, I lean my head on my hand and my elbow onto the desk. I sigh and sense that this is my yesterday, my today and my tomorrow.
I turn to look out of the window and can barely see anything through the dirt and dust. With a grimace and a grudge, I clean the smudge and stains from the grey glass and peer through the windowpane to the outside world, but I can only see one side of the school building and the field. The field is exposed and windswept, cold and raw. After a recent split-second, shuddering rain shower, there are now gallons of water sporadically located across the greenery, providing my mind with a stepping stone assault course across the land to the gate – the gate that leads to the street and the street leads to Brookside Close.
The walk to Brookside Close was always an exciting and beautiful lunchtime or free lesson stroll to somewhere I loved. Turning right at the school gate, the first stop was for a lunch that gave no healthy substance, but pure pleasure. Walking with treats through the streets brought a break from the school classroom chaotic chambers. And walks there during school summer holidays also provided moments of peace and tranquility.
When alone, the walk would allow me to contemplate precious things, to ponder, to question, to wonder about all things in “life”. When walking with friends, we would walk and talk about those precious things, The Smiths, television, books, music and of course Brookside. We would debate and decide; we laughed, and we cried, but friendships blossomed and a companionship and membership with a city and its community grew.
At our destination, as close as we could to Brookside Close, we stood by the barriers, bushes or street corners with the security guards watching our every move. We tried everything to convince many to let us in. We were, suddenly, actors, extras, writers or delivery men. None of our strategic planning worked, so we stared and pointed and watched as the cast went by. I was 16 clumsy and shy, so a passing hello was out of the question.
My journey to Brookside would see me leave home in Norris Green to School in Croxteth and to leafy West Derby to Brookside Close. The Liverpool Streets in the 80’s asked many questions. You could hear and see the floored frustrations from the heavy heart of crumbling communities. The city was in free fall and just about to be pushed into the Mersey with a drive-by managed decline. It was a careless and cruel act to deliberately harm.
For me, 80’s Brookside captured that journey and the questions and frustrations of Liverpool life. The powerful scripts and writers, talented actors, producers and crew captured the emotion and aggression of language on the streets and this was reflected on the TV. Working class families with working class values grabbed the attention of millions with initial hard-hitting storylines of unemployment, redundancies, strikes and unions. But it was surrounded or wrapped up with love and warmth within characters and their humour. The families felt real, they felt like our friends and neighbours. You wanted to help, most of all, you wanted them to succeed.
As the drama was set just down the road from me, I felt the streets entwined with television. The street was the reality and reality was thankfully highlighted by television.
This successful Channel 4 drama continued through the 80s & 90s years with blistering pace but, slowed down as we entered the year 2000. Throughout the decades, Brookside started debates with storylines such as sieges, saga’s, lesbian kisses, assaults and patio funeral parlours. Storylines, I feel, that are still talking points in the minds of many today. The storylines gripped, but the grip eventually loosened until its final day in 2003. An end to an era, but a wonderful era none the less.
And so here I am today, after 30 plus years, in 2020. Still rubbish at Geography, but now interviewing two of the Brookside cast, Justine Kerrigan (Tracy Corkhill) and Michael Starke (Sinbad), about their early years, characters, storylines and memories of Brookside.
Interview with Justine Kerrigan, Tracy Corkhill
The early Justine Kerrigan, what was your favourite TV show and why?
Gosh, I had so many. ‘tele’ was so good then. I was really into comedy and Carla Lane’s, Bread. I used to watch that with my Dad and I still watch the reruns now and still have a belly laugh. I also absolutely loved The Young Ones, there was nothing like it. Looking back, it was a real treat to be growing up with something so new and so different, it was hysterical!
Your Grandfather, Peter Kerrigan was a wonderful actor who appeared in Boys from the Blackstuff and Brookside. Both hugely political and for me tackled and represented life in Liverpool. Was Peter interested in politics and was this part of the attraction to the roles?
My Grandad was very political in real life and would get heavily involved in things such as school closures and offer his support to many other injustices. He was very well read and had a good grasp of what socialism was. As passionate as he was about politics, it did result in some pit falls as he ended up blacklisted on the docks. He wrote some political literature during his time on the docks, but his advice to me was always ‘don’t bite the hand that feeds you’. I think he just wanted us to have a happy uncomplicated life. However, it’s difficult to work for the NHS and not be politically aware!
As for the roles, I think the company he kept such as Jim Allen and Ken Loach just naturally lead him to those roles and of course he was the best man for the job. Boys from the Blackstuff was a gift of a role and really raised his profile. I still can’t watch the wheelchair scene with Michael Angelis without tears.
Grandad was a brilliant man, a genius! He seemed to know the answer to everything and if he didn’t, he would find out. He was very creative and a great cook and despite his profile, he was a proper Grandad.
Was he a big influence on you and help you into acting?
Yes, for sure, it was my Grandad who got me involved in acting. I can honestly say that it wasn’t a path I would have followed – had it not been for him, but I don’t regret any of it. After Brookie, I just didn’t think the acting and travelling and looking for work was for me.
You played a small role in Brookside before playing, Tracy Corkhill, a sultry teenager with her own 80’s fashion ideas, that quickly gave Tracy her own identity – did you find teenagers in Liverpool following Tracy’s fashion?
Erm, I hope nobody was influenced as she was so badly dressed! I think Tracy was voted the worst dressed TV character by one magazine. Quite an accomplishment! I do quite like that though as it gave the character an identity. Some very, very stupid hair styles though.
Tracy’s storylines included a controversial affair with a school teacher, did this role bring additional pressure as an actress and for the show?
Some of Tracy’s storylines were quite controversial at the time. I remember the school teacher story attracting a bit of attention in the press. I never felt any pressure though, to be honest, I was just a fourteen-year-old girl who had landed a cushy job and I don’t think I was that type of kid. I just turned up to work, did the job and went home.
Also, an admirer of Tracy’s committed suicide. How did you feel when you read the storyline?
The suicide story was a biggie! Very different from previous storylines. It was always a great feeling when you were going to be the main character in a big storyline. It would involve working lots of hours and lots of lines to learn within – which I loved doing. Although Tracy had been involved in very grown up story lines from day one, at this point, Tracy seemed to grow up and take responsibility for her life. I quite liked her then.
And a relationship with Barry Grant, was this another transition for her character?
Having the opportunity to work with Paul Usher day to day was great, in fact the whole time in the Corkhill’s when Sheila moved in and Barry and Tracy were an item was a real purple patch for me.
Working with Sue Johnston and John McArdle, what was it like to work with them?
Sue Johnson is just a phenomenal actor. It’s hard to describe what it was about her. She made it seem so effortless, even though we know it’s not. I loved working with her. Looking back, my best performances were with Sue. I think I learnt acting as a skill or craft from her and really upped my game.
John McArdle was another delight to work with. John and Paul Usher had so much energy on set. John would take you by surprise with the energy he put into everything, he kept you on your toes. He would start off in some scenes and I would have no idea where it would go, he was amazing at that. He really is a brilliant actor and a lovely man.
I do feel I have to mention Kate Fitzgerald (Doreen Corkhill), another brilliant actor. I bonded with Kate straight away and she spoke to me like I was an adult, which I really appreciated. I had never or since – met anyone like her. Also, Jason Hope who played Rod, – we also used to have a laugh. I am still very fond of my Brookie family.
Tracy progressed into a business woman and after nine years, it was the end for yourself, what was it like without Brookside in your day to day?
When Tracy was written out, I was honestly very shocked. I thought – “Oh, ok, what now?”
I did, kind of build myself up to have my own exit story, which sadly never came. I really don’t know why? It was a given that any long-term character would be given an exit story, but she wasn’t, so I was a bit bereft for a while. It just ‘ended’.
The spin off, ‘South’, was also a success and you worked alongside my hero, Morrissey. While recording South, did you miss the Brookside Liverpool family?
Filming South was such a memorable time, with my mate Sean McKee. And of course, the Morrissey appearance. The first time I met Morrissey was at a Brookie’ do with my good friend Rachelle Labone in the Dev’ on Edge Lane. He was a good sport, and it was a very funny night.
It was a very different experience to Brookie. I had to work away from home, which I wasn’t sure about at first. I remember my Dad having to drag me to Lime Street station for my first trip there. The Thames TV crew were just fabulous and made me and Sean feel very welcome. It was a real glimpse of what it was like to work for a big TV company like Thames TV.
I had a chauffeur to take me to and from location every day and a Winnebago! That really was something to talk about with my mates when I got to go home of a weekend. It was a very different process to Brookie with a big clapperboard and a substantial budget. I had a great time there, and it was a wrench when I had to leave to come home. But Frank Cottrell Boyce wrote us a lovely script and it was just a pleasure. I’m so grateful for that experience.
I remember the press screening on a big screen in London. It was so weird. Invitations and running orders with mine and Sean’s images on. I was thinking ‘all of this fuss for me’. For someone who was quite shy, I think that whole experience was a real confidence boost for me.
Do you reflect on Brookside and ever find yourself going back to the close?
I went for years without really thinking much about my time at Brookside. I suppose I was busy making a life and having kids. But with social media – you can’t really avoid it. I think the best thing about social media is the reconnecting with cast and crew. I always loved hanging round wardrobe and make-up as they made the best tea and had the best gossip, so it’s nice to be in touch with them all again.
I haven’t ever visited the close since the show ended. The homes are privately owned and I think I have moved on too much. It was such a long time ago.
And finally, “On the Streets I Ran” – could you please name three Liverpool Streets that mean the most to you and why?
Hope Street – home of the Everyman and our two Beautiful cathedrals. Also, home to Frederik’s the Pen Factory and my all-time favourite, The Quarter, is around the corner.
Bold Street – growing up in the 80’s, Bold St was a bit of a hot spot for me. My Dad used to take me for tea there quite often and the shops were great. Always had a buzz about it. It’s also home to Matta’s so what’s not to like?
Lark Lane – No explanation…. oh, ok then, Keith’s Wine bar!
Thank you so much to Justine for her time, as a huge Brookside fan – the pleasure and the privilege is mine.
Interview with Michael Starke, Sinbad
What were your favourite shows on television?
When I was a lad, I was a telly addict. My favourite shows were all the Gerry Anderson stuff, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet etc. I was a child in the sixties and one of my favourite shows was The Monkees. Acting and being in a band being two of my dreams.
And when did you first begin acting?
I first began acting in the early eighties. I did a fringe play for Liverpool Lunchtime Theatre called, Are You Awake written by Mark Davies Markham. I had my Equity card and I had done an extensive amount of extra and walk on work. But I felt that to be taken seriously and to get a proper start into Theatre – I needed to get involved in something new and exciting. Liverpool Lunchtime Theatre was quite prestigious at the time.
Sinbad become a regular on Brookside and extremely popular. Did you feel the popularity of the character grow?
Sinbad was great fun to play and began as a recurring character brought in originally for two episodes. I think because he was such an easy character to link up stories and because of his familiarity with the other people in the cast, he became one of those roles that they could just keep bringing back.
I spent the first five years or so just popping in and out. I was doing so much Theatre at the time including touring and it suited me as it gave me a TV profile which helped with theatre work. Something to stick on a poster I suppose.
Being from the city I got to know a lot of the cast and crew socially as well. Having contacts within Mersey TV made it easy to find out if my availability was being checked. But, as I only did a few episodes per year, it began to frustrate me, having to keep signing on in between jobs?
People in the Social Office used to give me funny looks. I think they thought, like many people, that I was loaded being – on the telly- I realised I would have to ask for a more permanent status or leave altogether. I asked to see the producer and I told her the situation. She immediately signed me to a six-month contract with a guarantee of thirty episodes. The ‘retainer’ was about £150 a week. Happy days!
Once I was more established, the character began to become more central and ended up living in every house on the close over the next few years. I loved the funny side to him. The fact he was always getting into scrapes, but Sinbad had a heart of gold.
Sinbad progressed into more serious storylines, especially, the notorious Jordache “body under the patio’ storyline. This took Brookside to another level and gripped the nation. Did it bring extra pressure, excitement, or both?
In my humble opinion I think the ‘Jordache body under the patio’ storyline was one of the best eras in TV Soap history.
It was a brave move to deal with the issues involved and I think a lot of care was taken to treat the story with the respect and consideration it merited. The program was the first to use a ‘Helpline’ that ran onscreen at the end of the episodes.
Brookie really pushed the envelope at the time and paved the way for other TV Soaps’ to follow suit. It was an amazing time and the viewing figures jumped from three to nine million viewers in a very short time.
I’m quite proud of my association with that storyline and I think its success was due to the collaborative efforts of everybody involved. The producers, writers, cast and crew treated the sensitive subject with care and respect. I think the integrity of the show at that time brought a new perspective on long running drama.
But, if I may, I think a lot of praise must go to the actors who played the family.
Brain Murray was amazing as Trevor. Playing totally against type and bringing such realism and menace to his character. Sandra Maitland who played Mandy the Mum who does everything she can to protect her children from Trevor. Finally moving them to a ‘Safe House’ on Brookside Close. Tiffany Chapman who played Rachel was only 13 at the time but displayed such maturity with the difficulties involved with playing such a complex young character.
Then there’s Anna Friel who played ‘Beth’. She was the heart and soul of the story. And in my opinion, she was the best young actor on television at the time. She had so much to deal with. The rest of us were always available for advice and a chat. But she had such a strength of character that she handled it all with a maturity beyond her years. Her family were very supportive and together we had her back.
The great thing about Brookside then was the help and friendship of the other younger characters in the show. We all looked out for each other when we could.
Was the storyline a challenge for you as an actor?
As for myself. the storyline gave me an opportunity to explore so many deep emotions and to find things within the character that would change and develop him as a person. It was a long and hard subject to deal with.
We were living with the characters and going home after a long day shoot to learn pages and pages of lines for the following day. But, what some people may not realise is that because of the practicalities of filming a show such as Brookside. Schedules were apt to sudden changes at the last moment. Such issues could affect the scene rota and could involve having to learn a different set of scenes. It was tough at times, but you got used to it.
The problem with learning lines that way of course is the danger of saying them as you learned them. That took a lot of concentration. That’s when experience comes into play.
Did you find yourself protective over the character of Sinbad and the planned storylines?
The longer I was in the show, the more protective I became towards the character. I think actors who play or have played a role for a long time, can develop a set of instincts that you learn to trust and put into the part. It was very challenging all round.
Once it was over, I found it difficult to go back to the old Sinbad, but I understood how difficult it was for the writers to come up with more interesting or controversial subjects for the actors to handle. There is a large cast to look after and satisfy. I didn’t envy them.
After 16 years in the show, you decided to leave, had the character lost what people loved about him and involved in too many heavy episodes, or was it just time to pack the Brookside bag?
When I finally decided to leave, I felt I’d gone as far as I could – to use the old cliché. Then of course as with all programs such as ours, a new producer could come in and try to instill their own style.
I felt the writing was on the wall in many respects and I didn’t want to see the character become just another way of pushing a storyline rather than being there on his own terms. In situations like this, the actor has two choices. Stay and try to protect what has taken years to build or leave while I still loved playing him and while the public still had a lot of affection for him.
Even twenty years after I left, I still get recognised. The great thing now is its usually older people who do and they usually just nod or say a quick “Hello”. It’s also nice that I still get job offers from people who worked at Brookie and went on to greater things. I’m glad the phone still rings.
Do you reflect on Brookside and find yourself going back to the close?
I look back on my time there with great fondness. I made the right decision at the right time and have no regrets about that. I do miss the day to day involvement and the people, both in front of and behind the camera.
Brookside was hard hitting, and I felt – real. I feel the challenging working-class drama isn’t there anymore. Is this a fair reflection or do you feel many try to replicate it?
I don’t watch a great deal of telly anymore, apart from films and documentaries. To be honest, a lot of stuff doesn’t really resonate with me, but I do appreciate a good performance. And I think we have some of the best actors in the business working in TV soaps. I have a fondness for game shows. Tipping Point has become a family ‘lock down’ favourite.
But I think we are missing a real gritty working-class drama that deals with the issues of today. We are living in very strange and different times both socially and politically. I’m sure there’s someone out there just ready to step up and take drama onto the next level. Hope that doesn’t sound too disrespectful to the people already working hard to do just that.
What next for Michael Starke?
As for the future. Well that remains to be seen. Theatre has suffered greatly and already needed the sort of investment to keep it going. The arts are so important to everybody’s well-being. At this point in time we’re just waiting to see what happens.
But I am doing an episode in the Moving On series and I shoot that in August. I’m looking forward to it very much as it’s a little different from what viewers who know me might expect I’m very lucky to have enough friends in the business who haven’t forgotten me. And especially lucky to be working at all currently.
And finally, “On the Streets I Ran”, could you name three Liverpool Streets that mean the most to you and why?
Falkner Street – because I was born and lived there as a child. And it’s great to see how famous it has become again with so much filming being done there
Matthew Street – although it’s become something of a tacky touristy place in many ways, I still love the history of the area and I love watching the live music available in every doorway.
Menlove Avenue – my wife and I love this road. We drive along there several times a week and it seems to be one of the few avenues left that you can drive along and enjoy the experience. There are beautiful houses and places of interest to look at, including John Lennon’s old home. But the best reason is because we get to see the ‘Summer Tunnel’. My wife and I call the section of road that is covered either side by trees and looking like a leafy tunnel as you approach it. It’s a beautiful road any time of the year but particularly so in summer.
Thank you to Michael for his time – I am forever grateful.
Thank you to Justine and Michael.
“Brookside, for sure, is close to my heart.”
Matthew Jacobson, Explore Liverpool