I’m sitting in a Chester café with the actor Ian Puleston-Davies, better known as Owen in Coronation Street.
We’re supposed to be chatting over coffee and bacon sandwiches but Ian can’t settle – his Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is playing up.
“I’m sitting here obsessing about whether my ear is clean, about the stains on the table and how close the guy behind me is sitting,” he explains, trying hard to conceal his agitation.
“It took me ages to just sit down at the table as I was afraid it would break my coccyx on the chair.”
Ian is a patron of OCD-UK, the national charity campaigning for support and treatment for sufferers, which marks OCD Awareness Week from today [October 13], an initiative designed to change inaccurate perceptions about OCD.
“Sometimes,” adds Ian, “it’s exhausting just getting through the day.”
According to figures from OCD-UK, there are some 750,000 people in the UK living with OCD, an anxiety-related condition characterised by frequent uncomfortable and obsessional thoughts.
Around 50 per cent of cases fall into the severe category. It can strike from young children to adults, regardless of gender or cultural background.
“OCD is the poor cousin of mental health in that people tend to joke about it and trivialise the suffering of those living with it.”
Ashley Fulwood, Chief Executive of OCD-UK, adds: “But it is a serious illness and it can lead to tragic consequences.”
Ian suffered his first experience of anxiety-indicted OCD behaviour aged just seven years old. He was on the football pitch at his primary school in North Wales when his classmates started to tease him for fiddling with flies while passing the ball.
After that, he was always the last one to be picked for the team.
“I still remember being in my bedroom and consumed with the anxieties I subsequently nicknamed my habits,” he says.
“I felt like an alien. The only clue to what was happening came from reading the problem page in my mother’s copy of Woman’s Own about housewives obsessively washing their hands.”
Ian wasn’t diagnosed with OCD until the age of 35 by a Harley Street therapist and suffered in silence for the intervening years.
“I was crippled by over-sensitivity to everything: contamination, fear of harm to myself, or others,” says Ian. “I was even terrified that if I got up too quickly in the morning, then I’d break my back.”
At his lowest point, he simply couldn’t get out of bed, an image he later created for the opening scene of the ITV drama, Dirty Filthy Love (2004), a story about a man struggling to understand his OCD, co-written by Ian and staring the Welsh actor Michael Sheen.
For Ian, OCD Awareness Week is about encouraging sufferers to reach out for support and treatment.
Men suffering from mental illness are, he sighs, generally less inclined to share the problem with their partners or mates.
“I’m angry at myself for being weak. I’m a husband and a father, the paternal protector, but at times I’m shrivelled in the corner stressing about a stain on the wall.”
“Sometimes I feel OCD has completely emasculated me,” he says.
But a range of treatments are now available – from local community support groups to Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT), as well as the use of (SSRI) medication, an anti-depressant to control serotonin levels and reduce anxiety.
“Sufferers should seek help early as the longer you leave it, the worse it gets,” explains Professor Paul Salkovskis, Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Bath.
“There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with OCD sufferers’ brains and the research shows a good proportion of sufferers will not just improve, but may eradicate the condition, with suitable treatment.”
“Like learning a new language,” he adds, “you can actually retrain the brain.”
Back in the café, Ian he has finished his coffee but his sandwich remains half untouched. “We live in anxious times and the anxiety within us as a society is growing,” says Ian. “I’m really concerned about how our children are increasingly susceptible to OCD.”
“But, ultimately, I have to beat OCD and find some peace,” he adds. “After all, I can’t to go to my grave with wet wipes.”
* Have you signed up for my new monthly newsletter? Subscribe at the home page.
The TV flickers into life.
I settle down to watch a compilation of clips of Coronation Street through the decades, starting with a black-and-white sequence of Florrie Lindley’s corner shop from the first-ever episode.
To my left a display case has a 40th anniversary Monopoly set and signed scripts from the show. Sadly, Hilda Ogden’s curlers have been returned to the Granada archive.
I’m at the Museum of Science & Industry (MOSI; pictured above), where the Connecting Manchester Gallery tells the story of communication from the evolution of a 1930s Baird Televisor to the early days of Granada Television as a maverick new kid on the block in 1956.
“The gallery is a great place for people to reminisce about watching Coronation Street during their childhood,” says Curator for Community History, Meg McHugh.
“Coronation Street was a ground-breaking programme when first commissioned as it actually reflected everyday life.”
Sure enough, the compilation of classic footage brings memories flooding back.
I’m too young for the 1961 confrontation between Elsie Tanner and Ena Sharples, the latter resplendent in her spider-web hairnet, and I was in short trousers for an episode celebrating the 1977 Silver Jubilee with Annie Walker, Bet Lynch and Alf Roberts.
But I do remember Hilda Ogden’s leaving party from 1987 with Vera Duckworth and Mavis Riley in attendance. It remains the show’s most-watched episode and I was one of the 27m viewers that night.
Coronation celebrates its 50th birthday on December 9.
ITV will mark the landmark with the most expensive shoot in soap history, a dramatic denouement to a storyline involving a tram crash, which will claim the lives of several key cast members.
I’ve come to Manchester to explore the cult of Corrie. I want to see how the story of Britain’s favourite soap opera reflects Manchester’s urban renaissance since those gritty, monochrome days of industrial decline in the early Sixties when three TV producers first cooked up the idea for a new TV series – then named Florizel Street.
From my room at the city’s ABode hotel, which blends the original features of the erstwhile cotton warehouse with funky, modernist furniture, I can see how the cityscape has evolved from industrial powerhouse to cultural capital of the north.
Following the 1996 IRA bombing of the city, the subsequent regeneration helped Manchester to secure the 2002 Commonwealth Games. The city was reborn.
Today the Beetham Tower, Europe’s tallest residential building, is the new symbol of Manchester, MediaCityUK at Salford Quays will generate a life of its own when the BBC moves into new premises in May next year and the Manchester International Festival returns next summer, attracting a global audience to its high-profile cultural events.
For devotees making a Coronation Street pilgrimage, the Castlefield area of the city, birthplace of Manchester in Roman times, and an area whose canals and railways were crucial to the Industrial Revolution from the late 18th century, is the spiritual home.
The area features heavily on the itinerary of walking tours arranged by Ed Glinert of New Manchester Walks. Ed leads guided walks around key locations, often accompanied by excited groups of Street fans from Canada and New Zealand, where the show is equally popular.
“Coronation Street doesn’t really reflect how much Manchester has changed. The show still feels vaguely northern but Weatherfield (the make-believe suburb where it is set) is a rather cosseted world,” says Eds.
“It’s still compulsive viewing but I yearn for the great characters.”
We meet at the Midland Hotel, where Messrs Rolls and Royce first came together to talk torque in 1904.
For fans of the Street, the stately old hotel is best known as the place where Mike Baldwin arranged two of his weddings, and where Stanley and Hilda Ogden went for their Silver Wedding dinner.
In real life, the actress Jean Alexander (who played Hilda Ogden) would eat fish and chips every Friday night in its restaurant, The French.
At each stop, Ed regales us with some with some juicy nugget of Corrie-inspired trivia, relating the development of the show to the urban regeneration of Manchester and revealing showbiz secrets from what he describes as the “golden age of Coronation Street” – that’s 1975 to ’85.
For example, when the actress who played Elsie Tanner (Pat Phoenix) was buried at the Catholic Church of The Holy Name of Jesus on Oxford Road in the mid Eighties, a fledgling young Labour MP, one Anthony Blair, was amongst the mourners.
But as we approach the current TV studios with its Art Deco-style Granada sign, it becomes quickly apparent that Granada Studios operates under a security regime more rigorous than Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie at he height of the Cold War.
The set is completely blocked off to the public. The only way to currently steal a glimpse of storylines being filmed on set is to book out room 29 at the nearby Great John Street Hotel, which overlooks the set.
The former Granada Studio Tour has long since stopped, but there is speculation that Granada may relocate to new premises at MediaCityUK and reinstate on-set tours. For now, Ed’s walking tours are the only way for Corrie fans to get close to their favourite characters.
We finish just off Deansgate at The Old Grapes, the pub co-owned by Liz Dawn (the actress who played Vera Duckworth). Over pints of local ales, we peruse the memorabilia from framed magazine covers to pictures of her and on-screen husband, Jack (Bill Tarmey), with various visiting dignitaries.
Back at the Connecting Manchester Gallery, I’m watching an interview with William Roach, the actor who plays Ken Barlow, and the only original cast member still in the show after 50 years of kitchen-sink dramas.
In 1961 he attracted 83 complaints for uttering the first expletive on the Street – “bloody”.
He says, as more fans join me for a trip down the memory lane of Coronation Street through the ages:
“Acting isn’t pretending. It’s believing,”
“For me, Coronation Street,” he adds, “is acting in its purest form.”