Steve moved into the street just before Christmas in 1989 when we were both 14, and I’ve known him well ever since.
I suppose right from the beginning I saw a bit of myself in him. He was a twin and fought tooth and nail with his brother Andy; I had a brother only 18 months younger than me and we were also pretty competitive, and so I felt something of a kindred spirit in this newcomer. Plus, the late 1980s and early 90s in north-west England were quite individual when it came to music and fashion, and with our baggy tops and jeans and our big floppy fringes, I suppose we both thought we were pretty cool for where we lived.
For 31 years, I’ve caught up with Steve every week and even though I now live on the other side of the globe, I still keep up to date with what’s going on in his world. And to be quite truthful, even though I’m the one that’s living 18,200km away from where we first met whereas Steve’s literally only moved from number 11 to number 15a in the same street, he’s the one who’s had the much more colourful life.
Colourful! I tell you, Steve’s life would make a stunning novel. He was one of the first people I knew my age to get married when we were still teenagers, but that didn’t last and he got divorced after he was sentenced to two years in prison in 1996. He got married again in 2001, but that too only lasted a couple of years.
Now, although he’s had four kids with four different mothers and been married five times, he’s back living with his fourth missus – even though she once tried to sell their kid to an odd couple who also lived down the street and she was once sentenced to 15 years’ prison for killing her boyfriend.
It would be fair to say, I’ve probably learnt more from Steve’s mistakes than his successes – but there have also been some pretty heavy times when what he’s been through has also helped, especially his long battle with depression after he was involved in a bad crash back in 2015.
Other than my close family, I’ve known Steve McDonald longer than anyone else in my life. In fact, I probably know him better than family. And I know he’s not real – but he is still an important person in my life.
Because Steve’s on Coronation Street, and, yes, I admit it; I am James, I am 46, and I am a Coronation Street addict.
For sure, some of the beauty of my weekly visits to watch Steve and co meander through their cobbled-street lives, supping Newton & Ridley ales at the Rovers Return and falling in and out of love with each other, is the joy of distraction and detachment that comes from tuning out the real world. But there’s also a way in which this series, which this year celebrates its 60th anniversary and, next week, its 10,000th episode, reflects not just the world I left behind in north-west England but the wider world I’ve spent four and a half decades wandering around. There have been the big, bludgeoning storylines: for example, it introduced me for the first time to a transgender woman, then, over the course of 16 years, let me watch her fall in love with a slightly odd loner called Roy before painfully ripping her away from us when she took her own life after fighting a losing battle against pancreatic cancer.
But often it’s in the smaller skirmishes and smirks, which the scriptwriters use to sew together the bold headline-grabbing plots, where the magic lurks. That’s where Coronation Street holds a mirror up to all our daily lives, where it finds importance in the mundane and comic frippery in the seemingly significant, and where it proves itself to be the king of soaps.
Waiheke this week also dipped its toes into the suds of soap-land with the debut of Ostenders at Artworks Theatre. And although this was largely a roaringly amusing improv romp through a mixture of the ridiculous and the surreal (all artfully narrated and conducted by Shortland Street’s bad-boy nurse Mike Galloway – ahem, Oliver Driver), there’s always a slight frisson of risk at turning the spotlight back on ourselves.
Machiavellian real estate agents, unreticulated septic tank sewerage systems, the latent antipathy between Rocky Bay and Oneroa, the not-so latent antipathy between long-termers and newbies, the blatant us-and-them antipathy between residents and tourists… they’re all jokes on stage, but they also speak very loudly of how we all knit to form Waiheke’s society.
Laughing at ourselves is vital on Waiheke. Smiling at all the seemingly insubstantial everyday occurrences is also pretty healthy. But so is the sort of introspection that is required to be able to find delight among the occasionally drab or downright dismal.
Soap operas are reality’s window dressing – half-hourly shows dreamed up as entertaining interludes to the real business of selling packets of Procter & Gamble’s finest washing powders – but they can also teach us the value of that introspection. So, go and get a belly-full of laughs at Ostenders if you get the chance, and, if you have a moment between the giggles, just take a second to glimpse behind those comic masks and see if you can spot just a little bit of yourself.
• James Belfield