Moral guardians have been a staple part of Coronation Street since its earliest days. In 1960, censure came from under a hairnet as Ena Sharples patrolled the neighbourhood. Sixty years later, it’s Evelyn Plummer laying down the law. But sandwiched in the middle was that rare thing – Norris Cole, a citrusy male busybody who was more than a match for the Street’s most formidable women.
Disapproval was there in each sharp brush-sweep of his broom. Displeasure evident in every eye roll as he peered around brick walls like Chad in specs. In Norris’s ideal world, there wouldn’t have been a need for courtrooms because he’d be judge, jury and quite possibly executioner too.
And yet despite his fondness for fault-finding, there’s no denying that Norris had his ardent fans. Emily allowed him to live in her house, Rita shared her counter-space at the Kabin and Mary – given half the chance – would have had him chained permanently to the boudoir of her motor home. His appeal to them was never fully explained, though actor Malcolm Hebden once put it down to Norris himself being ‘an old woman’.
The fact that Norris won’t be popping up again on the Street to cast aspersions will no doubt devastate his mohair-cardigan-wearing devotees. But the news that Hebden is, at the age of 81, retiring and packing Norris’s sleeveless jumpers away in a drawer is a blow for all Corrie fans. True, his screen time in recent years had been sporadic, but even when we remade Norris’s acquaintance at the Stillwaters retirement village, it was a relief to find that his spikier edges hadn’t been smoothed away.
To the end, he was an exasperating mass of contradictions. Loyal yet prone to point-scoring. Quick to judge but filled with flaws. Both conniving and cowardly. It was a characterisation that had stayed true since the 1990s, when Norris was introduced as a friend of Derek’s (or Dirk as he called him), only to then be revealed as the kidnapper of the Wiltons’ beloved garden gnome. Yes, there was always a hint of devilry flashing in the eyes shielded behind those owlish glasses.
But it’s the gossiping for which Norris will always be remembered. Despite a tight downturned mouth that signalled constant disappointment, he secretly revelled in the misfortune of others. Exhibit A: his attendance at local criminal trials where he and fellow meddler Blanche Hunt would condemn the accused from the gallery while sucking on pear drops. A ghoulish hobby, maybe, but it also gave him a knack for identifying wrong’uns – exhibit B: his hatred for Richard Hillman.
There were occasions, though, when that moral compass went on the blink. There was his adoration of author Mel Hutchwright, who only Ken could see was a fraud. Or his rejection of estranged half-brother Ramsay, who died of a brain tumour before the two of them could be reconciled.
It was a blow that could easily have turned Norris mawkish, but the writers wisely chose not to dilute his acidic streak or blunt his sharp-clawed cattiness. When the Rovers held a drag night, Norris performed as Eartha Kitt. Bizarre, but somehow totally appropriate.
Could he also be sweet? Yes, on rare occasions, such as the time he gave dancing lessons to Roy Cropper or when he turned midwife to help deliver Curly and Emma Watts’s baby. But Norris will be most strongly associated with sourness and an inability to keep his neb out of the business of others.
Among the menfolk of Coronation Street, he remains unique. Never feckless like Les Battersby, foolish like Dev Alahan, a philanderer like Ken Barlow or a fiend like Pat Phelan. He was instead: infuriating. Relentlessly and endearingly so. Pray for those residents at Stillwaters – they’re going to need all the help they can get.
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