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Coronation Street: A Jubilee Street Party

As Coronation Street celebrates half a century in the nation’s living rooms, Andrew Roberts looks at why an intensely parochial television series that has wilfully refused to acknowledge change is still going strong.

Coronation Street

In September 2010 Coronation Street became the world’s longest-running television soap opera. It celebrates its 50th birthday on December 9th. If a television drama is a mirror, then Coronation Street is one that reflects a vision which ceased to exist many decades ago; yet it survives triumphant in the ratings. ‘You can’t go on just thinking about your own street these days. We’re living with people on the other side of the world. There’s more to worry about than Elsie Tanner and her boyfriends,’ declaimed the longstanding character Ken Barlow back in 1961. Five decades on, the show’s raison d’etre is precisely that.

Eighty years ago the manager of Chicago radio station WGN devised a new type of show: a daily, 15-minute domestic drama. By the end of the decade the ‘soap opera’, a term coined by the American press for cheap dramas sponsored by detergent companies, was the most popular form of radio show in the US. The UK would have to wait until the advent of Mrs Dale’s Diary (1948-69) on BBC radio’s Light Programme. As far as BBC Television was concerned, the individual play was its predominant dramatic form for most of the 1950s; exceptions were the police drama Dixon of Dock Green (1955-76) and The Grove Family (1954-57), but these boasted self-contained narratives in each episode.

The advent of ITV in 1955 brought with it the desire for a regular, long-running show, the better to sell more advertising space. ATV’s Emergency Ward 10 (1957-67) became the first twice-weekly soap opera on commercial television. However, the conventions of the hospital setting were inevitably different from those of the domestic soap opera; the focus on doctors gave the drama a middle-class patina and, in any case, a medical series allowed for an almost limitless introduction of new characters, both patients and staff. It also presented ATV with the opportunity to have unpopular characters (or actors who were too vociferous in their pay demands) to die off-screen of a mystery illness.

Though a hospital setting appealed across the ITV regions, Granada, which held the franchise to broadcast ITV on weekdays in the north-west of England, had a commitment to reflect the region in its output. Under the guidance of its chairman, Sidney Bernstein, Granada’s Manchester studio complex was the first purpose-built television production centre to go on air in the UK, bearing the legend ‘From the North’ in its logo.

Unfortunately, Granada’s ambitious expansion programme meant that the firm was on the cusp of insolvency by 1957. A deal with Associated Rediffusion, the London weekday franchise holder, baled it out at a steep cost to future profits but with the vital advantage of a guaranteed outlet for Granada shows in the capital. Bernstein’s encouragement of writers and artists from the north meant that the network shows would not be shorn of local content; such as the proposal by Tony Warren, the ex-child actor from Salford, for a drama series based on his own experiences, called Coronation Street. Granada’s initial commission was for 13 episodes.

The early editions of Coronation Street were recorded live onto videotape and could be edited only with great difficulty; a high standard of acting was essential. At its best, the combination of fine writing and tight ensemble performance produced shows that were as good as any on British television; Jerry Booth screaming at his wife over the loss of their mortgage funds; Leonard Swindley’s heartrending dignity at being jilted at the altar. The adroit art direction on a limited budget gave viewers the world of Richard Hoggart’s 1957 study The Uses of Literacy, in which he lamented the loss of an authentic popular culture, writ large. Compared with the British kitchen sink films, from 1958’s Room at the Top to 1963’s Billy Liar, Coronation Street contains no romantic visions of the northern landscape as directed by largely middle-class Oxbridge types; merely drab interior sets and a few shots of the actual street, dimly lit over the fake cobblestones and enclosed by a railway viaduct.

Inevitably, the well-drawn characters rather than the street per se became stars, especially the brilliantly evoked trio of Ena Sharples, Minnie Caldwell and Martha Longhurst holding court in the Rovers Return in a manner that suggested Macbeth and Banquo were about to enter the saloon bar. For most of the cast, such fame came at the end of their careers and you would need a heart of stone not be moved by the lost stage world evoked by their ghosted memoirs, a realm of fly-by-night theatrical tours of the north of England, of cabaret venues in Southern Rhodesia and of walk-ons in long-forgotten B-movies. Their performances saw Coronation Street top the television ratings and dispatch would-be BBC rivals such as The Newcomers (1965-69) and United (1965-67).

The blurring of the lines between actor and character is not a new one, but the anecdotes concerning the show in Jack Rosenthal’s autobiography are rather poignant. Rosenthal, one of the young writers encouraged by Granada, wrote and produced the series during the 1960s. He recalled in his autobiography how, on the eve of shooting a 1967 storyline involving Elsie Tanner’s wedding to a GI sergeant, the actress Pat Phoenix, who played Tanner, arranged for a commercial traveller from a jeweller’s firm to meet Rosenthal at Granada studios so that ‘Elsie would have the proper ring for her big day’.

For all of the producers’ protestations that ‘the street was the star’, the fact that in 1965 Leonard Swindley, played by Arthur Lowe, was featured in a spin-off situation comedy entitled Pardon the Expression was clear proof that the show’s focus was now definitely on characters. Paradoxically, Lowe was so acutely aware of the perils of typecasting that he had insisted on having short six-month contracts so that he could continue with his distinguished career as a West End character actor and stalwart of the films of Lindsay Anderson.

It was this sense of insularity, exacerbated by the now-famous studio set, which turned the series inwards, a cobble-stoned bastion of values that were fading outside of the Granada complex. As early as 1961 there was a storyline featuring racial discrimination against a West Indian bus conductor, but for the next 20 years the opportunity of reflecting the changing face of Manchester was studiously ignored by the Street. Ben Kingsley made intermittent appearances between 1966 and 1967, but this was in the guise of ‘Ron Jenkins’, commercial traveller and the first interracial kiss on British TV took place in a 1964 episode of Emergency Ward 10. By the 1970s ATV’s Crossroads (1964-88), a motel-based soap opera of missed cues, flexible scenery and actors fluffing their lines, had a regular storyline revolving around a West Indian family and, to the programme’s credit, an actor with learning difficulties as part of the cast.

When the Coronation Street cast made rare excursions it was usually for dramatic cliffhanger purposes; the 1969 coach crash being a case in point. Full-colour transmission arrived the same year, but by now the Street’s set was virtually as impregnable as that of The Prisoner. The world of Coronation Street had been under threat when the series began transmission, but 10 years on it was fast becoming a nostalgic fantasy. Yet the acting and writing continued to be of a high order – an episode in which Stan and Hilda Ogden win a weekend in a ‘luxury hotel’ can rival any play by Dennis Potter in its sheer poignancy.

But essentially it was as a fortress against a changing England that allowed Coronation Street to stave off challenges from East Enders (the lack of ‘Dick Van Dyke cockney’ is also an advantage). The programme even survived a changing commercial television landscape, the Granada television of the Bernstein family now gone, to be succeeded by a corporate ITV whose claim to be the people’s channel has faintly totalitarian overtones and whose diminution to ‘Corrie’ has that authentic tabloid air of nauseating pseudo-folksiness. In an irony unlikely to be cited in the celebratory TV Times, Warren’s ideal of a ‘… a little back street in Salford, with a pub at one end and a shop at the other, and all the lives of the people there, just ordinary things’ featuring a cast of unknowns, would almost certainly meet today with a wrecking ball at the first reading.

Andrew B. Roberts is a historian of the cinema and the automotive industry.

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