17 September, 2010

What the Papers Say: "The Road to Coronation Street"

Alice-Azania Jarvis, The Independent

"What's this? Coronation Street on the BBC? Apparently so: starring Jessie Wallace off of EastEnders no less. Is this, one wonders, the producers' latest attempt to beat ITV at its own game? After all, this is the Corporation that broadcast Strictly Come Dancing at the same time as The X Factor, an unmistakably aggressive move made in blatant opposition to the public interest (something which, on a Saturday night, is quite obviously only to be satisfied by the combination, not choice, of spangles and crushed dreams. Obviously!).

But no: there is not a trace of malice in The Road to Coronation Street, a disarmingly moving drama about Britain's longest-running soap opera. If anything, it rather over-romanticised things, to the extent that the Street's against-the-odds origins as the unfashionably banal brainchild of a young, would-be writer appeared less docudrama and more fairy tale.

Not that it matters. In return for the romanticism we got strong, if somewhat theatrical, performances, notably from David Dawson, who was unstintingly engaging as the determined young writer Tony Warren, and the perpetually lovely Celia Imrie. There were some genuine shiver-down-the-spine moments, too. Such as the point at which a Granada TV tea lady paused her work at the sight of Warren's pilot – which, at this stage, was destined straight for the scrapheap – plainly fascinated by the ordinariness of the on-screen world. "So-and-so's got those curtains," she remarked, cheering on Pat Phoenix with a fiery "You tell him, love!" It was this tea lady's intervention that got the programme made, in the end. Someone get her an OBE will they?"


Chris Harvey, Daily Telegraph

"The story of how the longest-running drama series on British television first made it onto our screens was told in The Road to Coronation Street (BBC Four). Its creator Tony Warren (David Dawson) was just 23 when he presented his vision of a drama with “dirt under its fingernails” to bosses at the Granada studios in Manchester, but there were many roadblocks to be overcome before the show’s first transmission in December, 1960.

This 75-minute film explored how the former child actor saw his idea find its way past the prevailing snobbery towards characters with regional accents. Studio head Sidney Bernstein (Steven Berkoff) took a lot of persuading. The dramatisation of Corrie’s difficult birth was, despite the odd soapy moment, compelling. Dawson, too, for his services to knitwear modelling alone, was great fun as Warren. From the first time we saw him checking his reflection in a mirror, there was no doubt that the writer who created some of the great women characters of British television was gay. This was very much his story.

What inevitably happened, though, was that the lead was ultimately blown off the screen by his own creations, as the plot morphed from plucky underdog success story to something that more closely resembled The Magnificent Seven. Instead of putting together a team of hired gunfighters, Warren was seen assembling, one by one, a cast of Northern battleaxes, each more formidable than the last.

First came Doris Speed (Celia Imrie), the actress Warren thought might be right for the stuck-up landlady of the Rovers Return, Annie Walker. She remembered Warren from his acting days – “the little boy who never stopped talking” – and had to be flattered into the studios with the lie that the part had been written especially for her. Then came Pat Phoenix (Jessie Wallace) who burst in late for her audition for the part of brassy Elsie Tanner, showing where she’d twanged one of her stockings and announcing of her character, “She’s mutton, isn’t she, dressed as lamb.”

Finally, there was Ena Sharples, the hard-faced moraliser in a hairnet, who was proving to be all but uncastable. With the first episode looming, the choice was becoming starker. Sharples was a stand-alone character, she could be cut. Warren had one last suggestion, a woman he dreaded working with, who didn’t fit the script description of slenderness at all. “There’s nothing small boned about Violet Carson,” protested casting director Margaret Morris (Jane Horrocks). When the 62-year-old Carson (Lynda Baron) arrived at the studio, she had no time to listen to Warren’s thoughts about the role, “You can save your breath,” she said. “I know all about Ena Sharples.” And when she was also shown looking in the mirror, reflecting on her role, there was no pout. “This is a woman who’s buried children, watched her man beg for work and still gets down on her knees every night to pray… There’s no powder or rouge touching this face.” Marauding bandits wouldn’t have stood a chance."


Sam Wollaston, The Guardian

So Corrie was almost Florrie – Florizel Street, after Prince Florizel. But a cleaner called Agnes at Granada TV said Florizel Street sounded like a disinfectant (does it, Agnes?), so they changed it to Coronation Street. This was the second time Agnes had saved what would become Britain's longest-running soap opera. It was because she was instantly spellbound by the pilot while clearing away the tea things from the producer's office that he knew it was a winner.

Is that true, I wonder? Did Agnes even exist? It doesn't really matter. What matters is that Harry Elton, the Canadian producer, decided to fight the Granada TV executives – who couldn't understand the appeal of a drama about the ordinary lives of ordinary people and were about to pull the plug on the whole thing – with everything he had. Guess what, he won.

The Road to Coronation Street (BBC4) chronicles the birth of a monster, 50 years ago this December. Yes, BBC4 – it's funny that the BBC should be celebrating a rival's birthday so fondly. And scheduling it so it doesn't clash with its subject matter – obviously a lot of the people who want to watch this are the same people who want to know what's currently going on in the Rover's Return. Very magnanimous, I'm sure. The Road to Coronation Street is fond, and warm, and charming, with a fine lead performance from David Dawson as cocky young writer Tony Warren. There are fine performances wherever you look, though some of them take a little getting your head around. So former EastEnder Jessie Wallace plays Pat Phoenix, who played Elsie Tanner. Lynda Baron is Violet Carson, who was Ena Sharples. And James Roache plays his own father, William Roache, who was – and still is – Ken Barlow. "It's only a week, what harm can that do?" he says. A week! James's father has now, by my calculations, been Ken Barlow for 64% of his life, and that's going up the whole time. Imagine it!

There's also a fine performance from Steven Berkoff as television baron Sidney Bernstein, who initially saw Tony Warren's script not as Hitchcock said drama should be – "life with the boring bits left out" – but pretty much the opposite. "What your writer seems to have done," he tells Harry Elton, "is to pick up all the boring bits and strung them together one after another."

Sydney changed his tune a bit later, though. It took Coronation Street about three months to reach No 1 in the ratings. There's nothing boring about 15 million viewers and a 75% audience share. I wonder if BKB – boring Ken Barlow – was boring, even then?

It's amazing that it was filmed live in the early days – or at least one of its two weekly slots was. So if the cat went missing just before Eric Spear's mournful trumpet sounded out over the Weatherfield rooftops, then that was it – no cat. There must have been an immediacy and a theatricality about it – the feeling that Pat and Violet and even boring William were doing it then and there, in your living room, for you – which maybe doesn't exist in the soap any more.

So what is going on today, 50 years on, in Coronation Street (ITV1)? The police take Gary in to the station to question him about an assault (it would be virtually impossible to do this one live, with all the location changes). That could mean going back behind bars. Behind the bar at the Rover's, Kylie's got her hand in the till. Sly Owen's got his hands in all sorts of metaphorical tills, mainly of the female variety, if you know what I'm saying. And Nick is dead excited about Natasha's scan, even though the one he's looking at, and showing everyone else, isn't hers, because she terminated her pregnancy, as everyone except Nick knows. You couldn't really accuse it of being all the boring bits strung together – or reflecting the ordinary lives of ordinary people.

Oh, and there's no sign of boring Ken in this one. But recently in the Street he's been joined by a long-lost son, who himself has a son. And Ken's new son and grandson are played by William Roache's real-life sons, Linus and James. So James is playing his dad on BBC4 and his dad's grandson on ITV. Got it?


Article by the screenwriter, Daran Little


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