In its glory days of the 1980s, Coronation Street attained peaks of 20 million-plus viewers. The series set in “Weatherfield” (a quasi-Salford) was gold for Manchester’s Granada TV. Currently the show peaks at about 7.5–8 million viewers, marginally ahead of its main rivals EastEnders (London) and Emmerdale (Yorkshire). The red rose wins by a neck.
- Alya Nazir (played by Sair Khan) and Rana Habeeb (Bhavna Limbachia) rehearse a scene. The bright all-weather coats protect the actors and their costumes from the harsh weather. Coronation Street was slow to introduce resident BAME characters but the imbalance has been corrected, with Yasmeen Nazir and her Muslim family featuring prominently in storylines.
In the past, the programme was consumed passively, on living room sofas as seen (anachronistically, perhaps) in the ad breaks. But the majority of those now watching are in the 24-35 age group.
- Catherine Tyldesley, who plays Eva, checks her script between takes
And, at the edge, they are younger still, giving rise to more active viewing courtesy of social media. A contingent of what the programme’s social media monitors call “15-year-old girls” take to Instagram during and immediately after each episode, while others pass judgment on Twitter (the friendliest platform, according to those in the studio) and Facebook (the grumpiest).
- Sam Aston, who plays Chesney, waits by one of the false views that are behind every ‘external’ door on the interior sets.
- In the foreground, Jack P Shepherd, who plays David, with Colson Smith, who is Craig.
Two years ago, Coronation Street came under the direction of Kate Oates, who took over from Stuart Blackburn and, as her staff see it, moved content into “9pm drama”. Is seeing a victim burned alive by his killer too strong for 8pm? During that particular episode there was an online interview with the actor Dean Fagan about his scene as the victim Luke Britton, and viewers were able to have their say.
Oates, 35, is clearly worshipped by younger female staff. “She pushes strong female plots,” one said. The programme’s infrastructure is now more aligned with its viewers; all-female control rooms are common.
- Qasim Akhtar, who plays Zeedan Nazir, reads his script on the sofa while Shelley King (Zeedan’s grandmother, Yasmeen, left) and Sair Khan (his sister, Alya) discuss the scene.
“Nostalgia” and “sentimentality” are routine putdowns in everyday life. They are good things in their place – birthday parties, funerals, weddings – but bad things, it is felt, in drama which makes a claim to social realism.
- A shelf of photos from former characters’ homes in the props department
Coronation Street’s grandest assertion is that regional communities matter.
- Attention to detail: inside Roy Cropper’s flat
Market research indicates that, at the time of broadcast, Coronation Street has a 75% pick-up from available viewers in the north, compared with 30-40% of available viewers nationally.
- Shopfronts on the set that took two years to build. Roy’s Rolls has a false front whereas the community centre interior is used for filming
All the frontline characters speak echt Lancs. Not quite “eeh-bah-gum” but alien to the larger audience ear. Who in Kensington watches Corrie, bacon buttie and brew in hand? There are occasional Lapsang Souchong jokes in the programme making the point.
- Since opening its doors to viewers in 1960, the Rovers has witnessed one birth, two deaths and two fires
So thickly regional do the cast speak that even after Granada TV had commissioned the programme from its inventor, Tony Warren, and filmed a dry-run, there were concerns that people would not be able to understand the accents, that they might have to have subtitles.
- L-R: Leanne Battersby (played by Jane Danson), Peter Barlow (Chris Gascoigne) and Ken Barlow (William Roache). The ‘beer’ in Coronation St is actually shandy made with non-alcoholic beer. ‘It smells like old drip mats, and I try never to actually swallow it,’ says Simon Gregson, who plays the former Rovers landlord Steve MacDonald.
The “anchor man” is Ken Barlow, played by William Roache. Having appeared in the first episode and, barring some act of God, due to appear this week, and the next, Roache is in the Guinness World Records as the world’s longest-serving male television star in one continuous role. Once the jeune premier, he is now, as the tabloids recently dubbed him, the “godfather”.
- Roache shares Barlow’s love of crosswords. Here he tackles a Guardian crossword before picking up the fictional Weatherfield Gazette to be used for the take
- Audrey Roberts (Sue Nicholls) chats at the bar.
Like Roache, the hardcore of the 60-odd dramatis personae have years to “live into” their roles and in some cases grow old in them. Jack P Shepherd began playing the role of David Platt at the age of 12. He is now almost 30. It is hard to think of other series characters who have progressed onscreen from childhood to adolescence and bearded adulthood.
- Liz (Beverley Callard) and Steve McDonald ( Simon Gregson) have played mother and son since 1989
- L-R: Dave Buckle, John Brady and Michael Gallagher. Dave and Michael have been extras in the show since 1979. John joined this year
In his memoir, Fifty Years on the Street, Roache recalls hearing a fruity voice behind him at the Granada studio during shooting. He turned to find it was Laurence Olivier, congratulating him on his performance. Britain’s most esteemed thespian was in an adjoining studio doing post-production shots.
- Past legends adorn the wall outside the studios
Olivier respected Coronation Street and confided to Julie Goodyear, who played the archetypal landlady Bet Lynch, that he would have liked to play a cameo of a tramp entering the Rovers, only to be indignantly thrown out.
- A cupboard in the props department covered with the coffin plaques that have been used in funeral scenes for deceased cast members
Olivier went on to appoint himself president of the “British League for the preservation of Hilda Ogden”, the turbanned, pinnied, cigarette-wielding cleaner at the Rovers. At her zenith, Ogden was voted the fourth most popular woman in Britain after the Queen Mother, the Queen and Diana, Princess of Wales. Other Ogden preservationists included John Betjeman, Willis Hall and Michael Parkinson.
- Tina O’Brien has her hair done to get into her character, Sarah Platt
Dramaturgically, Coronation Street has come a long way. The earliest 1960s programmes were done live in Water Street studios, with the canvas walls quivering when a door closed and the actors adjourning to the Pineapple Inn across the road when it was over.
- William Roache and Lucy Fallon (who plays Bethany Platt) have their hair and makeup done
Having caught the imagination of the public, Coronation Street moved to more spacious quarters in Quay Street. It was larger but the company retained, as it still does today, an esprit de corps and canteen culture, with cast, crew and visitors eating together.
- The camera crew during a take. Each episode is shot on three cameras
- A crew member takes a tea break in Roy Cropper’s flat
Four years ago the show moved again, this time to Media City and a Hollywood-size back lot. And now, as production reaches an industrial scale, it is expanding to “Wider Weatherfield” with a routine five “units”, sub-narrative scenes in different sets, running simultaneously during the 12-hour working days.
- Director Vicky Thomas, centre, watches an episode being recorded
The directors take pride in being fast; four programmes can be shot in 10 days, resulting in production being six to eight weeks ahead of the shows currently on air. There are around 65, including 20 long-serving, cast members, and a crew of 100 or more, most of them freelancers, along with apprentices and some old hands who have swollen the background of the show for half a century.
- Early sunsets in winter mean night scenes are often shot on the set
- Left: A recent episode featuring Pat Phelan’s (Connor McIntyre) near-death escape required a high-budget location night-shoot, a purpose-built set, and a dramatic stunt. Right: Eileen Grimshaw (Sue Cleaver) and Tim Metcalfe (Joe Duttine)
The arch-villain, given his head under Oates’ direction, is Pat Phelan, played by Connor McIntyre. Having dominated the narrative through-line in 2017 and early 2018, Phelan is a serial murderer, serial rapist and serial fraudster. And he is an outsider (“We hate scousers,” a cab driver said when I mentioned Phelan’s name, before adding: “But they tell me the actor’s a good bloke.”).
- Left: A specially adapted truck which provides ‘warm rain’ to prevent the actors getting cold. Right: Phelan, the villain viewers love to hate, was originally only going to appear in three episodes.
Coronation Street’s underlying philosophy, corny as it sounds, is that goodness prevails. McIntyre puts it well: “Corrie fans are very cool. They get it. And there’s a sense of ownership about it – if you’re a Corrie fan, you enjoy your villain, knowing full well that he’ll inevitably get his comeuppance. It’s a very moral universe – and quite right too. The reaction I usually get is: ‘You’re so horrible. We really hate you. But we don’t want them to kill you. Yet.’
- Director David Kester and Connor McIntyre discuss the stunt
What, then, is the appeal of Coronation Street to the non-Lancophone world? It is nostalgia. The “idea” of Manchester that sustains Coronation Street goes back to when the city was the “workshop of the world”, or as George Orwell put it more viscerally, “the guts and belly of Britain”.