There's a street just outside Manchester, in the north of England, that is open to millions of visitors from across the globe up to four times a week. Ever since it first appeared on television 40 years ago, the residents have opened their doors to complete strangers, giving them a unique insight into modern life through good times and bad. Births, marriages, deaths, this street has seen them all - and more. Not bad for a place that, strictly speaking, doesn't even exist.
It was while working at Granada Television in 1960 that writer Tony Warren, then just 23 years old, came up with the idea of an on-going drama series set in a northern back-street. Initially developed under the name 'Florizel Street' (until someone pointed out that 'Florizel' sounded too much like a detergent), Warren's idea was to look at working-class life, drawing on the people he knew from his own background.
Prior to 1960, television had been dominated by 'Ally-Pally' Home Counties1 accents speaking in clipped 'Queen's English' that bore no resemblance to the lives of the majority of its audience. But Coronation Street (as it was renamed) came during a time of great social change. The final effects of the Second World War were wearing off, with rationing replaced by greater spending power. And then there was the evolution of the 'teenager'; a concept that even half a decade earlier simply hadn't existed. Working class men were gaining university educations only to come back home and feel dissatisfied with taking up the jobs their fathers and grandfathers had done. Against this, they had the backdrop of the traditional northern working class; people who'd had to survive the war knew all too well how hard life could be and how embittered it could make a person.
While certain sectors of the British entertainment industry were slowly beginning to recognise this, television was lagging some way behind. Coronation Street would change all that.
Life on the Street
What Tony Warren had was a talent for characters. The inhabitants of his fictional street were drawn from real life, but were all skilfully designed to appeal to a wide section of the audience: There was social-climbing publican Annie Walker (played by Doris Speed) and her put-upon husband, Jack (Arthur Leslie); Elsie Tanner (the legendary Pat Phoenix), who was tough as nails but still glamorous enough to turn men's heads despite being the mother of a rebellious teenage son, Dennis (Philip Lowrie); puritanical pug-faced 'battle-axe' Ena Sharples (Violet Carson); timid shopkeeper Florrie Lindlay (Bettie Alberge); miserable pensioner Albert Tatlock (Jack Howarth); the 20-something David Barlow (Alan Rothwell) and his idealistic university graduate brother, Ken (William Roach)2.
The street itself featured a railway viaduct and a corner shop at one end and a pub - the world-famous Rover's Return - at the other. And running all along the street were small cobbles, a lasting reminder of the old roads of Lancashire.
The first episode of Coronation Street went out on Friday, 9 December, 1960. Recreating the cobbled street inside Granada television's Manchester-based studio, it was performed and broadcast live just like a stage play, like most television drama of the time, which added to its naturalistic approach. Perhaps predictably, the reception from the snooty press was generally unfavourable:
The programme is doomed... with its dreary signature tune and grim scenes of a row of terraced houses and smoking chimneys.
- Ken Irwin, writing in the Daily Mirror.
Still, some were optimistic - the critic in the Guardian even went to far as to suggest the show might run 'forever'...
Over the coming months, new characters were introduced. Mild-mannered businessman Leonard Swindley (played by future Dad's Army star Arthur Lowe), Minnie Caldwell (Margot Bryant) and Martha Longhurst (Lynne Carol) who, with Ena Sharples, would become gossiping mainstays of the snug3 in the Rover's Return, the aggressive builder by the name of Len Fairclough (Peter Adamson) and the shy Emily Nugent (Eileen Derbyshire). Like Ken Barlow, Emily is still with the show all these years later. At first Leonard Swindley's business partner, she was at one time engaged to him, though she eventually called the wedding off. She married Ernest Bishop in 1970 - he was later shot dead during a robbery in Baldwin's factory - and in 1980 she married Arnold Swain, though after she discovered that he was both violent and a bigamist, the marriage was annulled. In recent years, egged on by her nephew Spider (Martin Hancock) she has become an environmental campaigner.
For more than three years, life on Coronation Street rolled on. Ken Barlow married Valerie Tatlock, Albert's niece; Minnie Caldwell took in a lodger, the scheming but lovable Jed Stone (Liverpool actor Kenneth Cope, who'd later find fame as one half of the supernatural detective duo Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased)); Len and Elsie prowled around each other in a lustful, but ultimately ill-matched relationship; and on one occasion, the entire inhabitants of the street were forced to spend the night in the local Mission Hall after the discovery of a burst gas pipe (strong stuff). But in 1964, Fate dealt the street a hand that would have long-reaching effects on the show.
When the producership of the show was handed over to the young, enthusiastic Tim Aspinall, he was determined to shake the cosiness of the Street up a little. He'd already decided to write out a number of 'unwanted' characters, either by marrying them off and having them leave, never to be seen again, or by having a sudden windfall and deciding to relocate. To the horror of his production team - and later, the cast4 - he announced a dramatic decision - Martha Longhurst, the much-loved gossip and friend of Ena and Minnie would suffer a fatal heart attack in the snug of the Rover's Return. When the episode was eventually broadcast, the shocked viewers sat and watched Martha clutch her chest and collapse, unseen by the rest of the Rovers' regulars who were celebrating one of their own winning £5000 on the premium bonds. The end credits rolled in silence. For the first time, a character was seen to have lived and died on a soap.
Though Tim Aspinall's reign as producer lasted but a few months, the effects of his decisions lasted much longer. Fans of the show reacted as if the actress herself had died, many went into mourning for the character, flowers were sent to Granada courtesy of Martha. The production team got first-hand experience of the love the nation had for their show. So it's no surprise that all the dramatic exits of popular soap opera characters ever since stem from this one decision. It's certainly true to say that many an incoming producer has realised that the best way to put their own stamp on a show is to copy Aspinall... and cull as many characters as possible.
Enter... the Ogdens
In darkest Africa they use a set of drums. Here we've got Hilda Ogden. I suppose that's civilisation.
- Renee Roberts.
Aspinall's legacy was not all doom and gloom. As Martha Longhurst was on her way out, a middle-aged married couple were moving in. Destined to forever 'bring down the tone' of the Street, busybody Hilda (Jean Alexander) and her useless, work shy husband Stan (Bernard Youens) would become one of Coronation Street's most adored couples. While Stan tried to find more and more excuses why 'supping' at the bar of the Rovers was better than working for a living, Hilda worked hard taking whatever cleaning work she could - and all the better if it put her in a position to hear or pass on gossip. During the 1970s, Stan Ogden was joined by his 'comedy partner' Eddie Yeats (Geoffrey Hughes), an old friend of Jed Stone who ended up working as a bin-man.
Archetypes and Stereotypes
One of the reasons for Coronation Street's longevity is the way the people behind the scenes have used and reused basic character types, restyling and reinventing them to create fresh personalities that nevertheless fit into the programme's general structure.
Coronation Street's best, most popular characters have usually been of the more earthy variety, more open to comedy storylines than high drama. The Ogdens' best friend, Eddie Yates, who turned up one day announcing that he was a former friend of Jed Stone from 'inside', was an ex-criminal bin-man with a heart of gold but not much else. Shopkeeper Reg Holdsworth (Ken Morley) had pretensions of grandeur, with his lopsided toupee and comedy glasses, yet we all knew deep down, he was just a randy old man. Reg left just as Fred Elliot was introduced, the foghorn-voiced proprietor of a string of butcher shops and other small businesses across the area. Though Fred has often been the source of comedy, the character is also a surprisingly deep one, emotional, well-meaning but bitter at the cards he's been dealt.
This morphing of the archetype has continued all through the series' long history:
The Siren / The Femme Fatale
Elsie Tanner had always provided the glamour tinged with tragedy as her love-live had always consisted of a string of unsuitable men. Bet Lynch and, to some extent, Rita Littlewood (Barbara Knox) - who became Rita Fairclough and, more recently, Rita Sullivan - would take on the baton of femme fatale through the 1970s, while that role would be handed to poor, delicate Raquel Wolstenhulme (Sarah Lancashire). In the 1990s, hairdresser Denise Osbourne was unveiled as 'the new Elsie Tanner' before getting involved with Ken Barlow, having a son to him and then leaving. Recently-divorced Natalie Horrocks (Denise Welch) arrived in 1997 and quickly got her claws into Kevin Webster (Michael Le Vell), resulting in the end of his marriage to Sally (Sally Whittaker). She married Des Barnes (Philip Middlemiss) - Des was murdered by drug-dealers who were trying to get to Natalie's son. After finding herself unexpectedly pregnant, Natalie left the Street to start a new life, continuing the tragic history of the Street's unlucky-in-love sirens.
That hard, seemingly mean-spirited and abrupt woman Ena Sharples lasted well into the 1970s, at around about the same time disapproving doting mother Ivy Tildsley was introduced. Later formidable battle-axes would include wheelchair-bound Maud Grimes and Blanche Hunt (Maggie Jones).
Ivy Tildsley's best friends, the shrill-voiced, no-nonsense Vera Duckworth (Elizabeth Dawn) and Ida Clough (Helene Palmer), were a reworking of Ena's old clan, swapping the comfort of the Rover's snug for the coffee area of the local factory. Later gossips include Audrey Roberts, the widow of Alf Roberts, former mayor and currently proprietor of the local hairdressing salon, ex-military man Percy Sugden (Bill Waddington) and Norris Cole, whose job in the Kabin (the newsagents and post office) puts him in perfect position to sell the news and pick it up first-hand. The gossip's role throughout the series has been to ensure that secrets best kept quiet are distributed with the greatest of speed while at all times claiming impartiality. They're often, unconsciously, the most destructive and dangerous characters on the show.
The LandladyThe Street has always had somewhere for waifs and strays to end up: Minnie Caldwell rented a room to Jed Stone; the Ogdens provided a home for Eddie Yates, whose fellow bin-man Norman 'Curly' Watts (Kevin Kennedy) eventually moved in with Emily Bishop, who also provided a home for Percy Sugden and his budgie, Monty.
Lowering the Tone
When Vera Duckworth's husband Jack was introduced a few years later, the couple in a way replaced the Ogdens as the 'lower class' element of the street, horrifying residents by having stone cladding put on the front of their house. By the mid-1980s, the Duckworths had replaced the Ogdens as the favourite 'common' characters, so the Claytons were introduced, but, proving unpopular with viewers, they were in turn replaced by the McDonalds. Father, ex-army man Jim (Charles Lawson, mum Liz (Beverley Callard) who, for a time, managed her own pub, and twin sons Andy (Nicholas Cochrane) and Steve (Simon Gregson), who mirrored the Street's first brothers, David and Ken Barlow. The McDonalds slowly slipped apart with Liz running off with Jim's friend, Jim ending up in prison and Andy travelling the world, leaving Steve as, at the time of writing, the sole McDonald resident of the Street. The position of most common family in the Street is currently occupied by the Battersbys.
The Bad Seed
Different from the merely spoilt, spiteful or resentful child (of which there have been many), the Bad Seed is the type of character who is revealed to be self-serving, malicious and always scheming, often willing to sell their own family to make a quick buck. The Duckworths' wayward son Terry (Nigel Pivaro) echoed the Street's first 'bad boy', Dennis Tanner, while other evil children have included Les Battersby's prodigal son, Greg Kelly (Stephen Billington) and Steve McDonald.
The Soap Child
Where would Soap Operas be without pregnancies? In the 1960s, the sight of a pregnant woman being beamed into people's homes might not have been an appealing one, but by the late '70s, Ray and Dierdre Langton (Neville Buswell and Anne Kirkbride) had been blessed with a daughter, Tracy (played by a number of young actresses, most notably by Dawn Acton). Tracy was abducted, became the product of a broken home, was adopted by Ken Barlow when he married Dierdre and later, nearly died after a drugs overdose in a nightclub - only to be saved by an organ donation courtesy of her mother's third husband, Moroccan toyboy Samir (Al Nedjari), who subsequently died - and finally married off. Other 'Soap Children' have been used as pawns in custody battles but little else (most of them being sent upstairs to listen to tapes until they're old enough to generate storylines - usually five years does the trick). But a recent storyline involving teenage pregnancy has managed to give the juvenile actors something to do.
The best plot a soap can ask for - one character in love with another who just happens to be married to another. Intrigue, subterfuge and illicit meetings before the inevitable happens and the cuckolded party finds out - cue a dramatic showdown! The most famous of these was between Ken Barlow and his wife Dierdre who had fallen for Mike Baldwin's Cockney charms. Though Dierdre tried to end the affair with Mike, when Ken found out about it he threw her out. Such was the nation's interest in the outcome of this that when Ken and Dierdre finally got back together, the news was flashed on a display at Old Trafford to a stadium of cheering Manchester United fans.
Landlords and Ladies at The Rover's Return
The focal point of Corrie society, this backwater public house has seen many a drama. Run by the snobbish Walkers for over 40 years, since 1983 it has been managed by a stream of different people. Former barmaid Bet Lynch (Julie Goodyear) was the most memorable - having worked there since 1970, no-one knew the Rovers better than her. She became Bet Gilroy in 1987 when she married local entrepreneur Alec Gilroy (Roy Barraclough). But in 1992, after he and Bet split up, Alec sold his share in the pub back to the brewery, Newton and Ridley. When they eventually decided to sell the pub, Bet couldn't raise enough money and was forced to sell up. Jack and Vera Duckworth (see below) ploughed money from a large inheritance into buying the pub, but after they proved incapable of running such a temperamental business, they sold up to recently-widowed Natalie Barnes. When Natalie moved on, she sold the pub to The Consortium - local businessmen Dougie Ferguson (John Bowe), Mike Baldwin (Johnny Briggs) and Fred Elliot (John Savident). After a round of bargaining and double-dealing, Fred became the sole owner, though he 'gave' the pub to his new wife Eve (Melanie Kilburn) - just a few months before he discovered she'd married him bigamously...
... and So It Continues
It might be on more regularly now than it was in the past (currently four times a week), but the more it changes, the more it stays the same. In a way, this is how Coronation Street has been able to achieve a timeless quality, recognisably contemporary yet of a time of its own. While other soaps such as EastEnders and Brookside tackle modern issues head-on, Coronation Street has always been at its best sticking to what it knows best - characters.
- The Official Coronation Street site, from Granada Television.
- A superb fan-maintained site - Corrie.net.