Book review: 50 Years of Coronation Street: The (Very) Unofficial Story by Sean Egan

For a programme that was reluctantly commissioned by Granada as a twice-weekly stop-gap, Coronation Street has never looked back.

Tuesday, 5th October 2010, 7:00 am

But we certainly can...over a 50-year history that has witnessed countless marriages, a string of illicit romances, sudden deaths, grisly murders and a hundred other iconic storylines.

To mark Corrie’s Golden Jubilee year, Sean Egan takes us on an entertaining and nostalgic trip down memory lane, revealing details of the programme’s birth, its meticulous production methods, backstage crises, multiple revamps and a host of famous, and occasionally almost forgotten, faces.

Egan proves an intelligent and informative guide, providing plenty of surprises to enjoy along the way, as well as a thoughtful assessment of this groundbreaking programme’s legacy on the soap industry that it spawned on a far-off day in December 1960.

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The series was the brainchild of Tony Warren, a born-and-bred northerner famed for his gritty scripts but also openly gay, ‘a willowy figure with a long cigarette holder and a cane, who affected the style and manner of speech of Noel Coward.’

He was employed on a year’s writing contract by Manchester-based Granada in 1960 for the princely sum of £30 a week.

After being told to ‘b****r off for 24 hours and come back with an idea that will take Britain by storm,’ he returned next day with the first episode of what would become Coronation Street.

The seeds of the programme had been germinating in his brain for most of his life but even he could not have imagined that it would grow into one of the most successful dramas in television history.

The script’s working title was ‘Florizel Street’ but the name changed after Bill Roache (Ken Barlow) couldn’t pronounce it in the dry-run rehearsal and a Granada tea lady observed that it sounded like a disinfectant.

Warren peopled his street with an extraordinarily colourful array of characters whose names, it is claimed, were taken from gravestones in the grounds of Salford’s Pendlebury Church.

In the quest to convey realism, it was also decided that the cast should be largely made up of genuine northern actors and must contain no well-known faces.

ITV’s Television Committee was decidedly unenthusiastic about a ‘dreary’ northern drama but agreed to let the show go ahead as a twice-weekly 13-parter until something else could be devised to quickly replace it.

The first series was mainly broadcast live, a nerve-jangling experience for both the cast and production team, and in the third episode, Ena Sharples’ cocoa milk managed to boil over!

Newspaper reviews were mixed...the ‘posh’ Guardian loved it and predicted a long life while the northern edition of the Daily Mirror found ‘little reality’ in it and claimed that it wouldn’t last...but the show earned a second series.

Some Mancunians were not impressed, having spotted straightaway the improbability of one street housing people with accents as far flung as Bury, Oldham and Rochdale. In fact, Warren received piles of hate mail, informing him that his portrayal was ‘a disgrace to the north’ and, in some cases, threatening violence and even death.

After that first series, Warren only ever wrote further episodes as a member of a writing team but as Coronation Street’s creator, his name will be forever associated with its success.

Ironically, with each episode of the programme, its original authenticity has been unavoidably diluted due to the fact that its purpose is to entertain rather than plod mechanically through the routine details of everyday life.

Yet Coronation Street survives while other once trendy serials like Brookside have fallen by the wayside, mainly because, says Egan, it has retained its integrity, remaining realistic and organic and steadfastly refusing to become a vehicle for self-consciously modern social and political issues.

Producers, directors, writers and actors all contribute to this fascinating portrait of a national institution.

(JR Books, hardback, £18.99)