Harry Elton (5th January, 1930 - 16th May, 2004) was the man responsible for commissioning Coronation Street in the summer of 1960 and was also the driving force in the Autumn of the same year who pushed the programme through to eventual broadcast.
He was born in Toronto, Canada and moved with his widowed mother and sister to Detroit in 1938 following the death of his father. He attended Wayne State University where he gained ambitions to become an actor and started at RADA in London in 1951 but left after one term. Returning to Michigan he started work in the fledging television industry and was one of many Canadians recruited by Sidney Bernstein, Denis Forman and other executives when they started Granada Television in 1956 (The company originally had a strict rule that they would employ no BBC people as they wanted their service to be markedly different to the competition and, unable to match US salaries, Canada was an obvious place to search for staff).
At Granada he worked on series such as Shadow Squad, two courtroom drama series, The Verdict Is Yours and In Court Today and Biggles. It was with this latter series that he first encountered Tony Warren who was vociferous in his complaints over being asked to work on Biggles as he knew little about flying and loathed Captain W.E Johns' original stories. He begged Elton for a chance to write about something else and preferably something he knew about, suggesting that one such subject was the North of England. In a 1992 interview for the BBC Warren recalled that from Elton's office you could see over the mass of terraced houses that used to cover Salford (whose historical border started at the River Irwell, almost at the edge of Granada's Quay Street studios site) and Elton, waving vaguely at the view, asked him to write about a street out there. Warren had previously sent scripts about such ideas to the BBC in Leeds but they had not returned an answer. Elton gave him twenty-four hours to come back with a script idea that would "take Britain by storm" and Warren returned with the script for a programme called Florizel Street. Elton was taken with the treatment and asked for a script for the second episode and a covering memo that he could take to the Granada executives. Warren did so and described his idea as:
- "A fascinating freemasonry, a volume of unwritten rules. These are the driving forces behind life in a working-class street in the north of England. To the uninitiated outsider, all this would be completely incomprehensible. The purpose of Florizel Street is to entertain by examining a community of this kind and initiating the viewer into the ways of the people who live there."
Elton remained enthusiastic but found that his bosses were less so: "I was told that it was neither funny enough on the one hand nor documentary enough on the other and therefore fell between two stools." Two dry runs were produced but these failed to sway Granada management. Finally, Elton arranged for the episodes to be shown on monitors around the Granada building at 1.00pm one afternoon and staff and visitors were given questionnaires on what they saw to return. Although acclaim was not universal, enough complementary comments were given for him to take back to the management for a re-think. The responses, and the fact that the series would, of necessity, employ a large number of northern actors and production staff, therefore helping Granada to fulfill its remit from the Independent Television Authority to represent its region, persuaded the senior management to give him the green light to produce a series and such approval was given on 25th August 1960.
Although day to day production of the series was in the hands of the programme's first producer. Harry "Stuart" Latham, Elton remained close to the progress of the series and was instrumental in the debate over the renaming of the serial in late November/early December. No one, with the exception of Warren, liked the original title of Florizel Street and legend has it that a comment from a tea lady called Agnes that it sounded like a disinfectant convinced everyone else that a change was needed although H.V. Kershaw, the programme's first script editor recalled that Cecil Bernstein, Sidney's brother, ordered the change.
Latham, Kershaw and Elton sat in Latham's office one night at 7.00pm with a bottle of whisky and thrashed the issue out. Bearing in mind the construction of their fictional street would have been at the end of the nineteenth century or the beginning of the next, they thought that either Jubilee Street (for Queen Victoria's 1897 Diamond Jubilee) or Coronation Street (for Edward VII's 1902 Coronation) were suitable choices. The arguments for each went on into the night through an alcoholic haze when Latham insisted it be put to the vote.
As Kershaw relates…
- "The following morning copies of a memorandum from Harry Latham winged their way to every interested recipient in Granada announcing that the new serial was to be known as Coronation Street. One of the copies was waiting for me as I arrived and I immediately took it into Harry Elton's office on the sixth floor. He was sitting at his desk reading his copy as I walked in. His head lifted. 'I'm pretty darned sure I voted for Jubilee Street,' he said.
- " ' And I'm pretty darned sure I voted for Jubilee Street too,' I added.
- "And thus it was that our serial came to be known as Coronation Street ".
Elton continued to oversee the programme for the next three years in his role of executive producer of drama at Granada (although it would be Kershaw who would first be credited with such a role on the programme itself in 1965). Elton's other main connection with Coronation Street was in allowing his latest child and youngest daughter Victoria to play the part of the baby Paul Cheveski on the rare occasions that the character was seen in 1961.
In 1963 Elton left Granada to return to Canada, certain that his success in Britain would open up doors for him in his home country. That wasn't to be the case and Elton had to work his way up the ladder once again, taking jobs at CBC (who would later screen Coronation Street in Canada) and for the Canadian Museum of Civilisation from which he retired in 1990. He was briefly reunited with a surprised and delighted Tony Warren in October 1995 when he appeared on the latter's edition of This Is Your Life.
Elton discovered an interest in China on a visit there in 1993 and spent his last years making trips there, at first teaching English and later as part of the Canada-China Friendship Association. It was in Lhasa, Tibet that he suffered a fatal heart attack and died in 2004.