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The Road to Coronation Street

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The-Road-To-Coronation-St-006

Clockwise from left: Jessie Wallace as Patricia Phoenix, David Dawson as Tony Warren, Jane Horrocks as Margaret Morris, Celia Imrie as Doris Speed and Lynda Baron as Violet Carson.

The Road to Coronation Street was a seventy-five minute television movie dramatising the fraught process by which Coronation Street was brought to the screen in 1960.

The project was announced in February 2010 under its working title of Florizel Street (Coronation Street 's own working title half a century before) and was the idea of Daran Little, a former archivist for the Street and a later script writer. The production excited initial comment as it was commissioned by the BBC and not Granada Television themselves as a tribute in the fiftieth anniversary year however the finished programme was made by ITV productions and not by the BBC. Press comment in early months centred around who would play well-known faces such as Patricia Phoenix, Doris Speed and Violet Carson and when casting was announced in the summer there was further coverage with special mention that William Roache would be played by his own son, James.

The programme was scripted by Little with Tony Warren acting as a consultant. Filming took place in the summer of 2010 at locations in Manchester, Salford and along the “A6 corridor” towards Bolton. The actual house Tony Warren lived at in 1960 was used for exterior shots of the same as were parts of the Granada Television Quay Street studios that had not changed to any recognisible degree in the intervening half-century, in particular the boardroom. Other sequences were filmed in buildings in Manchester that could pass for a canteen, offices and a rehearsal room of the period. The director was Charles Sturridge who had also directed episodes of Coronation Street in the late 1970s and had worked with many of the people being portrayed. He cast his wife Phoebe Nicholls in the role of Mrs Simpson, Tony Warren's mother. Actors who themselves played actors were shown clips and episodes from the opening days of the programme to enable them to see how their real-life counterparts appeared on screen whereas others relied on the memory of Tony Warren as to the characters of the production staff they were playing, as well as taking their direction from Little’s superbly researched script.

James Roache as William Roache

James Roache playing his father William Roache.

For the purposes of telling the story within the necessary timeframe, some aspects of the 1960 preparations were bowdlerised or omitted. No mention was made of producer Stuart Latham and casting of other roles outside of the quartet of Phoenix, Roache, Speed and Carson was not included within the story.

The production was reviewed enthusiastically by the press and media in the week before transmission with the Radio Times describing it as “a triumph” and The Guardian stating it was “a beautifully crafted love letter to the past.”

First transmission took place on digital channel BBC Four on Thursday 16th September, 2010 at 9.00pm with a simultaneous transmission on BBC HD. The programme ended with a caption which stated that Coronation Street was now Britain’s longest-running drama, however one day later, the US soap As the World Turns broadcast its final episode and therefore the Street became the longest running drama in the world still to be in production. The end credits were played with photographs of the real-life counterparts that the 2010 actors played, although photographs of characters such as Agnes the tea lady and Brenda the secretary were more generic. The photograph of Nita Valerie was one of her in the role of Polly Sagan in Coronation Street in 1966.

852,000 viewers watched the transmission on BBC4 with a further 60,000 watching BBC HD - large figures for both of those channels. Reviews in the press the next day were equally positive with only The Times making negative comments and The Independent, while praising the programme, saying that it, “rather over-romanticised things.” David Dawson as Tony Warren was singled out for special praise in The Metro. The Daily Express stated that it was, “a joy to watch” and called Lynda Baron’s portrayal of Violet Carson “inspired”. The Guardian stated that it was, “fond, and warm, and charming” The New Statesmen concentrated its praise, as did much of the blogosphere gossip, on the performance of Jessie Wallace as Patricia Phoenix, describing her as “fabulous”.

The programme was released as a DVD on 4th October 2010 under the "ITV Studios Home Entertainment" label, initially exclusively to HMV and on 15th March 2011 the production won the category of "Best Single Drama" at the Royal Television Society awards. The programme won the same category at the 2011 BAFTA awards. Lynda Baron and Jessie Wallace were also nominated in the latter for the "Best Supporting Actress" category but neither won. On 19th November, Daran Little won in the category of Best Scriptwriter at the Royal Television Society North West Awards.

Further showings in 2010 were as follows: Friday 17th September (12.45am and 3.05am on BBC Four), Saturday 18th September (11.45pm on both BBC Four and BBC HD), Saturday 6th November (9.30pm on BBC HD), Monday 8th November (11.30pm on BBC HD), Saturday 4th December (9.30pm on BBC Four), Sunday 5th December (1.00am on BBC Four), Thursday 9th December - the actual fiftieth anniversary of Coronation Street - (10.50pm on BBC Four) and Saturday 25th December (10.35pm on BBC Four).

In 2011 the programme was repeated on BBC4 on Tuesday 1st November at 9.00pm and BBC HD at 11.00pm on the same day. The first transmission on an ITV channel was on ITV3 on Friday 18th September 2015 at 7.55pm with more repeats on the same channel on 27th December 2015 at 10.45pm and Friday 1st January 2016 at 12.05am. Following the death of Tony Warren on 1st March 2016, the programme was repeated again on ITV3 on 14th March at 10.00pm and on ITV1 on 27th March at 10.15pm.

PlotEdit

At 6.53pm on Friday 9th December 1960 an air of controlled panic reigns in Studio 2 of Granada Television in Manchester as the live transmission time of 7.00pm and the start of a new television programme approaches. A curvy red-headed actress runs desperately through the corridors outside the studio looking for Tony Warren whose emotional support she urgently requires. She finds him feeling ill in the toilets. On the studio floor the director, Derek Bennett, gives last minute instructions to the floor manager about changes to the opening shots as a cat which was supposed to be the focus of the first on-screen moments has disappeared. Two elderly actresses swap small talk while up in the Chairman’s office of Granada, Sidney Bernstein and his brother Alex are glad to note that the Manchester weather has not let them down and it is pouring down outside. Derek enters the control room to take his place as ten seconds click down and the announcer states, “From the North, this is Granada…”

Some months before, Tony Warren arrives at Granada to see Margaret Morris, casting director, to see if there are any further parts for him. She advises him that he really isn’t the type that’s being employed as a television actor and is better suited to radio, a medium he wants to get away from. She remarks that it’s a pity he isn’t a writer as producer Harry Elton desperately needs northern writers to nurture. Having ambitions in that area and knowing that Elton produces a thriller series called Shadow Squad, Tony writes half of a script for an episode of the programme that night. The next day he blags his way into Elton’s office and delivers the script to the bewildered man with instructions to ring his home in Pendleton if he wants to know how it ends. Elton does like it and Tony is taken on as a contract writer.

Within a short time though, Tony is desperately unhappy adapting the works of W. E. Johns for Granada’s Biggles series. He perches himself on a filing cabinet in Elton’s office and refuses to move unless he is allowed to write something he knows about. Desperate to get him down and out of his office, Elton agrees and they discuss a topic: Tony wants to write about a Manchester street, something he has tried to sell to the BBC already, and says he will have a script on Elton’s desk the next day.

The script for Florizel Street is duly delivered. Elton likes it and gets Tony to write a memo which defines what the programme is about. He dictates to Brenda, Elton's secretary:

“A fascinating freemasonary, a volume of unwritten rules. These are the driving forces behind life in a working class street in the north of England…”

Sidney Bernstein is totally unenthusiastic, telling Elton that it doesn’t entertain people and drama should be “life with the boring bits cut out” - for him, this script just strings those boring bits together.

Elton gets Alex Bernstein to persuade his brother to change his mind about commissioning the programme as it will help fulfil Granada’s remit to reflect the north of England as well as using cheaper local actors and is written by someone who is under contract for £30 per week, no matter how much he writes. The Bernsteins agree on a dry run and casting begins…

Margaret Morris initially opposes Tony’s dictate that only local actors should be employed, not London actors, however her assistant Josie Scott, friendly with Tony and keen to help him, starts a bible of such people and the search starts. Tony himself wants an actress he knew years before called Doris Speed to play the part of Annie Walker. Josie manages to trace her down to a brewery where she works as a secretary. Flattered by being told that the part was specially written for her, she agrees to take it on. Josie spots a young actor is the studios named William Roache who Tony agrees would be ideal for the part of Kenneth Barlow. Patricia Phoenix bursts into the studios late for her audition and staggers the team with her instant suitability for Elsie Tanner. One problem remains though - there is no one right enough to play the key role of Ena Sharples. Nita Valerie is picked as the best of a selection but rehearsals for the dry-run shows that she is unsuited to the role. The taping is completed but the Granada board unanimously rejects it. Elton does not give up though and when Agnes, the tea lady, accidentally sees a playback on a monitor and comments enthusiastically on it, he is struck by an idea and plays the episodes back to the entire Granada staff on sets placed around the building during their lunch period with a request that they fill in a questionnaire on their opinions on what they have seen. Enough people like it to show the Bernsteins that they should change their mind. To the team’s jubilation, a series of thirteen episodes is commissioned but two problems remain - no one apart from Tony likes the Florizel Street title, with Agnes stating that it sounds like a disinfectant, and someone else is needed to play Ena Sharples. As the eleventh hour approaches, Margaret Morris insists that the part is cut but Tony refuses. He also offers a solution - a difficult, frightening, nightmare of an actress he worked with on Children’s Hour called Violet Carson. She is called in, refuses to audition but is put before the cameras for a screen test and gives the role her own unique slant and understanding of what a back-street bitch Ena is.

As transmission day approaches, the title is changed to Coronation Street although the final decision from Tony’s choices is made by the production team and not by the writer. Friday, 9th December arrives. Costumes are put on, actors wait in studio and the bell rings for silence as the final adverts before transmission play out. Violet Carson mutters to Doris Speed that Edna in wardrobe thinks the programme could run as long as The Archers - Speed is horrified at the thought. 7.00pm arrives and the melancholy theme music plays as Tony watches his creation alone in his office.

CastEdit

Production staffEdit

An ITV studios production for the BBC

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