Coronation Street at 60: How TV’s longest-running soap shifted public debate
As Corrie celebrates its 60th anniversary, cobbles chronicler Eamonn Forde looks at how Coronation Street has influenced public perception of the biggest issues of our times
by: Eamonn Forde
7 Dec 2020
Illustration by Bill McConkey
In his poem Annus Mirabilis, Philip Larkin posited that sexual intercourse began in 1963 – taking the end of the Lady Chatterley’s Lover ban in November 1960 and the release of the debut album by The Beatles in March 1963 as the twin catalysts for a new Britain.
On December 9 1960, almost exactly a month after the lifting of the Chatterley ban and the day before a chastened and work permit-less John Lennon left Stu Sutcliffe behind in Hamburg (Paul McCartney, Pete Best and George Harrison having already been deported), a new show debuted on Granada, a channel that was itself only four years old. This show also changed Britain in a multitude of profound ways and continues to do so 60 years later.
Coronation Street was created by Tony Warren (real name Anthony McVay Simpson), a jobbing actor-turned-scriptwriter, whose father was resolutely middle class and whose mother was proudly working class. Warren was also gay. His was an entirely new perspective for the screen.
Warren’s show idea had been percolating for years. A script for Our Street (itself a comedic adaptation of an earlier drama script he had written about a northern backstreet called Where No Birds Sing) was turned down by BBC Leeds in the late 1950s.
A second swing at a new script idea with Granada “about a backstreet” that was “four miles in any one direction from the centre of Manchester”, initially called Florizel Street, was accepted. It was only a month before broadcast that producers switched the title to Coronation Street (Jubilee Street was also a contender) because a tea lady at Granada remarked that Florizel sounded like a disinfectant.
William Roache, who plays Ken Barlow, has been with the show (he disdains the term “soap”) since its first episode. He says its arrival needs to be seen in the context of what was happening in theatre as the 1950s came to a close, notably John Osborne’s Look Back In Anger and Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste Of Honey.
“We were new and cutting-edge drama,” he says. “It was the first realism coming on screen. It was not escapism; it was getting straight back into little people in a backstreet facing adversity, so everyone can identify with that.”
The show was, against expectations, a major hit and remains one of the most-watched TV shows in the UK, where the dramatic is intertwined with the wry, exposing the stark contrasts of life through the seemingly mundane.
We’re 60 years young this week – look how far we’ve come!
Coronation Street tackled major issues in its first two decades that were rarely discussed before in a show like this – murder, suicide attempts, sexual assault, illegitimacy – but everything changed in 1983.
Ken Barlow discovered his wife Deirdre was having an affair with factory owner Mike Baldwin, Ken’s ideological opposite, and it gripped the nation in a way no British soap ever had before. “Prior to that, the papers and media generally didn’t take much notice of such shows,” suggests Roache.
On the night of the story’s denouement, the scoreboard at Old Trafford during a Manchester United and Arsenal game flashed up to reveal that Deirdre was staying with Ken.
“From then on the papers started having a soap reporter and there were soap magazines and soap awards,” says Roache. “All those things emanated from that period. It did have a colossal impact.”
This was both blessing and curse for the show. It was a major talking point and a huge part of the fabric of British society, but it also became somewhat Faustian where big storylines were trailed in the papers to whip up interest, the more dramatic the better. EastEnders, with its own focus on working-class Londoners, arrived in 1985 and the soap plot Cold War (or, more appositely, the Suds War) arms race was on.
“It was not escapism; it was getting straight back into little people in a backstreet facing adversity, so everyone can identify with that” – William Roache.
John Whiston is managing director of continuing drama for ITV and oversees Coronation Street. He prefers not to see it quite as an arms race with other soaps to get the biggest storylines.
Competition, however, is fierce between them and if one soap runs with a story that another is planning, the latter generally has to step back. He says a crane crash idea was scrapped because Hollyoaks did it first and another recent storyline about the rise of right-wing racists had to pivot into a story about human trafficking as, once again, Hollyoaks got there first.
For him, these big stories are used to explore their impact on characters the viewers have grown up with and know intimately.
“It is about extraordinary circumstances bringing out extraordinary responses in quite ordinary people,” he says. “Extraordinary things are only there in order to see how human nature deals with things and to explore humanity – the wonderfulness of humanity as well as our baser instincts.”
Stories are planned in the writing room – the show has around 30 writers – and researched before actors are told what is going to happen to their character. They also work hand-in-hand with charities, where necessary, to ensure the story arc is accurate and not exploitative. Tina O’Brien joined the show in 1999 when she was 16 and her character
Sarah-Louise Platt was 12. Her first major storyline the following year was Sarah-Louise getting pregnant at a time when the UK had one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in Europe. That year the British government had launched the 10-year Teenage Pregnancy Strategy in England in an attempt to halve the under-18 conception rate in the country. Producers initially balked but eventually decided they would show Sarah-Louise giving birth on screen.
“I was given a bag of VHS tapes to watch women in labour!” laughs O’Brien at the memory. “That was to give me an idea of how I would behave and what kind of noises I would make.”
She also met expectant mothers in a teenage pregnancy unit to better understand the situation. It became a huge story, the topics it raised even being discussed in Parliament, and it got families talking. “Coronation Street is entertainment, but they have always covered very, very important and topical situations,” says O’Brien. “I know that it does make a difference.”
Jack P Shepherd plays David Platt, Sarah-Louise’s brother, and was at the centre of a male rape story in 2018. The producers called him in to tell him in advance.
“I was shocked,” he says. “I did think, ‘Fuck! Really? Jesus!’ It was just so un-David Platt. I just couldn’t imagine him going through that or dealing with that.”
The team had worked with Manchester Survivors, a charity helping men who had been through this, and they explained it takes years for victims to come forward and report attacks.
Calls to national charity Male Survivor increased by 1,700 per cent after the episode aired. The incident’s repercussions played out over months but it still had to be accelerated compared to what happens in real situations like this. “We can’t keep the same timeframe as real life,” says Shepherd. “It would just get boring.”
It overlapped with the suicide of Aidan Connor in the show and this was used to spark David into reporting his attack.
“In the same episode in which Aidan commits suicide, David realises that, unless he talks to somebody, he’s going to end up like Aidan,” says Whiston. “That leads him on his path of coming to terms with what happened to him.”
Currently playing out on screen is a coercive control storyline where Yasmeen Nazir, played by Shelley King, has been subjected to escalating abuse by husband Geoff Metcalfe. King met with women who had been through this and says that a soap can only show so much in a story of this nature.
“You simply cannot do those things at 7.30 in the evening,” she says. “It would be too dangerous and it would be too uncomfortable. I think we have given people the idea of – even above and beyond what we’ve seen – what Geoff is capable of.”
There is an important campaigning and social responsibility angle to the show that is revealed in these storylines.
“It’s been telling epic stories for 60 years that you can identify with, things that go on behind closed doors, things that you can’t really talk about; but you can if some programme like Coronation Street is brave enough to tell you about them,” says King. “I think that’s why Corrie has lasted so long. That’s why we keep on trying to make the programme.”
Alan Halsall has played Tyrone Dobbs since 1998 and his character has been subjected to domestic abuse from one-time fiancée Kirsty Soames. He met a male victim as part of his research and, like King, says the show can only cover so much of the reality here. “The severity of his case couldn’t have been shown on television,” he says.
“Through the charity [the victim] was involved with, I found out just how often this went on. It was unnoticed, people didn’t speak about it, men were embarrassed by it and didn’t want to speak about it.” The charity reported huge spikes in calls after the story went out showing how this being tackled on mainstream TV can change and save lives.
Where Coronation Street really excels is in its melding of these explosive and often controversial stories with a dry and camp Lancashire sensibility. The big stories give it the headlines but the smaller stories between characters give it its heart and its humour. These are its most enduring ingredients.
“That’s what makes Coronation Street so unique,” says Patti Clare who plays Mary Taylor. “It is that inter-relationship glue that holds it all together and makes it human.”
It is a show, she feels, that allows the awkward and the outsider – like Mary or Roy Cropper – to fit in. Adding in a back story where Mary was reunited with the son she gave up for adoption gave a character often played for humour even greater depth. “It only added to her three-dimensional character,” suggests Clare, “moving her away from just being the comic foil.”
Humour is the necessary light in the darkness here, she says. “It’s never vicious, it’s never malicious and it’s never cruel. Mary’s big camp, I would say! Coronation Street allows for that campness, which is fantastic. The audience loves it.”
Halsall also feels this is something Coronation Street has used to carve out a unique place for itself on TV. “What it does so well is that it portrays all that drama and all that emotion, but intertwined with all that is this comedy and humour.”
King regards Coronation Street as part of a long theatrical tradition with its roots stretching back thousands of years. “Like all the great dramas of the world – from ancient Greece to Shakespeare and coming right into the modern world with Joe Orton or Phoebe Waller-Bridge – what you have is tragedy punctuated by moments of comedy, observation or irony. Otherwise it becomes unpalatable.”
Having been there from the very start, Roache has seen the show both reflect and adapt to the times, but its humour has been the constant. “We don’t do things that are funny,” he says. “What we do – the writers are very good at that and the actors know how to do it – is we extract the humour from within. It can be a funeral or whatever but there’s always humour to be found. That is a Lancashire trait that really comes out very strongly in Coronation Street.”
Its other greatest strength is that women have always been the engine of the show, giving it its light and its shade. Often the biggest stories and the best insights into the human condition come through them.
The roll call of standout female characters here is staggering – Ena Sharples, Elsie Tanner, Annie Walker, Bet Lynch, Hilda Ogden, Vera Duckworth, Raquel Watts, Becky Granger, Evelyn Plummer and, perhaps the greatest of them all, Blanche Hunt. Comedy, tragedy and humanity all in one, with these richly developed and expressive women ultimately in charge. They are the quintessence of the show as well as its moral compass.
“Tony Warren founded the show on strong women and feckless men,” says Whiston. “That’s the main thread that goes through it – the resilience of the female characters in Corrie. No matter what the world is throwing at them, they’ll find a way either to deal with it or to poke fun at it. And they’ll often find a way through it by calling on each other in a communal way. That thread has always been in Corrie and it will sustain it.”
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