The longest-running 13-week serial in the world 

9 December 2016 tbs.pm/9720

Reprinted from Twenty One Years of Independent Television, published 20 September 1976 by Broadcast magazine, edited by Rod Allen.

If one programme over the years has become inextricably identified with ITV, it is Granada’s “Coronation Street.” Its beginnings, however, were modest; the original plan was for a 13-week run!

Throughout the fifties television fiction was largely either fantasy-filled or purely escapist. Most of the plays were acted out in some strange never-never land and unless the viewer suffered from some outrageous peculiarity or, like the central figures of the drama series, drove a Maserati, decimated crime and enjoyed a different monogrammed dolly every day of the week, it was difficult for him to identify with the shadowy black and white figures which flitted fitfully across his screen.

from the North

And then, on December 9 1960, along came a twice-weekly serial which not only had yourself in it but your nosey next-door neighbour, your Auntie Maggie, that landlord’s wife who thought she was the Lady of the Manor and the back-street houri you’d had your eye on for more years than you cared to remember. All in one mass-identification package. Entitled, after a deal of heartache, “Coronation Street”.

The heartache was not unexpected. Naming any television programme, like the novel and the play, is a thankless task to be put off as long as possible. So successful was the procrastination of this particular show that, a week before serious rehearsals were due to begin, a note arrived on a Granada desk pointing out that the serial had still to be agreeably christened and please could an acceptable title be conveyed to the writer as soon as possible. By the following day, say. The writer was Cecil Bernstein, the show’s ‘grandfather’; the recipient Harry (Stuart) Latham, “Coronation Street’s” first producer.

GRANADA

A Committee of Enquiry was appointed with indecent haste. Harry Elton, Granada’s drama executive producer, and myself were pressed into service by Harry Latham and, that evening, the three of us locked ourselves into one of Granada’s offices with two bottles of Irish whisky and a pledge to remain so immured until the perfect title revealed itself. Why Irish whisky no-one can remember. Presumably they were the only bottles available at short notice.

For the first hour all went well. Sobriety and a realisation of the urgency of our mission led us unerringly along the paths of historical pedantry. Our street, we reasoned, would have been built around the turn of the century and from that starting point two firm favourites emerged — Jubilee Street and Coronation Street — nominal recognitions of the two royal personages later celebrated rather more fully by the BBC and Thames Television. We congratulated ourselves and had another drink, forgetting in the euphoria of the moment that a wide choice can, at times, provide less of a dilemma than straight alternatives. This was one of those times. Midnight struck and we were still arguing the pros and cons of Victoria and Edward. The bottles had long been empty but their effects lingered and it was Harry Latham, the logician of the party, who first threw off those effects and announced that, as there were three of us and only two candidates, we were pretty sure of reaching a decision were we to put the matter to the vote. The rationale was gratefully accepted, the vote taken, a decision reached and we all went home.

The following morning Granada was awash with memoranda informing not only Cecil Bernstein but everyone else concerned that “Coronation Street” was to be the title of the new twice-weekly serial. I took my copy into Harry Elton’s office to find him re-reading his for the fourth time. He regarded me thoughtfully and in a Canadian accent thickened by emotion, said, ‘I’m pretty darned sure I voted for Jubilee Street!’ I could only tell the truth as I remembered it. ‘I’m pretty darned sure I voted for Jubilee Street, too!’

It is difficult, with the benefit of hindsight, to see how we could have called it anything other than “Coronation Street”. That, however, was not the most important issue at stake. Producers were, and to a certain extent, still are expected to accept from their superiors and colleagues what the donors regard as ‘constructive help’ and the ungrateful recipients ‘uninformed bloody interference’. By having his own way and refusing to accept any measure so potentially damaging as a democratic decision (even though inspired by him) Harry Latham fired the final shot in a successful war of independence and instituted a producer-autocracy which was to be relished by many of his successors on the programme.

G-arrow

Latham had, up to that point, been busily engaged in fighting off the ‘white collar’ lobbies — those bodies of opinion inside Granada who held the sincere and understandable belief that the project could  not possibly succeed without a carrot or two for the middle classes. As no doubt Cabinet colleagues had suggested measures to many a Chancellor during the long hours of Budget debate, so the producer-elect was ‘advised’ that perhaps a doctor might help, or a retired gentlewoman down on her uppers. But on this occasion everything was to go to the working class. The only concession to ‘other areas’ came in the shape of ‘Ken Barlow’, undergraduate, social revolutionary, ban-the-bomber and steadfastly Left-wing. Ironically Ken stuck to his Socialism whilst Dad, who had whipped him verbally for taking a girl-friend to tea in the hotel where Mum skivvied, came up on the Premium Bonds and escaped to the lush lawns of suburban Wilmslow.

It was less a succession of battles than a series of skirmishes. One I remember particularly well. Late one October afternoon, a few weeks before the opening night, Latham came back from a typical encounter. He was weary and it showed. ‘They want a doctor.’ he said. ‘A young doctor living at Number Seven.’ I asked him why. ‘God knows! They say it’ll add bloom!’ The professional Northerner in me stirred and I told him that although I had no idea what ‘bloom’ was in the South; in the North it afflicted only furniture. ‘It’s an unsightly deposit,’ I told him, ‘caused by outside influences.’ He looked at me, smiled, savoured the words and went back into battle. We never heard of the doctor again.

Let me disillusion any reader who is building up a picture of a sincere and valiant production team locked in bloody battle with an evil, penny-pinching, uncaring management. This was civil war with both sides protecting the land they loved. And an unpromising land it was! Seven terraced houses, a pub, a corner shop, a non-denominational Mission and a raincoat factory. Built, with great love and a matchless talent for character-creation, by Tony Warren, then in his early twenties and working in Granada’s promotion department. Built, not in the fashion of the time, but radically. For all its worn brick and cobbled streets, this was new territory and it is to the credit of Granada’s management and a measure of their dedication to their chosen region that they considered such an unlikely purchase in the first place. But consider it they did and at 7 pm on Friday, December 9 1960, “Coronation Street” took to the air live, embarked on a thirteen week run.

GRANADA

Attitudes to the programme – both of Press and public — have remained strangely constant over the years. The audience is divided between those who openly enjoy the programme and those who watch but won’t admit it. Introduced in a pub as someone who works in television, I find the stranger’s first reaction is to complain of the bad reception he gets on BBC 2. His second, on hearing I work on “Coronation Street” is to look sad. ‘Ah!’ he will say, ‘This is going to surprise you but I’ve never never seen it!’ It comes as no surprise. It also fails to astound when, two points later he is joining knowledgeably in a spirited debate as to whether or not Elsie Tanner should marry again. To counter-petition, I would value a little more honesty from the viewers. If I am to believe everyone I speak to I can’t for the life of me understand why ‘Panorama’ isn’t top of the ratings every week.

Press reaction has remained invariably variable. One week we’re a trivial meretricious soap opera, the next a glorious amalgam of inspired acting, sparkling dialogue and talented production. And the papers have been writing our obituary since Episode One. Some years ago, a respected television critic on a Fleet Street daily told me that he was about to ring the Street’s death knell. A member of his editorial board, no doubt inspired by a fall in the ratings, had had a vision in which the programme lay lifeless. I tried to explain. It depends on the competition, I said. A popular but short-running comedy series on BBC 1 had dented our figures rather in the way that a sprinter could join the 5,000 metres half way through and beat Brendan Foster over a hundred yards before collapsing at the side of the track. The critic was unmoved and, the following Saturday, the obituary appeared. On the same day a sister newspaper announced that “Coronation Street” once more occupied first and second places in the Top Ten.

Those of us who still enjoy working on the show find it difficult to understand why “Coronation Street” is so often indicted of the two crimes of old age and popularity. Old age we’re sorry about — it comes to us all — but you’re as old as you feel and “Coronation Street” feels fine. And popularity isn’t always a bad thing.

It was Derek Granger, the serial’s second producer, who said that the battle for improved standards would be fought on the field of the mass audience and, on reflection, it is hard to disagree. There is little point in teaching an empty classroom, not much joy in preaching to the converted. Not that the studio set is littered with soap boxes. The odd social injustice has been railed against, the generations have spoken to each other and learned a few truths but not to the exclusion of the pleasanter fictions. “Coronation Street” is not documentary drama, whatever that may be. It is an entertainment programme.

Let Tony Warren have the last word — appropriately enough the first words to appear in his original brief.

“A fascinating freemasonry, a volume of unwritten rules. These are the driving forces behind a working class street in the north of England. “Florizel Street” sets out to explore these values and in doing so, to entertain.” (Tony Warren, 1960)

Only the name has changed. The intentions remain.

Inverted dipole

  • H V Kershaw (1918-1992) was a scriptwriter and producer at Granada Television.

 

On the cover of the TVTimes…

 

GRANADA

A Transdiffusion Presentation

Report an error

Author

Harry Kershaw Contact More by me

You Say

3 responses to this article

Paul Mason 17 December 2016 at 3:52 am

I am going to shock everyone now retired n saying Coronation Street (CS) should have been killed off in 1985. This date is when many of the original cast members had retired or died. I had the pleasure of watching a DVD box set (not mine) and the characters of the 1960s and 70s were more credible than those of the.21st century. The Ken Barlow character simply would never have lived in such a street once he left university. The few elderly cast members are sadly misplaced.
There were rumours that in 1970 the street was to be demolished as many such streets were at that time. I don’t know whether Coronation Heights was being considered.
The problem was that as the older characters retired or died newer or less rooted characters took over, e.g Percy Sugden replaced Albert Tatlock, the Duckworths replaced the Ogden’s.
Would ITV be brave enough to take it off? Brookside came off, as did Crossroads and no one has died due to cold soap turkey..Emmerdale is.44 years and is like a rural CS yet The Archers, on which this was loosely based knocks spots off it, even though the cast are heard not seen. EastEnders is nearing 32 years and Casualty 30. EE has the advantage of not being nostalgic inthe way CS is. Casualty must gave covered evert affliction known to man, with Holby City effectively making twice weekly.
My message is this- if you are addicted to a particular programme GET A LIFE and GET A BOX SET. This is something one couldn’t doing the golden age of the 1960s and 70s.

Kif Bowden-Smith 18 December 2016 at 1:03 am

Taking it off would be entirely a commercial decision concerning advertising sales. Whether the programme was artistically any good wouldn’t even come into it. If they couldn’t sell the advertising it would be off the air like a shot. As long as they can sell the ads – aggregated at about £75,000 for each ad during the centre break, the show will continue forever. I can promise you that. It’s all about adverts! 🙂

Victor Field 21 December 2016 at 12:30 pm

It’ll end eventually. Can’t happen, you say?That’s what said about the British Empire and the idea of a black US president.

Your comment

Enter it below