Although Jim Walker never worked on Coronation Street he was a producer at Granada for more than 20 years and was always in close contact with the actors and production staff during that time. As such he saw a great many changes in the format of the show.
Before I conjure up the glamour of showbiz, a vignette of the real world in 1960 before the Sixties had begun to swing. I lived in Newcastle upon Tyne in Cresswell Street which was a red terrace just like Coronation Street, only without the bay windows. Bay windows were posh. There were rows and rows of such terraces with evocative names – Canterbury Street, Cresswell Street, Cullercoats Street… As children we knew every street before we could read the names and thought they were our playground. It wasn’t until we were in our teens that we realised they were simply a barracks for the shipyard workers, named in alphabetical order for the convenience of the rent man.
Some years later the wits of Tyneside – that’s to say my friends and I –were to say that television was better than real life because TV was in colour while reality was grey. And the civic authorities made sure it stayed that way. Take a silly but significant example: if you walked into Gateshead Public Library in 1960 and reached for “Ulysses” or “Das Kapital” you’d find yourself blushing, holding a block of wood bearing the label: ‘Present this to the Library Assistant,who will decide whether or not you are mature enough to read this book” . Since I was the Library Assistant I personally made sure there was no censorship in Gateshead. My other job, however, was to burn books which weren’t particularly popular and were taking up precious Barbara Cartland space on the shelves. I refused to burn “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists” and was fired.
This was an astute move on my part because I then met the great Richard Kelly, the inventor of the vox-pop. Until the late Fifties the only voices that came out of the wooden wireless were in the rich tones of the Establishment, with the occasional Cockney comedian thrown in to represent the working class. But EMI invented a portable tape recorder (“portable only in the sense that it’s not screwed to the floor” as Richard said) and “Voice of the People “s born in the teeth of BBC bureaucratic opposition. The impact of hearing Geordie voices coming out of the radio is indescribable – imagine the shock of seeing your granny reading the Nine o’ Clock news – that’s how it felt.
So after a couple of years studying journalism on The Northern Echo under “hyperactive Harold”(Evans) I joined Voice of the People. which became Voice of the North just as I was transferred to Manchester. There I first heard the rumour that the toffee – nosed BBC bureaucrats in their thick carpeted offices in Peter Square had turned down a wildly successful drama called Coronation Street because they didn’t believe the world wanted to hear of the goings–on of the proletariat. I honestly don’t know if the rumour was true but it has the ring of truth – those same bureaucrats forbade me from giving racing tips out on a current-affairs show because they deemed it “vulgar.”
After two years I was poached by the late Susi Hush (who became the Producer of Coronation Street) to be a reporter on a Granada version of Tomorrow’s World called “Octopus”. I was supposed to be the token Lancashire lad. I pointed out to the Executive Producers Nick Elliott and Mike Scott that I was actually a Geordie from 200 miles to the North-east but the distinction didn’t seem to matter. After Six weeks rumours drifted down the corridor that “Octopus is on its last leg.” And when it was axed I became a News Reporter then News Producer.
Occasionally, important chaps would descend from the sixth floor to “suggest” that we should cover Elsie Tanner’s latest wedding or some such grand event. They were always miffed when I spurned them on the grounds that we dealt with fact, not fiction. Once, Pat Phoenix herself came in with her fiancé, Tony Booth (now the Prime Minister’s father-in-law) to offer a song they’d written in support of Lech Walesa and Polish Solidarity. Shamefully I turned it down on the grounds that the programme was full.
I think I must have offended somebody on the sixth floor because Gus (now Lord) Macdonald decided that five years on the newsdesk was long enough and moved me into other programmes. At least I started working with celebrities like Anna Ford, Joan Bakewell and some stars of the Street. The one I liked best was Lynne Perrie (Ivy Tilsley) who has a fine cabaret singing voice, especially after a couple of brandies. The local taxi firm, Radio Cars, was staffed by garrulous drivers who would reveal that Lynne used to despatch them to do her shopping or bring her fish and chips. It’s a credit to her that she wouldn’t care who knew that story. I ‘ll bet she’s a generous tipper. — — she sang free of charge in the Telethon I produced in 1990. We all know that she was sacked from the Street for having unauthorised cosmetic surgery .
The late Brian Mosley ( “Alf Roberts”) was generous too but you could tell he was a Yorkshireman. After I’d broadcast an item about a girl who suffered from a rare disease that blistered her skin whenever she touched anything, he came to see me and subsequently set up a charity to fund research for a cure. Yet, as we chatted he mentioned that every night he would put his small change in a jar and was always pleasantly surprised when he took the jar to the bank at the end of the month. I wonder if it was the Yorkshire Penny Bank.
In the Old School, the Granada drinking club, I shared an addiction with Peter Baldwin (“Derek Wilton”).We used to play side by side on the one-armed bandits -”the devil’s mangles”- exchanging commiserations or congratulations over our rare triumphs —“Three triple bars – the children will eat tonight.!”
‘They’ll be dancing in their little cardboard clogs !” He was mortified when he was sacked by The Axeman, Brian Park.
My most enjoyable brush with the Street came on a summer’s afternoon when Roland Joffe (who later won an Oscar for “The Killing Fields”) came to see me in something of a panic because he‘d been asked to direct a few episodes of the Street and confessed in his cut-glass accent that he had no acquaintance whatsoever with working class life. Would I give him an insight? ? I took him to Gledhill Street in Ordsall, Salford, which was identical to Cresswell Street. We sat on the kerbstone while I showed him the joys of dropping pebbles down the grid and of excavating tar from the melting street. I talked to him about the last “knocker-up” who had only just retired. I asked him to imagine all the thousands of people who had lived and died here and had never seen London, let alone a desert or an ocean. We talked to the housewives whose community was about to be demolished against their will. I think Roland found the tiny rooms and narrow ginnels quite a shock but he didn’t show it.
As we left we promised to campaign to save Gledhill Street, but needless to say, it’s gone now. And so, for that matter has Cresswell Street. That’s why we like to know that Coronation Street, at least, still survives.