Les Chatfield – Cameraman & Director

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Les Chatfield was for many years a Cameraman on Coronation Street and later became a director on the programme.

 

Coronation Street was suddenly just there, it was called Florizel Street then. We were going to do six I think and we did the first one and nobody thought it was anything out of the ordinary, full of all these unknown actors and actresses from the north which Jose found and then before you knew it, it took off. The Street was more an experimental thing than the plays we’d been doing because they had all the new young directors on it and they used to try various things because they were new and wanting experience. The plays were something special, they were three times as long and you felt really knackered after doing one of them. But we had some fairly horrific experiences on them but the great thing was it had gone, nobody could dig out the tape.

Suddenly Coronation Street was there all the time then, I think we only did two a week. As a cameraman you went to a technical rehearsal and did it the next. We used to start on a day at lunchtime, rehearse till about seven o’clock and then come in the next day and do it. As a cameraman the worst thing was the studio was so tiny and you had the street down the middle and all the houses off the sides . It was very cramped and there was a lot of rushing about so I think it was pretty noisy. I remember the director Peter Plummer deciding one week he wanted to do everything on long lenses so it would compress everything and make everything look smaller which made it far worse for us. He thought it was a success but I don’t think anybody else took it up.

The actors and actresses were different because they weren’t names. They were nice people. I remember Pat Phoenix was so different when she started. She was blowsy but she was obviously good for the part, she was ideal for it. The three old ladies were the stars of the early episodes and Pat Phoenix, those four women. I think that’s why it was so successful because it was the women who were the big strong characters which was unusual on television then. I think the three old ladies and Pat Phoenix were the stars then and all the rest were coming up, Bill Roache and Alan Rothwell.

I can’t remember anything really of the early episodes except for rows between Pat Phoenix and Violet Carson, Elsie Tanner and Ena Sharples within the story. I think it was quite a bit later than rows starting coming within the cast.

I was a cameraman for about seven years on Coronation Street, I suppose. Over those seven years, tape made an enormous difference, I can’t remember when that came in, and it became more sophisticated because it had some pretty good writers in the early days, Jack Rosenthal and Geoff Lancashire, Jim Allen, Peter Eckersley, John Finch, they were a pretty strong team of writers. I can’t really remember any of the very early episodes. Because they were all so studio-bound they were very limited in what they could do.

We were going out on location by the time I started directing but the location was only over where Granada Tours are now so that must have been late 60s I suppose.

I slipped a disc and Granada were stuck with a cameraman who couldn’t lug a camera around any more. In those days they used to look after you and so I got a job as a director. I’d tried to be a director before but got turned down because they needed me as a senior cameraman rather than as a director because they knew what I’d be like but when I slipped a disc and I was off for three months they made me a director and I have no trouble with my slipped disc and can operate a camera now.

After a year as a director, I worked on Coronation Street. I did a year on things like All Our Yesterdays, the local programme, I can’t remember whether it was Scene at Six Thirty or what it was then, with Bill Grundy, Michael Parkinson. Coronation Street was looked on then as a training ground for people who wanted to do drama and it was not like now, it was something you didn’t actually talk about. If someone asked you what you were directing, you’d whisper Coronation Street. It was looked down on, soap operas in those days. I mean they were still pulling the ratings but they weren’t regarded as great art as they are nowadays. I did two years on the Street before I directed any plays and then it was really drama series, I started on Family At War, things like that. But I was very lucky working with Jack Rosenthal, John Finch, Jim Allen, people like that. It was fairly easy and also the cast were well bedded-in by then and I think they were pretty good in those days.

We had a three week turnaround. We used to get the scripts on a Monday, go away and read them. Oh first of all we used to attend story line meetings and you were allowed to chip in. I don’t know if that still happens, you were allowed to put forward ideas. I mean they weren’t very often accepted and all the writers were there and I remember Adele Rose used to bake cakes and bring them into the meetings. That would be the first thing. On the Monday you’d get by the time I was directing, two scripts and Harry Kershaw was the producer I think then, the first one I had. And the second day you’d go and see Harry and talk about the scripts and he’d have ideas of re-writes and listen to any you had. Then they’d go back then to the writer. In the meantime, you’d talk to the designer and the floor manager because in those days the floor manager used to do the location managing as well, everything was in one office. And you used to have your PA in the first of the three weeks, everyone was on a three week turnaround then. And then the second week would be spent doing your blocking, working things out because the first week the designer would have got a floor plan out and everything. Any casting that had to be done, would be done. Then the third week you started rehearsal. Read through I think was done at lunchtime on a Monday then blocking to a producer’s run on a Wednesday afternoon, tech-run on a Thursday morning, in the studio Thursday afternoon and hopefully block the two episodes Thursday afternoon and early evening, seven o’clock finish I think and then the next day come in about twelve o’clock, rehearse them again do a dress rehearsal and then do one live and one as for live. I’m sure there was a time when we used to do both live.

It was a long time before they let you edit them, when editing came in. They’d only let you edit them if something went wrong, and the cast soon cottoned on to that and swore and then you had to edit. They were only ‘knife and fork’ edits. It was reckoned to be a calamity if you had to edit because you couldn’t use the tape again. When we used to get to a commercial break, the running time would be given to the cast and they would have to gallop through or slow up. One famous one that I did in a live show with a floor manager called John Okins (?). We got to the commercial break and we were something like nearly two minutes over and I told him that we’d got to get a move on because we were two minutes over and I heard him say to the cast ‘ Right we’re two minutes over, that’s 120 seconds, there’s eighteen of you in the cast so if you all save so many seconds we’ll be on time’ and I remember saying to him ‘But what happens John if two of them save 10 seconds at the same time’. But that’s what you used to do and if you were under, I remember Harry Kershaw always used to say if you were under, put a pan in so if you look at any of the old episodes and you see a scene start with a slow pan round.

There was the odd occasion when someone would come out with the odd line you didn’t recognise or you thought ‘that’s the wrong episode or something’, or they’d gone back to last week’s lines. That didn’t happen a lot but it was known to happen. I had a very close working relationship with the cast, everyone used to socialize together as well, especially in Pat Phoenix’s heyday, she was forever giving parties and everyone used to go.

She was with the taxi-driver Bill then. She was ‘Queen of the North’. She used to have this enormous house in Disley and used to give these extravagant parties there. Violet Carson was still in the Street then but she never came to the parties, nor did Minnie Caldwell or Martha Longhurst. In terms of male characters, there was Peter Adamson and Graham ?? who played Jerry Booth and Bill Roache was fairly strong and Albert. There was more rivalry with the women than the men. The men were more into socializing together. I remember Richard Beckinsale appearing in the Street. He only had a couple of episodes, I worked with him later on in The Lovers.

I remember doing one scene in Lyme Park where Elsie Tanner was meeting the American, Steve Tanner, on this wooded knoll. I can’t remember who wrote it but they wanted that tune ‘Once on a high and windy hill, two lovers met …..’ and that was fairly gruesome. I remember the time when she married Steve Tanner and I actually got a death-threat for marrying the flower of British womanhood to an American, to a Yank. It was written to me as the director, I thought it was a joke and I showed it to Harry Kershaw and he called the police in. He took it seriously and I think it came from Nottingham and when the Manchester police got on to the Nottingham police, they knew who it was so they went round and read the riot act to him.

We used to get letters, if a family was moving out of the Street people would write in and ask if they could have their house, rent their house – most peculiar.

I can’t remember when they actually built the Street. The first time I can remember working on the Lot, I knocked down the Mission Hall. I remember we hired a firm called McGuinness who were the big demolition experts in Manchester at the time and we had this blooming great bulldozer type of thing and the idea was we were going to film him knocking it down and then we were going to burn it all because it was all wood and I remember saying to this Irishman who was driving it ‘Now we’re just going to rehearse, when I say ‘action’ don’t do anything’ and he said ‘right’ and I said ‘Action’ and he went straight into the Mission Hall so we had to start the scene with the bulldozer embedded in the Mission Hall because if he would have pulled out the whole thing was only a shell, it would have all fallen down. But it was a good bonfire.

The other directors who were working on the Street at that stage were Mike Apted, Mike Newell, Barry Davies and then a bit later Bill Podmore came on the scene.

I think it’s been successful because it was originally well set up by Tony with the characters and had a very good team of writers and it used to be very funny. After spending seven years on cameras on it, and two years directing it, I’d had enough of it and I was very busy then, having gone freelance. I was asked to produced it at one point but I didn’t want to do that. In the old days there were a lot more people promoted through the ranks than there are now. It was almost felt a natural progression to do it through the ranks in those days but I’d been doing it for two years, directing, then I did A Family At War and The Lovers and The Dustbinmen and I decided I was going freelance. The first freelance job they offered me was to produce the Street but I used to live down in the village here and when not working for Granada I was working in London. We decided to move down there and I didn’t fancy coming back and I wasn’t sure that I could produce either, not a drama. I used to produce comedies but that’s easier somehow, I don’t know why. It’s more accepted that you produce and direct comedies.

I remember going to a party that Pat Phoenix gave. We were all invited to this semi-detached house in Macclesfield. We didn’t know it was semi-detached. We had to meet at a pub and then go on in convoy, a pub just outside Macclesfield, between Poynton and Macclesfield. And we arrived at this house, thought ‘What are we doing here?’ went into this semi-detached house which was very ordinary and went into the living room which was just about big enough to hold us all, clutching the bottles that we’d brought. And one wall of this semi-detached living room was all curtains and suddenly the lights were dimmed, music started and these curtains parted electrically and the whole of that wall was glass and the glass parted and she’d made all of the garden into an indoor swimming pool. It was quite a big swimming pool and then we went into this swimming pool. It had its own changing rooms and a bar and there was a swimming costume laid out for everybody and it turned out to be a very good party. At one point we all had to clear out because Pat was going to swim in the pool on her own. She was the star, she was very much the queen. I was working on it when Julie Goodyear joined. She was in playing an extra in The Dustbinmen the first time I ever worked with her, she was Mrs. 13 Ackerman Street, I remember, pushing a pram. She was in it, and Doris Speed, she was a barmaid then before she took over the pub because Doris Speed was still in it. Barbara Knox really took over from Pat, well my first experience of her was that she was working at Oldham Rep a lot and when we did The Dustbinmen, the opening credits were cartoons and it started off with a kid saying ‘Hey Mum’ and a woman saying ‘What?’ and then the kid says ‘It’s the Dustbinmen’, that was Barbara, the ‘what’.

I worked with Jean Alexander and she was dramatically different to her character, she didn’t naturally socialize a lot with the others. She got on her train to Southport and by that time Ena was getting on the train to Blackpool so it was the younger ones and Pat and whoever was in tow at the time.

I don’t think I was actually directing when Anne Reid (who played Bill Roache’s wife) died, electrocuted wasn’t she? So she must still have been his wife. The viaduct disaster was when I was on it but Mike Apted did that.

We all used to look down on Crossroads, we used to laugh at it.

 

 

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