Tom Elliott joined Coronation Street as a storyliner in 1983 contributing 577 episodes in that role over almost ten years. He also acted as the programme’s script editor in the early nineties and went on to write more than seventy episodes of the soap, before retiring from the writing team in 1997.
My impressions when Coronation Street first began, I was in the army, than was in 1961 when it was networked because we were stationed near Aldershot and I was on detachment at that time and I remember driving in in a three ton truck and passing a few of the lads and one of them said ‘Where have you been the Rovers Return? Have you been out with Elsie Tanner?’ and I thought ‘What are they talking about?’ And then I got into the billet and there was this programme and we had a little black and white tellie stuck up on the wall and it’s all about Manchester and my very first impression when I saw it was ‘It’s not about Manchester’ because the accents, there was a lot of dialect too, and Mancunians don’t have dialect to a great extent. And I could pinpoint, he’s from Bury, he’s from Oldham, she’s from Rochdale, so my first impressions were I was not impressed by this depiction or this distortion of my home city. I was born in Gorton in Manchester so it was bogus as far as I was concerned.
In the sixties I came out of the army and did all kinds of jobs because I reached a point where I wanted to write and I did lots of other things. And I think you have got to knockabout a little bit and experience certain things before you can. I worked and worked but in 74 I had enough work to stay at home and do it. I was writing for magazines, there were more short stories in magazines and that was good training because you have to have to the ability to tell a story and over a period I did get that ability or honed it really. I wrote stories, I wrote radio plays in the 70s, then I wrote a stage play for the Library Theatre and then I got a phone call in 83 from the secretary at Granada who said ‘Will you come in and talk to Bill Podmore and Mervyn Watson about your work’ That’s all they said, so I said ‘Yes’ and I went in about the week after and met Mervyn and Bill. I’d never met either before, I’d never been in Granada before except for just before that when another writer and I were commissioned to write a pilot comedy script and we did. So I went to see Bill and Mervyn and what they wanted was a storyline writer to replace Peter Tompkinson who was leaving. He was going off to do other things. Esther Rose and Peter Tompkinson had been rewriting the storylines for the Street for years and years and there was very little changeover in those days of people coming in.
They asked me to ring if I was interested. When I came and talked to Beryl about it because we lived in Macclesfield then and I was very poor and the income tax was breathing down my neck for even the little bit that I had earned so I felt I’d give this a go. So I phoned up and said I would be interested and the same day they rang back and said ‘When can you start’, ‘When do you want me to?’ ‘Monday’, so I was pitched into this. It was a three month trial to see whether we like you and you like us and I was there until 97.
I was working with Esther Rose and it went out Monday and Wednesday, just two a week. They worked on a three-weekly turnaround and we had conferences in Room 600 with the scriptwriters. The producer chaired the meeting, the archivist was there, Eric Rosser in those days. I’m trying to think of the scriptwriting team, H.V. Kershaw was still there, Harry, John Stevenson, Peter Whalley. That started at ten o’clock on Monday morning and we were going for six episodes which was three weeks of the Street. We’d go in with a huge piece of paper and on one side of it was the episode number, one to six, the rehearsal date and the transmission date. On the other side in the margin was who wasn’t available, which actors weren’t available. We’d sit there and the meetings would go on, we were only going for six episodes, the meetings would go on until half-past six, seven o’clock at night because it was contentious, it really was tough. If you weren’t thick-skinned to start with you soon grew this thick skin. That was Monday.
The producer in those days and the producers I worked for, there were seven, and every producer up to Brian Park allowed the programme to be writer-driven. In other words, as Bill Podmore put in his autobiography, he likened those conferences to a furnace where he allowed the heat to grow and where these nuggets came out of this furnace. We went in also with an agenda which we prepared in the Story Office because you knew what stories hadn’t been completed, and also who hadn’t played for a week or two and so you prepared this agenda and took it to the producer. That was send out to the scriptwriters so that everybody arrived with an agenda. That has changed now. I only heard Bill Podmore on perhaps two occasions when the arguments were going everywhere and nowhere and Bill banged the table and said ‘This is a bummer, forget it’, only on two occasions because it was a talented team, and those writers what they produced, I saw one yesterday on cable of Mavis’ hen party, that was the success of the programme, that was how it had started originally in that they collected a team of good writers and they let them run. I’ve always likened it to a team of husky dogs where the producer stood at the back shouted ‘Mush’, kicked them up the backside and off they went. And they’d go and that’s how it was in my time until a certain producer arrived who stood in front of the huskies and said ‘Stop’. One husky got suspended for something ridiculous, he was pulling the teeth of the dogs, this man, and it was a mistake. I snook off into the snow saying ‘I’m just going out, I may be some time’ and that’s when I left. It’s difficult to say to people that I actually left of my own accord when Brian was producing, because Brian chopped so many people but I still have Brian’s letter saying that the door is always open. It was writer-driven at that time.
There was a point in that meeting once that agenda when you had this, and again it was left to the storyline writers to gather this material and contribute, and then there was a point in the afternoons usually where someone would say ‘I’ve got a story for Emily’. Someone would have written it down. I used to write them out, John Stevenson never did and still doesn’t. John remembers them off the top of his head and Julian Roache didn’t, Adele Rose did and a few people wrote them out and you’d be given the opportunity of finishing what you’d said and then the insults would come and ‘You got that wrong, you got that right’ but what you’ve actually done is stimulated other people into improving what you’d got. There were moments particularly when I was story editor when I felt the meeting was flagging a bit or we were going off in the wrong direction so you’d say the first thing that came into your head and Julian in particular would leap up and say, in thirteen, fourteen years of working with him, I never had a wrong word with the man. In conferences I’d be accused of having no sense of the dramatic and no sense of story structure and all this. But what you’d done again was spark somebody else. The idea was to come out with as much material as you could. Here’s a story about suchabody, who can this story influence. I likened it to firing a pinball off. Now your ball can either go up and come back or it can light up other areas and your score increases and that’s how storyline construction should be put together.
A lot of it now, I’ve heard since is ‘We need another Elsie Tanner’. That’s impossible, that’s never been achieved. You can never replicate, the nearest one I think was Jack Howarth, Uncle ???, Ken Barlow’s uncle and then Percy Sugden but then they were different in the way they did it. Percy was a bit livelier but the community centre was there at that time so you needed a caretaker. He slotted into that sort of mould. But that never works and usually when you introduced a new character what you couldn’t do and what was a mistake was to straightjacket that character, ‘We need a character like this, tall, dark, handsome, dashing, debonair, articulate and so on’ because it doesn’t work in serial drama because what you get is an actor, he might be able to sustain that for a while but then he fall s back on his own personality so it was a loose kind of structure, skeleton if you like, that you based his character on and then the character came and you’d look at that character for a while and the strengths were what that character brought with them rather than what we gave them.
We weren’t involved in the casting to any great extent. Sarah Lancashire came, Raquel,. We’ll call her ‘Raquel’ Les Duxbury said, but nobody said how she spoke. The most interesting thing about Sarah’s performance was her rather vacant and naive attitude and speech pattern so when you saw that then you could write for that, but we didn’t plan that at all. Let’s see what the actor brings and then write for that.
It was difficult to know how long a storyline would last in terms of episodes but again you must employ storyline writers who are storytellers. That doesn’t happen now but they did in those days. You were scriptwriters or storytellers and you looked at a story and you couldn’t gauge how long this would run, that wasn’t easy. It did help if somebody wrote the story down and the scriptwriter had thought it through but that was difficult. Some stories we ran too long and other stories that had so much potential were curtailed too quickly. I brought the story once and I’ve never lived it down and I think they were wrong and I was absolutely right. I brought the story told to me by a friends of ours and I adapted it and it was the gnome’s story with the Wiltons. I didn’t envisage that everybody would love this so much, the scriptwriters, this was a danger that everybody wanted to write for it and the gnome went on for ages and ages and I actually got a letter from New Zealand with the picture of a gnome on a lawn with a knife in its back and things like that. In other words for all the criticism I got, particularly from Carolyn Reynolds who used to pull my leg, tongue in cheek, for all that it captured the imagination of the world. It sometimes got a bit out of hand and at the end of it we had no idea of who had kidnapped the gnome. I had got an end to it but then it gathered its own momentum, this story and at the end of it, we were wrapping up the story of the gnome. It was Norris but it all came to light when Norris was marrying Angela who was Derek’s ex-wife, this was vintage Street in those days. Derek was best man and they went on a stag night together and Norris having no friends and being unpopular, it was just Derek and Norris. I wrote the episode, and they eventually get back to Norris’ flat and I’d worked in the theatre with Malcolm Hebden who I greatly admire as an actor, and eventually he said ‘I’ve got something for you Derek’ he was stoned out of his head. He opened the wardrobe and we had a lovely scene were he fell into the wardrobe and Derek’s going ‘Tut’ because Derek, of course, had remained sober throughout, being the best man he was doing his job properly. And out he came with one of these bags and in it was the gnome with its ear missing. It was kidnapped and they sent the ear in a matchbox, and he’d done it. Derek was livid and was going to kill him and Derek in the next episode, written by John Stevenson, the wedding., Derek took him to the wrong church as part of his revenge and so on but that’s how it was wrapped up.
You didn’t know how far a story could go but again we were storytellers, we told this story and then you feel ‘here’ this story has gone too far or you can get more out of it. You couldn’t put a hard end to it, you could get into a conference and somebody would say ‘It’s gone on too long this, let’s reach a conclusion’, that’s how it used to be. It was a very tight-knit team in those days and we had three weeks. Then it went on three a week. I was Story Editor, so that was going for nine episodes.
When the Monday meeting finished you’d start work on the storylines on the Tuesday. We had two weeks but if you take out the weekends, you had approximately nine days to write the storylines so at the end of the second week the scriptwriters would have the storylines and they would get them on the Saturday morning. Then you had a few days to read that until the Thursday of the third week when you had the commissioning conference. That was when the scriptwriters made notes about their particular episode and that was a fine-tuning of the storyline. By the time we left that commissioning conference, every episode was like that so that it left very little editing room. That is the danger when you’re writing so many scripts and it’s going out like a treadmill is in the editing and continuity. You’ve got to keep that continuity very tight and so we wrote the storylines, continuity-wise tight. If a scriptwriter said ‘I want to do that’, we’d say ‘Well it’s fine you doing that in episode two but by the time you get to episode five, he’s got nothing to write about’. One of the talents of writing a Street script was to make sure you ran in your lane and didn’t overflow. They tried, there were some writers who were very good at trying to take out of that one and take out of that one to enhance their own episode but as a storyline writer and particularly storyline editor you flagged up the fact that this was a mistake.
When you wrote a storyline, when I first started, you used to go for thirteen scenes. That was an arbitrary figure, six in the first half, seven in the second. One of the other impositions in the early days was that you could only have two pieces of film so everything else had to be interior. We were also in Studio Six which only fitted five sets because it’s the storyliners who have to choose the sets, where are you going to play this. And that discipline was tremendous. If you had the garage, Brian Tilsley’s garage, that meant you could only have four sets because that was a big set. Then came in PSC, the portable single camera, I think it was union agreements that had prevented it being used before that. Because when I first started you’d have two bits of film and you’d be on videotape and there’d be a terrible difference in grain with 16mm which was awful. When the PSC came in, that gave us more flexibility. You could have some more exteriors, and Paul Abbott and I, with Mervyn Watson’s guidance, we had 18 scenes. I think there’s a tendency now, and it’s throughout television where they go for even more scenes, and if you cut quick enough, if you edit quick enough, they don’t give the viewer credit for absorbing . If you have a good story and a good scene and it’s well done even children will sit like anybody else and watch.
Mervyn wanted more than 18 scenes sometimes but it means a quick edit and no scene is more than 30 seconds long.
When you came out of that story conference and on the Tuesday, your first job was to choose the sets for that week. First of all the cast, who do you want to play in this, and you were governed by ‘He’s not played for a while so we’ll put him in the Rovers to order a pint, at least he’ll get an episode fee’ and then the sets, where is it best to play these stories. Exit stories were ‘give them as good an exit as you can’. I think there was mood at that time which was wrong. If an actor volunteered to leave, then they wouldn’t have them back. If a contract character at that time left, they wanted him or her dead. Their exit story was final and that was wrong, it was unenlightened. After that came the ‘The door’s open’ and that’s how it is now, which is better.
The writers would have from the Thursday of the third week after the commissioning conference and they had approximately two weeks to write the script so that the scripts would start coming in on the Monday of the next conference so that when we reached our third week we had then had their scripts for the last lot and we used to read them for continuity because at that time only the producer had editorial authority and you made notes to check the continuity and sometimes character consistency although that didn’t happen a lot because the writers had been writing it so long and the characters were so well established that that didn’t arise and you didn’t need a lot of stage direction in a Street script for people like Pat Phoenix and Barbara Knox and people like that because they knew that character better than you did.
There was very little difficulty with differences in style between writers. Obviously with style occasionally you knew who had written it because they had certain idiosyncrasies but the viewers wouldn’t know. You knew a Julian Roach script for instance because of the stage direction. I remember reading once a stage direction in the Barlows and it said ‘Nicky thrust on by an unseen hand’, things like that.
I argue the fact that you’re storyline writer if you’d not been a writer. Paul Abbott had written radio plays, I’d written radio plays, we’d written stage plays before we got to Granada. I went in 83 and in 87, I kept thinking ‘I’ll leave’ but then it was Mervyn Watson and I think it was his second stint and he said ‘We’ll be going on three a week and we’ll call you something else’ and in 88 we launched three a week but he hadn’t increased the scriptwriting because to write Street scripts I think you had to have a track record. I’d also on the odd occasions before that, when he was in a bit of a mess, I’d written a script. His script-writing team for three a week was a bit sparse, there were about nine, ten, eleven, and they weren’t all available. And so he said ‘I want you to write a script this time’ and at first I was doing both jobs and that was hard because I was writing storylines and editing them during the day for five days a week and then coming home at night but he used to give me a bit long to complete the scripts. And then I said ‘I’m tired, I want to leave’ and he said ‘Well, I won’t guarantee you any scripts’ so I said ‘Fine’. So he said ‘I’ll use you on an ad hoc basis’ so I think my first script after leaving the story editing job, I signed ‘Ad Hoc’ and it went on like that. The team hadn’t changed a great deal, Harry Kershaw, John Stevenson, Julian Roache, I think Adele Rose was the only lady on the team, Les Duxbury, Barry Hill. There weren’t that many of us. They brought new people in and some of them who are now quite prominent names didn’t hack it.
I think as a writer it can affect you adversely because you’ve got this framework, this model which was virtually foolproof and I found script-writing far easier than I found story-line writing and story editing, that is the engine-room, that is where you need your talent and it’s the most important job on serial drama. Unless you’ve got the people to do it, it’s going to have holes in it. The odd occasions I do view Coronation Street and I think that’s where you need your ability and what they should do, like they did with Paul and me, put you on a two year contract as scriptwriters which tied us up and paid us very well.
I’m proud of the gnome story. I wrote the episode where Alf went to collect his OBE and that was very well received. There were so many episodes but in those days, you couldn’t come out of there and say ‘That was my story’ because so many people had contributed. Another one that I was proud of, and this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I plotted it very carefully and it was a holiday that Alec Gilroy in his heyday when he was behind the bar at the Rovers, he was raffling a Florida holiday. It was a holiday that he’d had given to him, he was losing nothing. And he told Jack that he was going to win and Jack couldn’t believe this. I plotted this so carefully and it was a story that demanded very careful plotting. And an old gentleman comes in who can hardly stand up and buys a ticket and Alec was saying ‘If you don’t buy, you don’t fly’. And of course when the night of the draw came, this old gentleman had won and he lifted his ticket and promptly collapsed and died. There’s no pulse and of course Martin in there as a nurse, he checked the pulse and the man had gone. But Jack gave him the kiss of life and brought the man round and the man was so grateful he gave Jack and Vera the holiday. And what Alec had done, he’d worked with this man years ago on the Golden Mile and he was known as ‘Lazarus, the Living Corpse’, in other words he was able to lower his metabolic rate to such an extent that he hardly had any pulse. And so this was plotted very carefully and it was the last script I wrote for the Street. And then I got phone calls from various people ‘Can’t we put this scene here, can’t we put that scene there, wouldn’t it be nice if…’ and this is now an epidemic where other people decide how well it should go. It was not arrogance on my part but I just knew it was wrong and I remember saying to Brian Park, who’d just come out of a tunnel, he was on a train ‘That’s it, I don’t want to do it any more’. When they played the story it worked but there were parts of it which weren’t right for me but I was proud of that story.
That story came out of my head. First of all you think ‘Alec Gilroy, he’s not pulled a stunt for ages’ and this was vintage Alec and it bounced off another story where he sold a holiday to Derek and he paid for it on his credit card and Julian Roache said ‘If you pay for a holiday like that you can get your money back ‘ and Alec had this holiday then and so he decided to raffle it. So he starts off by saying ‘OK Jack, you’re going to win’ and he had some reason for wanting Jack to win. Jack was an integral part of the mechanics of it. This is how you put stories together. I’ve written so many short stories for magazines and this is the way you make it work. I remember reading that story to them and it went through pretty much as read. With it being my story they allowed me to do the denouement.
If you value your scriptwriters in any business, I think you’ve got to give them their head. I think what you’ve got now, the writer’s concept of what a story should be, not only in soaps but in so many programmes, by the time it hits the screen there’s a whole army of people in there who are not as creative, who are crossing the ‘t’s and crossing the ‘i’s and this has been said by some very famous novelists and writers who’ve worked for television.
In my day we didn’t have the introduction of specific issues because although drugs is an issue and there is now a need for these programmes to reflect society but the Street never did that. It didn’t reflect society to that extent, it was in a time warp and it was its own world. There were programmes galore that covered drugs, rape and all the rest of the terrible things that go on in the world in documentary and drama, far better than the Street could. The Street had cornered the market in comedy drama. It was Julian Roach’s quote and I still remember it, he said ‘Why compete with the worst?’ You can take characters out of the Street and put them in any other programme. It’s only by recognizing the set that I know which programme I’m watching. It’s easy to say it was always better yesterday. It’s one of those things and everything changes but I believe that the evolution of the Street with a few hiccups prior to 1996-7 was for the good, it changed imperceptibly almost and you could sit down with your children and be quite safe in watching it.
But then people then came who said ‘Why should it be cosy? Why should it be like that? Let’s change it.’ and they had all the imagination of a brick. I didn’t want any part of it. I talked to a Street writer who shall remain nameless this morning on the phone and he was saying that they’ve just had a long-term conference and they’re going for big stories, headlines, tabloid. We could afford in those days, and I think the Street was much appreciated for it and people laughed, to be daft occasionally. We had a gap once, somebody fell ill or something like that, there would be three threads running through a tale at least. You’ve got a main theme and two subordinate themes, secondary themes. It was in a secondary theme that we had a gap. It was two episodes, John Stevenson was doing the first one and I was doing the second one so we talked on the phone and we said ‘What can we do? Jack he’s always good for a laugh’. Curly has a dormer window in his roof through which he looks at the stars and we’d not used that very much so John and I came up with the idea that one of Jack’s pigeons had got in there. At that time Jack and Curly were at odds and Curly wouldn’t give it back. He said he was going to kill it rather than give it him back and it’s white-washing all over his telescope and he’s going to sue him. And Jack had had a few drinks and by the time I got the story in the second episode Jack was on the roof and he was actually on the dormer trying to his pigeon. And they built a roof and eventually when Jack sobered up he was clinging to the thing and we had the fire brigade get him down. Now if that happened here (in Macclesfield?) the newspapers would be here, it would be on the television, it would be a cause celebre, a man stuck on a roof and he wouldn’t come down, he couldn’t, he was scared, he was terrified. Now in those days we could write that on the Street and there were even people passing saying ‘Morning Jack’. This was Coronation Street, self-contained, little stories.
John and I again with another gap got talking about Maud. She reads teacups so Phyllis goes to see her and Sally worked for Maud then in the shop and brought two cups of tea in. Maud starts ‘He’s there for the taking, the man of your dreams’. Phyllis gets excited ‘You don’t mean it?’ ‘I mean it’ she says ‘It’s never been so clear’. Phyllis can’t wait, she’s going to buy a new pair of corsets and she’s going to see Percy. And Sally comes in ‘I don’t know how you do it’. ‘I’ll show you’ she says ‘come and look at Phyllis’ cup.’ And she say ‘But that’s not Phyllis’, that’s yours. This is Phyllis’ with the bit of sugar in’. And Maud had read her own tea-cup. And Percy gets two proposals within ten minutes, and that’s the story. Percy was very annoyed by this, outraged. But what happened to comedy? Has television depressed us to the point that we can’t laugh any more. Is nobody writing it?
I always enjoyed writing for Jack in his heyday and Vera when they were a lot younger. They’ve tried to replace them. They replaced virtually Hilda and Stan and now you’ve got, and between us the replacement does not work, the Battersbys who aren’t in the same league. Maybe with good writing they would. Jack and Vera, I enjoyed writing for them. In the north very strong women, that’s a fact. I used to like writing Percy, it was the comedy characters. I thought Derek Wilton was a wonderful character and once you knock that down, there are so many things that are just crushed. You couldn’t base them on people you knew because you had to wait until they came but when I got there, Derek had already been in the Street, Peter Baldwin so you knew that he was this pompous character who was rather proud of himself and all this but he was an idiot. He was a buffoon, Jack was buffoon and I used this word to one producer Brian and he said ‘Alec’s a buffoon’, but no he wasn’t, he wasn’t! Alec was a sharp operator and a rat but Derek was. Fred isn’t, Norris was and Derek. You used to see 24 and a half minutes, because that’s how long a Coronation Street episode is, and that was snapshot of life that day in that Street. But you knew even when you weren’t there Derek was still an idiot. Master strokes that we had then when he worked for Angela’s stationery firm and I forget the name of it and the logo said ‘Stationery that moves’ and on the top was a huge paperclip. That’s what we could do then and comedy is limitless, and it’s all done with seriousness. There’s that old adage that there’s nothing funny about comedy.
When we did those things, it gave us a lot of pleasure and gave millions of people a lot of pleasure. The easiest stories to tell in a soap opera are what we called ‘romance’ stories and ‘money’ stories, they now call them ‘relationship’ stories and that is the line of least resistance and if you see one of those, you see them now ad nauseum on the Street about people marrying, leaving his wife and all that and we always said in my time that we needed one stable marriage. The only people who marry people in soap opera is to divorce them so we needed one stable marriage and that was Kevin and Sally and it’s an admission of defeat when you can’t keep a marriage like that. Your writing team must be bankrupt for ideas if you can’t keep a marriage.
As a writer, you would send the script in and then they would be read by the storyline team and notes made. The producer would then read them, taking notice of the notes or not, and then in order the producer would ring you up and have a discussion. It didn’t used to be difficult but it became more difficult because of lack of continuity, because of people who ‘wannabe’ writers and you would argue and argue and argue like the Alec and living corpse story where I just felt like banging my head against a brick wall because you’ve thought about it and these people haven’t thought about it and are taking what you’ve done and trying to improve it. The other danger is of course that just as you can’t stick brass on brass you can’t stick comedy on comedy and this is another danger, ‘This is a funny scene, let’s make it funnier’. Then the director gets it and he thinks he can make it a bit funnier, consequently it isn’t funny at all.
Emmerdale worked differently in that you went across for script meetings and you actually talked to the producer and director.
Then when you sent the script in, it was published in pink and then it would be published in a white rehearsal script that they sent to you that you checked again that this is similar to what you both agreed and the editor agreed and then it would go to the actors. Well you’d go in for the technical rehearsal or tech run and that was on a Wednesday and we used to go and stand through the three episodes. When it was four a week there’s no time for tech runs, you’ve no time for good edits, you’ve no good scenes, this is too many but then that’s the way of the world. They shoot scenes with a gatling gun.
It’s inevitable that the quality will go down with more episodes. I remember the director of programmes coming in at that time and saying ‘We’re going four a week’ and Julian said ‘When are you going to go five?’ and she said ‘When they impose that, I will write my letter of resignation.’ And I remember Julian saying ‘Do you want me to help you draft it now?’ They’ve not gone five a week but they’re doing specials, hour-long ones and things like that. Three was absolutely maximum to retain any kind of quality in the writing, in the acting. It’s unfair to actors, there’s no rehearsal time, there’s no tech-run at it any more which was invaluable because after a tech run you used to sit down with the director and the producer and everybody had things to say so again it was getting it as right as you could. That’s gone now. As I said to this scriptwriter who rang me today, I said ‘Does it matter when you’re getting 16 and 18 million viewers?’ So all the things that we did and all the trouble that we took to make it as good as you could in case you lost viewers, I don’t think it mattered now because it’s such an institution, they still watch it.