Wally Butler joined Granada Television during the early 1960s and became one of the first directors of Coronation Street, beginning when the programme was still recorded live. Over the next 20 years he directed over 1,000 episodes of Coronation Street. Wally sadly died in 2003 and there is a link to his obituary here.
The first recruitment for Coronation Street was from the local repertory companies in the North West which was Fortescue so the Street in its early days was mainly inhabited by people who had worked for Forte in the repertory theatre. My father was a producer/manager/comedian/actor sort of general person in the Fortescue. He was based in the North West. If there was a sort of base, it was in Blackpool. We used to do our quiet times there at the Pier and the Sands. Most of the people who came in early, Vi Carson and Pat Phoenix etc all came from Fortescue. I worked for Forte as well.
The theatre worked on a principle of a company getting together as an ensemble. The main personnel of the company stayed with us for years and years and it was a proper ensemble company, we met together for pantomime etc. It was a family business as was Bernsteins who must have been attracted by the proliferation of cinemas in the North West. Not that he was setting up a cinema business but he thought that the people of the North West were so keen that there was the demand there. There must have been a big demand because I remember when my father died I get his papers and looking through his books he was earning the sort of the money that nobody was earning. Houses were full. That would be the thirties then he moved into working men’s clubs.
There was a great influx from theatre into television in the early days and that’s why in a way Coronation Street was such a success because it drew from the very roots of the theatre. The characters were what people identified with, not only that but their mothers and fathers and grandfathers identified with them as actors having seen them possibly. I remember when I first went into television with Scottish television and they brought the Americans and Canadians over for their expertise but they didn’t have expertise in theatre or performance arts so they called on the local theatre population and the combination of the two.
Then the theatre people took over. The same thing happened with Granada. They brought a certain amount of expertise, at that time, film production expertise and presentation expertise from the cinemas but they needed the talents of the actors and to a degree the producers and directors were straight from the theatre as well. For some reason Manchester has a number of film companies, Frank Randle films, Blakeley and Sommers and then from that Samuelson and one or two others, the lighting company…opened a big studio just outside Manchester so there would be about two older studios and quite a new one in the Manchester area and there was the actors and extras and variety performers were on hand, they didn’t have to bring them up from London. It wasn’t as big as London and its environs but it had its own offering to make and I think that’s why it centred here.
As the theatres died, coming towards the war, and I went into the army. When I came out we all had grants so I went to the Scottish Academy of drama and music and I did music, drama on the side. Then with my music, I went into variety, I used to play the piano for Andy Stewart, Jimmy Logan, people like that. And from there I moved into repertory as a producer/director and with that experience I moved into Scottish Television as a writer. At that time the Americans and Canadians were running it and they were wanting to get out from that side of it so as the writer of a daily programme, I used to rehearse the scripts I wrote. To start with I wrote comedy scripts. We had a programme called ‘The One O’clock Gang’ which was on every day and ran for seven years. It had a singer and a comic and a feed and a small group playing and we used to have ten minutes in the audience talking to people. I wrote that and it was a Canadian technical director who directed the programme but he wasn’t very good with handling the people so he asked me to do the rehearsal in the afternoon. When he decided to go back to Canada, they asked me to take over the direction of the programme so I was wrirting, producing and directing it at the same time. I did that for a few years and then moved into general programming and then into drama.
Then from Scottish, I went to Granada in the sixties. Coronation Street was already up and running but it was still the original cast. I did some programmes for them before I went into the Street but it was still quite early in the development, they were just settling down. It was perceived as the staple diet for directors, it wasn’t a high-flying, it was a good solid staple diet for the company. They started off by using myself and one or two others who were theatre types, then they got more adventurous and started to bring in. They got a bee in their bonnet about graduates and started bringing in graduates and there was a bit of a revolt by the cast. There was a fellow who wanted to give them half an hour of warming up ‘I am a snake and you’re a boulder’. The cast went up to the office and said ‘we’re not having this’ and then there was another fellow who for some strange reason brought into the rehearsal room a series of rostrums and he used to make them work on the rostrums. I don’t know whether he was looking for lower angles or what, they got fed up with this so he went. And there was another fellow who had a bee in his bonnet about being factual and he wanted to bring in things like real hotpots and real beer and he wanted the real thing. Of course they were actors.
So when I started on the Street, and the reason why I got a reputation for finishing early, was quite simply that these people knew what they were doing and you said ‘Right we’re going into the Rovers now’ and immediately they took up their positions and all I had to do was let them go, to a degree, pick up the angles I wanted, make a few suggestions about business which they were quite happy to do which didn’t alter the positioning, then we’d move to the Corner Shop and we’d take up the standard positions which they used. So it was an easy rehearsal and I just picked up the shots, marked them down, gave them to the PA, made up the shot list and on we went. Down on to the floor we went, they moved immaculately into position. They knew about eyelines and things like that because they’d got used to it and in those day s we were working with sets which had a background and only about 2/2 and a half feet reveal on either so there was a degree of standardization about the shots because there were only certain shots you could take because otherwise you shot off the set. The actors knew this and they worked accordingly, they worked around it. So my job was made easier. It was also made easier by the rapport I had with the actors. Jack??? In the pub, he always used to want to get off, he was a Freemason and he always used to go to the meetings in Manchester he used to tried and smarm me up a bit and I knew immediately that he was angling an early finish. Most of them I had no problem with because they knew that I knew what I was doing and I gave them the courtesy of knowing that I wasn’t going to whip them into submission. They just moved beautifully into the positions.
When I joined it was live, then we went very quickly in pre-recording. On the Friday we’d do two episodes. It was tele-recording at that time but the thing was you weren’t allowed to stop the tape when you felt like or for an actor’s mistake only for a technical error, so you very rarely stopped. You went in and did a quick run-through for positions and it was my decision then to say ‘Right we’re going for a take’ and we went right through the take. Now because of the pressure on the fact that we couldn’t stop, everybody did it rather well and we got through in just over the half hour and they were off. It was marvellous and they were pretty faultless, they knew their lines, they knew their moves and if they moved slightly out of position, I could always compensate for it knowing what the parameters where so there were never any hold-ups or stopping for discussions and I always made sure that between the run-through and the dress, I used to go round all the dressing rooms and make quick notes. These people were used notes and you could go into someone’s dressing room and say ‘Now you know when you come in that door there remember go to your left as far as you can. When you pick up that cup, put it down straightaway because you’re masking your face’ and they clock it and everything would be fine. So I didn’t have to stop rehearsal and go down on the floor. I used to wait and take notes copiously and then go round all the dressing rooms in the break before the dress or the take. And they took it on board and away we went.
We were working on a three week turnaround. The first week you got your scripts and you liaised with the producer or the executive producer about cuts, timing, the booking of extras and maybe the odd bit of location filming. The second week I used to go home and do my camera script. Eventually of course they sussed this and put me onto other programmes in the second week. I used to actually do the camera script half going up and half coming back down on the train and I had the week to myself and then third week it was three days of dry rehearsal, upstairs, a day with the extras and then into the studio, that was your three week turnaround. Harry Kershaw was the producer at that stage.
Before I joined the Street there was a programme called ‘At last it’s Friday’. We had Richard Stilgoe and people like that and I wrote for that. We used to do songs and sketches and I also produced and directed it so I did a lot of writing. I wrote quite a lot of musical themes for programmes. I never actually wrote for Coronation Street but I used to go to the storyline meetings. The writers didn’t have a meeting, they just submitted. Storylines in those days were quite specific. A writer got five pages of storylines and he just filled in the dialogue. I worked with writers like Geoff Lancashire. Harry Kershaw wrote a lot himself. Harry Driver, Vince Powell, those sort of people because Harry Driver and Vince Powell joined me after the Street, they devised and wrote the first spin-off which was ‘Pardon the Expression’ with Arthur Lowe. They moved on from that.
The way that all the soaps are run now, they’re going for jaded appetites and they want to hit high spots, with suicides and plane crashes. In those days there was an evenness about the Street. It reflected the grind. Occasionally we had the high spot and they were only memorable from my point of view in as much as we got the opportunity to do something technically and directorally that was different. There was the collapse of the viaduct for instance. That was marvellous because it was all special effects and we had a great time with that. The actors took second place. For the rest the characters were almost living life in parallel with the viewers. It was that slow. The viewer would live his life until the Wednesday and then see it repeated with little bits of humour and reciprocal depressions and hardships that they could relate to This was the substance of the Street, the reflection.
What I think nowadays, unfortunately, the characters are reflecting not individuals but a group. Battersby for instance who I dislike intensely as a character. He irritates, he gets me going which is perhaps what is intended, not because he’s Les Battersby but because he represents a type of person that I know proliferates in society and this is what they’re going for. They’re going for key types rather than individuals. Somehow or other, Violet Carson or Pat Phoenix, people could associate with them either personally or with someone they knew in their street but now what we’re talking about with Les Battersby is that he’s identifying with a person that we probably know proliferates throughout the country, not the fellow up the street. This is the fellow who is making inroads into our taxes by the money he makes, the black market working and the drinking and the whole thing that we get irritated about nowadays which is nationwide.
I don’t think that old style of Coronation Street would have worked today in as much as people don’t live that way anymore. You couldn’t have held it in aspic, you would have to have moved on, you would have to have introduced television, football, the internet and all the things that are going on now. They’ve gone younger now because that’s where the money is. That’s what people are buying, the younger people, they want to be represented. What we represented in the old days was ‘ Children should be seen and not heard’. They were a few children but not as characters. It was mainly the older people who were running the show, the mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, who ran the Street, ran the shops whatever. Children were growing up, they were looked after and that was as much as they got. We had a few children in the Street, but the family situation was more how the Family, the elders coped. The children were looked after, that was taken for granted. What was important was how the elders were, in work, not in work, relationships etc. Now we’ve gone down further and further to where we’re taking notice of the youngsters and the teenagers which is perhaps a high percentage of the audience.
When I was working on it the actors were an ensemble. Eventually as it grew more popular, you had favourites from the point of view of the audience and they tended to get more press. Pat Phoenix was the character. Vi Carson, although she was an elderly character, she got a lot of press because of her presence and the type of character she was playing. I would say that Vi Carson and Annie Walker and Len Fairclough and Pat Phoenix, Hilda and Stan Ogden, seemed to reflect, from the viewers point of view. The others, Ken Barlow, mosied along as he still mosies along. I suppose like a repertory company there were one or two, this was reflected in the writing, the more popular they became, the more lines they got. The stronger the character was, the more press they got and therefore the writers elevated them. So there was a hierarchy but they didn’t use the star syndrome. They didn’t demand a bigger dressing room, they played as an ensemble company but obviously some were greater than the whole. But the lesser artistes were older, wiser and they were glad to be working and they were quite happy to take second place. The younger ones who came in were happy to be among this clan and they kept their place. So it was very pleasant. Pat used to play it up, she used to come late for rehearsals and change her clothes about twice, three times a day. After lunch she’d come in in a different outfit than she’d had in the morning and she had these high heels and she’d come in a few minutes late for afternoon rehearsal after lunch and she would click her way up the stairs to the Green Room and you knew Pat was back. She’d go in and do herself up and have a coffee and come out. She wasn’t needed right at the beginning but she made her presence felt.
The only real highlight that I remember was when I left the Street to go on to other programming in the seventies. I’d been the Street a good few years, regularly at first and then on and off. I went on first of all to the spin off with Arthur Lowe and then on to comedy with The Comedians, as well as doing other things. The first contract I was on with Granada was for £32 a week, they called it a staff contract and it lasted for about nine years, and you were waiting at the end of every three months for your contract to come.
When I left Coronation Street Julian Aymes was director of programmes and he called me up to his office and said ‘We’re going to London, we’re on the Royal Command Performance. The people I’ve got on the Street now are television directors, this is a variety show.’ He said ‘Your father played the Palladium?’ I said ‘Yes’. He said ‘I want to take the Street down to the Palladium. Would you prepare a variety performance running nine minutes for the Street.’ So I was allocated rehearsal time and we did a stage version of the Street. I took it and all the different people from various companies were there. It was a time when it was variety acts plus the cast of Coronation Street, Crossroads or whatever. It was meeting the people again and preparing this theatre piece which everyone was excited about. Then a train was booked and we took over the whole train and into the best hotel, then into rehearsal where there was buffet and bar on all day, then the show at night, the party afterwards and back to Manchester. That was the highlight, being asked to go back.
The spin off ran for two series and then it didn’t maintain its appeal. The only thing we got out of that was three maybe four people from that went into the Street, Betty Driver, Bet Lynch, a young fellow who was a storeman became one of the early young heavies and another juvenile.
I was sorry to leave the Street, but you were a general producer/programme director and it was all go.
I directed over 1,000 episodes. One of the changes was to colour, the main one. I know there are technological innovations in terms of graphics, mainly and in terms of the set, they are more adventurous now (not talking about drama). It hasn’t changed a lot only that we can do more things, more easily and more flashily than we could in those days. When I started the sets had two foot reveals on either side. You worked with three studio cameras and sometimes a bit of outside filming which interrupted my second week! The only advance in camera operation probably is better pedestals now and the lighter camera bodies and steadicam. The cameramen were staff and were there for years. The chief cameraman was in his fifties and he’d been through the mill and they knew how to move them, cumbersome as they were.
The zoom lens came in in the seventies, before then it was the fixed lens. The thing you had to remember about the fixed lens, you couldn’t say to camera three just after finishing shot, ‘Whip over to that close-up, I’m coming to you now’. You had to give him physically time to change his lens plate. You could imagine he’d have a heavy end on his camera, especially if you were doing a lot of close-up work, you’d have some extra big lenses on which you’d have to put counterweights on the pedestal. You’d have to give them time to get into position, change the lens, line-up, focus and then you can take them. So you had to be careful that you weren’t cutting like that. You had to allow the camera that was on the character or characters not only to stay on the characters for a certain amount of dialogue because you wanted to cut on their line but you had to make sure that the camera was ready to take that close-up so you couldn’t just say like in film, I’m going to cut there and there and there.
As a director I was aware of the technical requirements as well as the theatrical requirements and the cameramen were with you because they knew that I knew what their problem was. I was brought up this way in the theatre. We went to the theatre an hour before it was time to go and you went on the stage and checked the props, you worked up into it and I always used to go down an hour before rehearsals and wander round the studio and check props and sit in the seat, just to get the feel so that when I went into the Box I knew exactly where I was going and we went so it was that sort of discipline. But it was second nature. In those days without animosity you could ask for a crew.
I still watch Coronation Street although some of the things I don’t agree with. I can understand why it’s still so popular. Maybe the phenomenon of the hatchet man which started with Phil Redmond, they come in and clear the board, there was never any hatcheting in my day, it was just a matter of negotiating . Pat threw a few wobblers in my day, not serious things, but serious in those days when you didn’t expect them. But apart from that you just negotiated it and got on with it. I was brought up with actors who respected you because you respected them and that was the end of it. You never talked money, if you got your photo in the papers, everyone would huddle round in the Green Room to have a look. They were all paid pretty much the same in those days, latterly I think one or two like Pat Phoenix got a bit extra because their parts were heavier and they were getting more attention, there were more demands made of them. The rest of cast realised this and knew quite intelligently the better they did the longer they would stay.