Alistair Houston – Sound Engineer

Alistair Houston started working for Granada Television in 1958 as a Sound Engineer and spent his career there progressing to become a Senior Sound Supervisor. He was no. 2 on the sound crew for the first episode of Coronation Street and worked on the programme for the next three years before moving to other dramas. He continued to work on the Street on and off for over thirty years before his retirement.

When Coronation Street first started you were actually working at Granada then?

Yes I was part of the sound crew in Studio 2 which was where the programme first started which was a bit small for the size of the sets that we had but when it first started we did two dry runs as Florizel Street and the thing that I remember about it is that after we’d done the first dry run, my mother-in-law came from Salford and I came home and told her that we were about to do a six part, because that’s all it was commissioned, a six part series called Florizel Street as we thought it was going to be then and that she would love it because it was just the sort of thing that people of her age would get involved in, never dreaming that it was going to be what it ended up to be. Then when we came down to doing the actual programme they decided to change the title to Coronation Street and that was I think during the Florizel Street time they played around with the cast, I think they had different people. I do recall the first person that was picked for the corner shop wasn’t, I can’t remember the actress’ name, because in the first episode she was actually moving in and the owners of the shop were moving out.

But I think we did it over two days, the first programmes. Now there’s some confusion in my mind as to whether we recorded the second programme before we put the first one out live or vice versa, we put the first one out live and then did the second, but I think at some stage or other we did both because I do recall at one stage that we did a programme live and then recorded one afterwards but I also have a feeling, whether it was before or after, that we recorded the second one first and then did the live one.

As I said, it was very cramped in the studio because it wasn’t a very big studio and we had to have everything there, the Street was built in there, the Mission Hall, all the other sets were there and in commercial breaks, sets would be struck and another set put in.

From a sound point of view the one thing that I always remember is that the theme music was a bone of contention right up until the dress rehearsal of the first transmission. The Coronation Street theme had been specially written with the various links, end of parts or between scenes, closing music and the rest of it but there was also an LP of the CWS brass band and one of the tracks on that, we got themes from it. I can’t remember exactly the track but there was an argument between all the production staff as to whether we were going to use the brass band or the specially written music and right up to the dress rehearsal a decision hadn’t been made because on all the rehearsals we’d play one lot of music on one and another lot on the other but before dress Stuart Latham (Producer) and Harry Kershaw (Executive Producer) came in the sound control room and they listened to them all through and the decision that swayed it was the fact that we’ve paid for this specially recorded music, we’d better use it.

They then didn’t have a suitable piece of music for end of parts and in the sound control room, Mike Dunn was doing the sound mixing and I was doing all the tapes and sound effects. The opening of the programme, you never hear the end of the music because it always fades under the first scene but the end of the opening music ended and there was nothing like that for an end of part because all of the ones that had been written were upbeat like openings so I suggested that we cut the end off the opening music and play that in. Just by sheer fluke it lasts five seconds and it worked and so that’s my permanent contribution to Coronation Street. It was my idea to put that on the end so from then on the brass band was never thought about again.

In those days you didn’t go into dubbing and put sound effects on, everything had to be done live so you would have quite a number of tape machines and discs during the programme and it was sound effects of exterior if you were out in the street, traffic noise, people boiling kettles, all these things had to be on so it was quite a busy job. At one stage there was a fish and chip shop featured in it and they used to be battering fish and dropping them in so every time they dropped them in, you had to have the splash of the fat. We’d been to a chip shop to record the sound effects and I remember the technical supervisor then was Jack Whitworth. He came in one day and said these effects are very realistic, I had a terrible argument with my mother-in-law last night that they really cook these fish because every time they dropped the fish into the pan they heard the fizz and the splash of the fat.

Of course you weren’t allowed to edit, there was no VTR editing so every programme even though you were recording it was done as if you were putting it out live so if you made a mistake or something, you had to go back to the beginning and do it again or back to the commercial break if you were in the second half.

I always thought the programme would be good. I said to my mother-in-law that this is a programme that you’ll really like and it didn’t surprise me in the least when they extended it. It was different and Tony Warren just knew what people in the local pubs round Salford, how they reacted, how families in these streets reacted. The cast when they started, I think there was only about three of them that I could really say were known characters like Violet Carson and Jack Howarth. A lot of them were quite unknown faces and a lot of them had appeared more on radio. They were a very pleasant lot to work with. One or two at a later stage got a bit ‘prima-donnaish’ once they became more and more known but that was the exception rather than the rule. They were mostly very friendly and had a good rapport with all the crew. I think the crew was fairly static for about the first three years. I worked on it for the first three years and it wasn’t until I moved up to do bigger dramas, which were happening in Studio 6 that I came off it and I just did it intermittently from then on.

I’m sure it was an instant hit with the public, which is why they decided six episodes, weren’t going to be enough. Tony just continued to write it and it pulled in the viewers. I think the production schedule stayed pretty much the same over those three years. It was always two episodes and I’m sure we just had the two days to do it in because in those days you spent the first day rehearsing the two episodes right through in studio with cameras. There was a technical rehearsal on the day before you were in studio. On the first day of rehearsal we would hopefully stagger, as we used to call it, through all the shots for the first episode and then run them. On the second day you would do a run through of both episodes in the morning and in the afternoon do a dress rehearsal, followed by recording. So you would get quite a lot of rehearsal whereas you virtually rehearse on tape nowadays. Then editing came in but at first it was still done as live but if there was any one scene that was particularly bad you could re-do it and they could edit that scene in. That system of editing was devised by Granada’s editors.

People liked working on it, they were all quite keen to do it. It was so busy in the studio because it was continuous. Say we had three cameras and two booms in the studio which was a much tighter area with the sets to work in, say thirty seconds before the end of one scene, one of the cameras was released to get ready for the next scene and then there would either be a boom waiting to start that next scene or it would be a case of holding the shot while the boom swung across to the next set so it was quite fast moving. I think people had to be much more professional. I think that if today you tried to do something continuous like that with crews today who’ve never done it. If you take the stagehands, they’ve never been used to moving sets and props quietly while you’re recording in another part of the studio and that had to happen. They were resetting things while you were actually taping at the other end of the studio. People just wouldn’t know how to do it today. You had to be much more alert both in the sound and vision control rooms because it had to be right. If it wasn’t right, it went out as a big mistake. A lot of the actors and actresses had done a lot of stage work so they were professional enough to fumble through it if they forgot their lines.

In those days, my favourite characters were the three old ladies in the snug and Doris Speed and Arthur … (who played Jack Walker). Some were quiet and if you passed them in the corridor a bit withdrawn but others were so friendly. I had a bit of a row with Pat Phoenix once. In those days the unions in television were quite strong and Studio 2 being so small had got extremely hot in the summer. The only ventilation were two huge fans which you cound’t have on because of the noise they made and there had been a very long Equity sttrike in which the permanent cast weren’t involved because they were on permanent contracts. They continued working but there wre a lot of actors who were out of work for a long time. One particular day the studio got so hot and the union called a halt and said there’s no way we can work in this and they abandoned the recording. We started to de-rig and Pat had a go and I had a go back about not being on strike with Equity but taking all the benefits that the strikers had got. I broke it off and turned around and Julian Amyes (check spelling) who was both a programme director and a company director was standing at the edge of the set with a smirk on his fact. But she was a real character.

Of the early ones, Denis Tanner who was Philip Lowrie was a great guy. I always got on very well with Mavis? And with Bill Tarmey. In later years I moved into the music studio and Bill having been in music was always coming in. One of the best scenes I think is the one Michael Apted did with the rail crash and the train came off the line and Ena Sharples was trapped. That was a great episode to work on with all the effects and it was one which really established Mike as a top director. There used to be a lot of scenes in the Mission, which now is converted into the factory. The screaming in the street between Pat Phoenix and Ena Sharples, they were really good and all the traumas that Pat Phoenix went through with her men. I’ve got no bad memories of working on Coronation Street.

Why do I think it’s been so popular? In the early days it was almost a replica of how people in Salford lived their lives and so people could relate to it. I’m not so sure nowadays because it’s getting more and more a young cast and it’s becoming a lot like the other soaps. I don’t want to see too much of that coming into the street because it wasn’t that sort of programme. The episodes that are going out at the moment with the death of Judy Mallett, I think are brilliant.

The year after it started they decided to have a party. There used to be a pub behind Granada called the Pineapple which was little used so for this Christmas party they took over the pub and the cast would serve drinks. There were three old locals in there when we went in having their pint in the corner and they stayed there and all the drink was free. They were going to the bar and getting whatever they wanted from Pat Phoenix. They were absolutely rolling by the end of the night and you could imagine them saying ‘Elsie Tanner’s been serving me drinks’. We had some good times in those days. Granada was more family-orientated than it is now. It’s just a business now. The last time I worked on Coronation Street about three years and Bill Roache and I were the only two people there who had been on the very first episode.

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