When Tony Warren wrote his first scripts for the Street, early in 1960, they were scheduled to run for only six episodes. Luckily, someone in management recognised the potential of this ground-breaking idea about a community living in a northern working-class street. Tony was 24 when he wrote it, and he based it on Manchester characters he knew and grew up with. He wrote the first twenty episodes, then his vision seems to have departed from Granada’s, or theirs from his, so the Granada machine took over. By the time I joined, in 1968, it had settled into a well-oiled rhythm thanks to its highly talented team.
In those days the Street went out on two nights a week and we worked six episodes in advance. Every three weeks we attended a storyline conference with the writers, producers and directors to decide on a main story and, usually, two sub stories to run through the next three weeks. Harry Driver, from his wheelchair, seemed to be best at generating ideas. The Stan and Hilda Ogden characters made a splendid comedy team, so I came up with one about Stan Ogden entering his broken bike in a modern art exhibition.
My job, together with my fellow storyline writer, Esther Rose, was to build the skeleton for the writers to flesh out with dialogue. I soon learnt that we worked within tight boundaries. For a start, the actors were on different contracts. We had five stalwarts: Ena Sharples, Elsie Tanner, Len Fairclough, plus Jack and Doris Walker at the Rovers Return. We needed to include at least three of these ‘heavyweights’ in each programme. Other actors, such as Bill Roache and Anne Reid, playing Ken and Val Barlow, had 26-week contracts, so stories had to be planned accordingly.
A second limiting factor concerned the sets. Shows were shot in the studio, with only occasional filming allowed outside for the big stories. Each programme consisted of two halves, with five or six scenes either side of the ad break, and sets were built to accommodate all six episodes in the three- week cycle. To justify any one set, we had to find a way of using it at least once in each half of all six programmes. Additionally, our storylines needed to allow the actors time to move from one set to another, so we couldn’t end one scene and start another using the same character.
Then there were the cliff-hangers to manipulate: a minor one before the ad break and something more telling at the close. At the beginning of the autumn schedule, a seriously dramatic lapel-grabber was needed to hook the audience. Ray Langton’s maiming in a Street coach outing comes to mind; and, perhaps the biggest drama of all, the attack on Val Barlow.
Anne Reid was a brilliant actor and a kind friend to me. When my flat mate got ill and I urgently need to move out, Anne invited me to stay in her flat, which was close by. Much later, when her beloved husband, Peter Eckersley died, she visited our house, still numb with shock, but determined to make a good life for their young son.
Esther Rose and I became friends, if only virtually, with all the Coronation Street characters. We kept a record of their birthdays and anniversaries. We noted down their individual likes and dislikes, quirks and abilities, or lack of them. Albert Tatlock was good with pastry, ‘I ‘ave cold ‘ands, you see’. Elsie often had to soak her sore feet because of the high heels she wore. Esther and I argued over whether Minnie Caldwell, Ena Sharples’ regular companion in the Rover’s Snug, would be likely to possess a piece of string to wrap a parcel with (she said Minnie was too poor, I thought she’d have squirreled a bit away). Pat Phoenix, playing Elsie Tanner, invited David and me to a party at her house. What sticks in my mind is her delight at showing the guests her gigantic, richly adorned, ceiling-to-pillow draped bed. It clearly played a central role in her life.
I enjoyed working with actors, writers and the whole dynamic team. Evidently our audiences appreciated our work too because Coronation Street topped the ratings week after week. The aim was to entertain at all costs, with humour, high drama and if possible, both, and I think we succeeded.