After September Song, I did Prime Suspect. And then I spent a year with Granada Film trying to do strange set-ups. I remember shooting around Australia and Korea of all places. We tried to set up a film, but… and it was in the midst of that that the call came – and I think this was around 1996, and I was in Sydney at the time – saying, would you do Coronation Street? And I turned it down twice as I remember. And then Carolyn (Reynolds) goes, you really should do it, because she was the exec producer at the time. And went, hmm, I haven’t got that many options. Some people say don’t do it, some people say I should do it. It had moved by that point from 3 episodes a week to 4 episodes a week, and what I remember was that I went to some do at LWT – and I had said yes by this time… Do you remember Vernon Laurence? He was at Yorkshire and he had been the head of comedy and drama there or something, and I think he’d moved by that point and was Controller of Drama at Network Centre. I remember him sidling up to me and going, “Congratulations Brian on Coronation Street. Bit of a poisoned chalice.”
So with that poisoned chalice, December 1996, I’ll have to check these, where I sat before I’d formally taken over – Sue Prichard was still then the producer, Carolyn Reynolds was exec producer, and it had been described to me by people, that the writer’s forum was the pantheon of the gods…
Of Coronation Street?
Yes. By the time I was taking over and had hesitations about it, I think if we’re going to be frank, it was in a bit of trouble. It had gone from two episodes a week to three and they’d just introduced the fourth episode. I suppose I was lucky in a way that I’d done quite a bit of stuff by then and I’d worked with some diva-ish actors. But I think when I took over, I was lucky enough to have a certain amount of information in our hands. And I knew that the problem was that it had gone to four episodes a week. The Friday and Sunday episodes were not playing terribly well in London, so that was a problem for LWT.
It was also failing… these crude things, that I think you became aware of, and it stood me in good stead later on, to understand is that there were problems with it. It was a show that was rapidly – it wasn’t a show that you’d watch with your mother anymore, it was probably a show where if you were lucky, you’d be watching with your grandmother. It was losing. It wasn’t attracting young people and it wasn’t attracting a southern audience, so they were quite big things and there were rumours that LWT was going to take it out of the 7.30 slot.
So I had to take a clinical look at it as well. I watched about 100 episodes before I took over. And in December – and I took over in January – the press was always… it was either, EastEnders was up and was the great show that was coming in and thrashed Coronation Street over Christmas, and they’d make a great show about which show got the Christmas audience. And the year I took over, EastEnders had trounced it, so it was, EastEnders is the way forward, Coronation Street’s stuck in the past, old characters… One of the things that was worrying about it was [laughs] I think the median age of the cast when I took over was about 72 or something, and you’re thinking, there might be a slight indication of why no one under 20 is watching the show anymore. That’s a slight exaggeration, but there were trends there that you had to [take into account]… [if you weren’t then] you weren’t doing your job, actually.
I was also minded – I have to watch what I’m saying slightly here – I wasn’t going in with any rosy views. It was a great institution, and yes you had to be slightly careful with it, and there were political ramifications in it which I’ll go into in a second – but I knew it had to be shaken up, and that’s what I was going to do. There was no sense in being cautious with it, because I’d felt that being cautious or over-reverential was probably where it was at that point.