Denis Parkin – Set Designer

Denis_ParkinDenis Parkin joined Granada Television in 1957 as a designer, most notably designing the original Coronation Street set, including the exteriors and the inside of each of the terraced houses to make them distinctly different depending on which characters lived there. He continued to work on the programme in the 1960s and also oversaw the rebuilding of the set in 1982, as well as working on a wide variety of Granada programmes before his retirement in the late 1980s.

I’d read an article about television design and a few weeks after that Roy Stonehouse found an advert in the Guardian for a draughtsman at Granada. He showed it to me, I wrote off and got the job. There were two other designers there then from the theatre who used to do all the drawings. I found out very soon that I knew as much as they did, probably more about construction. We had a head of design who was a Canadian. He took me out to Kendals to tea one afternoon and said we’ve got a new programme, they’d bought it from Associated Rediffusion and he said if you can find another draughtsman you can design that. That was February 57 and Granada had started in May 56. 

Then jumping forward to 1960 we did this series about Biggles. Tony Warren wrote those but at the time he was a continuity writer. But he always had this thing about what he called Florizel Street then and his office was about half the size of this room with only one chair and a desk so when I went in there I used to sit on the floor and he’d read all this dialogue out to me. We were doing Biggles but it was a series about flying and we never had any film so it was all in studio and then in the end the network refused to take it any more because the viewing figures were so awful. And that was the reason Coronation Street started because they had to have something to fill in for this.

Harry Elton gave Tony the chance of doing Coronation Street. And at the farewell party for Biggles, which was in a pub up Bootle Street, that’s when we decided on the name of it. We were probably all half pissed at the time. We decided on Coronation Street because we were talking about when the houses would have been built so various things came up. Mafeking Street but they thought it might be open to misinterpretation, Jubilee Street and all around that period but we ended up with Coronation Street with that being the coronation of Edward VII when the houses were built.

We did two dry runs. We had about six weeks to do it and we were still doing Biggles at the time so we worked in those days. Tony and I talked about the kind of houses they were (in Coronation Street) and he knew what kind they were and I knew what kind they were so we used to wander round Salford. He found a pub that would be the Rovers Return and then we found a street to film the opening titles, which didn’t have a pub at the other end, but film was in such a state then that you couldn’t see that far.

I went through the scripts that were there, finding out what the people were like and from what Tony told me and then designing the kind of houses that they would live in, the kind of things that they would have and from the scripts at the time working out which way round the house would be, whether the fireplace was the back wall or opposite was the back wall. It had to be one or the other because there was no room to put entrances on the back wall. They had to be each side. And we could only get six sets in the studio at the time, Studio Two. Because of that I had to go to script conferences because it depended on the studio space, what sets they could get in and what they could write about. It worked quite well, it was a lot more work than it is now because now they just design a set and shoot everything in one set and then move on to the next.

Albert Tatlock’s house was easy because he was old-fashioned, he must have been there for upteen years. Elsie Tanner was a bit flash and not very house-proud. The Barlows were the opposite even though in the first episode David was mending his bike in front of the fire so that gave us which way round that one was. The Hardmans was a bit gloomy because the mother was a slightly odd. Esther Hayes was the Street’s agony aunt, a bit nondescript. Harry Hewitt didn’t have a wife so he was a bit untidy. The Mission Hall goes back to when I was very small and my father had an aunt who lived the other side of Leeds, which was where I came from in a little back-to-back house, and opposite it was what they called a tin tabernacle, it was a mission made of corrugated iron. And I remembered that and I also remembered this aunt had a horse-hair sofa and when you were a little lad with short trousers on all those bits used to stick in your legs so that was the basis of the mission. The railway arch at the back was always in Tony’s scripts.

It was great for the actors because it was the first time they’d done television. Most of them came from Oldham Rep and Jose picked the kind of people that the characters were. I did think it was going to be a success because it was the kind of thing that northern people liked to watch. This is the life I knew so there must be thousands of other people that feel the same. Ken Irwin at the Daily Mirror didn’t think so – he savaged it but he was proved wrong. It was a wonderful time because we always said we did it in spite of Granada rather than with their help. They just left us alone to do what we wanted, like our own television rep company. Everybody knew everybody. The cast and crew were as one. We used to go with Pat Phoenix on her P.A.s, go to her house, and people came to ours. It was lovely. We used to do things for them and buy presents for them at Christmas and birthdays. What they used to do at the P.A.s, a few of them, they had raffles for the public to raise money for charities and the prize was usually a tray with a glass top and wickerwork around it. And what I used to do was have one of my sketches of the Street photographed and put it under the glass and they all autographed it and that was the prize for the raffle. We did dozens and dozens of those.

I started off by doing the ground plan of a house to fit it into the studio because mentally I knew what the rest of it was going to look like so it was just a matter of fitting it in. In those days the sides of the set had to be splayed outwards because of the size of three cameras. Also the layout had to be as far as possible so that one set wasn’t next to the set that was going to be in the next scene because you had two booms each end of the studio and if that couldn’t be done, the boom had to swing from one to the other which is why if you watch the old ones there are so many scenes with people stirring cups of tea until the boom gets there. Sometimes you could hear it too. And you needed space for three cameras and you couldn’t have any ceilings because you had to have a lot of lighting. Most of the Lighting Directors, one in particular used to light every square foot to the same intensity and if anybody was reading newspapers they had to be sprayed down until they were nearly black otherwise they flared all over the place. The director had to work out time for lens changes. One cameraman, Phil Phillips, was wonderful because he could set his camera off like going on a scooter and ride on it from one end of the studio to the other changing his lens at the same time and it would stop in exactly the place he wanted it to be. He was brilliant. Everybody was. In the beginning the set used to be taken down after the programme on Monday and there were other programmes in the studio because that was the only studio there was. There was Criss Cross Quiz on Monday, Spot the Tune with Marion Ryan on the other, and then Coronation Street went back in.

Nobody ever thought about continuity, it was up to the propmen to remember where everything was. We hired the original props because we didn’t know it was going to last that long. In fact the workbench in Len Fairclough’s yard we were hiring that for about ten years. The same with Albert Tatlock’s sideboard that was hired.

I think most of the viewers thought it was real. It was Archie Street in Salford, the first street. A couple of blocks away from that was either the Kelloggs or the Palmolive factory and there they used to think that we took our cameras into the houses and filmed whatever happened to be going on at the time. I don’t know whether the sets were better or people’s knowledge was a lot less but I never got any letters about the set or what was wrong with it so it must have been right.


After about a month I thought it was going to go on a bit longer because Tony started to panic about being able to write that many. We had Vince Powell and Harry Driver. The script conferences used to be hilarious because there were all sorts of suggestions that were impossible that people came up with. Harry Driver was a great comic. I had to go to those, tell them what they could have. I don’t think I started doing the studio layouts until the script arrived which was about three weeks before. As far as I can remember the budget was £175 a week but that was just materials, we didn’t pay for labour, but still it wasn’t a lot. The construction people mostly came from Ealing studios that had closed about the same time that Granada started. I don’t know whether Sidney Bernstein had connections with Ealing because most of the construction and production buyers came straight from Ealing up to Granada, thinking we lived in caves. And they all thought we talked funny. I think being in the construction business I could talk their language and consequently used to fiddle the figures to make my sets cheaper than the others. I got more out of it than other people did.

The funeral was the first big storyline because we had to build a street. The houses were only 7ft 6 wide, the pub had to be under the control room it was only 9ft high under there. We could never get far enough back to see more than half a house really so the straight on shots were mid-shots or close-ups so you weren’t ever going to see much of the pavement. So shots from angles, if you didn’t have the width, you got the depth so there are lots of bits of window frames and wall that go backwards so that it looks bigger than it is when you look at it from an angle. They’re not much bigger now, they’re only 13ft 6 now.

I needed to know about cameras and lenses, where booms could reach, where people could be. The doors in the beginning were 3 feet wide. At Ealing I think a film camera would go through a 3 ft wide but they never realised that a television camera wouldn’t so we were stuck with 3ft wide doors until they all wore out and they we got back to normal sizes but the doors in the Street were only 2ft and the cast suddenly looked taller. For the funeral we had to build from one of the Street to the other. We had about a fortnight to do that. We were always working on three episodes at the same time, or maybe four. One was in the studio, one was in ground-plan stage for the directors, another was in construction and the fourth one was still on the drawing board. That was none-stop, not as much as it is now, it’s seven days a week now. But it was great fun and knowing about construction was a great help, you knew about short cuts that nobody else might know about.

By the time of the train crash we were out where Granada Tours is. Another designer put my set out there that was in the days when the cobbles were triangles. I can’t imagine why he ever did that because there was room to put it the right way round. And then to try to weatherproof it he put vacuum foam plastic bricks all over the front and it stayed like until we went into colour in 1969 and we did tests on it and all the bricks looked bright red. I think mostly it was because the engineers didn’t know about turning the colour down so we had a hell of a time working with that. I went back to the Street when they changed to colour because they said how awful it looked so Harry Kershaw was producing it. I said why don’t we build it in real brick out there so I found a couple of bricklayers. I was living in Rossendale then and the fellow next door and a mate of his came and built the whole front of the Street again with half a roof. I think we put a new Mission Hall on at the time and the block of flats stayed as they were and it stayed like that until they wanted to pull it down and put it where it is now. That was an opportunity to make them a bit bigger, have the cobbles going the right way. David Plowright wanted it the other way round, probably so he could see it from the building but I said if you do it the other way round, you’ll never get the sun on the houses so I got my own way. We built all that railway arch, that was my first bit of computer design. We went to Lancaster University and they had a computer that gave you pictures because I had to work out how high the railway arch was going to be to block out the flats that were up the street. That worked for a time and then they built Studio One which stuck up above the back.

I used to enjoy doing exteriors in Studio Two. Underneath canal bridges when Lucille Hewitt got lost and when Peter Adamson wanted to commit suicide. Exteriors in the studio I did enjoy doing because they were a challenge. The outside of Leonard Swindley’s shop I remember we did once and I also did a perspective street which ramped underneath that low part of the studio with a model bus that I borrowed from Manchester Corporation, I think that was when Lucille got lost, so the bus trundled along with its lights on. It worked in those days in black and white; it wouldn’t work now. You could get away with more in black and white because at times we used even extend the set with cardboard. It was too late if anybody noticed. There was no editing. One of the reasons we had to extend the sets one director on the ground plan kept little cutouts of the cameras and put little bits of string on them and put them back to the camera outlets on the wall so that they could work out camera moves without getting the cables crossed because you couldn’t uncouple them, you had to live with it. This one director used to draw his people on the ground plan using old pennies. He never did know that old pennies were a lot bigger than people on a quarter inch scale so he was the one who was usually asking for extra bits. A lot of the time I pretended I’d forgotten because I knew he wouldn’t need it. He was always getting his cables tangled up.

I remember Doris Speed asking me once, she rented a semi in Chorlton, that the landlord had asked me if I wanted to buy it and was it worthwhile. I asked how much, she said £1250 and I said buy it because they were going for £5000 or £6000. We re-designed the bathroom for her, put her some patio doors in and designed the garden. Peter Adamson used to live up the road and we designed a swimming pool for him.

We used to go Pat Phoenix’s house in Sale at Christmas, she used to hire a stagecoach and four horses and go round Sale. She was a lovely, flamboyant lady. We used to go there quite often at the weekends. My daughter was about three or four then, she was dangled on Pat Phoenix’s knee. When she grew up, she was make-up artist at Granada and Pat Phoenix always pretended that she didn’t remember her because she didn’t want to say it was seventeen years earlier.

It was a family business then. Cecil used to give everyone a week’s wages at the anniversary of the opening of the company, at Christmas everybody used to get a month’s wages bonus. We’d have a party for Coronation Street every year that everybody could go to on the anniversary. It was working for a family. Although he was socialist he treated everybody very well, even though he looked out from his penthouse. One day he looked at all the cars in the car park and said I bought all those.

I still watch it now. The sets don’t have to move now so they can build it for real. They move about one set a month. After I left I went to Manchester Poly and taught television design there for three years and one of my star students there Chris Walker ended up designing Coronation Street.

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