One of Coronation Street’s finest ever writers, Geoff Lancashire worked alongside Tony Warren and Jack Rosenthal in the promotions department at Granada but told Warren that the programme would never last. He later to write on many hundreds of scripts for the soap between 1964 and 1981 and is also remembered as the creator of well-loved television comedy series such as The Lovers and The Cuckoo Waltz. His daughter, Sarah Lancashire, played the character ‘Raquel Wolstenhulme’ in the Street.
The Street started in 1960 and like everybody else I didn’t think it would last. I remember talking to Tony Warren and he was thinking what I thought. And I said ‘I don’t think so Tony, no-one south of Stockport would understand you. But I like the characters, I like the names, where did you get the names from?’ He said ‘Well they came from Pendlebury Church in Salford, from the gravestones.’ I said ‘Really? Well they’re good names.’
It was beautifully cast, Jose Scott was the casting director. They wanted everyone in the cast to be from south-east Lancashire and by and large, they were. I think Bill Roache was at Oldham Rep, he came down for an audition. Pat Phoenix was touring in some show, she wasn’t using that name though. She came and auditioned and was perfect. Ena Sharples, I suppose, was difficult because the way Tony described her didn’t fit but Tony came up with the answer. He said ‘How about Violet Carsons?’ I remember thinking at the time ‘She’s the pianist in the Wilfred Pickles’ show.’ Tony said ‘She’s also Auntie Violet on BBC North and I remember her being in a quiz once.’ She came for an audition and she put the hairnet on for the audition.
The show started and it was amazingly successful from the word go. It went out on seven o’clock on Monday and Wednesday. In those days the transmitters would overlap. If you were in an ATV area but quite north, you could get Granada so people were picking it up. At the end of thirteen weeks, ATV said ‘We’ll take it’ because at the beginning some of the companies weren’t taking it. It was in the top ten and the press picked it up.
The word that no-one used in those days was ‘soap opera’, that was a very American idea to do with radio in the 1930’s. It was seen as drama. Granada’s drama output at that time was amazingly good. The first play that Granada did was ‘Look Back In Anger’ and that set the pattern for the next ten years. Tony had written twenty-six episodes while he was in the promotions department and at the end he was just absolutely exhausted ‘I can’t seem to go anywhere else, that’s it.’ But I think Granada already knew that he obviously needed help. That’s where Jack Rosenthal came in and Harry Kershaw and then John Finch.
In a way I wished I’d left right away but I was thinking of getting married and I thought ‘Don’t freelance on this’. It was a good three years. Tim Aspinall was producing the Street, he was the guy who killed Martha Longhurst. He also invented the Ogdens. And I used to see Tim in the corridor and say ‘Any scripts you need doing Tim?’ and it was all like a joke because Granada wouldn’t employ people (on the Street) as a writer) who were employed by them, you had to be a freelance. So I was rebuffed time and time again. Then one day he had four directors going on holiday and they needed scripts to take with them to read. He said ‘Could you do one by next Monday?’ and this was Friday. So I said ‘Yes’ because I was young and cocky. So I did it , by Tuesday not by Monday. Then I was wondering ‘What did they think’. My own feeling was ‘I’m glad that’s out of my system. I couldn’t do two.’ They had got a storyline so I knew what the storyline was. I knew who’d written the script before me, that was John Finch, so I could ring John and find out how he had treated certain things. But that weekend I thought ‘What the hell do you want to be a scriptwriter for?’ It was so difficult. On the Tuesday I waited to hear from Tim. I rang his secretary and said ‘Has he seen the script?’ and she said ‘Oh yes, he’s with Denis Forman at the moment.’ I said ‘Not about my script?’ She said ‘Yes’. So it was Wednesday when Tim came to see me. He said ‘Geoff, it’s very good and they like it. Do you think you can do another one?’ I said ‘Tim, I’d have to leave.’ He said ‘I’ll guarantee you a certain number of scripts.’ I was earning £1,250 a year so he said ‘We’ll guarantee you scripts to the value of £625.’ The script fee when then was £150 a script. It then rose to £175. The only way I could get any movement on that was I went to write ‘United’, the football thing for the BBC and they offered me £200 a script and then Granada matched it.. For that £625 I had to do five scripts.
At the end of six months I’d done twelve Coronation Street’s, two ‘Man in Room 17’, I also continued working in Promotions because I wasn’t replaced, for ‘University Challenge’ and little bits for ‘Scene at 6.30’. At the end of six months I thought if I’d been freelance I would have made £2,000 by now. So when the six months Francis Head rang up and said ‘Are you going to have another contract, Geoff?’ So I said ‘No, I’m going to go freelance.’ But they said ‘You’re only getting this work because you’re on contract’ so I said ‘I’ll have to risk it Francis.’ By this time Sarah had just been born so this was the Friday night and I cried a lot that weekend, thought about going back into newspapers but they were closing down like mad. On the Monday morning I got a phone call from Harry Elton, the programme controller, and he offered me a contract to write for Coronation Street , I think it was for four. So all of a sudden it was all right. Once I was writing for Coronation Street, I started getting other things to do as well. The first one I did was in September 1964, I think Stan Ogden was going to a wrestling match in it.
There were six scriptwriters and we had a story meeting every three weeks. That was the scriptwriters and the producer. Harry Kershaw was the producer then. If Tony was the father of the Street, then Harry was the midwife. He set the standards. In this meeting we would discuss the next six episodes so you’d know at the time which episode you were going to do. They had storyline writers who while we were saying ‘We need a story for Valerie’ and when that started to work, the storyline writers would be making some notes and later would produce these in a storyline form. This storyline, about three pages, would go to all the writers so you’d know who was doing which episode and what the story was. In my day the storyline writers were Harry Driver and Vince Powell.
As a writer you would have two weeks to do your script. Sometimes it was difficult. You were expected to come up with the finished product, no drafts. If you worked for a producer who was a writer you were very conscious of that and the way he would have written it. This is where Harry came in. The directors who were producers like Dick Everitt or Howard Baker were not as good on seeing a script and this is where it often needed a script editor. I was script editor for a while and that is quite difficult. When I was writing, there wasn’t a script editor because Harry Kershaw was there. Harry had little foibles. Even his name ‘H.V.’, we always wondered what ‘V.’ was, it stood for ‘Vera’ his wife actually.
One day at one of the three weekly conferences he came in and said ‘Look, I’m fed up of people writing about the Queen, blackheads and big toes. Can we stop all that.’ So we were all looking at each other saying ‘What the hell’s all this about?’ On my script I did a scene with Albert Tatlock and Jack Walker. I wrote a script with Albert coming into the pub and Jack saying ‘You don’t look too well.’ ‘No Jack, I’ve had a bit of a shock actually. Have you heard about the Queen?’ Jack said ‘No’. ‘She’s got blackheads and a big toe’ . They used to record the shows on a Friday and if you were a writer you could go into the producer’s office and have a watch. So I came down, Harry was on the phone and the television set was fairly low so I’m sat there and they put the line in. So I said to Harry ‘I’m going down, I’ll see you in a moment’ and I went to see Jack Howarth and said ‘Jack this line about the Queen it was only a joke, we can’t really say that.’ He said ‘It’s in the script, we’ve rehearsed it.’ ‘All week?’ ‘Well’ he said ‘ It didn’t make much sense to me at the time.’ So I went to Dick Everitt who was directing.
The Elsie Tanner wedding was quite big when she married the American. I think that was the biggest audience of all time for the Street, I think it was thirty odd million. Valerie Barlow’s death.
One of Harry’s foibles was that there was no swearing in the Street.
As for politics, I remember once we sat down and thought who would vote and what would they vote, it was quite difficult to work out. Ken would have been Labour. I think Minnie and Ena might well have been Tories, Albert might have been Tory, Annie certainly would have been Tory. The trouble is I don’t know how far ahead it is at the moment but you could never do things like Cup Finals.
The show’s so plot-driven now. The construction of the script is completely different. There must be 22, 23, 24 scenes in every show, unthinkable when I did it. Twelve scenes would be standard then.
The programme was recorded on tape and there was as little editing as possible. If anyone fluffed, it was considered naturalistic. Someone explained this to SLB (Sidney Louis Bernstein) and he said ‘Oh yes I see what you mean. Could we write a few fluffs?’
Often Bill Roache and Margot Bryant could learn their lines very quickly, Margot was amazing. People you had trouble with were Peter Adamson. Peter was no good at learning lines and I don’t think Pat was that terrific. Vi Carson was also very good.
Valerie wanted to be written out. She had just got married and she was planning anew career. It was never explained to at the time. In one episode when she died she was ironing and something went wrong with the plug. And she bent down to pull it out and she touched the terminals and died. I wanted to write Ken Barlow at the end, ‘oh God, Val, oh God.’ I wanted to use the word ‘God.’ Harry Kershaw said, ‘Are you sure, Geoff ?’ I said, ‘I think so Harry. ‘You say ‘Oh God’ when somebody’s died.’ ‘Yeah okay then,’ he said. So, it went through. I think it must have been the first time a swear work of any kind had been used in the Street. It was a difficult scene. I was quite sad. I didn’t want Valerie or Ken to break up. But the storyline had been written and it was up to me to provide the dialogue.
The last script I wrote was in January 1981. Bill Podmore had taken over by then. I had almost 20 years on it. John Stevenson served longer than me, but I suppose I’m up there somewhere. I’d leave the Street to do other things, from time to time. I’d have six months off and do a different programme. I wrote close to 200 scripts for the Street in all. In 1984 I had a stroke and then in 87 I had a bad stroke.
She(Geoff’s daughter, Sarah Lancashire) had been in the Street before Raquel, she played a girl called Wendy Farmer a district nurse, it was only three episodes. Then Mervyn Watson said ‘If anything comes up I’ll get in touch.’ Then the part of Raquel came up and he got in touch. She did the little thing with the voice and I thought it sounded all right. So she went in and the Raquel character never came straight away but after a few weeks it began to develop. I think the writers began to cotton on and picked up on it and what they could do with her. I think she is one of the few genuine characters in the show.
When I wrote the Street you didn’t need to put anyone’s name on it. You just knew. You knew this was Elsie or whoever. Today they rush the plots on and any characterisation isn’t there. It’s totally plot led.
If people were being killed off it was nearly always because they wanted to be out of the show, not because of ratings. Harry Hewitt was killed off because he was drinking. Anybody who was drinking with Peter. But he was sacrosanct. We couldn’t kill Peter off, he was a leading star.
I loved Sandra Gough, she was a good character. She had a quick mind. She played Irma Ogden and married David Barlow, Ken’s brother. I always liked her. I think some of the best stories I did were with her. She hadn’t done much acting but we took her on. I remember the way she used to say mortgage, smashing. She had a wicked sense of humour. I used to play her off against Kenneth.
It was a comedy show. There was a lot of comedy in it. A lot of that comedy came my way and of course Jack Rosenthal was terrific. It started out as a gritty northern drama and then shifted into more comedy. We did a Royal Command performance and the audience just loved them. When Margot walked on she got tremendous applause. I was surprised the way the audience reacted. They generated a warmth from the audience.
I put up a story once about Albert Tatlock having a poltergeist. Harry wasn’t very keen on it but he said okay, it was a dressing table that was moving. In fact it was just breaking the floorboards.
I wouldn’t like to be writing for it now. I don’t think the characters are very strong.