Ian White joined Granada in 1978 as a researcher and later became a director, including working on Coronation Street. He now works as a freelance and has directed a wide range of drama programmes including Hollyoaks, Emmerdale and Casualty.
I started working on Coronation Street in 1989 for about four years until I left in 1992. There were a lot of big changes at the time because Bill Podmore was coming to the end of his final period in office. He was in charge when I joined and it was he as the producer who was said ‘We’ll give you a go’. I was really pleased about that. Bill was part of the history of the programme having been the second proper producer it had ever had. Mervyn was about to have his second coming and it was around about this time that there were going to be several big changes. Liddiment was going to take over, we were going to go from two to three episodes a week and the thirty year anniversary took place during my period. There was the move from Studio 6 to the new production facility, I was part of the organising of all that, how we were to do it and the best way to run the production, whether from Sunday to Friday or Monday to Saturday. All those big changes happened during that period.
The first year I was on the show was what I would call ‘the end of the old days’. I was so delighted to have been part of the history of the programme when it was done in Studio 6 with the constraints of that. We did lots of fun things in that time. We had Alf switching on the Queen’s speech on Christmas Day and incorporating it into the programme. I got the Queen’s speech in the editing room a month before Christmas and with David Liddiment we devised a way of doing it so Alf looked at the screen and said ‘Hang on it’s three o’clock’ and it went up from black to the Queen’s speech and then it went down at the end to black. It was great fun.There were lots of things done like that, trying to break a bit of new ground.
Slowly but surely you were approaching new technical problems and being more adventurous with the filming. Initially it was a very gentle show, you would come in on a Monday, do a bit of filming on a Monday afternoon, start the rehearsal running on Tuesday, running it into the Wednesday, tech run in the afternoon, Thursday morning off, Thursday afternoon and all day Friday studio. It was quite nice week and a nice job for actors given that you were the most popular programme on television for twenty years at this stage. When it became three episodes a week, Sunday became the day when you could go out and have a lot more fun. Things like Bettabuys came out of Sunday because we were able to use an empty Morrisons store and that whole thing with Curly and Reg. Things like that became more possible, you wanted to put your characters in more real places not just have them in the studio.
I had come out of light weight cameras in LE (Light Entertainment) and we were all very keen on going light weight at that time, getting out as much as possible and getting away from these Leviathan cameras that we used in the sixties. That location filming was always done on videotape. There was a special agreement initially for it to happen. When Ken had his girlfriend Wendy, that whole location was away from base and that was unheard of.
When I joined the programme, Tim Sullivan before me had started to introduce adventurous ideas. One of the attractions of the early days of the Street if you look at the black and white ones was the use of prime lenses. There were no zooms in those days and the cameras moved in a bit but you’d get these long lens shots so everything was out of focus behind. It was shot in a verite kind of way. When it went to colour and these big heavy cameras came in, it became much more static and the whole show became flat basically, flat lit in the late sixties and early seventies. There was a formula to shooting scenes and the show, I think, had become very boring to look at. By the time I joined there was the idea of doing scenes in one shot for instance which I did a lot of in the Rovers. There you had set-ups where you could move between one person and another and then they’d go and you’d move to someone else. So you’d get more of an organic like feel of things going on. It was a real challenge for the directors. Sometimes we’d do seven or eight page scenes in one shot in the Rovers. If you were the last actor you’d know all about it because you’d be sat there going ‘I hope I don’t get this wrong’. You’d look for new angles in old sets. You’d take walls out that hadn’t been taken out before so that you could put a camera in and they could move in a different way. We were all in our way at that time straining to do different things. We all got a lot of recognition, in the business, at the time for doing different things with the show visually.
I’d watched Coronation Street in the early sixties in my grandma’s house in a two-up, two-down in Middlesbrough and she’d say ‘We don’t watch this, it’s about common people’ and she was living in a Coronation Street house in Middlesbrough at the time in Southbank. I remember watching it and being interested as a kid. I think it had lost its interest for young people and when I came in we wanted to do different things with it and we had a different perspective. By then Bill was letting us do a bit more. If you look back now it would probably embarrass us all but at the time it felt like we were not doing the obvious. It is easier to stick a camera in the middle and do a wide shot and one on either side and knock off the angles and stand people in a relatively easy way and just do it. It’s much quicker and easier to do that if you can’t be bothered. But I think there’s no drama to it, there’s no life to it and we wanted to give it a bit more life by then.
The switch from two programmes to three programmes was great fun because David Liddiment came in like a breath of fresh air. Granada had been like any big company ‘this is how we do it’ and you’d come across this barrier every time. So it was lovely to get in a situation where you could look afresh and say ‘why do we do this? How many episodes do we need?’ I remember working out how many hours they used to use for rehearsal, on the back of a piece of paper before a facilities meeting when we were working out how to organise the new studio and how many sets we could get in to make sure what was feasible. I always felt that three was the ideal format for Coronation Street in terms of time being more efficiently organized. We went from part five to a six day week. Before Monday morning was off, Thursday morning was off; it was a very gentle week. Also the days weren’t that long so by extending days by maybe half an hour, an hour and getting in this extra sixth day you could achieve an enormous amount more production and also more location work for relatively little extra money. So the fun was being part of all these things.
The big studio was a massive change. For instance for all the artistes to have their own dressing room was a huge thing at the time because it gave them their own personal space. The idea was to keep making the programme and not to kill people. Initially it was thought that it would do people in doing the extra work and it might have done if it was done callously. I always felt it was done, given that it was a money-making exercise, quite sensitively. They’d arrive in the morning and go inside their perimeter and that was their home for the day.
I remember going round with the designer trying to working out what the shape of the exterior of the Street would look like, what was going to go opposite the original. He had got the idea of this little industrial unit set back and the Kabin but we couldn’t work out how to put these houses. If you put them flat opposite each other it would look boring. We came up with a style of the way houses were being built in Salford; we wanted it to look like a modern development but low price housing. Steve, the designer, and I together suddenly said ‘Why don’t we put the houses sideways instead of flat opposite?’
The current opening titles are mine; I shot them ten years ago. In the black and white era there were a lot of generic titles so mine are the second of the colour era. Mervyn sent me out round about the thirtieth anniversary. They tried to do some the year before and they hadn’t been thought right and Plowright was very keen to do some brand new ones for the thirtieth anniversary year. All that I could think of is ‘What can I do that is better than there is there?’ because the pictures were by then an institution. They were about fifteen years old so all I thought was to do something with movement in it, to use the same ideas of life in the back streets but to move the camera. They wouldn’t give me a crane that was big enough but we used a Simon tower, they’re the things they use to cover the horse racing. You can get them to move by just releasing the hydraulics and when you switch it off, they’ll gradually settle down. At the top they shake violently and it is only when it settle downs that you get the smooth bit.
The first and second shot are Salford and then we went to Bolton for that shot of ivy in the back street. Just as we were shooting a window cleaner went in the back and left his bucket and ladder there. In the shot of the cat it moves from the pigeon loft and stops as if it was going after the pigeons. The reality was that it was take 20 or 30 after a very difficult morning with this cat. The reason the cat moves is that behind the pigeon loft is one stage hand and in front is another stage hand and the handler and on ‘action’ the stage hand put the cat down. Because it was mid summer and so hot, the cat didn’t want to stay so the reason it moves is that it’s burning its feet. Then it sees the stage hand and goes back under the shade which is the only cool bit which is left. Mervyn and David had run a national competition to find the cat.
The shift from Bill Podmore to Mervyn Watson as producer seemed gentle. This was the second time that Mervyn had done the show. The previous time had been in the mid-eighties so the cast knew him. The biggest change undoubtedly came when David Liddiment took a more direct involvement. He has always been very close to the Street from a viewer as a kid and then as executive producer and moving on to Head of Programmes. His period was seen as the one of change. When Bill Podmore wasn’t there anymore, you’re bound to say ‘That was the end of an era’ because his heart was in the programme and he had hired many of the people who were national faces. It had become a national institution during the time he had it.
I think the Ken and Deirdre and Mike Baldwin three-way affair was during Bill’s time. I remember being at Old Trafford when that came up and I wasn’t a Street director then. I was watching Man Utd v Wolves and it was 0-0 at half time and they put the thing on the scoreboard saying ‘She’s staying’.
It was in Mervyn’s time that he brought in the Irish family, the McDonalds and Tina the barmaid, who was big success. Those were evolutionary years. They wanted to introduce more storylines when we went up to three episodes; there was a need then to have more source material. The cast had to get bigger so you didn’t kill people and you can’t have everybody retreading storylines. The worst criticism of the American daytime soaps is that they either retread the same storyline with different people every year or they have ludicrous storylines. In order to avoid that, if you have a high-pressured production, you want to have a bigger source and a bigger age group. There’d been a push throughout this period from the mid/late eighties onwards to try to introduce younger people to the show.
This was also a time when ITV wasn’t in a revolutionary mood. It was still the federation of planets and everybody had their place in that. The revolution was under was in terms of manpower and hours but there was no need for revolutionary change because there was no threat to any of the big companies. The more direct ratings threats of Sky and other people were yet to come. There was a need for evolution. There’s always been a need to get ITV’s audience profile down because it always was traditionally older than the BBC’s. The Street was a shining example of that because it was seen as having a much older audience; the younger people had started to watch Brookside, and then EastEnders and the Neighbours. It took a long time for the programme to react because it was innately more conservative. It was older and had been there longer.
I revered the sixties but I’m not sure the seventies were all they were cracked up to be. When I joined the programme I wasn’t watching it as a viewer by then. It didn’t have any relevance to me. I watched it in the black and white period and I lost it in the colour period although some great storylines happened at that time. If you looked at the history of the programme the radical changes would be seen as happening from the three episodes onwards because that’s when there was a need for higher levels of production. ITV was a bit more naked about ratings and of course by the time you get to the Brian Park era you want to make a splash so you can reclaim viewers.
What I was trying to do was to make it more relevant to younger people. You’re going home at night, you’ve got a young family, friends have got teenage kids and you’re saying to them ‘Do you watch the show? What do you like?’ and you don’t want them to think of it as an old fuddy-duddy’s programme. There was lot less young people watching than you would like and why was that. Because of its longevity, every generation if they revere the programme, you’re going to ally your own desire to get on in the industry with bringing something to it. There’s times when I’ve worked on that programme it’s almost brought me to tears because you feel quite close to the soul of the programme, the responsibility to a large number of viewers and also to your granny. Both my grannies were watching it throughout my time on the programme and I would get rung up about it afterwards. You were trying to do your bit from your generation to entertain the largest number of people to the highest quality.
When we cast Reg, the initial remit was for a tall, dried up man who has been blocked in advancement and was dour. This list was basically like a dried stick. Then Ken came in to this casting session. He was very wary, sat down and did a reading and he was a bit avuncular but still wary. It was not the best reading in the world, as I’m sure he’d say to this day. He went out and we talked about it for a while and thought about it and what he could do. Because of what we were trying to do, we thought ‘why not?’ You wanted to take a risk every so often to take a chance to do something slightly different. I will never forget when he turned up on the first Sunday five days later in Bettabuys. He came straight out with a little chat, he was much more relaxed then and he launched into this first scene, pulling his watch from the length of his arm into his face and the sudden laughing that stopped, two or three of these ‘off the wall’ things. And we looked at each and he said ‘Think we’ll get away with it?’ and I said ‘I don’t know’. It’s not very easy to create a comic Coronation Street character because you’ve got to be realistic but you’ve got to be funny and pathos as well and it’s a very difficult thing to do. But within weeks he was a favourite character and all the time that he spent on the Street people loved him. That double act with Curly was one of the best double acts we had. That was another era of successful Coronation Street double acts. You had the Duckworths established by then and just going from strength to strength. And Mavis and Derek I think achieved their best stuff in that era today. In the Rovers Roy and Julie were wonderful because they struck sparks off each other on screen. There was an air of danger but humour too.
I think one of the best Coronation Street directors of all time is Brian Mills. He, I’d associate with doing crazy adventurous things sometimes but doing some wonderfully dramatic things others. I’ll never forget when he did Hilda Ogden when Stan had died. She had just come back from the funeral and she had held on to it, she was controlled, and she had his spectacle case. I remember watching that live. He did a very unusual shot looking down on Ken and Deirdre and Mike Baldwin fighting at the doorway when Baldwin comes down to get her back. It was a great thing to do, something very unusual for a very unusual situation. He would always be pushing the boundaries in his own way. He still does episodes to this day and if you were looking for an accolade in the modern era, I would have to say he was the best Coronation Street director of the last twenty years.
I remember Bill saying that he wanted to do something with the Alan Bradley character and he went in a matter of months from being someone who just came in and had a pint in the bar to being the most riveting of characters. Mark Eden is a fantastic actor and had not been challenged very much before. He became the most chilling villain and the most inventive actor. I’l never forget when he got released from prison after the court case and he came back. Rita was in the house and someone went out the front door and he came in the back and she was on her own with him for the first time, he was back on the streets. We did the rehearsal, where would he stand, what would she do, wh wouldn’t she run out to make it work and make it real. But it wasn’t right and Mark said ‘What about if she had been making some sandwiches for herself and had left them on the table, this was going to be her supper. And he’d come in.’ He then sits down at the table, puts his feet up and starts munching away at these sandwiches, talking through the munching, him deconstructing her ability with men and how it had all gone wrong. He had this wonderful air of threat and she was streaming with tears at the end and he wandered off. It was the making of him. It was a great time to be doing it because everybody wanted to know what the story was. They were two great actors, him and Barbara, slugging it out together.
It was daunting for me as a young director who hadn’t really done drama before to go into Coronation Street. You walk in there and everybody else in the room knows what they’re doing and you don’t. Some of these people had done this job for twenty years. They had got used to it over the years but undoubtedly they wanted to know if you could do your job. You had to win them over, that was the challenge, and you had to prove yourself. Sometimes artistes would say ‘I don’t think he or she would do that’ and you’d have this very complicated camera plot all worked out and then it would all change. It was a frightening thing to join because it was so big but I can never remember when any of the actors would have really jeopardised the programme.