Jim Quick was a graphic artist who worked on the Street during the 1970s and 80s.
In late 1972 I was given the great glory of working on the Street which turns out wasn’t the great glory. The one thing every graphic designer hated about Coronation Street, the biggest bore in everything you did in those days was the end roller caption which was literally a long black toilet roll that you lettra-setted onto and ran vertically through the field of view of the camera and punctuated between the end of the programme and the start of the commercials. The problem with doing the Coronation Street roller was that it was centred. That literally means that one line of type was centred under another line of type so ‘Graphic Designer Jim Quick’ was in the centre of the roller. You had to work every single line of type out, you had to trace every name on. You wouldn’t believe this, it took three days to do a Coronation Street roller. So they were employing so-called ‘creatives’ in mindless, repetitious activities but it was the way the industry was.
Coronation Street wasn’t a great show for a title sequence. They had their opening super-caption which said ‘Coronation Street’ and then you were into the show. Our other contribution came at that time when they wanted what they called ‘props’, graphic props. So if they wanted something which said ‘Steak and beans in the café – 1/6d’ that’s what you did and you used your skill in visual terms with a brush or a pen or a camera. Somebody might say in the script that there was a kid’s drawing on the fridge, so you’d do that, or if it said there was a family photograph with so and so in, you’d con the photograph up. If it was Elsie in Blackpool and you didn’t have a picture of Elsie in Blackpool, you’d make a photomontage, put it in a frame and stick it on the mantelpiece. Really what you were doing at that point was acting as ‘unpaid’ assistants to the set designers because the set designer would control the production requirements. The set designer would tell you or indicate a request for graphic props. We even did Weatherfield newspapers, ‘The Weatherfield Gazette’ was produced entirely within Granada’s graphics department. We used to use the body of copy from the Manchester Evening News and we’d make up front pages of newspapers which said ‘Ken dies under lorry’ with pictures of the victim. We’d get these printed off and we’d get ten of them. One of them would be used on the show and the other nine would probably be taken home by people as souvenirs. For that one shot that might have been a three second shot halfway through the show, you’d have sent it out to print, you’d have done the photography, the headline, you’d have mocked it up, attention to detail, it mattered in those days.
At that stage all the exterior shots that they had in the show were done on film and all the internal shots were done on big Phillips 2000 cameras. The quality between the exterior and the interior shots was so apparent it became almost a joke. When somebody waved Fred off in his Rover in the studio and the next thing was in a park, the car was a different colour because it was different on the video to what it was on the film. They started getting these smart tele-cine machines which could actually grade the pictures from one to the other so that the transition was better. This went on from about 72 to about 78 and then into the eighties we started getting a different technology which was based on computers but it wasn’t based on PCs.
The graphics department developed a very close relationship with the cast during the 80s. In the studios in Quay Street the Graphics Department was based on the Second Floor and the Rehearsal Rooms, the Green Rooms, were based on the extension of the building where the library used to be. That was where Coronation Street rehearsed. The people in Graphics were great sportsmen and women, we played a lot of sport together and against other departments. We quite liked a game of table tennis and we bought a table tennis table. We asked Coronation Street could we put in their rehearsal room so that we could play at lunchtime, assuming that they weren’t rehearsing and they agreed. Anyway we ended up having a regular group of people from the Street who used to play. Eddie Yeats, Geoff Hughes, was one of them. All of the main characters, male and female, used to come and play table tennis with us at lunchtime which formed a kind of a bond between us. And they became great friends with the Photographic Department because we all lived in the same ‘midden’ and we developed a social relationship with the show.
Along with the investment in technology which ramped costs up for a long time there became an increasing awareness in the public eye and the production team’s eye about the potential that graphics could do to contribute to the making of a show, to the excitement of a show. People began gradually realising that graphics was more than lettraset and more than the ability to do cute little illustrations for ‘Jackanory’ type programmes. What they realised was that if you can employ these weird creative people that nobody really knew how to handle or manage then you had something that you could either make shows about or would make your life easier in making a show work. Coronation Street employed some of those techniques because if we had something like a missing person and there had to be an Identikit, instead of cutting up bits of photographs and making things work by photomontage, you could actually make it work in the world of software. Quantel’s Paintbox was the first painting tool that came in and was employed on the Street. It was able to enhance photographic images, make up photographs for the paper, if the car was supposed to have gone in the pond or the truck was supposed to have crushed the person, you could make it look as though it had actually happened without sending out a film crew, you could do it in-house.
These changes in technology bring us to the potential of Coronation Street to become what is know nowadays as a brand and to extend and develop that brand into something that can become a marketable product that you could spin off from. We made some forays into this during the early days of Coronation Street and there were items, usually run by the Press Office, sent out to newspapers, competitions you could enter to win a day to go round the Street. But what they didn’t do, what nobody was doing, was saying that there was a worth beyond the television show. And the worth for the Street was, it’s a bit like a pop group or a football team, where the show has fans and part of those fans’ lives are based around purchasing reinforcing material to support their addiction. We in the eighties started producing advertorials, bits of programme puff that went out under the guise of a story that the tabloid newspapers and the tabloid magazines ate up, time after time. I’d started working by the Press Office quite seriously by that point so I was going away from the programme design and looking into how different aspects could be developed.
I left the company in 92 and started working with Granada on publicising programmes and brand awareness and did some investigation into how Coronation Street could be marketed, how we could produce merchandise based on the programme. This has been taken on and the ball has been gathered by the people and they’ve run with it. I still believe the brand is under-developed, I still believe they haven’t actually given it their all. Where is the big website, where are the products, I think it is an under-developed brand and until they get somebody in who knows about branding in the company which they never have had, they say they have but they’re programme makers basically or consultants, they don’t have the in-depth knowledge about the product to develop it. That goes on and it probably makes them a good deal of money.
The other thing that happened in that time was that David Plowright had this idea that we should build some sort of homage to Coronation Street but while we are building the homage, we may as well build it as a set as well. So in the end he actually had built the real Coronation Street, I believe nine-tenths of the size, which produced for the first ITV as a commercial station beginning to show its colours as a commercial animal. It was hugely popular and was then integrated into John Williams’ concept for Granada Studios Tour, it then became an integral part of that. That was in fact the third Street. There was the one that was built in the back car park, one by the original Old School. But these were substantial buildings and were probably going to last as long as the original houses did.
You don’t really see any of the Coronation Street characters, very good-looking people in young people’s terms that you could use to sell youth orientated products. I still don’t understand why on earth SAGA haven’t got hold of Ken Barlow yet as a character. I still don’t understand the mechanics of that, that might be contractual. Coronation Street as a piece of television intellectual property is owned, I think, by the people of this country. I don’t watch Coronation Street any more because it’s become something I’m not. I’ve changed or it’s changed or we’ve both gone in different directions but I remember with great affection my golden era, the ducks on the wall, Hilda Ogden, that was where I found it at its funniest. I never watch Brookside, EastEnders, Emmerdale but you can turn Coronation Street and it’s like meeting an old friend or going back to your family. They might look a bit older or you don’t like the way they dress any more or what they say but you can still recall the affection that you had for it when it was, what you thought, was a proper show. Now I think it’s market-driven. I’m criticising them for not developing the brand but you could say that these so-called spin-offs, I don’t know what they’ve got to offer.
The media thugs that came in thinking that they could change the world all that they did was what the Sex Pistols did to music in the late seventies. They just came in and did things opposite to what everybody else had done. They took away the social values that you thought were instilled in people and were delivered through the Street and they broke them apart. They had burglary, they had incest, every single degrading human condition that they probably learnt from EastEnders. You kill a few more people off, you keep the turnover of staff, you try not to make your stars into stars, they’re all part of the machine. If Brian Park was here, and I know Brian very well, I’d tell him the same thing and Brian would say ‘Get real this is 1999’ and I’d said ‘OK my time is gone, this is your time, do what you want with it.’
I would fight for the fact that if you put Hilda Ogden up against whoever they’ve got in the Street these days, she’d wipe the floor with them in every sense of the word. The cutting might not be the same, the lighting might not be the same, there’d be no wobbly camera angles, you probably wouldn’t have as much flexibility in terms of your outside broadcast shooting and your turnaround wouldn’t be as quick but you’d probably notice that the lines were delivered better, that you were believing in the character more, that each scene lasted more than thirty seconds, that the camera movements were developed, that the direction was better in the true sense of the word.
I’ve been in contact with that show for 20 years. I thought that the writers on it then had more to say. I thought they weren’t fashionable, they were writing from experience, they weren’t writing to fashion or to what was the best story in the tabloid newspapers these days. You can probably write every soap if you just get the Sunday tabloids out and mishmash the stories together. That might sound cynical but I can’t say the same for the contribution of graphic design. That’s actually made the show better if it could in its own little way and a lot easier. It’s helped cut costs, it’s helped deliver better technique, that’s the positive force behind it.
In those days you had to do a brand new roller for every show because it was cast in order of appearance. Now all you do is cut and paste so if you get a PC roller you could probably do it in 15-20 minutes.
I do feel that the Geoff Hughes group was my favourite group of people on the Street and going back to the early days, the triumvirate of Ena, Minnie and Martha. I recall them as very good actresses, people who could deliver a line and work off each other. Those early days were a bit more depressing as well. It was the bit part players as well, the people who came in, stayed five minutes and went. They’re all famous and they’ve done their bit. Joanna Lumley’s performance I thought was lovely when she became Ken’s paramour for a while. I thought that was a lovely little cameo. I don’t honestly think you can say you had favourite character because it would depend on what they were doing, how they were behaving, and whether or not you thought they were behaving in the way the character should behave. Because there was a lot of ownership, you don’t like to think that your hero is behaving out of character.
Coronation Street in the year 2050 will it have any actors in it or will they all be virtual or will it be done on the web? The future I think is more important than the past to talk about how soaps are going to be delivered. When they offer us the choice with true interactive digital, the choice of six cameras to cut from, are they going to do the same with soap operas. Is the next stage to say ‘Do you want a happy ending?’ and will you just concentrate on the characters you’re interested in. Do all the characters need to go into studio any more or just sit in front of their webcam and deliver their lines and put their face onto a robot model. Will people care because are they real characters now. Part of the fun of watching Coronation Street was they were partly cartoon, there was that spin put on it. With Bet Gilroy the brooches were just slightly too big and the necklines just slightly too plunging, they were caricatures. But in virtual reality do you want to be part of it as a new character? So where to next for Coronation Street?