My whole Granada career spanned about twenty-eight years from 1960 to 1988. Of that period I worked at Granada for 19 years in three different spells.
My Granada career was all bound up in the Street. When I went in 1960 it was to replace Tony Warren as a staff Promotions Scriptwriter. That’s when I first met Geoff Lancashire, who was one of them then, Dennis Woolf was another. Dennis, Geoff and I were the promo writers at Granada in 1960.
It was through John McGregor who was the courtroom reporter on The Verdict is Yours and an announcer at Scottish Television who I knew very well. I had started there in 1958 and McGregor would come back to me with wonderful tales of life in Manchester. He told me to write to the head of Presentation so I did and then I got a letter asking me to give him a ring. He told me about this writer who was being forced to leave his staff to take a writer’s freelance contract because he had created a new soap. That was when I first heard the name Tony Warren. So I came down to Manchester and I met the head of Presentation and someone from Personnel and I’m told this story about Tony Warren. So before I’d ever met this guy he’s all built up in my mind. When I first met him, here was I from the sticks up in Scotland, I’d never seen people like Tony Warren. Tony Warren was an outrageous character. When I did meet him I was bowled over but you couldn’t help but like him. He was just so different and I thought ‘How can I replace you?’ He was made to take a freelance contract and I got his job.
By the end of 1962 the family never seemed to be doing anything but travel home for some reason so I was talked back to STV and decided to go. I was back working up there for some years up to 1969 by which time I’d managed to write my first ever sit-com which got on BBC Scotland and became a hit there. I left again in 1970 and came back. I knew Harry Kershaw from my earlier time. He was a football fan, he went to Stockport County, I went to Stockport County.
I kept friendships going, I used to call in when I was south and in late 1969 I was told there might be a job going as a storyliner on the Street. And then eventually Harry Kershaw asked me to write a sample script which I did and I got offered the job. Almost ten years to the day since I’d gone the first time here I am coming back to work in Manchester on a three month contract with four kids living in Scotland, putting all this at risk to see if I can hack it as a storyliner. Anyway it worked out very well. So from 1970 to 1973 I was a storyliner with people like Esther Rose and Harry Driver. Esther’s husband Harry Whewell was the Northern Editor of the Guardian. She was funny lady, a hard worker and very talented. I learnt a great deal from her.
In later years I used to look back at that three years I spent as a storyliner on the Street, working with her and Harry Driver who was a polio victim with a wonderful brain. He used to sit at the end of the table in the story conferences listening and then just cut through it like a knife ‘That’s crap, that’s crap but put that with that and think about this’. He took a shine to me. When they brought him up for story conferences, they put him up in the Midland. He had a driver-cum-nurse who would look after him and every third Sunday, prior to the story conference, he would invite me to dinner at the Midland. Another guy who was always there was Joel Barnett and various people from the north and little me who was one of the storyliners. It was fascinating. I learned a great deal and this was all before I ever produced anything.
That was the most beneficial period of my entire working life. I always said to writers ‘If you get the chance, the discipline of churning out storylines for something like Coronation Street day in day out week after week, fifty-two weeks of the year is an unbelievable learning curve.’
The Street has almost been unique in its creative system and its approach to things. None of the others have followed it so tightly and religiously and I think to their cost. I give all the credit for it to Harry Kershaw . If you look back you will discover that right from the beginning he was pulled in as a script editor on the Street. They only had about thirteen scripts to start with and Tony had written all them. They brought in Harry who was an insurance man but had written quite a lot of one-off things for ABC and for Granada and it was Harry who set up the system that works to this day. We were doing two a week and we would have a conference every third Monday. The folk that were invited to that conference were all the folk that would have a creative input to give. There were always at least two storyliners hired full-time to concentrate on that job and they answered to the producer who was basically was his own story editor-cum-script editor. Granada always went for writer-producers to handle the Street.
All that has been weakened in recent years where they’ve brought in PAs who haven’t a clue creatively. I don’t know why they’ve started to bring in PAs to produce Coronation Street. What it needs is somebody who understands scripts. In my time, and I’m not alone in this and I know this is why I got the job as much as anything else, they knew I would continue to handle it that way.
You would have conferences and ideas were thrown up. We would look where we were in everybody’s lives at that moment in time. We were only discussing six episodes, we’d only do three weeks’ worth of episodes, what was going to happen to the lives of these characters over the next six weeks, picking up all the threads that were ongoing, who needed a story, who needed a break. There were logistical things entered into so it was quite an exercise. Writers who had formed allegiances to particular characters would fight like cat and dog for these characters. Again I think this has gone from the show now but it was very rooted in character in these days. There was no bending of characterisation to make a plot work for some short-time gain and there’s a lot of that goes on now. You knew where you stood with everybody in Coronation Street and they all had writers who fought tooth and nail to be true to them, to keep them true and faithful. It was a battle royal. We used to have almost stand-up fights. (I ordered Julian Roache from the room once and told him never to come back and he never did in my time.) It was a draining experience but it was exhilarating. It was very productive.
I wasn’t coming to this fresh when I took on the Street (as producer), I’d had years of experience of producing sit-coms, I had all the previous experience I’d gained as a storyliner, sitting in on these meetings in my humble role then listening to it all.
The storyliners sit and take notes and they have to go away at the end of the day and make something out of all these ideas, many of them conflicting. The whole thing’s a rag-bag of ideas and often you’ve got to throw half of it. But the wonderful thing is it was extremely stimulating and it would give ideas that even if they hadn’t been fully thought out or discussed at the conference, you could pick up in the quiet of your own office later on and make work. That gathering was chaired by the producer and if he was any good at all and worth his salt, he would keep it in some sort of order by saying ‘No I don’t want that but I want this’ and look at different stories from all the individual points of view and see how we could twist and turn it.
The storyliners were putting down the grass roots of the Street in a scene by scene, blow by blow account. It was a detailed scene by scene breakdown, which actors were in the scene, where it takes place and basically the story points. The writer has got no freedom to bugger about with that, not with the story points. He can mess about with the shape of it but they’ve got to stick to the story as agreed otherwise the whole thing falls about like a deck of cards. We were able to commission individuals to write episodes. You have six episodes and you could get six different people to write an episode each and it would all work. In the normal course of events that would cause untold continuity problems and so on, if you were giving them carte blanche to do what they liked with in the episode. There are some who would argue it’s too constricting and yet it works. It’s because of all that and because of the thinking that goes into it, the plotting and the planning that’s for me it’s sustained over forty years.
Storylining is an art form all of its own. It’s about twisting and turning the story so that you’re always keeping the audience interested, wanting them to find out what happens next and it’s all very cleverly built around ad breaks and tags of episodes if you do your job well. You’ve got to leave the audience at the end of the episode wondering where the hell this is going next. The trick again for the good storyliners is to create a jigsaw that works. You’d have maybe one main theme running through with two subsidiary strands. As a main theme would come to an end one of the secondary stories would be taking over as a biggie perhaps and something else would be coming in in a minor way. There were always one episode or two episode stories that were going on just as colour and to fill things in.
There was room for a great deal of invention on the storyliner’s part or the individual writer’s part. If they felt when they got their breakdown to write up in dialogue fashion, it was a bit light here and there they could embellish it or do scenes in the snug with Ena, Martha and Minnie and let them talk about the price of bread. There was room for all of that and it was good strong character stuff and good colour for the Street. I’m afraid there’s not a lot of room left for that any more because it’s so plot-driven and so anxious to get on and tell a story without time to take stock and think seriously about where people are going in their lives and are they behaving rationally. Everybody can behave irrationally and do stupid things as long as they are properly motivated. If you’ve got the right motivation built into what you’ve doing or it comes out of the history of the characters, you can do almost anything with anybody but it all starts to lose credibility when suddenly for short term gain characters undergo complete changes. I don’t recognise Rita now. Rita has become a different person altogether, she’s changed so often in recent times. The storyliners’ job was to go away from these conferences with this welter of ideas, having been guided to some degree by the producer at the time.
At this time Coronation Street took on more of a comedy vein but in the sixties it always had a blend of comedy in there. It has always boasted that it was this strong mix of comedy and drama, that was its major strength. I think in the sixties that comedy was much more rooted in the realities of life and Coronation Street was in a little world all of its own. It didn’t often touch on the outside world, simply because of the limitations of shooting. It was limited to the amount of exteriors and mainly they were on the Street itself. This was fine. You very rarely got outside in the Street and really up to twenty-five years on I was there when we changed from film to video. Even in the seventies when it was all done on film, the exteriors, you could see the difference in the picture quality and it didn’t sit comfortably with the studio stuff.
I think in the sixties it was more rooted in reality and the writing was, if anything, the best it ever was. We had people like Jack Rosenthal, Geoff Lancashire, John Finch, Peter Eckersley, Adele Rose and these people all had a real feel for the North, for the programme. There was a truth in it. It was an unreal world really. The Street has always been regarded as heightened reality but in truth it was fairly unreal world but wholly believable within itself, within the confines of the Street.
In the seventies there was the appointment of Bill Podmore, who had also made his name as a sit-com producer, and John Stevenson who was a major influence in all of this and was a friend of Bill’s. Stevenson had been a journalist and Bill was responsible for bringing him in. John has had a major input creatively to Coronation Street and has written some wonderful stuff.
The job of the storyliner post the conference was to fashion all this chat into six workable episodes. The structure of them was of vital importance. It’s how you tell the story, it’s how you spin it out and where you place your big moments, your twists and your turns. The art in good story-telling is knowing when enough is enough, how far to go with it, when the story is told. It’s a skill in itself to gauge the weight of a story, to know how many episodes it’s worth. So all of that comes into play when you’re storylining. I got the greatest satisfaction from my years as a producer from working with the two storyliners on these breakdowns. When we had six of these emerging from the conference, it would then be the responsibility of the producer to commission. It was at that stage you had to decide on the basis of the tone and feel of each of these storylines who would be the best person to write them. You knew when it was a strong comedy thing but if it was a bit far-fetched you might give it to Stevenson because John was inclined to be ‘Nearest and Dearest’ whereas you’d go to someone a bit more subtle for a different level of humour. The great skill is in commissioning the right person to write the episode. All this has been part of the Street creativeness.
Bill Podmore came in in the mid-seventies. Susi Hush had taken it through a period of social realism that didn’t work too well. It wasn’t considered by the powers that be to the right thing and it didn’t do particularly well. So Podmore was brought in to lighten it up. He took that well and truly on board and one of the first things he did was to hire John Stevenson. John is a wonderfully inventive writer with great ideas, a damn funny writer. I think there was a tendency for it for a period of time to spill over into the realms of sit-com rather than serial drama. David Plowright used to make this big thing ‘This isn’t a soap, this is serial drama. It’s about real people’.
Plowright used another phrase to me ‘It’s comfort television’. People love it because it makes them feel good. At the end of the episode they’d end up feeling a damn sight better than they did when they started to watch it. I think there’s a sad lack of that in television today. There’s nothing better than making people feel good, making them feel warm and feeling they’ve been thoroughly entertained, had a good laugh, not made to feel uncomfortable. I know there has to be challenging stuff as well but that’s for some other area. The Street has survived, in my view, because of its warmth and its wit and its charm. Charm is another great ingredient that’s going from television.
I don’t want to be seen to be knocking. I’m still a big fan, I watch it every time I can and I feel part and parcel of it, my whole Granada time seems to be bound up with it. But we all have our feelings about it. Whatever I say now, you can’t dispute the fact that it’s still watched by millions of people. Although I really do question the judgement of audiences. There seems to be that people have been anaethetized to the degree that they’ve lost any degree of critical capability. The Street is watched by large numbers, good, bad or indifferent. The BBC gave up competing with it years ago. The big figures that the Street has enjoyed, people have got to remember that there’s never been any real scheduling challenge except I do remember in my time they put ‘Open All Hours’ against us for a run. There have been the odd times when things have happened, certainly in the early years, but in recent years it’s had an unchallenged spot. Having said all that there are enough people watching it to justify it continuing so they must be doing something right.
The whole tone of it has changed and in the eighties it did have to face up to these things. The year that I took over as producer was the year that EastEnders began. When I was moving in at the beginning of 85 I became aware of this woman who doddering about and I remember asking who is she. ‘That’s Julia Smith’ I was told ‘She’s going to produce a new soap and Bill Podmore (the Executive Producer) said she could come up’. I subsequently got to know her quite well and she relied almost entirely on Tony Holland who was the really the driving force behind EastEnders. I got embroiled in letters with the press, I had letters in Broadcast. I was told by Plowright to forget it, we’re much better than them and we don’t need to demean ourselves by getting embroiled in a war of words. ‘Battle of the Soaps’ as the press tried to trump it. Granada for years had protected their actors, protected the cast of Coronation Street, had made it almost inaccessible. They wouldn’t let them go on chat shows and game shows. And this all helped to maintain the illusion of the characters. They’ve lost all that now.
I don’t think today, because the way the show has gone, the people that watch it now are entertained by it to some degree, are less critical and less demanding of what they see on television is one is to believe the ratings.
The fact is that I don’t honestly think that the viewers today believe in the characters as such in the way that they used to believe. They totally believed in these characters as real people. They didn’t know their actor’s names. It was such a protected little world of its own and the stories were more credible. They were told with a credibility that somehow or other doesn’t exist any more in the sheer demand it’s churning them out now, at far greater speed than ever it used to. I think there’s a less belief in it all. The days when people would send presents because they believed these two people were getting married, those days have gone. They did exist at one time but I think it’s reached a point where that has gone. You’ve got to watch it on the credibility front.
We used to be very much more careful about details. I notice nowadays that it’s all about churning out four a week and let’s face it any criticism I might make and anyone might make result from the day they went from two to three a week and now four a week. In the old days of two a week it was a special event watching the Street. It was a big event in people’s lives. They’ve dissipated that to the point that it became three, it became four, the added strains on the whole production team, on the cast. More people are brought in. It’s lost its shape because sometimes characters vanish from the screen for weeks or months on end. You can’t quite keep the picture in view in the way that one used to, too many characters. The whole thing has become diffused and weakened. Again you lose sight of people, where they’re at in their lives. You find yourself saying ‘Wait a minute, where does he live now, what does she do for a living and why is so and so in this café when she should be at work? What’s Curly doing in this café when he runs a supermarket in the middle of the day?’ Would any supermarket manager come back to have his lunch in a cafe on the Street? There’s a whole load of unrealities that creep into it now which they seem to think it doesn’t matter any more because they can take artistic licence. They have to do it tell the story. We wouldn’t have done it, I wouldn’t have allowed it. In the end you would do it in a way that would make it far better. You found that when you had a problem like that that came up and you insisted on the reality of the situation being adhered to and you worked that through, you would find a better story in the end because another twist would come in.
From 1960-62 I was on promotions, 1970 to late 72 I was a storyliner, 85-87 I was Producer. When I was a storyliner we worked as a pair. Now because of the way things have gone they use 3,4. Everything was all done in discussion. I worked with a lady called Esther Rose, the conference was in discussion, everybody was able to throw in their two pennyworth. Some wonderful ideas came up. It was a very stimulating and inventive process. Some great stories came up and it was a combined effort. Then the two storyliners who were sitting there taking notes would go away and thrash all that out into six episodes. The producer would work with the two storyliners and read these things. I never commissioned anything until I was happy with these. I knew when I got these right that it took a hell of a lot to make a bad show. If you’ve got the bones there, if the story and structure are strong, even a mediocre can’t go too far wrong. But we didn’t have mediocre writers, we had good writers who were all going to enhance it in some way. Then you’ve got the whole machine behind you and a cast loved by millions. So it all stands or falls on the stories you tell and how you tell them. That’s the be-all and end-all for me. If it’s going wrong, it’s going wrong there, nine times out of ten. If you get that right, you can’t really go wrong.
The way the Street works and this creative system that was adopted and has become an extremely democratic and efficient system, it’s almost impossible for people to claim sole credit for anything. But Brian Park in his time was claiming credit. As far as he’s concerned, all this Deirdre thing was his doing, a typical example in my view that totally lacked credibility, it was strained beyond the pale. The questions that should have been asked just weren’t asked. It was just not real.
In my time I cut every ‘bloody’ out of the script, all that went. In the middle eighties, we didn’t show people in bed ever. It was all talked around. Nonetheless sexy for that but they were very careful about these things, language especially. I notice a great relaxation in that.
I think being a producer happened to me in the right way. I’d had that experience under masters like Harry Kershaw who I admired greatly. The people who were around me at that time were very stimulating and encouraging and I did learn a lot about the art of storylining, the importance of structure and the importance of how you tell your story. How you maximize your good ideas and not throw them away and at the same time don’t stretch fairly thin things beyond the pale. It’s all part of the art. All of that gave me a good grounding and I benefited from all in my time as producer in comedy. Granada wanted writer/producers running things like the Street.
When I was producing we had the fire at the Rovers, we had good story of the breakdown in the Tilsley marriage where she had a fling with Brian’s cousin from Australia. Then Brian abducted the boy. Julie Goodyear needed compassionate leave to look after her mother, she was out for weeks. We had Alec Gilroy go and discover her in Torremolinos running a bar and we went to Spain then. We had five days in Torremolinos filming the ‘bring Bet back to Manchester’ thing. This all led to her coming back and the ultimate marriage which I set up but left just prior to the wedding episode of Bet and Alec. I also married Kevin and Sally Webster, they were a young couple. She was a sparky girl but they lost their way with her, I thought, for some period of time. I was there the day when Julie was installed in the Rovers. My first story conference we were discussing the going of Billy Walker and bringing Julie in as queen bee. She came back as landlady. I was also responsible for bringing Jack Duckworth off that daft window round he had at the time and putting him in the Rovers and he became a much better character when he started working along Julie Goodyear and people like that. We turned the corner shop into Alf’s mini-market, that happened in my time.
The burning down of the Rovers was a marker of a new look and new designers. It began with feeling that we needed to revamp this pub and it became a big story. In those days to get extra filming was unknown. They only worked a five day week in my time and they used to film on the Lot on a Monday morning before the blocking of the thing in the afternoon. So you only had Monday morning and if you were lucky you had Thursday morning because the studio didn’t start until the afternoon. So we had a big thing like burning down the Rovers, I had to move heaven and earth to get everybody’s permission and agreement. The cast used to moan and groan about working at weekends, they all did PAs. So it was all set up for a Saturday, a full day Saturday and we used an old pub down by the river. We actually had a fire, a proper thing for the interiors. It was a big and complicated shoot for that time and Gareth Morgan directed it. We didn’t get it finished on the Saturday. So the following Saturday we had to come back, this was almost unheard of in those days. The end result was that it was going out in June and there was a World Cup on that year, 1986. By sheer bad luck this episode found itself up against a World Cup tie. Again heaven and earth was moved to get the network to repeat an episode of the Street, it got on the network the following night. It ended up with a combined audience of nearly twenty-three million, a record summertime audience which for June was incredible.
I used to be disappointed when we fell below eighteen million. One has to face the fact that there are many more channels now and opposition is wider and greater but the fact is that we used to enjoy a regular winter-time audience of 17/18 million, 20 million wasn’t unknown. We lose sight of that today. I think today they are ratings obsessed. After EastEnders began, somewhere around autumn 1985, Michael Grade moved it to give it the same time slot as the Street but not on the same nights and started the omnibus on the Sunday. They were allowed by BARB who measure audiences to aggregate the figures and suddenly for the first time ever the Street found itself not at number one and trailing for a bit. There was never a lot in it but they were adding the audience for two shows together and comparing it with our one showing. I kept saying ‘It’s not like for like’ and great rows brewed. Of course Fleet Street had been kept at bay from Coronation Street for so long by the Granada press people that suddenly they had their own soap to blow about. There was never a week when I was producer when I didn’t get a phone call ‘What have you got to say to the latest ratings figure?’ It didn’t happen until that autumn but it was an irritating period. Then Plowright said to me a very wise thing ‘We’ve been going for twenty-five years, they’ve just started. Let’s see how they’re doing in twenty-five years. And what do these ratings mean after all. You’re quite right, they’re not a like for like comparison. We don’t have to worry about trying to compete, there is no battle here.’ The whole ITV schedules were built around Monday and Wednesday nights so they didn’t want to give people a second chance to see it.
I was a great champion of David Plowright, he was a great loss to that company. It’s not run by programme makers anymore, he was the last of the programme makers who ran Granada. Suddenly it was all about winning, getting better figures than EastEnders, at the expense of quality. Then they started to dissipate it, move to three episodes, move to four episodes, straining their resources. The producing of these storylines, this is where the strain is most felt. It meant harder work but at the end of the day the director had his scripts, had his cast, he had to work harder but the raw materials were all there. Where the real pressure came to bear was on the creative nub of it. The regurgitation of ideas in stories is unbelievable. We used to be very careful about the programme’s history. There was a guy called Eric Rosser in my time, he was there for some years. He had amazed Harry Kershaw with his knowledge of the Street and had been taken on as an archivist. He had this unbelievable archive of material. Everything we did, we would look into being true to the characters, true to their histories and see what else that could happen instead of forcing something upon somebody and to hell with what happens. There is a whole new audience that watch the Street now but twenty-five years in you still had to mindful of people with long memories. The folk who had watched it as a young person, maybe now early forties, they remembered things. You couldn’t be as careless as I think they have now become.