Mike Newell began working for Granada in 1963 and went on to direct Coronation Street during the 1960s. He is now a well-known film director whose major films include Four Weddings and a Funeral and Donnie Brasco.
I started working for Granada in 1963, when I was 21, as a production trainee which was a sort of scholarship. They took 6 people in every three years directly from university whom they had put through a fairly idiosyncratic selection process and then they paid you a little money, enough to live on and then you floated around in the company for six months. You got a very basic education which was mostly to do with watching, although it had got a bit more structured by the time I was doing it and there was a very good man in charge of it who was a programme director as well as a director of the company. We had a lot of time on our hands which we filled variously. It lasted six months and at the end of it they let some people go and they kept other people on and gave them jobs and you started into the organisation.
Coronation Street at that time was very new still, no more than three years old. All the original people were in it. It was one of the two or three shows around which was enormously generally popular throughout the nation, particularly in the North but it had already broken out of that. Anyway the North was cool then because there was also Z-Cars which had I think pre-dated it slightly and Z-Cars was being written by a lot of good people who then turned into real serious dramatists, it was a cradle of writing, and Coronation Street was the same. It was a different kind of programme, it was a soap opera not a weekly drama series, it ran 52 weeks of the year and it didn’t have the social content that Z-Cars had, nor the excitement and I suppose what it was Z-Cars felt like it was the solid drama and Coronation Street felt like it was the comedy drama. I think it always had that ‘there’s nowt so queer as folk’ attitude to it. It was quirky and there was a joke behind. The interesting thing was to watch as we did some while after we got into the company, we watched the first six episodes of it which were made in black and white and you could still see the hunger marks in the actors’ faces. They hadn’t grown into the fur coats, the way they had by the time I had arrived. By the time I arrived they were paid by those times a lot of money. They were big stars, they were the show that kept the company perky. But the first six episodes did have the force of a great truth and it was looking at a kind of life that hadn’t been looked at before. It was like watching ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ or any of those marvellous films from the early Sixties. It was much grittier than it very quickly subsequently became. It drifted, I think, into something which was ‘comedy drama’ and indeed that was for the most part, due to the talent of the writers who were working then.
I started working on Coronation Street in 1965 and I did it over about 14-15 months, I did 22/23 episodes. I had been directing for a couple of years by that time and so technically speaking I wasn’t as green as I had been. I was very green in all sorts of other ways. We were told that broadly speaking our careers would divide into one of two lines. We would either go the documentary route which was a long and honourable tradition in that company, World in Action and stuff like that and a lot of very famous documentarians used to come up and make big one-off documentaries as well and we got to work for those guys as their assistants. Or we would go the drama route and the first step along the drama route would of necessity be Coronation Street, there would be no other. And so we took it really seriously. What I’d done before then was just bits and pieces of documentary, children’s shows and current affairs and magazine programmes so technically speaking I was beginning to know my way around. What I didn’t know my way around with was the actors or the writers. The actors were very sweet. Jean Alexander was just beginning, those two Stan and Hilda, were just beginning while I was on the show and she was always really sweet, she was an adorable woman and I remember thinking that some of the actors were very good. It wasn’t ‘doggy’ casting at all. I remember there was a very strong sense of superiority over the other big soap opera of the time, that thing about a motel, Crossroads. I think we all felt mightily superior to that. The actors were very kind. I suspect they took notice when they thought we had something to offer and they simply blanked it when they thought that we were crazy. There was a pretty solid strait-jacket of character and weekly story development that we had to get through anyway so we couldn’t screw around and it wasn’t possible to make an art movie of the thing. It was only possible to show individuality in little flashes. They were boxed sets. Towards the end of my time there we were much more ambitious with film.
I would have been the baby among the directors. Some of the actors were sweet. Some of them were formidable, you know Vi Carson didn’t suffer fools gladly. Pat Phoenix was a big drinker and if she had a hangover then you knew about it. But they were pretty kind. I don’t think the dealing with them as actors was particularly useful because there was very little creativity left to put into it, you could only do grace notes. But handling Pat Phoenix, she was an adorable woman but also she was tricky. Vi Carson was tricky, they all could be.
We had a lot of dealings with the writers. From where I stood the big profit for me was dealing with the writers because it was a three week cycle. The production week was rehearsal, you only had three days rehearsal and then taping. Then the week before that was getting it together. And the first week was script and you weren’t allowed tremendous amount of leeway in any of this because they were working to storylines which had to unroll in a comprehensible way or the following weeks would be prejudiced but there was little bit of stuff that you could do. And also everybody was very game. There was a writers’ floor and these guys Peter Eckersley and Jack (Rosenthal) and John Finch and John Stevenson and Adele Rose and so the big bang that I got out of it was actually working with the writers, that’s the thing that I’ve taken away from it most.
I remember there was one story where I’d actually moved on and was doing other drama but Mike Apted who was and is a great pal of mine, he had a storyline which was a train crash and while he was doing the big stuff in one studio, I deputized for him and did all the boring stuff in the other studio. My time on it was when it just happened to be ticking over, that sort of was the trick of it. What I do remember is that there were big conferences about storylines while I was there. I remember them losing one of the three fates, she had a heart attack in the Snug, Martha, and I also remember the producer who was a pal of mine, because we were all very young, there probably anybody who was more than 34, 35 who was on it, and I remember this guy being pissed in one of the pubs that we used and saying ‘ I bet you don’t think that I can kill Martha Longhurst in the pub on Christmas Eve but I’ll show you’ and he did. And it came from a bet. That was a guy called Tim Aspinall.