As you may have guessed from the occasional piece of artwork or visual diary page on my site, I am a bit of a soap opera aficionado, although these days time restrictions of a busy life preclude me from all but the occasional peek into the world of any TV soap save for Coronation Street. This week I had an unexpected treat in the form of BBC4’s rather amazing drama ‘The Birth of Coronation Street’. Aired as part of their season of special programmes on the North of England, the show (featuring a really fantastic cast, including Steven Berkoff, Celia Imrie and Jessie Wallace) dramatized screen-writer Tony Warren’s battle to produce a working class Northern drama serial. It’s difficult now to believe that Granada bosses were hostile to the idea, as they believed that southerners would find the dialogue incomprehensible! Warren did succeed in getting permission to shoot a pilot episode, entitled ‘Florizel Street’ –but it was only when the (rejected) pilot was shown to ordinary Granada staff that senior management realized the potential and commissioned some episodes for broadcast.
There were many delightful little touches in the story, all factually true. Warren was revolutionary in insisting on being allowed to cast Northerners (as opposed to Londoners doing pretend accents) – and he drew upon many strong female actresses of a certain age. Two of them, Doris Speed and Violet Carson, had already completely retired from acting. Speed, well into her sixties, was running a brewery - little knowing that she was about to start a twenty-three year run as landlady of the Rovers Return. Meanwhile Violet Carson, a famously formidable lady, had worked with the young Tony Warren on Children’s Hour – and had on occasion threatened to smack his bottom. Warren knew she would be perfect for the iconic role of Ena Sharples, but held off contacting her through sheer terror until all alternatives had been exhausted - only two days before the transmission date.
The drama also showed the famous moment, shortly before transmission, when Agnes the Granada tea lady pointed out that ‘Florizel Street’ sounded too much like a disinfectant – and Coronation Street was born. The proposed original series was supposed to end with the demolition of the street in episode 12 – but a reprieve was given and the rest is history.
The role of only surviving original cast member Bill Roache (Ken Barlow) was played by his son James Roache – who is coincidentally also appearing in actual modern day Corrie this week as Ken’s grandson. (Meanwhile his older brother Linus Roache is also on Corrie at the mo, playing Ken’s son, his Dad. Confused? You should be)
I couldn’t mention all this without pointing out that, on the other side of the Atlantic, the longest running soap opera in the world finished this week. US soap ‘As the World Turns’ finished it’s amazing 54 year run – but unfortunately Helen Wagner, the original cast member who spoke the opening line of dialogue (‘Good morning dear’) passed away shortly before the show ended, and was unable to deliver her final scripted line (‘Goodnight, dear’). RIP Helen.