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Monday 17 December 2018

Fairy tale origins of beloved Corrie

The road to Coronation street (BBC4)

I was going to start by saying I'm old enough to remember when Coronation Street was in black and white, until I remembered everything on our telly used to be in black and white. We didn't get a colour set until the early Seventies.

Still, you know what I'm getting at. If you're in your forties or older and grew up in Dublin, Coronation Street was a constant in your life. Even if you didn't always watch it, it was always there in the background, like swirly wallpaper, watching you.

It's still that way today. So as a lifelong fan, I had a vested interested in The Road to Coronation Street, a drama made by ITV but, curiously, shown on BBC4, about the struggle to bring the soap -- and with it the lives of ordinary working-class folk -- to television in 1960.

You don't want something like this to be a let-down; you're almost willing it to be good. In the event, it was an absolute delight: beautifully, if modestly, made, brimming with atmosphere and detail, and -- crucially -- featuring a brilliant cast that flawlessly nailed every single character.

David Dawson is Tony Warren, the gay, 23-year-old actor/writer who created Coronation Street, which he originally planned to call Florizel Street (so Corrie might well have become Florrie).

We meet him just as he's being cast off by the fledgling Granada Television's casting director (Jane Horrocks). "It's a pity you're not a writer," she casually remarks. "They're looking for those."

"I am," snaps Warren, "and I'm brilliant." He is, too. Something of a genius, in fact.

He dashes out a script overnight and shoves it, half-finished, into the hands of Canadian-born producer Harry Elton (Christian McKay).

"If you want to know how it ends, ring me," he says. Elton does want to know how it ends and in no time at all Warren is Britain's youngest TV writer, churning out scripts for The Adventures of Biggles.

But that's not really Warren's bag. "I want to write something real!" he tells Elton. "Something with dirt under its fingernails!"

And then it comes to him. "I know about out there," he says, nodding at the window.

"I know about Manchester. I'll write about a street, a backstreet terrace, and all the people who live there."

Elton commissions a script, a cast is assembled and a pilot shot, but the suits are aghast at the end product. "These people are grotesque!" splutters Granada boss Sidney Bernstein (Steven Berkoff), consigning Coronation Street to the scrapheap.

But Elton digs his heels in, screening the pilot for the Granada staff -- the kind of ordinary people reflected in Warren's vision --and bringing the positive buzz back to Bernstein, who finally gives in. Thirteen episodes are ordered and the rest, as they say, is history.

Whether Coronation Street sprang from brain to page to screen in quite such a dramatic, triumph-against-the-odds manner is debatable. But it doesn't matter. The real joy here was watching the various pieces of a television legend fall into place.

EastEnders' Jessie Wallace was superb as Pat Phoenix, who played Elsie Tanner, Corrie's original good girl made bad. Lynda Baron made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up as Violet Carson (hair-netted harridan Ena Sharples) who was every bit as formidable off screen as on.

The script was full of witty little frissons, as when the young William Roache, played by his own son James -- who, in a delightful bit of meta-casting, is also playing Ken Barlow's grandson in current Corrie -- explains to an actress why he's doing a TV soap: "My agent in London says everything is quiet on the film front at the moment, so I said, 'Why not?'. It's only 13 weeks."

Fifty years later, Roache is still turning up for work. I think it's safe to say his agent never returned that call.

STACEY'S STARS

The road to Coronation street *****

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