Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Walking the cobbles of Coronation Street (first published in the National Post - Nov. 16, 2004)

CBC celebrates the 50th anniversary of Coronation Street with a primetime tribute special on Dec. 9, 2010 called Corrie Crazy: Canada Loves Coronation Street. To mark the occasion, we offer a look back at this feature story from 2004.

Weekday evenings; CBC.
Also Sunday mornings; CBC


Soap opera royalty

Come along for a rare set visit to the rainy cobblestones
and grubby pubs of Coronation Street, a television
institution (even in Canada) where ambitious
create their crowning moments.

By Eric Kohanik
in Manchester, England

Even at first glance, it is easily one of the most recognizable streets in television history. And, as you turn a corner on the back lot of ITV Granada Television’s production facilities in Manchester, there’s just no mistaking the tiny cobblestone road known as Coronation Street.

It’s the exterior setting for the longest-running drama series on television. Set in the fictional town of Weatherfield, Coronation Street has been a TV fixture since 1960. And it’s still going strong.

The show began as a once-a-week serial, but now broadcasts five episodes per week in Britain. It is still the United Kingdom’s top-rated show, attracting more than 12 million viewers per week. In October, the show won a British National TV Award as the most popular drama series.

In Canada, CBC airs Coronation Street each weeknight (formerly four nights a week —Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday), repeating each week’s episodes as a two-and-a-half hour block on Sunday morning. Although the network had been carrying the show as a daytime serial since its debut, the network shifted the series to its prime-time schedule in June 2004. The show draws a loyal audience — more than 600,000 viewers — to each of its weeknight telecasts.

Perhaps even more recognizable than the rain-soaked cobblestones are the structures that adorn each side of “The Street”— particularly the one at the end of the block that bears the recognizable green sign of the Rovers Return Inn.

It’s a sight that not many people are able to see any more: Granada stopped offering public tours of the Coronation Street set about five years ago, partly because production demands for the show require the exteriors to be available for shooting at a moment’s notice, sometimes seven days a week.

As a special guest of the CBC, CanWest News Service joined a pair of network representatives and a couple of viewers who were CBC contest winners on a trip to Manchester in mid-October to observe the inner workings of Coronation Street — and the Rovers Return — up close.

The Rovers has certainly been a busy place over the past 44 years, with virtually every Coronation Street character passing through the pub’s doors at some point in order to enjoy a pint of lager or some other libation, or to chow down on one of the famous “hot pots” that Betty Turpin (Betty Driver) serves up inside.

On this day, several actors are set to shoot a scene in the Rovers as Betty serves up hot pots to two of the characters. After several run-throughs with a dialogue coach, the scene is caught on tape in a single take.

The interiors of the Rovers, as well as all of the show’s other indoor settings, are actually all housed inside a huge soundstage next to the exterior street. The interior sets are a lot smaller and more cramped than you might think.

So, too, is the streetscape outside. Nevertheless, it’s the sight of the street that tends to overwhelm everyone at first — even those who star on the show.

Lucy-Jo Hudson remembers the first time she walked along Coronation Street as Katy Harris, the young, bitchy girlfriend of longtime Corrie fixture Martin Platt (Sean Wilson).

“Actually, I didn’t think about it until afterwards, when I sat back in the green room,” the 21-year-old Hudson recalls. “And then, I just thought, ‘Oh my word. I’ve just done my first scene. I’ve just walked on the cobbles!’ It was really weird. It was surreal. That’s the only word that can describe it.”

For British actors, a role on Coronation Street is a career milestone matched by few others. “When you are a northern actor here, Coronation Street is always the show that you want to do,” explains 26-year-old Suranne Jones. For the past four years, Jones has played Karen Phillips, the emotionally fragile factory worker and, come Dec. 1, the new bride of Steve McDonald (Simon Gregson).

“It’s an institution,” Jones says. “My granddad, who has passed away now, he always said, ‘You’ll make it when you get to Coronation Street.’ ”

A lot of actors have made it to the Street over the years. When Kate Ford landed the role of the villainous Tracy Barlow a couple of years ago, her parents were overjoyed.

“They were just beyond excited,” the 26-year-old actress recalls. “For my dad, it was like I had won an Oscar. He couldn’t have been more happy.”

Sometimes, however, the chal -lenge ahead can seem daunting.

“The first day of filming, I threw up!” Ford says. “My dad drove me to the studio, and I had to get out of the car on the motorway. I went, ‘Stop! I feel really sick. It was just out of the blue just because it’s — it’s Coronation Street! I’m an actress. I’ve done it for years. But it’s Coronation Street! It’s a national institution here.”

It’s a demanding institution, too. With at least five episodes a week on its production schedule, there is little time for rehearsal. Shooting takes place from Sundays through Fridays, with Saturdays often reserved for press interviews, photo shoots and any additional scenes or special episodes that need to be done.

“It’s 24/7 pretty much,” admits Hudson. “You’re basically on call all the time. But I love it. It’s just part of my life and I couldn’t imagine not being here anymore.”

Coronation Street currently boasts a cast of about 60 characters who populate the show’s intricate storylines. Producer Tony Wood sees the large cast as a particular strength.

“I think that you have to ensure that every single character is earning their keep,” Wood says.“It’s tough, but there are so many demands on us for volume.”

Although Wood had an association with Coronation Street in the early 1990s, he was working as a commissioning editor at Britain’s ITV before taking over the reins as Coronation Street’s producer at the beginning of 2004.

Faced with the challenge of a declining audience, Wood introduced several changes to the look of the show. “I felt it needed modernizing,” he explains. “We’ve radically changed the lighting so the lighting is more moody and, I think, has a character all of its own now in a way that it didn’t used to."

Part of the drive to modernize Coronation Street was a need to attract younger audiences, an objective achieved, in part, by adding several younger characters to the show.

“We’ve always had younger characters,” Wood insists. “We’re hoping the [younger] stories will matter to our older audience as much as they do to the youngsters.”

One such storyline, which will begin to hit Canadian screens on Dec. 15, involves Todd Grimshaw (Bruno Langley), a young man who is torn between his dedication to his girlfriend, Sarah Platt (Tina O’Brien), his past attraction to Sarah’s brother, Nick Tilsley (Adam Rickitt), and, ultimately, his impending love affair with a male nurse named Karl Foster (Chris Finch).

“The Todd story has been huge over here this year,” says Wood.“The Todd story has been very controversial. Firstly, it’s the first time we’ve ever tackled homosexuality. But, equally, there has been a lot of criticism over the fact of it being such a young story. It’s about a boy who is too afraid to look inside himself and who doesn’t know himself particularly well, who has made promises to a girl that everything will be all right and that she can trust him. And yet, actually, he doesn’t know himself well enough to make those assurances to her.”

That’s not to say the situation was shrugged off by many of the show’s core characters.

“We played it for real,” Wood says. “We didn’t shy away from ugly reactions to it amongst our characters. We allowed people to have problems with homosexuality. And, to come through that, I felt we had to dramatize how difficult it is for people. We couldn’t just be politically correct about it.”

Tackling controversial subjects head on and then mixing them with the show’s regional flavour and, at times, extremely dark humour are all part of what has given Coronation Street a multi-generational appeal and a popularity that stretches to Canada and as far away as Australia and New Zealand.

Wood feels the show has struck such a chord with international viewers because of what is basically at its heart. “What I really am proud of is the fact that we’re clearly getting the emotions right,” he says. “There are truths in the show that cross borders and mean as much to people in a society that is different to ours as they do to us. And I’m very, very proud of that.”

Jones, who is actually leaving the show in a plot twist that won’t surface in Canada until next year, attributes the widespread appeal of Coronation Street to basic ingredients.

“It’s got an amazing array of characters. Sexy girls in the middle. Young lads in the middle. Twentysomethings. Hard-worker types. Glamourpusses. Barmaids. It’s just got that recipe. It’s a community. Also, it’s very humourous. The writers have got this amazing gift. So, how could that not speak to people? It’s just that wonderful mix of life. And that’s why people lock in.”

(First published in November 2004)
CanWest News Service