THERE was a lot of love in the room for Coronation Street last night.
A special event at the British Film Institute on London’s South Bank, hosted by both the BFI and BAFTA, to salute the longest running drama serial in the world.
It began with a big screen outing for the first three episodes, originally broadcast half a century ago.
Followed by an hour-long panel discussion featuring Tony Warren – “the father of Coronation Street” – plus current producer Phil Collinson, executive producer Kieran Roberts and cast members Kym Marsh (Michelle Connor) and David Neilson (Roy Cropper).
Which threw up several interesting stories, including an explantion by Phil of how the axeman does not cometh when a new producer arrives.
With some “terrified” cast members hiding from him when he began the job earlier this year.
Phil also expressed his “massive frustration” at leaks to the media, including those sold on for cash.
While Tony revealed how Coronation Street had twice been at risk of being axed itself by ITV.
With a spontaneous round of applause in the packed auditorium when Jack Duckworth’s (Bill Tarmey) farewell – screened the evening before – was mentioned.
My Guardian TV blog on Jack’s death is here.
Broadcaster and journalist Mark Lawson did an excellent job of hosting the discussion, also revealing a lovely surprise at the end.
Here are a few of my initial highlights from the evening:
The panel event began with the superb showreel also screened at the Corrie 50 Street Party in September.
A look back over the last 50 years worthy of an award in itself.
As we head for the Dec 9 anniversary and the week of episodes featuring the fatal tram crash and its aftermath.
It’s an emotional time for the cast, filming departures of familiar faces.
David Neilson: “We’re losing friends, in terms of work colleagues we’re very close to. Close relationships are built up. Also because of the nature of acting, you have to visit that emotion. And because it’s a disaster, it’s everywhere. So it’s kind of a quite depressing place to be as an actor. But it’s going to pay off, hopefully. But it does overlap.”
Kym Marsh: “Often a lot of the tears and upset are very real, which also adds to the scene. When we saw Tyrone last night upset, that was genuine, because Alan (Halsall) has worked so closely with Bill Tarmey for so many years now and they had that father, son relationship on screen. So it’s very difficult when you’re so close to somebody to say goodbye. But it was a great goodbye.”
Do the cast worry about being written out and talk about who might be going?
David: “Only in terms of we know when the long term conference is and we know when contracts are discussed and we know certain things. But it is a fact of life. It’s difficult because you have friends. But it is also a street where people have to come and go. We’ve had some really excellent actors in this show and they’ve gone, for whatever reason. It might be just part of the story, it might be that the writers might not have the appetite to pursue a particular of stories. But no. I don’t think so.”
Kym (smiling): “When a new producer is coming in…”
Phil Collinson: “When I took over the job, for the first six weeks I would get out of my car and park in front of the studio. Suddenly everybody would scatter. People jumping into bushes and everything. They’re terrified of you. I’m like, ‘Well, it’s just me. What?’”
Kym: “We’re all aware that we’re all indispensible and no one character is bigger than the show. You’ll have different producers that will have their characters that maybe they like more than others or whatever. And they all get these special names from the press.”
Phil: “Culler Collinson was one and Killer Collinson was another. I preferred Killer Collinson. But the big fallacy is that…you get this mantle and actually it’s not true because the show is run by a senate. It is not just me, it’s not just Kieran, it’s not any one person who walks in and says, ‘Right, well I think we’ll kill this person this year and that will get us some headlines.’ It’s not like that at all.
“Every three weeks we sit down and there are 18 writers and five storyliners and some script editors and we all sit round and we talk about stories. And sometimes the story takes you to a point where someone will leave the show. And that might involve them dying, it might involve them getting on the number 24 bus. But it is not ever, so don’t believe when you read it, it is not ever one producer who comes in and says, ‘Right, well I’m going to do this and shake things up.’ It’s all nonsense portrayed by the media.”
Both David and Kym spoke about the reaction they get from viewers, some of whom still think the characters are real:
Kym: “They were all fascinated by that bath scene that we did. Michelle gets out of the bath and the towel drops off when she’s in front of the builder. Everybody always asks about that. ‘I can’t believe you were naked in that scene.’ I wasn’t actually naked. I didn’t actually strip off,” she laughed.
Tony Warren then told Kym that he had a story to tell about that: “I was in a taxi and I had the exact money for the fare. And I said, ‘I’m really sorry but I’m on my way to the bank and I’ve nothing to give you in the way of change.’ And he said: “Just give us another scene of Kym Marsh in her bath towel.’”
Mark asked Tony if there were ever times when he thought Coronation Street was at risk of the axe?
Tony paused and then replied: “Yes. There were periods just before we went into colour where it really was beginning to sag. You have to remember that in the first episode, nobody had a passport, nobody had a telephone, nobody had a car. And can you imagine a soap opera nowadays without a telephone? But they wouldn’t have done, so they didn’t. And then gradually they got these things and then the world became more colourful. As the world became more colourful we were very fortunate that we burst into colour. But just before we burst into colour, it was sagging just a little bit. But that was inevitable. Something came along and saved us.
“Again, in the early nineties, suddenly the stories became much more dramatic. I used to say, ‘They’re operatic, suddenly.’ But I really was delighted because I would lie in bed at night and think, ‘I never heard those police sirens all the time and I never remember people being taken away by the police? And yet it’s going on all the time round here.’ Because I live in Salford, I don’t live too far away from it all. Again, we matched the times. The times were operatic and so were we.”
Phil spoke about storyline leaks to the press:
“Leaks are an unfortunate part of the job now. Soap stories sell newspapers and I think that’s sad. It’s been a massive, frustrating part of my first eight months, particularly this year. We all want to make television, because for no other reason than you want people to sit there and watch it and enjoy it and not know what’s coming up.
“It’s like not picking up an Agatha Christie and reading the back. Nobody would do that. So why do newspapers assume that all of you sat at home want to do it. It is a massive frustration. And in order to get those stories people do…I suppose there are people who are selling them. But it’s a part of life and we still have to make the show. I would hate the newspapers to make it impossible for us to make the show.”
The cast only get scripts with their scenes in now, rather than fuller versions:
Kym: “It’s worked really well with regard to keeping things secret because for a long time I don’t think any of us knew what was going on. In other ways, you want to know what everyone else is doing. It’s kind of a bit, ‘Oh, I want to read about that story.’ But it’s gone some way to stopping things from leaking out as much as maybe they would have.”
David: “We think things have leaked because it’s been in the paper. It is amazing how many people don’t read that stuff.”
At the press launch in September, Tony had appealed to the media not to reveal who dies in the tram crash. “Let the public have their present,” he said.
Phil said that everyone had respected that apart from one newspaper, which he named. I won’t repeat the name here. I was also disappointed when I read their report and would rather not give publicity to the spoiler.
“But there we go,” added Phil. “I know people who don’t buy the newspaper because they don’t want to find out what’s going to happen in the soaps. So let’s hope.”
As for the tram crash:
Kym: “We were all looking through the scripts to find out. I said, ‘If Michelle gets a job in the tram office, that’s it.’”
Phil: “We did almost do that to somebody. Have them suddenly walk in the Rovers and say, ‘I’ve got a new job with the tram company.’ But I don’t think her heart would have stood it.”
Each member of the panel had chosen their favourite Coronation Street moments, which were shown on the big screen:
Tony: Ena Sharples in the corner shop at the start of the very first episode. (1960)
Phil: Hilda Ogden weeping, having found late husband Stan’s glasses in the brown paper bundle of his hospital belongings. (1984)
Kym: Sally Webster’s revenge – slapping Natalie Barnes in the street over her affair with Kevin. (1997) “I love a good old catfight in Corrie,” said Kym.
Kieran: Gail telling Richard Hillman he was “Norman Bates with a briefcase.” (2003)
David: Roy Cropper trying to creep out of the Barlows, having been drugged by Tracy into her bedroom. (2003) David revealed that Blanche (Maggie Jones) was originally supposed to be in that Barlow breakfast scene but had been ill.
As the event neared its close, Mark revealed that a brown envelope on his lap during the discussion had not held the panel’s fee.
It contained a BFI facsimile copy of the very first Coronation Street script – the original, printed on pink paper, is in the BFI archive, too fragile to be let out.
Mark then presented the copy to Tony Warren.
After reading out some of the names on the front cover and talking about their contribution back in 1960, Tony concluded: “It will be precious to me.”
*If you were there on the night, please let me know what you thought via the comments box.
Softly As I Leave You: Farewell Jack
Coronation Street 50th Anniversary Launch
Coronation Street Official Site
British Academy of Film and Television Arts