“THERE’S been an explosion. It’s Coronation Street…Weatherfield, yes. There’s flames everywhere. I think there’s people still in there.”
Deirdre Barlow dials 999 next week…
A tram carriage dusted with snow was still hanging from the viaduct when I visited the Corrie cobbles yesterday.
Ready and waiting for the hour-long live ITV1 episode next Thursday.
I was among a small group of journalists invited to Manchester to be the first “outsiders” to see the two episodes which will be screened on Monday.
Plus a teaser trail of events later in the week leading up to that live episode on the night of Corrie’s 50th anniversary.
I’m old enough to remember Ena Sharples being buried in the rubble of the 1967 viaduct collapse.
As a little lad of 10, it made a huge impression on me.
Producer Phil Collinson is the creator of new Coronation Street memories.
The perfect choice to lead the show through its half century celebration.
After several weeks of long night shoots and sheer bloody hard work, you could see the exhaustion on the faces of cast and production team at yesterday’s event.
“We’re all on our knees,” Phil told me.
All to deliver a birthday present for Coronation Street fans everywhere, including wide-eyed little 10-year-old lads.
Classic television that we will remember for the rest of our lives.
It’s not just about amazing stunts, CGI and special effects, which begin with the gas explosion and later tram crash at the end of Monday’s second episode.
At the heart of this spectacle are the characters we know so well – and how the tram impacts on all of their lives.
Including some truly heartbreaking scenes, beautifully played by those involved, that will cause you to hug your loved ones just that little bit tighter.
As Phil told us: “It’s actually about a tiny street in the north of England battling against the adversities of life.
“It’s about love and it’s about life and it’s about death. It’s about everything that it was about 50 years ago when Tony (Warren) came up with it.”
The Magic Circle would be proud of how all the current storylines are weaved together to meet just ahead of the blast on Monday.
It is a truly astonishing moment.
Coronation Street is on fire next week – in more ways than one.
The tram crash screening was followed by a Q&A session and then various interviews over lunch with cast members and members of the production team.
Below are three of my stories from yesterday, followed by an edited highlights transcript of both the introduction to the screening and subsequent press conference – for those who want to read more.
There are some spoilers if you’ve been avoiding coverage of the big week – but, rest assured, there is NO reveal of who dies.
IT’S shock and awe in Devastation Street in the most expensive and dramatic episodes ever filmed on the Corrie cobbles.
The £1m tram crash, which leads to three funerals, will include a birth, a death and a marriage in the hour-long live episode next Thursday.
Corrie is on fire next week when a gas blast rocks new bar The Joinery, underneath the viaduct arches, as Peter Barlow (Chris Gascoyne) celebrates his stag night.
Sparks fly as the horrified driver of a yellow Manchester tram spots the twisted and broken rails ahead.
He sounds his klaxon and slams on the emergency brake – but too late to avert disaster.
The carnage, screened at the end of Monday’s second episode, sees one screeching carriage hurtle into Dev Alahan’s (Jimmi Harkishin) corner shop.
Inside Molly Dobbs (Vicky Binns), holding baby Jack, runs for her life as the tram speeds towards her.
Meanwhile the last tram carriage rears up into the air and swings down on to The Kabin, where Rita Sullivan (Barbara Knox) is reaching for a box of chocolates.
Corrie legend Bill Roache, who has played Ken Barlow since the first episode on Dec 9 1960, said it was a fitting tribute for the 50th anniversary.
After a special screening, he added: “I had tears of pride. It’s not only the best thing in Coronation Street ever, I think it’s one of the best things on television ever.”
Street creator Tony Warren said: “It was one of the happiest days of my life, seeing these episodes.”
The gas explosion sparks a week of action packed tram-tastic drama – all set on one night – which will change the lives of the Rovers regulars forever.
It also includes a fourth death as a killer uses the crash to cover his own tracks.
A road traffic accident elsewhere delays the emergency services, leaving stunned Weatherfield residents to rescue those trapped in the wreckage and flames.
The cast and crew are now deep into rehearsals for the hour long ITV1 live episode.
Jennie McAlpine, who plays six months pregnant Fiz Stape, said scripts were still being changed with just days to go before the big night.
“In a way, I hope there is some spanner in the works that we don’t know about,” she said.
Former Doctor Who producer Phil added: “A couple of the cast said to me, ‘It actually wasn’t difficult to act some of the more emotional sequences because it felt very real to be standing there.’
“They are brilliant episodes .But we’re not doing it again. Someone else can,” he laughed.
STUNNED cast members were in tears after watching a special preview of next week’s tram crash episodes.
“There was a collective gasp when it came off the rails,” said Antony Cotton, who plays kicker stitcher and barman Sean Tully.
Jennie McAlpine (Fiz Stape) was among cast and crew members who gathered for the first screening at the Corrie studios.
“It was amazing. There really was a big gasp. We were in shock – we sat there for about 15 minutes afterwards,” she said.
“It’s astonishing seeing it all come together for the first time. But I don’t recommend watching all the episodes at once in the omnibus. You need a breather and a cup of tea.”
Bill Roache (Ken Barlow) said: “There was a tremendous feeling that something special was happening.”
Producer Phil Collinson said he was “thrilled” by the reaction of the cast and crew, who gave the episodes a standing ovation.
“It was the first time an audience had watched the episodes. And there was literally a gasp as the tram crashed off the viaduct.
“Everybody rose to their feet at the end and applauded themselves.”
CORRIE fans are to see beyond Weatherfield for the first time.
Monday’s opening episode starts with Ken Barlow (Bill Roache) and Janice Battersby (Vicky Entwistle) passing each other on the cobbles and sharing an exchange about Peter and Leanne’s forthcoming wedding.
The opening titles then begin, with the camera sweeping up to show a new computer generated view of streets beyond the tram viaduct.
And later in the week, eagle-eyed viewers will see a new glimpse of the world at the other end of the Street.
“They’ll be able to spot the Red Rec, The Precinct and all sorts of landmarks, if they pause their TV. It’s a great shot,” said producer Phil Collinson.
“Viewers are going to have a lot of fun. You’ll see all the terraced streets that run off Coronation Street and we place it right in the middle of Weatherfield.”
Large outside broadcast trucks are now in place behind the Rovers Return, ready for the hour-long live episode.
Phil is watching the weather forecast in case of snow on the night but insisted: “That is part of the experience of live. If it snows…the audience will enjoy it even more.”
Introduction to the screening
Coronation Street creator Tony Warren – who is teetotal – spoke about watching these episodes for the first time, made with the help of a huge amount of ITV cash:
“I had one of the great treats of a lifetime on Monday because Phil Collinson, our producer, rang me and said, ‘It may be childish but they’re back from the labs and I want to watch it for the first time with you.’ I said, ‘Well, it’s the kind of childish I absolutely understand.’
“And so I went to his office and we had a little party. We had mince pies and we had sausage rolls. I gave him champagne and he gave me Diet Coke. He took the champagne home anyway because he didn’t want to miss or fuzz up anything. He wanted to watch it.
“It was one of the happiest days of my life, seeing these episodes because I have this theory about Phil Collinson, that he’s half my age, but I think when he was born, some wicked fairy injected a little drop of my blood into his veins. And it really shows in these episodes.
“And something else shows that I liked, very, very, very much – you can see thousands of hundred pound notes going up in flames,” he laughed.
Producer Phil Collinson:
“These are brilliant episodes and I’m so proud of them. I’m a new boy here, really. 50 years of a show but I’ve only been here for eight months. It’s been a hell of an eight months. Exciting, adrenaline-fuelled and all of it funneling towards next week.
“I just kept waiting for people to say no. Every meeting I’d go to, I’d say, ‘Well, we’ll have this and then this can happen and this could happen.’ And they never did. And most of all, ITV didn’t, when we asked them for quite a sizeable chunk of money to make this week as special as we thought it ought to be. They said yes, and they gave it to us – which is an absolute first for me in television, I have to say.
“So thank you very much, really, to Peter Fincham (ITV Director of Television) and to Laura Mackie (ITV Head of Drama) for everything they’ve done to make these episodes possible and as spectacular as they should be. They’ve really showed how much ITV loves Coronation Street and how much they appreciate everything it does for them. And also Steve November (formerly known as Steve Frost, ITV Continuing Drama Producer) who works editorially between ITV and us, who is just the best person for that job, because he’s produced the show himself and he knows and understands it so well and gives it all the support that he possibly can.
“We’ve got an amazing team working here. My right and left hand Louise Sutton (Series Editor) and Clare Winnick (Head of Production), who just supported me every single day along this journey and they’re amazing and brilliant. And like everybody over there…not just work colleagues but brilliant friends.
“A lot of love goes into making this show, as I’ve discovered. More love than I’d ever seen go into any show that I’ve ever worked on anywhere. So thanks to them, and to the amazing team, the amazing crew and the amazing cast, who have pulled out all the stops across the last couple of months to do something really difficult. Because these episodes are as big as anything I’ve ever produced. As big as anything I’ve actually ever seen. And I think they really are spectacular.
“They really are big and special. And quite right too because 50 years is an astonishing achievement.
“The tram crash happens at the end of those first few episodes and the rest of the week plays out exactly as we intended it to. Because it’s not about emergency services and, yes, it’s about digging people out of rubble. But it’s actually about a tiny street in the north of England battling against the adversities of life. It’s about love and it’s about life and it’s about death. It’s about everything that it was about 50 years ago when Tony came up with it.
“I really believe that we’ve distilled everything that’s brilliant about Coronation Street into a week of spectacular television and I really hope that you agree when you see them today.”
When will viewers learn the identities of those who die?
Phil Collinson: “Not until the end of the week. We try and wring every ounce of drama and emotion out of what you’ve just seen. The whole week takes place in real time, so there isn’t a day passing between the episodes – it’s literally the next minute. So they’re just massively action-packed and so we try and hold all of our secrets right till the end of the week.”
Michael Le Vell (Kevin Webster): “I thought it was amazing. I nearly cried at the end, to be honest. It’s fantastic. Just seeing the devastation on the Street there, it’s quite emotional.”
Bill Roache (Ken Barlow): “I had tears of pride. To belong to a team that can produce something like that, which I think is not only the best thing in Coronation Street ever, I think it’s one of the best things on television ever. I don’t know if it’s because I’m involved in it, but I feel so proud to be part of a team that could produce something like that.”
Antony Cotton (Sean Tully): “It’s weird watching it. I watch that as a viewer. Because it’s all piecemeal. We only do our little bits in different places and now it’s all together…I’m a fan of the show anyway but that’s absolutely gobsmackingly amazing.”
What would cast members no longer with us think of it?
Bill: “Of course there’s greater technology now, you have to accept that. When they did the train crash way back in the sixties, it didn’t have half the impact. I think they would have been proud and impressed, because it is impressive. They’ve got the best teams of top experts in every field. Phil Collinson masterminded it. I think everyone in the past would have been really proud to feel we’ve got to this point.”
Lasting 50 years?
Bill: “I get on my hobby horse about the word soap. Soap is an extended commercial and is slightly derogatory. In 1960 when we came, there was a new realism sweeping through the theatre…Tony Warren was a man of his moment who produced on television the realistic kitchen sink drama Coronation Street. It had a colossal impact. Never before had ordinary people struggling against adversity been seen in this realistic, gritty way. Tony laid the foundation for that and, most importantly, the humour, which I think is essentially a Lancashire thing, to see he humour within serious situations – like Blanche at the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. So Tony set the criteria and as long as we stick with that, it can go on forever.”
The cast and crew screening earlier in the week?
Jennie McAlpine (Fiz Stape): “We were sat there for about 15 minutes afterwards. I’m so pleased that the viewers are going to get 24 hours between each one because watching them all together like that was quite horrific. They’re amazing. We were in shock. Brilliant.”
Filming the episodes?
Bill: “It was hard work. We were working from seven at night till five in the morning over a three week period. But you don’t mind hard work if it’s going to produce something like this. We all knew this year was going to be tough, and it has been, but fruitful and worthwhile.”
Antony: “There was a seven week period where they were predominantly night shoots and then three weeks’ intense work was only night shoots. And some people, some poor sods, were in every single day. I was one of the lucky ones because mine was all in the Rovers. People were in every night for almost seven weeks.”
Michael: “I was one of those who was in most nights. To break the night up, because the canteen was shut, you’d just treat yourself and get a takeaway from Akbar’s or something like that and sit round the table with the rest of the cast at 12 o’clock at night having an Indian. It was a great atmosphere, to be honest.”
Bill: “There was tremendous feeling that something special was happening.”
Antony: “A lot of the cast spend more time with the cast than they do their own families. So Coronation Street has always been and will always be a family and we all fit into place within a family unit. So it is nice that we’re all pals and we do all get on, contrary to what some people may say.”
Phil: “It was an amazing place to be on the lot, as well, for those three nights when the tram was in position and the buildings were collapsed. Danny (Hargreaves – special effects supervisor) here, sat at the back, did our physical effects, all the flames and explosions and collapsing. The bits you saw there were the CGI bits, generally. The rest of the week is all Danny. And it’s real fires, real rubble collapsing on top of people. And so there was an astonishing atmosphere to stand at the end of Coronation Street and see it on fire and ablaze. It was astonishing. And a couple of the cast said to me, ‘It actually wasn’t difficult to act some of the more emotional sequences because it felt very real to be standing there.’”
Michael: “It was surreal to think, ‘I’m stood in the middle of Coronation Street and it’s all on fire. How weird’s this?’”
Feelings ahead of the live episode?
Michael: “It’s a continuation, really, of the last seven weeks…it’s just carrying on that excitement. Because it is exciting. And for any of us who’s done theatre, it’s all like live theatre but, hopefully, in front of about 20 million people. That’ll be the difference.”
Is there a worry that it might snow?
Phil: “I think that, actually, is part of the experience of live. And it’s why we wanted to do it and it’s why we wanted to do the live…that first episode could have been the live one, actually. It’s a brilliant episode and it’s beautiful and dramatic and amazing performances. We didn’t want to do that. We wanted to put the live episode right in the middle, with fire and explosions and flames and stunts and death…fire engines…just everything we can throw at it. It’s amazing, huge and, hopefully, fingers crossed, astonishing.
“But you know what? That is what live is all about. If it snows, we’ll plough on. If it rains, we’ll plough on. If something falls out of the sky, we’ll plough on regardless. And if the tram falls down, we’ll plough on. And if any of those things happen, the audience will enjoy it even more. They’ll enjoy all of that even more. And that’s the business of live and that’s what we’re embracing. It’ll be brilliant, I hope.”
Did they research real life accidents for this storyline?
Phil: “Yes. We talked extensively with the emergency services. The emergency services arrive in the middle of the next episode, a little bit later than they ordinarily would do. There is a reason, there is an RTA that stops them getting through for a little while. And that was very deliberate because this is, obviously, Coronation Street and what we wanted to put at the heart of this was our characters coping with this terrible tragedy. The emergency services do get there pretty quickly. We had fire and police with us throughout the filming, advising us about how they got people out of buildings, how they put fires out etc etc. So we’ve had their support. And we’ve also had a massive amount of support from GMPTE who run the tram system in Manchester. They’ve helped us right from the very beginning. So we’ve had tremendous support from all over the place.”
Will six months pregnant Fiz be in labour during the live episode?
Jennie: “No-one’s told me. I don’t have to move very much, I can tell you that. But I think my husband has to move quite extensively. So I’m lucky.”
Phil: “Yes he does. Graeme (Hawley – who plays John Stape) is the character in more sets than anybody else. We’re going to be putting him in a golf buggy and spinning him all over the place because he’s all over. He’s got something to come back and clear up.”
We see beyond the tram viaduct in the opening to Monday’s episode after a short scene before the opening titles?
Phil: “The shot develops into the big, for the first time, glimpse of Weatherfield, beyond the beginning and end of Coronation Street and Rosamund Street. And so when we saw that shot for the first time, it just felt very epic and brilliant. And it just felt like a really lovely way of starting the week – so saying to the world, ‘Here’s a big shot, it’s going to be a little bit unusual this week, and a bit different.’ We didn’t originally plan to do that (brief scene with Ken and Janice) but then once we saw the shot, we thought, ‘Well that would be a beautiful thing to do.’”
Is this the first time we’ve seen beyond the tram viaduct?
Phil: “It is. I believe it is. And then as we go along in the week, we look the other way as well and we see even broader Weatherfield. Careful viewers, if they pause their TV afterwards, they’ll be able to see the Red Rec – all sorts of landmarks have gone in there. It’s been created with a lot of love and a lot of reference to lots of landmarks that we’ve heard spoken of across many years. The Red Rec – it’s there.”
Use of the baby who plays Jack in stunts?
Phil: “Obviously the safety of the baby was absolutely paramount and a lot of the sequences that you will see are filmed with a really brilliant, clever, absolutely terrifying doll. It’s terribly realistic, it moves and everything. Then any sequences where you see the baby moving in Molly’s arms were actually done on a specially built little section of set. You see all of it in close-up and it looks like they’re buried in the middle of that. They’re actually not. She’s sat very comfortably with the baby – so the baby just sits there in her arms. It will look like the baby is buried in the middle of that and gets quite distressed, very deliberately so because it has to be realistic this and the plot is all about Molly and Jack and about fighting to get them out of there, of where they’re trapped. So we wanted to do it justice. It’s sometimes quite difficult to watch but the baby is very, very safe. I promise.”
Does this week of episodes set a benchmark for the future of soap?
Phil: “I hope so, that would be nice. I think the viewers will have to tell us, really. I’m very proud of them. Coronation Street has always done big stunts. They collapsed number five or seven right back in 1965. And then in ’67 a train came off the viaduct. A lorry ran into the front of the Rovers. The Rovers has burnt down. There’s a million and one stunts. It’s always had that in its DNA, it’s always had times where it’s been event television. When the Rovers burnt down, they were the first show to do that and to say, ‘Look we can do this, we can take one of our main landmarks, burn it to the ground and isn’t that brilliant television?’ It’s always been copied. So in terms of being a benchmark, I think it is a fantastic week of television. I hope you agree that sequence is brilliantly realised. I’ve worked on a lot of special effects television with Doctor Who and you’re trying to turn Cardiff into Mars, or whatever. It doesn’t actually take that much imagination. But I think to take our ‘lot’ here and make something that feels real and visceral and terrifying, like that does, I think that’s a really, really difficult thing to do, and all the devastation that comes afterwards.
“It isn’t just one event and one set, either. That whole sequence there, if you put it on pause, I think it’s something like 14 different stunts, it’s a whole sequence of different sets that we had to build. It took us the best part of a day just to film that tram coming through the shop. It’s real – and it had to be real. It had to be visceral. The viewers at home have to feel that fear and that tram chasing Molly through that shop. We were really clear that that was what had to happen. And in order to achieve that, we had to build the front of a tram – well, Danny did – the front section of a tram. It was built on a great big train line in one of our studios. So we had to clear a whole load of sets out of the way in order to do it. We had to build the whole corner shop around the train line and then build a whole section of the corner shop out of soft material that would just shatter and not hurt somebody. And then we had to put a stunt performer in. And then we had to really fire that tram, really fire it through that set, and the poor stuntwoman had to be really chased by that tram. So it’s an incredibly complicated, different sequence of events that come together to make what is actually, all in all, two and a half minutes of television.
“I hope that’s a benchmark. But we’re not doing it again. Someone else can do it,” he laughed.
Bill: “One thing that impressed me watching it there is, when you have a big event in a cinema, the event dominated. You can’t get a bigger event than this but it doesn’t dominate. The characters are just as strong and everything works together. And that…I can’t tell you what a skill it needs from the producer, the writers, the technicians and everybody to get that balance of the individuals and the big event all merging and being one. It is an incredible achievement.”
Phil confirmed that the cost of the tram crash episodes was “not too far off” the £1m already reported in some newspaper.
“We had to ask ITV for an awful lot of money and they said yes. And when they said yes, I wish I’d asked for more.”
Do soaps of today have to go in for huge spectacles like this to draw in viewers?
Phil: “I think that television has changed. I think programmes like Coronation Street, dramas, have to stand up against massive pieces of event television like Strictly, like X Factor now, and massive pieces of event like ‘Celebrity Jungle’, that you just come to because it’s special and it’s different and it’s unusual. So we had to do something like that to mark this show, really. We had to do something extraordinary.
“And so when soaps push the boat out, when drama pushes the boat out now, it has to push it out really far. You can’t hold back anymore. Viewers go to the cinema and they see all kinds of special effects and huge, massive 3D which makes you feel like you’re right in the middle of the movie. So I think the days are gone where television drama can sit back and leave it to your imagination. That’s not what we can do anymore. And we have to compete against those great big juggernauts now. And I think that’s what we’ve done.”
Bill: “The more you watch it, the better it gets. I was in tears almost. It’s so moving.”
And finally, two short extracts from my later interviews:
The cast and crew screening?
“There really was a gasp. It was because we watched it altogether – I don’t recommend watching the omnibus. I think you watch them with a break and a cup of tea. Because I like putting the kettle on inbetween, just to have a breather. And you really need a breather with these episodes. It’s just astonishing. Obviously the final product is what you saw but it was quite fragmented the way we filmed it. We were all there in the Green Room and then they’d call me and I’d do my bit on my own. So seeing it all together was like, ‘Wow, that’s what they were doing as I was sat in the Green Room playing solitaire.’”
Still getting amended scripts for the live episode?
“I really truly don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m hoping that the changes are minor but I really don’t know. And people keep saying, ‘Will there be a surprise?’ And I hope there is in a way. I hope there is some spanner in the works. Just something.”
The cast and crew screening?
“There was a gasp. It was really thrilling for me to see it because it was the first time an audience had watched the episodes. And there was literally a gasp as the tram crashed off the viaduct. And everybody rose to their feet at the end and applauded themselves.
“I started by just saying, ‘Look, sit back and watch this and give yourselves a massive pat on the back because you did this.’ And so it was great for all of us. It was a really good night just for the team, really.
“And it was important that the team were the people who saw it first. And I was thrilled that they liked it. Out of everybody…we make that for the general public but it was a real thrill to me that the people who made it loved what we did with it.”