Coronation Street - The World's Longest Running Soap Opera
Who could have imagined in 1960 when the first episode of Coronation Street was shown on television throughout Britain, that it would still be running today, making it the world’s longest running soap opera ever?
While it is produced by Granada Television, an independent company based in Manchester, the original script was offered to the BBC who must be kicking themselves today for turning it down.
Coronation Street’s writer was a young man by the name of Tony Warren. An extrovert character, he’d been a child actor in both radio and television. At the ripe old age of 23 he was laid off, but a chance remark by Margaret Morris, the casting director at Granada, about how a new TV producer at Granada Television’s studios was looking for new Northern writers (as in the North of England) to write something new to appeal to the working class masses caught his attention.
At that time British television was still in its infancy and being fed a diet of upper crust enunciation by the BBC. Even today, to speak in a ‘posh’ voice is described as having a ‘BBC accent’.
Coronation Street Books and DVDs
Tony Warren, it seems, was also a script writer, but in the privacy of his own bedroom at home.
His work had never been showcased. He’d previously attempted to send some of his work to the BBC but it had been turned down, including his original idea involving an ongoing drama about an ordinary working class street in a fictitious area called Weatherfield, in the suburbs of Manchester.
He duly set about arranging a meeting with this new producer, a Canadian man by the name of Harry Elton. Sheer brass neck and boldness got him past Elton’s secretary, and he presented his new script to the boss man himself.
Apparently he really was as talented as he believed he was, and he was given the job of scriptwriter. However, his early work did not go down too well, neither with the film crew nor director, because Tony’s heart was not really in the type of stuff he’d been expected to write, and not enough attention was paid to detail.
He’d had an idea about writing about an ordinary working class street and its inhabitants for quite some time, and he railroaded Harry Elton into allowing him to complete a couple of scripts about his idea.
The boss loved it, and they got the go-ahead from Granada Television bosses to make a pilot episode. Tony Warren played a major role in finding the right actors and actresses to play the parts he had written. As he had written his scenes and invented his characters, he knew best who would suit each role best.
A cast was arranged, including:
- Violet Carson to play the part of a feisty matriarch of the Street,
- William Roache to play Ken Barlow, then a young student.
- Pat Phoenix to play Elsie Tanner, a not-so-young sex siren with a heart of gold.
- Doris Speed to play Annie Walker, the snooty landlady of the Rover’s Return pub, which was the mainstay of street life.
The Street at that time was named Florizel Street, a name dreamt up by Tony Warren after a painting he had hanging in his office, of Prince Florizel hacking his way through an enchanted forest.
However, the cast stumbled over the pronunciation of Florizel, and when a tea lady remarked that the name sounded like a lavatory cleaner, the name was changed to Coronation Street.
Sidney Bernstein (along with his brother Cecil) was founder and chairman of Granada Television, a company set up in London after he won one of the first ever commercial television franchises in 1954. In1956, he moved his company to Manchester primarily to cater for the people in the north of England.
By 1957, Granada Television held the top 10 spots in terms of program ratings judging by viewer-ship.
In 1962, Granada become the first television station to screen The Beatles, and due to its continued success in producing high quality programs, chairman Sidney Bernstein was created Baron Bernstein of Leigh in 1969 under Harold Wilson's premiership.
Sidney Bernstein died in 1993, aged 94.
After the pilot episode was made, there was an executive decision made to drop the show.
Chairman and founder of Granada Television, entrepreneur Sidney Bernstein, felt it was too down-market and that their advertisers would not be happy.
By this time Harry Elton, producer and Derek Bennett, director, knew it was going to be a runaway success. With the help of additional TV sets placed strategically around the studios, they played the pilot episode to the Granada staff, many of whom were normal working class people just like the characters portrayed in Coronation Street.
They then got each staff member to fill in a questionnaire to say what their thoughts were on the show.
They either loved or hated it. There was no middle road.
On the strength of this, Sidney Bernstein and his brother Cecil permitted just 13 episodes to be filmed.
Coronation Street First Episode Part 1, 9th December 1960
Within 6 months of the first transmission, Coronation Street became Britain’s favourite soap opera, and it is still running today, 50 years later.
This makes Coronation Street the longest running drama in the history of British television, and now it is the longest running soap opera in the world after the demise of US program As The World Turns.
What Happened to Those Original Actors?
William Roache - b.1932. Still plays Ken Barlow, and the 78 year old is now the world’s longest serving soap opera actor.
Doris Speed - b.1899. Played Annie Walker from 1960 – 1983. Died in 1994, aged 95.
Pat Phoenix - b.1923 Played Elsie Tanner 1960 – 1973, then again 1976 – 1984. Died in 1986 from lung cancer, 8 days after she married actor Tony Booth, who was father-in-law of a certain Tony Blair who later became Prime Minister of Britain.
Violet Carson – b.1898 Played Ena Sharples, the streets moral voice from 1960 – 1980, though from the 70s onwards she only appeared sporadically due to ill health. She died in 1983, aged 85.
Jack Howarth – b.1896 Played Albert Tatlock from 1960 – 1984. Died in 1984, aged 88.
Margot Bryant – b.1897 Played Minnie Caldwell 1960 – 1976. Died 1989, aged 92.
Coronation Street First Episode Part 2, 9th December 1960
Over the years, the casts have changed as older ones passed away or were written out, and younger actors and actresses have been written into the show.
Like in any street, people move away and new neighbours arrive, so fresh storylines are not hard for the script writers to think up.
All of life has been portrayed on Coronation Street. Births, marriages, deaths, murders, infidelity, adultery, loss, drug addiction, single parenthood, unemployment – all facets of everyday life have been touched on, and the drama occurring in Coronation Street has been brought into our homes in a way that we can all relate to.
Coronation Street has become a British Institution, and just like when the original pilot show was shown to the studio staff, it’s a program you either love or hate.
I love it.
Back row, from left: Ivan Beavis (Harry Hewitt), Jack Howarth (Albert Tatlock), Ernst Walder (Ivan Cheveski), Philip Lowrie (Dennis Tanner), Alan Rothwell (David Barlow), Arthur Leslie (Jack Walker), Bill Croasdale (policeman), Frank Pemberton (Frank Barlow), Noel Dyson (Ida Barlow), Margot Bryant (Minnie Caldwell).
Doris Speed (Annie Walker), Betty Alberge (Florrie Lindley), Anne Cunningham (
Linda Cheveski), Patricia Phoenix (Elsie Tanner), Violet Carson (Ena Sharples),
Christine Hargreaves (Christine Hardman), William Roache (Ken Barlow), Penelope
Davies (policewoman), Patricia Shakesby (Susan Cunningham), Lynne Carol (
The Coronation Street Years is well worth watching as it looks at how Coronation Street kept pace with historical events in Britain - through the 60s, flower power, free love movement, the Beatles, The Stones, protests in London against the Vietnam War and more.
Little stories written into the program to reflect what was happening in the real world. Comments passed between Street characters about how the world was changing, and continues to change.
This program was made in 1995 and covers all the main historical events affecting England and the UK throughout the 35 years (then) that Coronation Street was running, as well as having a look at some of the Street characters that come and gone through the years.
It is a trip down memory lane for most of us and well worth taking the time out to watch. Corrie fans everywhere will enjoy this program, presented by Ray Gosling.