Coronation Street is almost 9,000 episodes old and still going strong. An RTS panel reveals the secrets of the ITV flagship. Matthew Bell takes notes
British TV institution Coronation Street celebrated its 55th birthday in December. After some 8,800 episodes, you might expect the old girl to be a bit doddery on her pins, but the ITV soap is in rude health.
Over the past couple of years, Corrie has fed its viewers a rich diet of murder, death and suicide.
The fictional town of Weatherfield proves that life can be a little grim up north as residents perish in fireballs, explosions and car crashes, or at the hands of maniacs.
Sensational plot lines, though, are leavened by the humour and warmth that has always been a huge part of the soap.
Audiences are lapping up the drama. It still regularly attracts more than 7 million viewers – a huge drop from the 20 million-plus audiences of the terrestrial era – but Corrie remains the nation’s favourite soap, holding off ITV stablemate Emmerdale and BBC One’s EastEnders.
At an RTS early-evening event in late November, a panel of Coronation Street heavyweights, chaired by long-time fan and former ITV Director of Entertainment and Comedy Paul Jackson, discussed the secrets of the programme’s success.
“Don’t be snobby about soaps,” Jackson told the large audience gathered for the event, as he praised the high-quality “writing and performances turned in, week in, week out”.
The soap’s strength is that it still follows the blueprint of the very first show aired in December 1960, argued ITV Creative Director, Serial Dramas, John Whiston.
Creator Tony Warren assembled a group of “strong women and feckless men”, said Whiston, who is responsible for both Coronation Street and Emmerdale, a role that has earned him the nickname “the pope of soap”.
“The women are just as strong now and the men just as feckless as they ever used to be,” he added. “Corrie has stayed completely true to that DNA.”
Emmerdale, by contrast, had changed radically, said Whiston, moving from a portrayal of slow-paced rural life to one that depicts “an aspirational countryside with pop festivals and that sort of thing”.
Stuart Blackburn, who has produced Corrie since early 2013, recalled that he was dubbed the “grim reaper” after axing a number of characters.
He explained: “Every time a new producer comes in, the entire cast are terrified – the producer’s got an agenda and is going to axe a lot of people.”
In fact, said Blackburn, he held back from radical change when he took over producing duties from Phil Collinson: “I made the decision, regardless of my subjective judgement on stories that were currently playing, that we would play them out. Evolution, not revolution, was the right thing to do.”
Blackburn – who has been accused by the tabloid press of clashing with the cast but also widely praised for September’s live episode – leaves the soap this year to work on other drama projects for ITV Studios.
“What’s special about Corrie?” asked Blackburn. “It’s the mix of high drama, romance and comedy.”
“With every respect to all the other soaps, they don’t have the humour that Corrie has always had,” suggested Jackson.
But the comedy, argued Blackburn, had to be “believable – I’m always wary of broad comedy that turns into farce or pantomime”.
Coronation Street currently uses 18 writers, who write anything up to 20 episodes a year. “If there’s a story that’s been pitched by a team of writers or a writer and we’re playing that out, I may choose to give the key episodes to the people who pitched it,” explained Blackburn, a former story editor on both Corrie and Emmerdale.
“The great thing about Corrie is that it’s a writers’ show,” he continued. “It’s a pseudo-democracy where writers pitch all the stories and argue about them.
“It’s a real privilege to be in one of those [story] conferences. They take no prisoners and attack each others’ stories ferociously. Out of that process comes the perfect story that’s got little bits of everything.”
The soap is a well-oiled TV machine, with storylines worked out and episodes plotted months in advance.
“We have a board with all the stories posted and intricately colour-coded, depending on the families,” said Whiston. “Similarly, in the scheduling office, we [plot] where all the characters are and the availability of actors. The biggest risk to Corrie is a sharp gust of wind blowing all that away.”
Writer Debbie Oates – the “queen of grief”, according to Whiston – joined Corrie in 2002. She has written more than 140 episodes. Discussing the writing team, Oates said: “We’ve all got very different voices and we learn from each other.
“Looking from the outside, people say, ‘It’s really formulaic or pappy.’ Yes, it’s got a framework and a structure but, within that, you can play around and put your own voice in.”
Oates advised writers to “find their own voice”, adding: “You won’t get a job on a show unless you’ve got a writing voice.”
Jackson asked whether soaps were a route into television for aspiring writers. “EastEnders and Corrie, in particular, do not take any writers without credits,” revealed Oates. She said that there were two basic routes to TV writing. The first passed through the story office or script editing; the second came from other disciplines, such as writing for theatre (Oates’s way in) or radio.
Writers would find it harder to join the Emmerdale writing team directly, than they would to get in via the show’s story office, said Whiston: “Three or four writers have come from the story office – it’s an incredible training in what the soap requires.”
“When I get a CV from an aspiring writer, the first thing I look at is the credits,” said Blackburn. He insisted that the idea of soaps representing “a breeding ground for future talent” was “cobblers”. Soaps, rather, were “where the great talent comes to”.
Tina O’Brien, who completed the RTS Corrie panel, joined Coronation Street in 1999 to play Sarah-Louise Platt, leaving the soap in 2007 and returning in 2015.
In September’s gripping live episode, which was penned by Oates, O’Brien’s character was brutally attacked by drug dealer Callum Logan.
“The episode,” said Blackburn, “sums up everything that’s great about Corrie.”
“With a show like Coronation Street, you never feel that you’re coasting,” said O’Brien. “I constantly feel like I’ve got to try and up my game.”
When she returned to the soap, O’Brien knew that she was going to appear in the live show (clips from which were shown throughout the evening), but not that she would have such a central role.
“When Stuart told me where the story was going, I was shocked,” she recalled. “At that point, there were still moments where you thought Callum had a warm side to him.”
In the live show, Logan (played by Sean Ward), was bludgeoned to death by his ex-girlfriend Kylie Platt after attacking O’Brien’s character.
In rehearsal, the two actors had been holding back but, driven by the adrenaline of live performance, the fight was ferocious.
The live show also contained tender moments, none more so than the scene with Carla Connor and Roy Cropper, which was also showed to the RTS audience.
“It’s a brilliant piece of writing and [boasts] two extraordinary performances,” said Jackson.
“We’ve got an extraordinary cast,” said Oates. “You just know that they will find what’s underneath the writing.”
John Anderson – described by O’Brien as the “calmest, most lovely director in the world” – helmed the live show. “That was why he was picked,” said Blackburn. “He’s a very good director, but he’s also someone who will never raise his voice. Whatever’s going on behind the scenes, the cast have got to believe that everything’s fine.”
A live show is an enormous undertaking. Whiston revealed that some 600 people were involved in making the September episode.
“It’s the best bonding exercise you could do,” he said. “At the end, sound guys were hugging lighting guys – something that has never happened before in the history of television.”
“Do we need our hankies for Christmas?” asked Jackson. There would be no more deaths, promised Blackburn, adding: “We’re going to have a happy Christmas – I think we deserve it.”
‘The secret of soaps: the story behind the stories’ was an RTS early-evening event held at One Great George Street, London, on 24 November. It was produced by Sally Doganis and Brigitte Trafford.