Review: Colonel Moseley reviews "The Road the Coronation Street" from 23.9.2010
This piece is taken fom my reviewblog in 2010
Strangely, the fiftieth anniversary of the birth of Britain's favourite soap opera - the cornerstone of commercial TV - was marked not on ITV but on BBC Four with the seventy-five minute play "The Road to 'Coronation Street.'"
The piece was written by Daran Little in entertaining style, with the surest of touches and a complete grasp of his material. This was only to be expected from a Corriephile once employed by Granada TV as an archivist who went on to become a successful writer on the soap and whose watch saw the introduction of its first gay character, Todd Grimshaw.
Directed by Charles Sturridge, the film charts the gestation and birth of "Coronation Street" - originally intended to be "Florizel Street," but dropped for sounding too like a disinfectant - transmitted in December 1960.
The opening of the 1960's also saw Shelagh Delaney's "A Taste of Honey" and Alan Sillitoe's "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning." Although the management at Granada were initially reluctant to grasp it, the wind was set fair for presentations of true to life, gritty northern-ness, grime, accents and all.
The format of the play was a slightly camp Magnificent Seven with the central character, the writer Tony Warren setting about assembling a team able to embody the occupants of the soon to be legendary street.
Brilliantly played by David Dawson, Tony Warren looked a little like a knitwear model in the 1960 Littlewoods catalogue: very well turned out and extremely driven. His groundbreaking vision was to present a true-to-life drama set in the North with "dirt under its finger nails."
Warren was confronted by initially intransigent bosses at Granada with old fashioned views on the unacceptability of things northern, which they appeared to feel equated to squalor and utter incomprehensibility.
Paradoxically, studio head Sidney Bernstein (Steven Berkoff) prided himself in possessing the true spirit of showmanship of his hero P T Barnum whose likeness adorned office walls at Granada to inspire excellence and innovation. Ultimately, prompted by this brother Cecil Bernstein (Henry Goodman) and far-sighted and energetic Canadian producer Harry Elton played by Christian McKay, Bernstein and his board of doubting Thomases grudgingly consented to film a trial episode, which led on to the first series.
We see the evolution of Warren from struggling actor to staff writer doing shoddy work he despised on the series "Biggles" to the committed creative force behind "Coronation Street."
The bulk of the play is taken up with casting, starting with Doris Speed, played with a cheeky charm and wit by Celia Imrie. Doris was flattered and cajoled into taking the part of Annie Walker, the chatelaine of the Rovers Return, by former child actor Warren "a little boy who never stopped talking."
Doris Speed seemed immediately to recognise the quality of the part offered, as did Pat Pheonix jauntily played by Jessie Wallace - ecumenically formerly of "East Enders" - who instinctively understood her character was "mutton dressed as lamb" and stormed through a brilliant audition to get the part. The scene played between Pat Pheonix and Tony Warren as Dennis Tanner was simply electric.
We see Pat Pheonix and Warren as soul mates capering about the back streets of Salford in a very Taste of Honey spirit when researching the reality on which the programme was to be based. In perhaps the most telling personal moment in the film, Pat makes it clear that she is at ease with Tony as he really is and is happy to join him and his friends at what is no doubt a gay pub. What this comfort level must have meant to Warren in provincial Manchester in 1960 should not be underestimated.
The element in the casting that remained unresolved for most of the piece was that of the "uncastable" Ena Sharples. The first potential Ena was manifestly unsatisfactory and the arrival of the formidable Violet Carson was a sort of elephant in the room until it took place late on in the drama. When she eventually made her belated entrance, Lynda Barron was little short of sensational.
Initially, Violet took direction and moderated her performance as Ena to the disappointment of all present. She then did it her own way and blew them all away. Violet Carson was correct in asserting that, "You can save your breath. I know all about Ena Sharples. This is a woman who has buried children, watched her husband beg for work and still gets down on her knees to pray. There's no powder or rouge touching this face." With the casting of Ena, the array of battle axes was complete and the success of the series was assured.
The difference in the Warren's dedicated attitude towards The Street and the earlier "Biggles" is forcibly presented. The contrast is only too plain between the careless technophobic campery of the description of Biggles' joystick thingy with the clear and decisive explanation of where china ducks needed to fly across particular living room walls and how many milk bottles should stand outside each doorstep. The Street recreated a world that Warren had inhabited. He knew its ways and mores, its thoughts and its speech patterns, learned from hours of listening to the talk of women in his family.
As well as these principal elements, the play contained much interesting and entertaining detail. The performance of Jane Horrocks as the hard-pressed head of casting Margaret Norris was convincing as was John Thompson as script editor Harry Kershaw, about whom one felt much was left unsaid. Ironic humour was found at the expense in the character of Ken Barlow played by William Roache's son James, only looking for a stop-gap, but still there half a century later.
I enjoyed the realistic sense of period and its knitwear, when offices had tea ladies and Adler typewriters. For me the play was particularly effective because it evoked an enviable time of rare possibilities. 1960 was a year of opportunity when chances were about to open up for the young, irreverent, talented, gay and even provincial to become successful. "The Road to Coronation Street" was a charming story of an underdog seizing just the right moment to put forward an idea whose time had come and achieving a huge success. It showed the process faithfully and presented the beginning of a spectacular decade authentically. I found it uplifting and entertaining.