thu 29/10/2020

The Road to Coronation Street, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

The Road to Coronation Street, BBC Four

The Road to Coronation Street, BBC Four

Entertaining prequel drama about the northern soap has some standout turns

A drama about Britain’s (and by the time Coronation Street reaches its 50th birthday in December, the world’s) longest-running soap starts with a huge advantage - its producers could just quote lumps of the brilliant original scripts, written by Corrie’s creator, Tony Warren, and be done with it. But Daran Little, himself a former writer on the show, resisted that urge (well, mostly) when penning The Road to Coronation Street, an affectionate and witty prequel that told us how the soap came about, or rather, how it almost didn’t.

Although Corrie is now a staple of British TV (and many have tried to emulate it, with varying degrees of success), it had a bumpy start. Charles Sturridge’s entertaining film started with the first live transmission (as most TV was in those days) on 9 December, 1960, and then recounted events leading up to it in a nicely linear fashion.

The then 23-year-old Warren - was he really as camp as David Dawson played him? – had to pester his bosses at the nascent independent broadcaster Granada TV to produce, as he put it, “something real, something with dirt under its fingernails”. But such verisimilitude was not to everyone’s taste, even in a company that was founded on innovation; as one Granada executive muttered after seeing the pilot: “Who wants to see something set in a backstreet in the middle of nowhere?”

But Warren and his far-sighted Canadian producer, Harry Elton (Christian McKay), persisted and, if Little’s account is to be believed, it was the Granada offices’ elderly tea lady whom we should thank, as a chance remark by her - she had the same clock in her front room as Elsie Tanner - convinced producers they were onto something.

Coronation Street was truly groundbreaking TV - it was the first working-class soap, with people speaking in the northern vernacular, and was set in gritty Salford streets complete with cobbles and back-to-back houses, some of which, one of the characters wryly observed, had been bulldozed to make way for the shiny new Granada TV studios from where it was being broadcast.

We saw Warren battle with the posh head of casting, Margaret Morris (Jane Horrocks, doing a nice turn), over his insistence that all the actors were from the North of England - “They have to be from Manchester, Lancashire at a push” - and why the casting process was so lengthy. These characters had lived in Warren’s head for so long he knew every detail of their lives, indeed based many of them on the people living in his nan’s street in Salford (although he was from the more salubrious Swinton), and he wasn’t going to compromise on any detail. It was interesting to note that several actors, who eventually became some of the best known and most loved on our screens, he knew from his days as a child actor; clearly an annoyingly precocious one, as more than one had threatened to spank his backside.

And another factoid covered here - probably well known to every Corrie or pub-quiz fan - was that the show’s original title was “Florizel Street”, but it was changed just before transmission after one producer said it sounded like a disinfectant. Good call.

If there’s one thing that Coronation Street excels at to this day, it’s humour, often broad or camp, and there were several in-jokes (although more subtle) in Little's script - and Corrie’s only remaining original cast member, William Roache (who plays Ken Barlow), was the butt of most of them. The word boring was never used but his younger self (played by his son James) - oh my gosh, how postmodern can you get? - was shown as self-obsessed and comically full of himself as he busily assured everyone on set he was doing Corrie only as he waited for Hollywood to come calling.

Warren wrote terrific parts for women and fittingly the greatest pleasure of The Road to Coronation Street was knockout performances by actresses playing two of the soap’s archetypes (apart from Roache, the male actors barely got a mention) - Jessie Wallace as sexpot Pat Phoenix/Elsie Tanner and Lynda Baron as battleaxe Violet Carson/Ena Sharples. Carson (and this was unknown to me previously) joined the cast after the pilot. She got the role when Warren realised she and Ena were a perfect match and he had decided to overlook the fact that she was considered difficult to work with.

It’s a pity Carson joined the cast late, because it meant we saw only a few minutes of Baron, and I could have happily watched a programme just about the scion of the chapel (on and off screen), and her backstage exchanges with Phoenix, in real life a gloriously earthy, sexy being.

But what we did get was a bravura performance by Baron none the less, while Celia Imrie was equally magnificent as Doris Speed/Annie Walker and Henry Goodman gave quiet support as Granada co-founder Cecil Bernstein. A treat for Corrie fans and Street virgins alike.

Share this article


road to coronation street was fantastic and i have loads of admiration for tony warren, i and a lot of other people i speak to would love to know why it was shown by bbc 4 when it has always been on itv, it is a mystery i hope you can let us know thank you Alison [big fan of Tony Warren]

Why wasn't Albert Tatlock in it? He was in the first episode and in 1980 was one of the five remaining from that episode. The other four (Ena Sharples, Annie Walker, Elsie Tanner, Ken Barlow) were all in it. Why couldn't they cast someone as Jack Howarth?

What a wonderful tribute to the longest serving soap; it was fantastic to see how it all began, and there was some fantastic acting from Jessie and the team. Happy birthday coronation street

Add comment


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters