Sixty years ago today, on December 9, 1960, the first episode of Coronation Street aired. Since then, its origin story has been told many times, many ways.
In 1960, Harry Elton was a producer at Granada Studios. I talked to him by telephone in 1991. He was at his home in Ottawa, Ontario. Tony Warren was a young writer for Granada in 1960. I met him in Manchester in 1992. Although several months and thousands of kilometres apart, their stories meshed as if they were in the same room finishing each other’s sentences. So I wove the two together.
How it began
Elton: Granada was trying to develop local programming in accordance with government regulations about local content on the new private, commercial networks. I remembered the soap operas I had seen when growing up in Canada and later in Detroit. I knew that they were extremely popular, and that production costs were lower because the same sets could be used over and over and actors could be signed on long contracts.
There was this kid writing for Granada, Captain Biggles and other series. He had a way of hearing Manchester, Salford talk. I asked him to write a pilot and outline for a thirteen-week season, about life in the north. He went away, and came back with the first episode of Coronation Street.
Warren: I invented it out of sheer desperation… I was adapting [Biggles] novels of Captain W. E. Johns, which I found fascist and incomprehensible. I said to Harry Elton, let me write what I know about – show business. He said that’s the kiss of death for television… I said I know about the north of England. And more to humour me than anything else he said go away and come back in twenty-four hours with a show that’ll take the world by the ears.
Elton: I remember after the pilot was shown… they sat down to pronounce. The first man, who was an American variety person, said, That’s a soap opera! You don’t put that crap on at seven o’clock at night, you put that on in the daytime.
Cecil Bernstein [Granada co-founder] said, Harry, you’ve made a horrible mistake, and we can’t blame you because you’re a Canadian… North Country accents are the language of George Formby and Old Mother Riley. And whenever people hear it, they laugh. They’ll never take it seriously.
The general manager, who had been working with Korda in film, said, There’s not a single thing I like about that programme. I don’t like the characters, I don’t like the sets, and I don’t like the stories. Surely people watch television to be taken out of their dreary lives, not to have their noses rubbed into reality!
Warren: Harry Elton refused to be defeated… He set up monitors all round the studio. And he sent out memos to everybody from the chairman down to the cleaners and said, today at one o’clock, we will be showing two episodes of a home-grown serial that we believe in. We would like you to watch it and fill in questionnaires.
The reactions in these questionnaires were exactly the same as the reactions have always been ever since to Coronation Street. The people either loved it or they loathed it, but they didn’t feel indifferently about it. The ones who loved it far outweighed the ones who loathed it. And so it was the people who got the show onto the air, not the powers that be! The people and a Canadian!
Elton: Just as all my distinguished colleagues felt that the show wouldn’t work, the critics, all of them I think… knocked the show. Television was important enough, and there were only the two channels, so that everybody wrote on it. It was in The Times, The Observer, The Guardian.
There was a young Canadian who was writing television criticism for one of the distinguished weeklies… He said, This is pap! This is what Lenin was talking about when he talked about religion – it was the opium of the people. Granada are now putting out this crap to make the working classes, who are the victims of British society, feel contented in their miserable lot. That Canadian’s name was Mordecai Richler.
Tony Warren wrote only those first thirteen episodes. But in those, he set the standard for the show. It was what he had written in a memo to the bosses at the very beginning: “A fascinating freemasonry, a volume of unwritten rules. These are the driving forces behind life in a working-class street in the north of England… The purpose… is to entertain by examining a community of this kind and initiating the viewer into the ways of the people who live there.”
He allowed for that examination because he was so adept at reproducing that world. Harry Elton said of Tony Warren: “His ability was to reflect the way people really talked, but with a sharp edge… Everywhere he went on buses he would have a pencil and a piece of paper and he would listen to people talk, and write down what they said… So he set the style… It was real people talking to each other about real problems… When you have that kind of reality, it has a universality about it that lets it jump over borders.”
Tony Warren said: “I couldn’t turn to the court pages of a newspaper without reading ‘She came from a Coronation Street-type background’. I remember a morning sitting on a bus, overhearing two women ‘Did you see it last night?’ I thought, I’ll never escape this thing!”
Harry Elton returned to Canada in 1963, where he worked in radio and television, including the CBC, and for the Canadian Museum of Civilization. His wife, Marguerite McDonald, was the original host of CBC Radio’s political programme The House. Mr. Elton died in 2004 at the age of 74.
Tony Warren became a novelist, writing about the North of England and show business. He also was a consultant for Coronation Street, “the only person who is paid to watch it” as he delightedly told me. He died in 2016 at the age of 79.
The 2010 movie The Road to Coronation Street is a beautiful telling of the show’s origins . If you haven’t watched it, do (see below). The story told above is from Other Worlds, my book about British and American soaps . The week of 60th anniversary special episodes starts in Canada on CBC on Friday, December 18th.