1 9 6 0 – Current (UK)
Millions x 30 minute episodes
The most successful soap opera in the history of British television is set in a gloomy street in Weatherfield, a fictitious town in Lancashire in the north of England.
The twice-weekly (three times a week from 1989) series of continuing stories in the lives of the working class residents of Coronation Street, began in 1960 as a thirteen episode series originally called ‘Florizel Street’ by the show’s creator, Tony Warren.
The tea lady at Granada said ‘Florizel’ sounded like a disinfectant so the title was changed to ‘Coronation’.
The first episode was transmitted live at 7 PM on Friday 9 December but was not nationally networked until the following spring when the transmission days were changed from Wednesdays and Fridays to Mondays and Wednesdays.
A critic who viewed the first episode looked forward to its demise: “The programme is doomed . . . with its dreary signature tune and grim scene of a row of terraced houses and smoking chimneys”.
But with the rise of interest in northern-based drama during the early 1960’s – due to the success of films like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1961) – the earthy characters and gritty setting of Coronation Street became an instant hit.
The original cast line-up included Violet Carson as the acerbic Ena Sharples, Doris Speed as the matriarch of the Rovers Return public house, Annie Walker; Arthur Leslie as her husband Jack Walker, Pat Phoenix as Elsie Tanner, Margot Bryant as Minnie Caldwell , Peter Adamson as Len Fairclough, William Roache as Ken Barlow and Jack Howarth as the dour Albert Tatlock.
Violet Carson was 61 when she went for the part of Ena. She thought it was just a one-off play and didn’t bother much. When the producer hinted that Ena might be difficult to play, she retorted “Don’t be ridiculous. I have lived with this woman all my life. There is one in every street in the north of England”.
Sour-faced Ena Sharples – with her hairnet and line in sharp patter – is an enduring icon of Coronation Street from its earliest days almost half a century ago. Ena famously sat in judgement in the snug of the Rovers Return with her cohorts and was at the heart of local gossip.
Ena’s plain-talking left her alone and indulging in a long-running spat with Street siren Elsie Tanner, while she never possessed a solid family home.
Viewers followed Coronation Street in such enormous numbers that when Elsie Tanner married US Army sergeant Steve Tanner in 1967, over 20 million viewers were glued to the box – the sort of audience only a royal wedding would normally command.
Later came characters such as Bet Lynch, Betty Turpin, Eddie Yeats and Jean Alexander’s whining and cadging cleaning lady Hilda Ogden (pictured below right) and her hen-pecked, skiving husband, Stan.
Annie Walker was Coronation Street‘s first landlady of the Rovers Return pub, which she ran with husband Jack until his death in 1970, then solo for another 13 years.
While Annie effortlessly henpecked Jack, she became best known for her haughtiness and true belief that she was a cut above her working-class customers in the back street Weatherfield watering hole.
A stint as Lady Mayor did everything to reinforce her idea that she was a woman of substance.
Annie was a pivotal figure in the early years of the street, later presiding over a classic line-up at the Rovers which included Bet Lynch – the brassy barmaid who would later take on Mrs Walker’s mantle as landlady.
Other famous fans ranged from Lord Olivier to Sir John Betjeman, the Poet Laureate, who likened the series to Dickens’s Pickwick Papers and declared “At 7.30 PM on Mondays and Wednesdays, I am in heaven”.
And Russell Harty wrote, “There was life before Coronation Street – but it didn’t add up to much”.
Betjeman, Harty, Michael Parkinson and playwright Willis Hall later formed the British League of Hilda Ogden.
In the 70s, the original lineup began to disintegrate. Jack Walker disappeared when Arthur Leslie died suddenly in 1970. Violet Carson, then in her 70s, took a whole year out to rest.
Anne Reid asked to leave the series in 1971, and her character Valerie Barlow was duly electrocuted by a faulty hairdryer. Neville Buswell (Ray Langton) asked to be released from his contract.
In 1973, Pat Phoenix and Alan Browning left to join a 43-week theatre tour. Graham Haberfield (Jerry Booth) died suddenly in 1975. Peter Adamson (Len Fairclough) was suspended from the show for three months to sort out his problems with alcoholism.
Ernie Bishop was killed off with a shotgun blast in a wages robbery after actor Stephen Hancock staged a one-man pay dispute.
The 1980s were littered with anniversaries, from the 2000th episode and the 21st birthday to a Silver Jubilee champagne celebration and a visit from the Queen.
But more famous faces were disappearing. The death of Violet Carson, Jack Howarth, Bernard Youens and Patricia Phoenix left William Roache (Ken Barlow) as the sole survivor from episode 1.
The success of the ‘Street’ was in stark contrast to the fate of its creator. Tony Warren fell out with Granada and turned to drink and drugs. He snubbed the soap’s 500th episode party and told reporters that he had burned all his scripts and disowned the series, and said it bore no relation to his original idea.
Finally, after nearly dying three times from alcohol, he stopped drinking completely. He made his peace with Granada and became the show’s consultant.
The programme was finally toppled from its lofty perch by BBCs EastEnders in 1985. The nosy, noisy cockneys beat the cosy Northerners.
But its audiences remain loyal. The series has now crossed four decades and shows no sign of slowing down.
Although still immensely popular, the series was undoubtedly at its peak in its first decade. Tony Warren agrees; “Yes, the stories were harder and grittier then because life was harder. Coronation Street didn’t go soft – life did”.
Coronation Street – year by year
1961 – A fractured gas main caused everyone to be evacuated to the Glad Tidings Mission Hall for the night.
1962 – Baby Christopher Hewitt was abducted after being left outside Gamma Garments by his mum Lucille. Ken Barlow married Valerie Tatlock.
1963 – Dennis Tanner launched window cleaner Walter Potts on a career as pop star Brett Falcon.
1964 – The Ogdens moved into the street. Emily Nugent jilted Leonard Swindley at the altar. Martha Longhurst died of a heart attack in the snug bar at the Rover’s.
1965 – Val Barlow gave birth to twins Susan and Peter. Violet Carson was awarded the OBE for her portrayal of Ena Sharples. At the investiture ceremony at the Palace, the Queen told her “I am a most ardent fan of yours”.
1966 – Bet Lynch made her debut. Ena Sharples was fined for shoplifting. Stan Ogden celebrated eight draws on the Pools – only to find that Hilda hadn’t filled in the coupon properly.
1967 – A goods train plunged over the viaduct and Ena Sharples was buried under the wreckage before eventually being rescued by David Barlow. Harry Hewitt was crushed to death under Len Fairclough’s van. 20 million viewers tuned in to witness the wedding of Elsie Tanner and her American wartime boyfriend, Master Sergeant Steve Tanner.
1968 – Elsie Tanner left husband Steve, who was then found dead. Minnie Caldwell’s cat, Bobbie, went missing.
1969 – Betty Turpin arrived on the street with policeman husband Cyril. Albert Tatlock broke an arm in a coach accident.
1970 – Jack Walker died suddenly. Elsie Tanner married Alan Howard. Minnie Caldwell was held hostage by American army sergeant Joe Donnelli, who confessed to killing Steve Tanner, Elsie’s previous husband, and then shot himself.
1971 – Ken Barlow’s wife Valerie (pictured below) electrocuted herself with a hairdryer. Hilda and Stan Ogden bought a colour television set – only to have it repossessed in a fortnight by the finance company.
1972 – Emily married Ernest Bishop with Mavis as her bridesmaid. Hilda Ogden ended her Stan’s affair with “her at number 19 Inkerman Street”. Viewers in New York were finally treated to the series.
1973 – Len Fairclough bought a shop in Rosamund Street, called it The Kabin and installed Rita as manageress, she hired Mavis as her assistant. Poor Bet was mugged. Elsie Tanner (Howard) was knocked unconscious by a taxi.
1974 – Bet Lynch’s long-lost son turned up at the Rover’s Return and was so appalled at his mother’s vulgarity that he left without telling her who he was. Annie Walker played Lady Bracknell in the dramatic society’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest.
1975 – Bet loved and lost Len Fairclough. Deirdre loved and married Ray Langton. Albert Tatlock was a mere 80.
1976 – Hilda Ogden acquired her ‘muriel’ – a large poster of the Alps supplied by lodger Eddie who had been decorating the parlour and ran out of paper. Mavis Riley, broken-hearted over Derek, wrote a semi-bodice-ripping novel, Song Of A Scarlet Summer.
1977 – Rita accepted Len’s proposal and agreed to give up her singing career. Annie Walker played Elizabeth I on the float to celebrate the Jubilee.
1978 – Elsie divorced Alan but found a taxi man to take her to Majorca. Emily Bishop was widowed when gun-toting raiders at the warehouse shot Ernest (actor Stephen Hancock had got the sack because he asked for a pay rise).
1979 – Little Tracey Langton, only 1-year-old, was feared killed when a lorry driver had a heart attack at the wheel and ploughed into the pub. Had she known how rarely she would be seen on the show over the next ten years she might have volunteered! As it was, Deirdre found her at a friend’s house. Gail made the mistake of marrying Brian Tilsley. Elsie came back from her long absence in time for Christmas.
1980 – Emily married Arnold Swain, who was later unmasked as a bigamist. Gail and Brian had their first son, Nicky.
1981 – Ken Barlow married Deirdre Langton. Jack Duckworth kicked out his wife Vera for carrying on with another man.
1982 – Mike Baldwin tried to have the cat who spilled coffee over his sports coat put down by the RSPCA. Mavis was clinking glasses with ardent Victor Pendlebury.
1983 – Ken Barlow’s wife Deirdre had an affair with Mike Baldwin. The nation took sides. Ken got Deirdre back though.
1984 – Stan Ogden died, prompting a brilliant performance from Jean Alexander as his widow, Hilda. Elsie Tanner left for Portugal. Mavis and Derek both bottled out on their wedding day.
1985 – Bet Lynch took over the Rover’s Return. Terry Duckworth got Andrea Clayton pregnant.
1986 – Brian Tilsley divorced Gail because she had an affair.
1987 – Hilda Ogden left the street. Bet and Alec arranged their wedding.
1988 – Mavis finally married dreadful Derek. Annie Walker popped back for an Easter special.
Hilda Ogden (Crabtree)
Violet Carson OBE