This week sees the 50th anniversary episode of Coronation Street, the most consistently popular show in British television history. It is hard to believe that the routine lives of the inhabitants of Weatherfield, a northern town loosely based on the city of Salford, has now captured the nation for over half a century. While we think of the show as always having been a popular success, this was not always the case, and it is interesting to look back to its rather uneasy and uncertain genesis – and for what it tells us about a particular moment in our social history.
Coronation Street was produced by Granada Television, the independent television company initially charged with serving the North (and later North-West) of England. With great fanfare Granada had been launched by the Bernstein brothers (Sidney and Cecil) in 1955, as an extension of their extensive entertainment business interests (they ran a number of London theatres and cinemas). Legend has it that they applied for the Northern franchise based on a close analysis of population and rainfall charts – they figured if commercial television was to work it would do so where there were big audiences and bad weather. The Bernsteins were savvy operators and saw the new commercial television stations of ITV as a great opportunity to make money, even if they had to move their operations to the uncharted territories of the North.
The early signs were not encouraging. Caroline Moorehead, Sidney Bernstein’s biographer, reports that on a scouting mission to secure premises Bernstein was taken to Salford ‘which we found disappointing,’ ‘the surroundings depressing’ and he ‘feared for the effect on visitors’. Yet Bernstein knew that to be accepted as a regional broadcaster, Granada had to appear to have an affinity with the Northern population. And so the myth of ‘Granadaland’ was born – a term coined by Bernstein to describe what he called the ‘homogenous, cultured group’ of Northerners living happily together in a ‘close-knit, industrial society’. Granada’s role was to serve the needs of this population and reflect and represent its concerns, and, for many, Coronation Street was the obvious outcome of this ambition – a programme that showed the ‘realities’ of ordinary Northern life to its inhabitants.
But when the pilot – created by the then unknown writer Tony Warren and a young Canadian producer called Harry Elton – was shown to the Bernsteins and other members of the Granada Programme Committee, it was dismissed. One member described it as ‘crap’ that ‘should play in the afternoon’; another described the northern dialects as ‘a joke’ and one other railed that ‘surely people watch television to be taken out of their dreary lives and not to have their noses rubbed in it’. Sidney Bernstein wearily concluded: ‘Is this the image of Granadaland that we want to project to the rest of the country’? Reluctantly, because nothing else was available, the Committee allowed a short run of the show to be aired in the Northern region (the other regional broadcasters also famously rejected it as too parochial and incomprehensible to their local audiences) – and after some initial indifference the audience figures steadily climbed, and 50 years on, well, the rest is history.
So it was out of a short-term economic necessity, rather than through cultural commitment, that the show was first broadcast. While Granada had the remit to serve the North, it did not originally see its ordinary citizens as suitable subjects for its dramatic output. Such reluctance mirrored a wider set of conflicts circulating at this historical moment. Coronation Street emerged at a time when British working-class life was only just starting to be taken seriously as a topic worthy of artistic consideration; the simultaneous emergence of a new group of writers associated with working class realism (for example John Braine, Alan Sillitoe, Stan Barstow), and the grainy monochrome of the ‘kitchen-sink’ cinema (such as Room at the Top, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, A Taste of Honey) were part of the same ‘discovery’ by the arts world of ‘authentic’ stories and ‘ordinary’ lives. Yet this emergence was contested – and not celebrated by all. The antipathy of the ostensibly pro-Northern and socially-aware Granada enterprise was considerably amplified in London, and in the national press – Coronation Street itself was famously dismissed by the Daily Mirror as ‘doomed from the outset...with its gloomy tune and grim scene of a row of terraced houses and smoking chimneys’. Only when the show became hugely popular with audiences – and enormously lucrative for Granada – did the idea that Corrie was (and had always been) ‘the nation’s favourite’ start to take hold.