Tony Warren, in his early twenties began work on an idea which would revolutionise British television. His idea of a twice-weekly continuing drama featuring characters loosely based on those he knew from growing up on the streets of Manchester became Coronation Street. The first episode, scripted by Warren and performed live on ITV in 1960 is still consistently the best programme on television fifty-five years later. His initial set of characters including Elsie Tanner, Ena Sharples, Annie Walker and Ken Barlow instantly engaged with the viewing public and have had a central role in British popular culture. He worked on scripts, with decreasing frequency until the late 70’s but very much remains a figurehead for the programme, its originator.
In the 1990’s Warren produced four novels which remain somewhat under-rated. Maybe at the time it was unclear how to market them. They are not quite the “bonkbuster” type novel, favoured by the likes of Jilly Cooper and the Collins sisters, Jackie and Joan (probably fading a little in popularity by the mid 90’s), not quite the warm saga and not quite chick-lit, although there are elements of all three genres. I have recently re-read all four and think they deserve a wider twenty-first century audience. Here is my guide to the novels of Tony Warren…..
The title always brings a smile to my face. On publication it probably sat on the same bookshelves as books featuring glamorous locations such as Monte Carlo, Cannes and Monaco. Right from the title Tony is showing us he’s just on the right side of kitsch. There’s a delightful sense of chutzpah before even opening the book. My paperback copy, however, does possess one of the most pointless and inappropriate front covers I’ve seen. I can’t fathom out the marketing department which would okay this cover- maybe that’s the difference between the early 90’s and today. However, once the reader has got over the slight snigger at the title and ignored the cover, which would have done Warren no favours and embarked upon the book she (and with that cover it is most likely to have been “she”) would have discovered a very good example of the showbiz saga, spanning forty years in the lives of Sorrel Starkey (not Pat Phoenix) and Micky Grimshaw (not Tony Warren). The author himself feels the need to point this out in the introduction and it would be an easy assumption to make being the tale of the writer of a continuing television drama “Angel Dwellings” and its early sensational star. I do admit it has dated a little since it came out and this type of doorstep sized saga is not as popular as it once was but it is highly enjoyable throughout and Warren really does put his main character through the wringer. Yes, it is melodramatic at times and imbued with a British kitschness which Warren pulls off , intentionally or not with aplomb. There’s a raft of memorable characters, some of whom may have had real life parallels and the backstreet world of Irlam O’Th’ Height comes to feel as familiar to the reader as Armistead Maupin’s San Francisco.
His second novel is not as good. It lacks the “Coronationstreetesque” sparkle of its predecessor and main character Rosie Tattersall is not a patch on the Pat Phoenix-ish Sorrell Starkey. Warren’s writing is actually very detailed and makes for a denser read than expected but quite a bit of it here is trivial. When the affluent Tattersall family splits, Rosie’s mother and twin brother head off to America whilst Rosie is housed with an ex-member of staff, Nora Hanky. It is set in the era of the British pop Invasion of the early 60’s so it’s no real surprise when Nora’s son Zav becomes an International Pop sensation- heralding from Irlam O’Th Height. Rosie sets her sights, however, on finding a man, preferably the one she once drew as her ideal man at Sunday School. Here lies for me the weak thread of the novel as I find the love story between her and the cartoon- made-real character totally unbelievable. There’s a move to Berkeley for the summer of love and drugs, family reunions and not-very well concealed family secrets. I hope I haven’t undersold this novel – it is enjoyable nonsense. Behind Closed Doors (1996)
Novel number three is his best. This is a rich, gossipy tale of three Manchester school children grouped together at the end of the war when they are labelled “misfits” on their first day at secondary school by the uniform outfitter. There’s Vanda Bell, the tubby girl with the tarot-reading grandmother. Vanda yearns for the stage and becomes a stripper. There’s pint-sized Joan Stone possesser of an over-vivid imagination and literary pretensions and tall, skinny Peter Bird, the child everyone knows is gay before he works it out himself. Solid characterisation in both main and supporting characters, good twists and a real sense of period spanning from the late 40’s to early 60’s make this a compelling and highly enjoyable read.
To date this is Tony Warren’s last novel and I’d rank it his third best. A transatlantic crossing on the QE2 is the setting and we catch up once again with Manchester’s Mickey Grimshaw and his best friend and star of “Angel Dwellings”, Sorrel Starkey. Mickey (not at all modelling Tony Warren) is now a novelist and Sorrel’s much loved husband had died. There’s concerns about her health and a shipboard romance but a new character is given a good share of the limelight here. She is also on the QE2 and also heralds from Irlam O’Th’ Height. Much is devoted to Dinah’s back story to explain why she is onboard and stalking another character familiar to Warrens’ readers. Rises to fortune, thwarted love ambitions and life-long loyalty to individuals are all areas Warren excels in writing about together with his warm characterisations. We get a few cameo walk-on parts from characters from the other books. It does feel a little bit “more of the same”, which is why I do not rank this amongst his best but he writes with a cosy familiarity which I do find very appealing.