The Road To Coronation Street – ITV 3 (2010) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review



Jessie Wallace, David Dawson, Jane Horrocks, Lynda Baron, Celia Imrie

I concluded my recent tribute  to writer Tony Warren who passed away in early March by hoping that this 2010 drama first shown on BBC4 would be repeated.  This week it made an appearance on ITV3 and it was good to see it again.  It tells the story of how twenty-three year old Warren under contract as a writer at Granada television came up with perhaps the most important television programme in British history.  I think this was first made as part of the celebrations for 50 years of Coronation Street, but it did provide a very fitting tribute to the man behind it.

Granada Studios set up in Manchester with the remit to make programmes in the North of England and to support Northern writers.  Warren (ably played by David Dawson) announces his arrival with “I’m a writer, I’m Northern and I’m ready to be nurtured.”  This leads to him writing scripts for series such as “Biggles” which is not really what he had to mind.  What he has in mind (which came to him after he barricaded himself in his superior’s office by refusing to come down off the top of the  filing cabinet) was a tale set around Manchester, “the story of a back street terrace and all the people who live in it.”


Jessie Wallace and David Dawson as Pat and Tony

The green light was not immediate.  There were reservations about this young writer, about using Northern actors in a drama, “North Country accents- it’s the language of comedy” and certainly the name of the piece (originally Florizel Street- cue the much quoted story of the cleaner who said it sounded like a disinfectant) but eventually casting began and a pilot episode was commissioned.  The most fascinating aspect of the programme was the casting, both in terms of the original “Coronation Street” cast and who was chosen to play them.  Warren was keen to use Doris Speed who he had worked with on radio.  Doris had more or less given up acting but came on board to play Annie Walker.  Celia Imrie played Doris with just the right level of haughtiness.  Ena Sharples was originally played by Nita Valery in the pilot but she didn’t have enough edge and it seemed as if no-one would be able to play the character to the team’s satisfaction.  Warren remembered another performer who had terrorised him as a child – Violet Carson.  It was made clear that she was going to be difficult but was perfect for the role of the harridan with a heart.  Lynda Baron played her beautifully. Most inspired of all was East End Soap Queen Jessie Wallace (Kat Slater) as Weatherfield Soap Queen Pat Phoenix.  This was a pitch perfect performance of the woman who was central to the show’s early success and became a great friend of Tony Warren.  These were performers who had struggled – Pat’s professional career had become a round of auditions where she was told to “Come in, flash your tits, piss off-it’s no life.”  Tony Warren’s creation certainly gave the actors life.

Pat Phoenix, Doris Speed, Violet Carson

William Roache was played as a go-ahead young actor who was roughing it for a while until his big break in films came alone:  “It’s only a week.  What harm can it do?”  This said by the man still a mainstay of “Coronation Street” fifty-seven years later.  His part was played by his son, James, so this portrayal must have Roache’s approval.  For me it ended too soon with the transmission of the first episode.  I would like to have known how the instant stardom after years of struggling affected the cast and , indeed, Tony himself.  With only a 75 minute running time  for “The Road To Coronation Street” events were obviously condensed.  It chose to focus on just a handful of the performers- yet a number of the other original cast were fascinating – Jack Howarth who played Albert Tatlock, Margot Bryant who played Minnie Caldwell could have a ninety minute docu-drama all to herself as far as I am concerned but these were barely visible here.   Philip Lowrie who played Dennis Tanner from the first episode has said that Warren wrote that part for himself and subsequently found it hard to write for Lowrie but this was not touched upon here other than him reading the part in Pat Phoenix’s mesmerising audition.


Margot Bryant as Minnie Caldwell with beloved cat

“The Road To Coronation Street” was written by a man with a pedigree, Daran Little.  Script writer and for many years a historian for the street this is a man who knows his stuff well and was a perfect choice to script it.  He is also a great friend of cast members and I have read a number of books he has written which has chronicled the life of the street over the years.  He also co-wrote Betty Driver’s autobiography.  It was directed by Charles Sturridge who also worked on “Coronation Street” so it was  obvious that these people knew what they were doing.  In 2011 it won the BAFTA for Best Single TV Drama and both Jessie Wallace and Lynda Baron were nominated for Best Supporting Actress.


It was great to see this again both as a tribute and as an example of a piece which is superbly written, acted and with a real feel for the period.  ITV3 does tend to show things over and over again so keep a look out for it.  Now all we need is to get Warren’s novels republished.


The Road To Coronation Street was shown on Monday 14th March at 10pm on ITV3.  It is currently available on catch-up on the ITV hub. It is also available on DVD.


Tribute To Tony Warren- Pioneer of British Television


Yesterday there was the sad announcement of the death of television writing legend Tony Warren at the age of 79.  In his early twenties he came up with the idea which would transform British television – a twice weekly continuing saga showing the, at the time, rarely seen on television working class northerners typical of the people Warren, a child actor himself, grew up with.   His idea “Florizel Street” with a little tweaking in the name department (it was famously a cleaner at the Granada Studios who said it sounded like a disinfectant) became “Coronation Street” and from the very start a huge success.  Over fifty-six years later it is still putting out 2.5 hours of high quality entertainment each week and has always remained one of Britain’s highest rated programmes.

Warren has not been involved in the script-writing side for many years but he has been more than a figurehead throughout the show and his contribution is marked in the closing credits of every episode. The current cast were quick to make their own tributes.  William Roache who has played Warren’s creation Ken Barlow since the very first episode has said that he was the “father ” of the show.  Helen Worth, who in her 40 year+ stint on the soap as Gail would have performed from scripts Warren wrote and acted with characters he alone created said he was  “a genius of our time [and] the dearest, funniest and most inspirational man of his generation.”


In the 1990’s he produced four novels which were consistently strong and thoroughly entertaining and well worth investigating.  My review of these novels can be found here and serves as my own little tribute to the writing of Tony Warren. A couple of the novels feature a young soap opera writer Micky Grimshaw, who you can’t help but want to imagine is Warren himself and his best friend and television star, Sorrell Starkey who you will feel really must be Pat Phoenix, whatever Warren said about these characters.  His novels, like the most famous characters he created were gossipy, surprising and full of warmth, which, it is no surprise to find out, sums up the man himself.


In 2010 the tale of Warren’s attempts to get his creation on television was made into a one-off BBC 4 drama production.  “The Road To Coronation Street” was an excellent programme and would be a fitting tribute from the BBC to the man who cemented the success of ITV, their television rivals.



The Novels Of Tony Warren – A Chick-lit from a male point of view review


heartimagesTony 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…..

manchester The Lights Of Manchester (1991)

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.   fourstars

rainbow Foot Of The Rainbow (1993)

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.                 threestarsbehindclosed 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.

fourstarsfullsteam Full Steam Ahead (1998)

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.