On this date in 1960, Coronation Street, a British soap opera created by Granada Television, was first aired on ITV. On 17 September 2010, Coronation Street entered Guinness World Records as the world’s longest-running television soap opera after the US soap opera As the World Turns concluded. William Roache was also listed as the world’s longest-running soap actor, having played in the show since the first episode. The show centers on Coronation Street in Weatherfield, a fictional town based on Salford (near Manchester), featuring typical Northern urban industrial terraced houses, café, corner shop, newsagent’s, building yard, taxicab office, hairdresser, textile factory, and pub. In the show’s fictional history, the street was built around 1901 and named in honor of the coronation of King Edward VII. The show currently airs five times per week (with some repeats). Originally it was twice a week on Wednesdays and Fridays.
I was living in South Australia when Coronation Street was first aired in England, and it took a little while to reach us. But it did get shown in Australia in 1961, back to back with Peyton Place from the U.S., and was an instant success. I watched the first few episodes, but was never engaged. I was 10 when it first appeared and its basic themes held no interest for me, nor did I relate to the culture of northern England. My family watched regularly though. My mother was a fan, but was grossly offended by the fact that South Australians saw it as representing English culture as a whole, rather than the working-class culture of the north, which was about as alien to her as South Australia was. She came from a legendarily high-toned seaside resort town on the South Coast. She did note on a trip to England in 1962 to visit her mother, however, that the streets of her home town were deserted for the 30 minutes that Coronation Street aired (twice a week).
The show was conceived in 1960 by scriptwriter Tony Warren at Granada Television in Manchester. Warren’s initial kitchen sink drama proposal was rejected by the station’s founder Sidney Bernstein, but he was persuaded by producer Harry Elton to produce the show for 13 pilot episodes. Within six months of the show’s first broadcast, it had become the most-watched program on British television, and is now a significant part of British culture (going by the nickname Corrie). The show has been one of the most financially lucrative programs on British commercial television, underpinning the success of Granada Television and ITV.
The first episode was not initially a critical success. Daily Mirror columnist Ken Irwin said that the series would only last three weeks. Granada Television had commissioned only 13 episodes, and some inside the company doubted the show would last beyond its planned production run. Despite the criticism, viewers were immediately drawn into the serial, won over by Coronation Street‘s down-to-earth characters. In particular, the show made use of Northern English language and dialect which was unheard of on British television of the time. Common local slang terms like “eh, chuck?” “nowt” and “by ‘eck!” were heard on television for the first time.
Here’s a scene from the first episode of Coronation Street featuring Ken Barlow (William Roach), who still plays on the series:
The early episodes involved, among many others, the story of how Ken Barlow had won a place at university, which was highly unusual for working-class boys and girls at the time. The vast majority left school at 16, or earlier, and began working. I well remember overhearing a conversation on a bus in England between two working-class mothers in 1965, and one was complaining to the other that her daughter wanted to stay on at school past 16. They were both upset and could not understand the girl’s choice. I am not talking about university here, just staying on at school until 18. Ken’s acceptance at university was a main thread that pointed up class problems in England at the time, as evidenced in the above clip.
Ken’s character was one of the few to have experienced life outside of Coronation Street. In some ways this thread predicted the growth of globalization, and the decline of similar working-class communities in the north. In an episode from 1961, Barlow says: “You can’t go on just thinking about your own street these days. We’re living with people on the other side of the world. There’s more to worry about than Elsie Tanner and her boyfriends.”
At the center of many early stories, there was Ena Sharples (Violet Carson), caretaker of the Glad Tidings Mission Hall, and her friends: Minnie Caldwell (Margot Bryant), and Martha Longhurst (Lynne Carol). The trio were likened to the Greek chorus, and the three witches in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, as they would sit in the snug bar of the Rovers Return pub, passing judgment over family, neighbors and frequently each other. Headstrong Ena often clashed with Elsie Tanner, whom she believed had a dauntlessly loose set of morals. Elsie resented Ena’s interference and gossip, which most of the time had little basis in reality.
In March 1961, Coronation Street reached No.1 in the television ratings and remained there for the rest of the year. Earlier in 1961, a Television Audience Measurement (TAM) showed that 75% of available viewers (15 million) tuned into Coronation Street, and by 1964 the program had over 20 million regular viewers, with ratings peaking on 2 December 1964, at 21.36 million viewers.
In spite of rising popularity with viewers, Coronation Street was criticized by some for its outdated portrayal of the urban working class, and its representation of a community that was a nostalgic fantasy. After the first episode in 1960, the Daily Mirror printed: “The programme is doomed from the outset … For there is little reality in this new serial, which apparently, we have to suffer twice a week.” By 1967, critics were suggesting that the show no longer reflected life in 1960s Britain, but reflected how life was in the 1950s. Granada hurried to update the program with the hope of introducing more issue-driven stories, including Lucille Hewitt becoming addicted to drugs, Jerry Booth being in a storyline about homosexuality, Emily Nugent having an out of wedlock child, and introducing a black family, but all of these ideas were dropped for fear of upsetting viewers.
Well, since the 1960s Coronation Street has gone through numerous changes, of course. Somehow it has managed to stagger on into the internet age with a respectable viewership that continues to anchor Granada and ITV. More power to them, even though I have zero interest in the show. Someone is still watching even though over the decades they have had to compete with edgier and more contemporary soaps and dramas. I am reminded of the BBC radio soap, The Archers, which has been on the air continuously since 1951 and holds all manner of world records. Some British media institutions just won’t die.
Another great British institution is the Eccles cake which comes from a village near Salford, the model for Coronation Street. I’m not much of a baker, so when I am in England I usually just buy an Eccles cake if I feel in the mood. But they are not all that difficult to make, and homemade is generally superior unless, by some rare chance, you can get one fresh and warm at a local baker’s. Day old and cold they remind me of eating flaky cardboard and lard with a fruity aftertaste.
2 tbsp butter
1 cup dried currants
2 tbsp chopped candied mixed fruit peel
¾ cup demerara sugar
¾ teaspoon mixed spice (allspice, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg)
frozen puff pastry, thawed
1 egg white, beaten
Preheat the oven to 425°F/220° C. Grease a baking sheet.
Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Stir in the currants, mixed peel, demerara sugar and mixed spice. Stir until the sugar is dissolved and fruit is well coated. Remove from the heat.
On a lightly floured surface, roll out the pastry to ¼” thickness. Cut out 8 (5” ) circles, using a saucer as a guide. Divide the fruit mixture evenly between the circles. Moisten the edges of the pastry, pull the edges to the center and pinch to seal. Invert filled cakes on the floured surface and roll out gently to make a wider, flatter circle, but do not break the dough.
Brush each cake with egg white and sprinkle generously with caster sugar. Make three parallel cuts across the top of each cake, then place them on the prepared baking sheet.
Bake in the preheated oven 15 minutes, or until golden.