Coronation Street, King of the Soaps

Prince Charles samples the beer in the Rovers Return
Prince Charles samples the beer in the Rovers Return

by Ray Setterfield

December 9, 1960 — Coronation Street, the world's most successful television soap opera, began broadcasting on this day. It went on to become the only soap to have triggered comments by a Prime Minister in Parliament and to have received royal patronage.

Set in the cobbled streets and terraced houses of northern England, not everyone at the Manchester studios where it was made were optimistic, some declaring that the show would be lucky to complete its scheduled 13-episode initial run.

But within six months "Corrie" – as it was to become affectionately known – was riding high as the most-watched programme on British television.

Other soaps have come: Emmerdale and Eastenders; and gone: Crossroads and Australia's Neighbours, but Coronation Street continues to dominate the scene, officially becoming – in September 2010 – the world's longest running TV soap opera in production.

Principal scriptwriter Tony Warren originally planned to call it Florizel Street, but fortuitously changed his mind and decided that the fictional road had been built in the early 1900s and named in honour of the coronation of King Edward VII.

From the start, strong, dominant female characters ruled the roost. At their head in the early years was actress Violet Carson who played Ena Sharples, a battle-axe in a hairnet who would hold court in the Snug bar of the Rovers Return pub with her friends Minni and Martha.

Once compared to the Three Witches in Shakespeare's Macbeth, they would set the world to rights as they sat gossiping and passing judgment on neighbours, friends and each other. And the viewers loved it.

As caretaker of the Glad Tidings Mission Hall, Ena took particular exception to the "loose morals" of feisty Elsie Tanner who had a passion for men. But this powerful character, played by Pat Phoenix, was more than capable of squaring up to Ena and the no-holds-barred verbal battles between the two transfixed viewers.

The early episodes also featured William Roache as Ken Barlow, a youngster who had won a place at university, plunging him into conflict with his roots, his family and his neighbours. Roache is the only member of the original cast still performing in the serial, which makes him the longest-serving actor in Coronation Street, and in British and global soap history.

Despite those early doubts, "Corrie" quickly went from strength to strength. It reached Number One in the television ratings, judged on the number of viewers, in March 1961, claiming an audience of 15 million, which was estimated to be 75 per cent of the available viewing public. By the mid-Sixties the figures were considerably stronger, averaging 20 million for each episode and peaking on 2 December 1964 at 21.36 million.

Such was the "pull" of Coronation Street that in 1998 Prime Minister Tony Blair commented on one of the storylines in the House of Commons. The jailing of housewife Deirdre Rachid (actress Anne Kirkbride) for a crime she did not commit created outrage among viewers, caused jammed switchboards at the studio and triggered newspaper campaigns for her to be freed.

Asked in Parliament about this "miscarriage of justice," Mr Blair replied: "It is clear to anyone with eyes in their head she is innocent and she should be freed."

After a mention in Parliament there was only one greater honour – the stamp of royal approval. That came in December 2000 when the show celebrated its fortieth year by broadcasting a live, hour-long episode. During it, Prince Charles appeared as himself in a news bulletin as one of the Street's councillors was presented to him.

That's a hard act to follow, even for EastEnders, the rival BBC soap that has battled with "Corrie" for ratings honours ever since it was launched in 1985.

Published: November 27, 2017

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