Spike Milligan once said his epitaph would read – ‘Wrote The Goons, died’; it’s an inevitability that when someone whose working life created something that has impacted upon the consciousness of the general public in the most benign manner, the rest of the creator’s life (and their afterlife) will be lived in the shadow of his or her creation. The Beatles as a musical unit effectively covered around thirteen years of Paul McCartney’s seventy-four on the planet, yet it is those thirteen for which he will be forever remembered. And so it is with Tony Warren, whose death at the age of 79 was announced today.
Warren was an actor from childhood, though had been a novelist for the majority of his adult life; however, the obituaries will be headed ‘Coronation Street creator dies’. ‘Coronation Street’ was something that occupied Warren’s time at the turn of the 1960s – over fifty years ago; his involvement with the programme essentially covered the first 13 episodes and then other writers such as Harry Kershaw were brought in by Granada to allegedly lift the writing burden from the man whose imagination the entire concept sprang from. Warren felt his input was being minimised by the same people who were against the programme in the beginning and now had an overnight sensation on their hands; control of his baby was wrestled away from him, though he continued to write occasional scripts for it up until the late 1970s. In recent years, his services as a consultant had been called upon by a younger generation of writers and producers who had grown up with Warren’s brainchild and he received belated recognition as the father of the institution.
Tony Warren was born three years before the outbreak of the Second World War, and like most children whose earliest memories emanate from the home front he was raised in a matriarchal community. He confessed his happiest times were hiding under the kitchen table merely to listen to the conversations carried out by a tough breed of women who had already lived through one global conflict as well as the Great Depression; there was also the fact that they had been raised in a hard environment of virtually Dickensian poverty, residing in bug and vermin-ridden houses bereft of running water and mired in appalling sanitation, forever burying babies at a time when there was no NHS to save them. Their response was not to buckle under, but to knuckle down. One way of dealing with such a gritty existence was gallows humour, something that was evident in the myriad of curious phrases that dripped from the lips of the extended female family surrounding Warren in his formative years. These were seared onto Warren’s memory and resurfaced when he abandoned speaking the words of others and began to write his own.
It’s debatable whether someone who created some of the most iconic female characters in British popular culture owed those creations to his childhood experiences or the fact that he himself was distanced from the macho male psyche especially prevalent in the North of England by virtue of his homosexuality at a time when a prison sentence was a perennial concern. In truth, it was probably a combination of the two. Drifting towards the theatre as a safe haven, Warren turned to the new medium of television when Granada was established as the North’s outlet for the expanding ITV network in 1956; acting in some of Granada’s early productions, he reckoned he could do a better job of concocting scripts than those whose woeful efforts he was being forced to endure and his contributions were readily accepted. However, it seemed to Warren that Granada’s regional remit was being overlooked when it came to the drama the station produced and he began to delve into his upbringing when the idea of a series based in the reality of what the company fancifully called ‘Granadaland’ entered his thoughts.
‘Florizel Street’ was a hard sell as the 50s morphed into the 60s. Despite the revolution taking place in British theatre, literature and then cinema, with ‘Look Back in Anger’, ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’, ‘A Taste of Honey’, ‘A Kind of Loving’ and numerous others, television was resistant to allowing the lives of its largely working-class audience onto screens dominated by middle-class actors, presenters and subject matters. Successive rejections from the Granada bigwigs as Warren polished and honed his story of a street like the ones he could see from the windows of his office at the citadel that was supposed to reflect its surroundings only served to intensify his determination. To be fair, the reluctance of his bosses to commit themselves to Warren’s radical concept needs to be placed in context; there had been nothing comparable to what Warren envisaged on British TV, and it was seen as a huge gamble that could leave Granada with egg on their faces.
Gradually gaining the invaluable support of drama producer Harry Elton, Warren’s labour of love was cautiously given the go-ahead in 1960 and the task of casting the characters began. Regional rep and radio were trawled for the right actors to fit the parts, many of whom had been journeymen thespians for decades and had little experience of television. Doris Speed, cast as landlady of the pub at the end of Warren’s fictitious street, was semi-retired from acting; Violet Carson, a relatively late choice for resident battleaxe Ena Sharples, had more or less abandoned acting after a degree of modest wartime fame on the wireless; Pat Phoenix, cast as colourful tart-with-a-heart Elsie Tanner, had worked at Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop in London and foresaw a future eking out a living playing small parts on stage and in the odd B-movie; only William Roache, cast as the street’s intellectual angry young man Ken Barlow, had ambitions to become a big star, viewing his part as a stepping-stone to greater glory. In an infant medium trying its hand at a novel new drama of a kind that had never been produced before, it was no wonder few of the original cast saw further ahead than the 13 initial episodes Granada had commissioned.
When the first episode of what was renamed ‘Coronation Street’ (one of Warren’s few compromises) aired on 9 December 1960, it’s hard to conceive of the seismic impact it made on viewers from the distance of over 55 years later. A TV nation that was accustomed to television talking down to it like a benevolent colonial governor addressing the natives was shocked and excited to see archetypes they instantly recognised on-screen. Every working-class neighbourhood in the country had an Ena Sharples, an Elsie Tanner, an Annie Walker, an Albert Tatlock, a Minnie Caldwell and a Leonard Swindley. Yes, ‘Coronation Street’ was so rooted in a particular Northern culture that the odour of bread-and-dripping could almost be sniffed in the room when it was broadcast; but the characters possessed traits that could be found anywhere in the country wherever there was a close-knit community living in each other’s pockets, and the show was networked in a matter of weeks, shooting to the top of the ratings in record time.
The BBC woke up from its rather smug slumber in the wake of this new sensation and was encouraged to bring a little realism into its own staid TV output, resulting in the commissioning of other groundbreaking series such as ‘Z-Cars’, ‘Steptoe and Son’ and ‘The Wednesday Play’. The importance of ‘Coronation Street’ should be disregarded at one’s peril. Simply getting it onscreen in the first place – a testament to Tony Warren’s grit and determination – stands as perhaps the single greatest achievement in the history of British broadcasting. His obituaries may be prefixed with ‘Coronation Street creator’, but there’s really no greater epitaph that could grace his tombstone. Rest in peace, and thank you, Tony.
© The Editor