Towards the end of 2000, freelance writer, Will Hadcroft conducted an interview with Coronation Street historian, story liner, script writer and novelist Daran Little.
Will is the the author of the upcoming children's novel ANNE DROYD AND CENTURY LODGE, which is set in a fictional town sandwiched between Bolton and Manchester (and very near Weatherfield, naturally!). See the Anne Droyd web site for more details.
To contact Will's editor, email: Calum Kerr
YOU don't have to be in conversation for very long before you realise that Daran Little is passionately in love with Coronation Street. He has spent a whole decade as the show's official archivist, has since penned a number of books on the subject, and has worked on the storylining team. Now Daran's achievements have peaked with what most fans can only dream of - actually putting words into the mouths of his favourite characters as one of the programme's script writers.
The series turned forty in December 2000 and there are no signs of its popularity waning. I opened the discussion by asking Daran when did he first began watching Coronation Street.
Is he old enough to have watched it from the start?
"No I'm not!" he declares with a grin. "It's six years older than me. The first episode I really remember is Ernie Bishop getting shot in 1978. I was eleven or twelve, something like that, and used to watch it at my Grandmother's house with her, and just became interested in the different characters and the way they interacted with one another. So it was the characters and the fact they had a history."
What does he think separates it from the other soaps, British and overseas?
"I think the thing is it's character-led rather than storyline-led. So when you watch Coronation Street the storylines come out of the characters rather than the characters coming out of situations. And that's why you can believe in the characters, because they can grow, and as the storylines come out of the characters, you tend to find that the characters aren't doing things that are out of character.
"Whereas in some soaps the characters are being used as chess pieces within a story. For instance, a soap may bring in a new family just to play an incest story. So before you know anything about the family, the brother and sister are [having sex], and you don't know anything about that family, all you know is this is it, and that's their one story. And once they've all been found out and once you've investigated the whole thing you get rid of that family. So you're not investing in the characters, you're just creating sensational stories which have characters in it which are only useful for that particular story.
"Whereas in Coronation Street, when we bring characters in, we don't have a specific story in line for them. We bring in a character and then the stories develop between that character and the interaction between other characters. So your characters then have a much longer life span, which is why they can survive ten, twenty, thirty, forty years."
So, presumably, the producer and storyliners sit round a table saying, "Right, we want this kind of person coming into it,' and then cast the appropriate actor?
"That's right, yeah. For instance, we've just cast Eileen. [And she now has] a family, she's [got two] boys, sons. And rather than thinking, "Hey! This is our opportunity to have a gay character,' and then sort of create, we say, "Right, she's got these two lads. How old are they? 15 and 17? Right, let's find a couple of [young actors], a couple of lads,' and then once you've seen them and you've seen her interact with them, the stories will develop from them. One of them might be a bit brainier than the other one of them might be into fitness, that sort of thing. Rather than thinking, "Right, this one's a kleptomaniac, and this one's in the closet but he'll form a huge crush on Ken Barlow'."
There's a bit of laughter as we both contemplate that last suggestion.
So the characters develop according to how the actors play their part and how it works on screen?
"Yeah, it's an interaction between the actors and the writers, and they build up the character, and then opportunities open up for you. For instance, where does this person work? Well, if he worked at Fresco's he would be working with Curly. How will his relationship with Curly affect Curly's relationship with his wife? It's that sort of thing. So our stories tend to be a bit less sensational than others, and it takes longer for you to get into the characters because you're not hooked on a particular story."
So is a new character ever dropped after a little while if the writers feel it isn't working?
"It all depends, as we've got so many new characters in Coronation Street coming in, not all of them are going to be long term. But if we do think a character's going to be long term then we will invest in the character. You start to think, "Well, what sort of thing would they do and where can we involve them within the street with the other players?' and it's only when you do that, that you start to see them in different scenes.
"Now, if you create a mechanic to work at Kevin's [garage], all you're ever gonna see is stripping down cars. But if you have him having a romance with one of the women in the street, you take him into another arena. Then if you decide that he's got a sister who needs a job and you move her into the cafe, you can play different scenes between the brother and the sister. And you open up a whole world for a character, and so you see different sides to that person. So rather than just being a mechanic in the garage, you give him a personality, you give a bit of a background. If he's got a short fuse, maybe he has a row with another character with a short fuse, and then you've got a fight, and then you've got other people's say on the fight, who takes his side and who are his friends. So straight away you are into stories."
What was the original premise for the show, and has it departed from it?
"It was an entertainment form, a family drama. It was to entertain and to reflect. You see, what happened when Granada got the franchise for the North, and it was the whole of the North then, including Yorkshire, the franchise said that it had to make programmes about people of the region written by people of the region, featuring people of the region. And [up to then] it wasn't doing that. So [writer] Tony Warren was told [by one of his superiors, pointing through the window] to write something about "out there', and he came up with Coronation Street. And that had never been done before, a Northern street. It could have been in London, but the fact remains it was a community, and the programme was to reflect the community and employ actors from the North West, and that's what it did.
"When it first went out people either loved it or hated it. The people in the North loved it and the people in the South hated it because they couldn't understand a word anyone was saying!"
The women have always been the strongest characters. Could the show have been devised by anyone other than a homosexual man?
"I don't know. You see, the thing is, Tony, as well as being a homosexual man is a very observant man, and he wrote about things that he had observed, and he had observed these characters. He had come from a very strong matriarchal community. So what he wrote about was a reflection of what he had observed [while] growing up. Now, because he was homosexual, he was maybe more in tune with a more feminine side - I don't know. You would have to ask him that. But what he wrote was basically what he saw. In his experience women were strong, men were weak. Women had the best lives, men had boring lives. It was the women who kept the home together. Men went out to work and to the pub. It was the women who kept the families together, who strove to better their families' lives, and who kept an eye very closely on the community. So that's what he wrote. It grew out of his experiences as a young man growing up in Manchester, rather than just a gay man. Because if that was the case he'd be writing Queer as Folk."
The theme music is very distinctive, it's probably the most famous tune on television. Was composer Eric Spear given any direction as to what the theme should be?
"He was sent the first script. He lived in Capri and was quite a well known composer for television themes, and the producers at that time sent him the first draft of the script, and a week later this sheet music and a tape turned up. He had written it purely from the first script with the cornet and everything, and [the theme] still plays that same composition. He died in 1966, but his credit goes up [on screen] and he gets royalties for each [episode]!"
Are there any other famous themes he's composed that we would recognise?
"I don't know of any, I don't think so. I read a piece once about other things he'd done but I certainly hadn't heard any of them."
And the title sequence is instantly recognisable. Have producers ever been tempted to change the roof tops to something else?
"Well it has been changed over the years. There's been about five different versions of it, but they always go back to those things, the roof tops and a cat. The cat's always been on [the titles] since 1976 when they found that moggie settling down on the roof tops. There have been, sort of, puddles, sort of like, huddled communities. There was a sequence in the Seventies which started with a high rise block of flats and then moved down very sharply to rows of terraces shadowed beneath them."
When did Granada realise they were on to a winner?
"It was quite difficult [at the beginning], because when we did two dry runs of [Episodes] One and Two which had some of the cast in that went on to be in it [later], the producers loved it but the Granada bosses hated it. So what the producers did was to put monitors all over the Granada building and they played the two episodes, and they sent everybody who worked at Granada a questionnaire [asking for their comments]. And the comments came in and they were fifty-fifty, there was nothing in between. So those went to the Granada bosses and it was pointed out that if people were loving it or hating it, then they have strong feelings about it. So that's really when the decision was made, but it was only cast for thirteen episodes. But as soon as it went out you had this, people loving it and people hating it, so [the bosses] decided it was better than people just going, "Yeah, it's all right'. If it had people talking about it, and it certainly did, then it was worth doing."
So a strong reaction is what counts, no matter what the reaction is?
"That's it. It was only meant to run for thirteen weeks, but it just carried on. Then what happened, six months into it in May 1961, it went fully networked. Before that Central hadn't taken it. As soon as it went fully networked it went to Number One in the ratings, straight away, and it's been there ever since - always at numbers one, two, or three, sort of thing. There was never any doubt after that of it staying around. But people obviously didn't think it was going to last forty years."
How does the show fair abroad? Are there fan clubs around the world?
"Canada, New Zealand and Australia are huge. Every year I look after a group of thirty Canadians who come over purely for Coronation Street. They come over for ten days and live in the centre of Manchester, and they go to Blackpool and visit the spot where Alan Bradley was killed. They come on a tour and meet the cast. People come from all over the world. We had a person here the other day from New Zealand who had come especially, so we showed them round the street.
"It does very, very well in English speaking countries. It doesn't do that well when it has to be dubbed, because it's very alien to the cultures that are watching it. It does very well in the places where there are pockets of British pats or army people like in West Germany. It's never been popular in America. The Americans have never really taken to it. Although a few of them get it by satellite from across the border from Canada, and I've seen to Americans who come over here.
"They are very passionate about it, especially the Canadians who have their own fan clubs. You see, we don't have an official fan club. So in Canada you get people who group themselves together and call themselves the Barm Cakes or the Rovers Returns, and they have meetings and watch Coronation Street. It's quite good over there because it goes out four times a week in the evening and then they have an omnibus on Sunday morning, nine till eleven [o'clock], on CBC. It's prime time on a Sunday morning. It's quite a good slot, that, so they pick up lots of people there.
"It's always been big in Australia. Some of the cast went over in 1966 and they were mobbed by crowds of over fifty thousand. The week before, the Queen Mother had gone, and hardly anyone had turned up to wave her on, and the British press at the time made a huge thing about this, [that Coronation Street's] more popular than the Queen Mother. One of the headlines was "Don't Send The Queen Mum, We Want Elsie Tanner'!"
Some of the best loved characters have injected a lot of comedy into the series. Does Daran think comedy is a vital ingredient?
"Oh, vital. It's vitally important because the ability to laugh at one's self is very important, and that's what a lot of the characters have. It goes back, I think, to Northern roots of the music hall and stereotypical Blackpool postcard humour. And I think too many people on television programmes have the characters taking themselves too seriously. It's a serious enough world without having doom and gloom chucked at you.
"So, yeah, we've got characters who will never break into a smile because it's not their role to do that. [The character] Gail will always have a terrible life, Sally will probably always have a terrible life and so will Deirdre."
I offer that Deirdre's mother, Blanche, will always have that stone face. "Absolutely. But Audrey, although life may slap her in the face, will always be a frivolous little thing. Maxine's always gonna lead Ashley a dance. And people identify with that. We don't, at the moment, have really, sort of, slapstick comic characters, which is good because what you have is Audrey who thinks she's always a cut above, who gets it wrong, and we all know someone like that. We all know a Jack and Vera [type couple], who despite the odds are still together. He gets into scrapes and she gets into scrapes, but they will always be together.
"There's Roy, who really doesn't fit in." I concede that I like Roy very much. I think the actor, David Nielsen, is a master at looking permanently mithered and unsure of things and forever in a conflict with himself. "He's sensational, isn't he? Always anguished. Then there's Fred, the butcher, larger than life - the walking Toby jug. You know these pompous arrogant men, but you also see different sides to him on Coronation Street. He's not just this one sided figure, he is a person who has feelings and can get hurt and does get hurt, as we all do. So one minute you're laughing with him, and the next you are thinking, "Oh God, that's so sad'. And I think that is what's so important about Coronation Street, these characters that take you on a journey with them, and you start a relationship with them and you feel as if you know them."
I confess that I rather liked the character Reg Holdsworth who was different to Fred in that he was an out-and-out comedy character, over the top and very one sided. "The programme wasn't big enough to hold him bouncing around the screen like a sort of fleshy Mister Blobby. It was fine for a period, but you can't carry on with a character like that for any length of time."
So when did Daran become the official archivist for the series?
And does he work with the writers and producers on continuity?
"Yeah, I work with the writers and the producers, I read every script, I go to story conferences and pitch ideas, and say, "This person wouldn't do this, and this person wouldn't do that.' It's my job to keep the background to the characters true. So the fact that Gail cannot drive [means] she can't be seen nipping up and down the road, although the actress [Helen Worth] can drive. So if we want Gail to nip around, then she has to learn to drive. It's things like that which make it more believable. People will remember that Gail failed her driving test in 1983."
Daran's novel Coronation Street At War stars younger incarnations of the original 1960 cast set during the Second World War. What inspired him to do that?
"Well, years ago I fleshed out who lived where in the houses before 1960 right back to when [the street was supposed to have been built, fictionally, in 1902] as a little exercise. But then I started to dig a bit deeper into it and create backgrounds to characters in various books I'd done. Then I thought, "There's a really good story here,' and I love [the setting of] the Second World War. So I just thought, "Write it!' and I did. It has been really well received and I'm really pleased with that. It's got the mix with the characters. It's still got the main characters from 1960 in, but they are fifteen years younger.
"Constantly [throughout the early episodes, the character] Ena was saying to Elsie, "You were the same in the war,' and it was lovely to flesh that out and give them feuds [in the book] that were still around [when the television series began] in 1960.
Didn't EastEnders do something similar a few years ago? Didn't they do a special episode set in World War Two?
"Yeah, they did, with Linda Robson."
Couldn't the Street be done too?
"Well we did think about it at the time. That was one of the reasons they wanted me to write the novel. It's much more difficult with Coronation Street [to make a one-off period drama] because you'd have to build a whole new street. Albert Square you can dress, but a whole new street would be very, very difficult."
I reflect on this and recall that the original street exterior was a studio set and didn't stop at the viaduct (which is now bricked up), but carried on with more houses on the other side. So a period piece would require a brand new exterior set to be built outdoors.
Would the series of Coronation Street or maybe the book Coronation Street At War transfer successfully to the big screen?
"I don't know, actually. You see, people have fixed ideas in their minds about what happened and the characters. I think Coronation Street is at it's best in a half hour format with things going on in the street. I don't think it would work on the big screen. There are too many characters, we have got fifty characters, and it works great as a TV series."
Some complain that it is stuck in the past. Are they justified? Is it in a world of it's own?
Daran is straight in with his answer here, his enthusiasm bubbling over. "I think it's in a world of it's own. The thing is I don't care if it's stuck in the past or not. For me it's Coronation Street, and if I wanted to watch television and see social realism I'd watch World in Action, Granada make it, it's a great documentary series. I want to be entertained, I want to have a laugh and I want to be moved. For me that's what Coronation Street does."
I've always felt that Weatherfield is in a little bubble, an alternate reality somewhere. Daran agrees. "People analyse it too much, and you just think to yourself, "Just enjoy it, for goodness sake'. At the end of the day it's a story. That's all it is. We're sitting down and we are telling you a story. Just enjoy it."
I'm tempted to compare the semi-never-never world of the Street with the "realistic' EastEnders. "It's been going for fifteen years," says Daran, "but the rate at which it burns out characters - I mean it creates brilliant characters, but in two years they're gone. I like Coronation Street because it just carries on and it's got people I know and trust. I turn on the telly and go, "Oh, there's Ken and Deirdre. I know there will be no big surprises. It might get a bit emotional, but great, brilliant, what have they got into now?'"
I read an interview with a soap storyliner called Gareth Roberts and he said that anything which occurred in a soap six months ago is considered by the writers as ancient history. Is it healthy for the show to repeat themes in such a short space of time?
"Well I don't think we do that on Coronation Street. I mean, I'm constantly there saying, "We did this five years ago,' and they go, "Oh God, all right, we won't do it.'"
Many worry that more episodes per week would reduce the quality of writing. Are the writers and storyliners strained for ideas?
"They're not strained for ideas, but I do think that you are asking an awful lot of your audience to watch a programme more than a certain amount of time. When I was growing up it was on a Wednesday and Monday, it was a special time. If it was on every day of the week for an hour, you're gonna miss some, aren't you? And I don't want people to miss episodes of Coronation Street. I want them to think, "Ah, good, it's Coronation Street, I want to watch it.' That's important to me, the continuity. Because otherwise I'll get letters saying so-and-so said this, but then they didn't do it, and [I'd have to say], "I think you must have missed the episode.' It's like missing a chapter out of