The idea that was turned into the world’s longest-running TV soap opera – or continuous drama as actors would have it – came to Tony Warren on a train back to Manchester from London late one night in 1959.
The Pendlebury-born grammar school boy – real name Tony Simpson – who had been a regular on BBC radio’s Children’s Hour and an actor in many radio plays, turned his idea into a television script. He called it Florizel Street, a gritty working class saga based in a northern terraced street, and took it to Granada Television. He was just 24.
There were doubts about whether it would work. The BBC’s pioneering TV soap, The Grove Family, which ran from 1954 to 1957, was set in a middle class area of north London, though the grouchy old gran might have been a role model for Ena Sharples. The Archers, first aired on the radio in 1950 (and still going), told ‘the everyday story of country folk’. But life in a cobbled street in Salford?
Warren’s genius was to plug into the big-screen popularity of so-called kitchen sink dramas. The movie version of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger was released in 1956. Room at the Top hit cinemas in 1959 and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, which made Salford actor Albert Finney a major star, came out in 1960 – the same year that Corrie was first aired. Northern accents, hairnets, milk stouts in the snug and earthy humour, were suddenly de rigeur.
Coronation Street – Warren’s creation was renamed after a cleaning lady at the studios said Florizel reminded her of a brand of disinfectant – became an instant success, but he left Granada after writing the first 12 episodes. When he returned in 1968, he wrote only occasional scripts and was merely credited with the ‘original idea’ for the programme.
He was a colourful and exuberant character who suffered many emotional ups and downs – and to some within the Coronation Street family he became to be regarded as a bit of a nuisance. Nonetheless, he was forever synonymous with his creation.
When the Queen – herself apparently a fan – visited the new Coronation Street set at the Granada studios in 1983, she asked Warren: “Where is the real Coronation Street?” He replied: “In the hearts and minds of your subjects, Ma’am.”
He remained proud of having created Coronation Street, and of having fans of the calibre of the poet laureate Sir John Betjeman, who likened the soap to The Pickwick Papers.
Warren’s early life and career will be remembered in an exhibition at the Salford Museum and Art Gallery.
The exhibition will showcase aspects of Warren’s life, documenting him growing up in Pendlebury, Salford, where he absorbed the streets, people and sounds surrounding him, eventually leading him into a career in script writing.
As a child, he remembered visiting his grandmother’s house, where he would sit under the table and listen to the speech patterns of his female relatives. Strong women, from Ena Sharples and Elsie Tanner to Eileen Phelan and Liz McDonald, have characterised Corrie’s drama for more than half a century.
Original scripts and other items from his early writing career will be on show together with a replica living room scene from the 1950s/60s, the opportunity to watch the first episode of Coronation Street and personal items and photographs of Tony Warren together for the first time.
Nineteen-fifties’ Salford was full of terraced houses, cobbled streets, industrial sights and sounds, and this scene is set at the exhibition with specially created paintings by local artist David Coulter, who grew up in the same place and time that Tony Warren did. David’s paintings show his love for cities and capture the atmosphere and grittiness of urban surroundings.
“Coronation Street is the story of the everyday lives of ordinary folk living on a cobbled back street somewhere in Manchester,” said executive producer Kieran Roberts.
“The unique blend of heartwarming comedy and powerful drama has been at its heart since the very first episode in 1960.
Tony Warren was a wonderful and brilliant man who created not just a programme but an entire genre of British television. Tony left a huge legacy which is still growing and evolving. Coronation Street is the nation’s street and I hope that many people will enjoy this new exhibition that gives fascinating insights into the genesis of the programme and the genius of its creator.”
David Tucker of Tony Warren’s estate, added: “Tony was an amazing writer and he was a fantastic man who genuinely had an interest in anyone that he encountered. His knack for putting everyday drama down on paper and bringing it to life on our TV screens was second to none. I wanted the items from his career to be shared with the public and not shut away or sold. Tony approved an exhibition before he died. I am sure that he would be as thrilled as I am that it will be in his native Salford.”
Warren, who was appointed MBE in 1994, made a cameo appearance in the live broadcast of the 50th anniversary Coronation Street special in 2010. He died, aged 79, in March last year.
Four Miles from Manchester: Tony Warren’s Coronation Street, runs from Saturday 21 October to Tuesday 3 July 2018 at Salford Museum & Art Gallery, The Crescent, Salford. Admission is free.