Thursday, June 21, 2007
"Roy and Hayley are such popular characters, we gave them an exterior of their own"
Here's a feature I wrote eight years ago about a visit to the Coronation Street set.
Where The Street Has No Shame
from The Big Issue, August 2 1999
I'm standing with a man wearing a three-foot-tall plastic head which makes him look a bit like a fictional character, on the set of a TV set of a fictional street, which is supposedly in a town called Weatherfield which is really Manchester - in Manchester. And just behind a barrier at the end of the street is a large warehouse where the actor who plays that fictional character is currently acting out scenes which are supposedly taking place inside the houses on this fictional street. My brain hurts.
A woman approaches, clutching a blond toddler by the hand. 'Excuse me', she demands of the plastic-headed figure. 'Who are you supposed to be?'
'I'm Jack Duckworth', comes the reply, slightly muffled by the head, which is so uncomfortable that he is having to hold it up with both hands.
'Oh, of course you are,' she says, smiling at her son, who looks terrified.
'Do you want your photo taken with me?' asks Jack.
'No,' she says, turns on her heel and strides off down the cobbles of Britain's most famous street.
I'll come clean now: I've never really got Coronation Street. A wussy southern EastEnders man by birth, I've never acquired the committment and background knowledge that Corrie requires. Last year my housemate banished me from the sitting room for asking in the middle of an episode 'Who was Don Brennan?' It's a secret society, and I don't know my Ena Sharples form my Elsie Tanner. This leaves me in the minority here at Granada Studios, on this hallowed ground, the two-thirds sized street where the programme's exterior scenes are filmed every Monday. I am in the presence of die-hard pilgrims, who would take Bill Roach over Brad Pitt any time. America might have Madonna and Cher, but we've got Julie Goodyear and that woman who used to be Nadia Popov in Rentaghost. This is the cult of celebrity, British-style.
The first rule is to know your stuff. Even the guides who patrol the set can't compete with the expertise of some of the visitors. 'The worst thing is when people just remember something wrong,' one guide tells me. 'You know you're right, but they're totally insistent that Minnie Caldwell lived at number four, or something. In the end you just have to give up. And quite often they say to me, "No, you remember this", and I have to stop them and say, "Actually, er, I wasn't born."'
Certainly the tour group I joined know their stuff - one particular group of girls, who can barely have been out of nappies when Brookside started, can recite every landlady of the Rovers Return. According to my guide, 'The worst ones are the ones who actually believe it's real. They're convinced that the people really live in the houses, and whatever you say, they carry on thinking that. When Kevin went bankrupt, we had people coming up to us with cheques for £20 or £30 and asking us to pass them on. And a couple of months ago when Des died, people were coming up and laying wreaths outside his house.' She lowers her voice to a whisper. 'It's not like a normal programme, you know. It's a religion.'
So is she actually a fan of Coronation Street? She checks to see that there are no Spanish Inquisitors within earshot before pulling a face. 'I could tell you what's happening in EastEnders.'
Corrie atheists like myself can brush up with the help of a series of plaques attached to the drainpipe of each house, which give a potted history of their various occupants. This being soapland, crises that would destroy the average person are reduced to single, apologetic sentences. 'Unfortunately, he turned out to be a bigamist, and was arrested after trying to kill Emily,' is accompanied by smiling pictures of the cast in their best clothes. The braver amongst us lift up the odd letterbox and squint through. One child announces 'I've found the Battersbys' and their hall's a tip!'.
If you follow the back alley all the way down, you end up in an alternative Rover's Return next door to Emmerdale's Woolpack, both of which do a good trade in beers from their respective (and fictional) breweries. Down a few here and you wouldn't be overly surprised to step out onto what the site map calls a 'typical New York Street', which seems to be mainly an excuse to give Burger King a lucrative on-site catering franchise. Or, if you head the other way out of Weatherfield, past Roy's Rolls (according to the tour guide, 'Roy and Hayley have become such popular characters, producers gave them an exterior of their own') you find yourself transported back a couple of centuries to the time of Moll Flanders, and a 'typical London Street' from the ITV series. To add to the surrealness, it is here that I meet three Victorian Cockneys who are taking a breather from Sherlock Holmes' Baker Street next door. They're not real Cockneys, I discover, but three Mancunians called Keely, Emma and Jill.
'We're strictly from the Dick Van Dyke school of comedy,' Jill tells me. 'It's a good laugh though. I've been working here about three years now.' Suddenly a family go past with a pushchair and the girls leap into full-on Chim-chim-cheree action. 'Allo darlin,' they shriek in chorus. 'Gorblimey, you 'avin' a nice day?' They watch the group walk away before continuing their conversation. 'Keely's quite new. Emma and me are a duo: we do weddings as well.'
Surely, though, it can't all be fun. Performing the same Pearly Queen act eight times a day must get wearing. And it must be hard to work up enthusiasm for the Old Joanna when you turn up for work with a hangover. 'Oh, mostly we just sit around till a manager comes by,' Emma confides. 'But the worst thing is the bloody inflatable hammers. The kids buy them and then bash us with them as soon as we come near them.'
This seems an understandable reaction to anyone singing I'm Getting Married In The Morning. But the Cockney Lovelies aren't the only ones objecting to the hammers. Shortly after I arrive at Granada Studios a stern voice comes over the tannoy: 'This is a warning. It has come to our attention that inflatable hammers are not being used sensibly. If security see you being careless with your hammers, you will be removed from site.'
The hammers aren't the only big sellers. No tourist attraction is complete without an array of overpriced branded tat, and Granada Studios does not disappoint. Equally, no British tourist is complete without a good moan about the prices. "Five-fifty for one pot!' an elderly lady tuts over a display of Corrie-themed food. 'Well, you're paying for the label, aren't you,' her companion clucks. Yes, if you're stupid enough to want a picture of Nicky Platt on your biscuits, chances are you'll be stupid enough to be fleeced.
And the commercialism doesn't end here. One of Granada's latest attactions is Futurevision, a 'stunning, interactive presentation of tomorrow's technology'. Well, I have seen the future, and it doesn't work. It consists of a few flashing lights, metal flooring and computer monitors plastered with 'Out of Order' signs, over which floats the voice of Dale Winton playing Reverse Reveal - whatever the future might hold, it's good to know we'll still be watching Supermarket Sweep. Futurevision is, in other words, a plug for OnDigital, a company half-owned by, er, Granada TV.
They can make the gogglebox as interactive as they like, but nothing will compare to the real thrill of walking down a street which appears four times a week in your sitting room. Knowing it's fake just makes it better- I can't see coachloads of tourists flocking to Paddington Green, scene of the BBC's latest barrel-scraping docusoap, or camping out on the lawns of the Animal Hospital to see how many hapless critters they put down when Rolf's not looking. The success of Coronation Street lies in how real it is - it genuinely looks like the streets which surround these studios - but TV gives it that inexplicable glamour that makes sane individuals line up to peer through a grimy window, their day made by a glimpse of a phone that the man playing Mike Baldwin has pretended to use. Even better would be a glimpse of the phone-user himself, as one tour-guide tells me. "We get groups, of kids mostly, who wait at the end of the road by the studio building for three or four hours, sometimes, just for the chance of maybe seeing one actor go in our come out.'
And if they do, the reality is inevitably disappointing. One disgruntled girl brandishes a small bit of paper at one of the tour guides. 'I got Jack Duckworth's autograph,' she complains. 'But he signed it with someone else's name.'