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Friday, 8 December, 2000, 10:50 GMT
40 years on the Street
Mike baldwin (Johnny Briggs) and Ken Barlow (Bill Roache) slug it out
Another quiet night in the Rovers, from 1990
By the BBC's William Gallagher

At its peak, Coronation Street has been watched by 29 million people at a time but when it began only a fraction of that tuned in.

On 9 December 1960 many ITV regional companies chose not to take the series at all.

The makers, Granada Television, were unsure of it too, so they delayed promoting it until the first couple of episodes had aired.

So people caught it mostly by accident, and they weren't all impressed.

"The programme is doomed from the outset," decided the Daily Mirror's critic Ken Irwin.

Writer and creator Tony Warren reports that the first go at an episode had a produced the same result within Granada.

Tony Warren
Hats off: Tony Warren devised the series
"Several of the older executives were appalled by the finished pilots," he says.

But as management wavered, Warren's producer Harry Elton screened the first pilot episode on TV sets around Granada's Manchester offices.

Florizel Street, as it was called, got very strong reactions both for and against but the majority of office workers were in favour.

"They all loved Ena Sharples," says Warren.

The idea worked and on 25 August 1960, Granada's management agreed to make 16 episodes - as long as the title were changed.

Reports vary on how the decision was made to call it Coronation Street but however it was done, it took until November to come up with it.

Stars getting a break on the Street
Ben Kingsley
Joanne Whalley-Kilmer
Joanna Lumley
Martin Shaw
Richard Beckinsale
Davy Jones
Peter Noone
Michael Ball
Paula Wilcox
By then the original 22 characters had been cast - including William Roache as Ken Barlow, Violet Carson as Ena Sharples and Pat Phoenix as Elsie Tanner.

Rehearsals did not begin until 5 December for the opening episode.

"Many of the people we auditioned were highly experienced performers who had grown up resigned to being background actors," says Tony Warren.

"But a few of them were about to become the best-known faces on British TV."

With pressure to use the studio for other shows, the Coronation Street sets would be put up and taken down each week - and the cast would make two episodes at a time.

Bernard Youens and Hilda Alexander
Stan and Hilda were television's first couple
Friday night's episode would always be live but then the cast would take a quarter hour break and come back to film the Monday episode as if it were live too.

"Once your scene was finished, you froze," remembers William Roache.

"You couldn't cough or anything. It was the most terrifying ordeal."

Coronation Street had been given months to prepare its first 16 episodes, eight weeks of programmes, but at some point during the run the word came to extend it and creator Tony Warren struggled to get scripts done in time.

If the series had not continued, it would never have been seen across the country. Tyne Tees didn't take it until February 1961 and ATV in the Midlands until May 1961.

In October 1961, the show became the top-rated programme in the country and it has stayed in the top ten for the vast majority of its forty years.

Week in, week out, Coronation Street aired two episodes about Northern life and it became the show the whole country was addicted to.

We did a whole episode on the population theory, Malthus - they wouldn't do that now

Writer John Finch
It became a miniature version of the hard-hitting social dramas of the time.

Writer John Finch says: "We did a whole episode on the population theory, Malthus - they wouldn't do that now."

But it was the comedy that audiences seemed to take to most. Ena Sharples and Elsie Tanner - "no better than she ought to be" - raging at each other, Arthur Lowe as Leonard Swindley being jilted by Emily Nugent (later Bishop).

Coronation Street's Stephen Billington and EastEnders' Martin Kemp
The Street has had to battle the Square since 1985
Lowe has the distinction of starring an early Coronation Street's spin-off - a 1965 sitcom called Pardon the Expression.

The Street's most famous comedy couple, Stan and Hilda Ogden, arrived in 1964 and stayed for twenty years. Amidst the humour, Jean Alexander's performance as Hilda grieving for Stan's death in 1984 was a dramatic high point of the show.

All this was before the BBC's EastEnders began, but since its debut in 1985 the two shows have been seen as intense rivals.

The Street introduced a third weekly episode in 1989 to gain ratings and then in 1996 it added a fourth.

Rumours persist of there being a fifth episode and ITV's other main soap, Emmerdale, has this year gone to five nights a week.

But for the moment, the Street's big step for its 40th anniversary is to produce a special edition - and to do it live for the first time in over thirty years.

See also:

08 Dec 00 | Entertainment
Why TV drama is going live
08 Dec 00 | Entertainment
Charles helps Street celebrate
08 Dec 00 | Entertainment
In pictures: The prince's Coronation treat
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