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The dry runs were two episodes of Coronation Street produced prior to the live transmission of Episode 1 in 1960 for viewing purposes within Granada Television. The episodes used draft scripts of the eventual episodes 1 and 3 and had some variations in cast from the transmitted episodes.

Dry runs in television

A dry run or "pilot programme" is an episode or edition of a television programme made prior to its normal production run with several purposes in mind:

  • To demonstrate to producers and television executives how the finished programme should look on the screen.
  • To fully test actors in key roles before committing to longer-term contracts.
  • To iron out any difficulties that may be encountered once the programme begins its recording and/or transmission cycle.

The latter point is particularly key when considering current affairs or live programmes where pilots act as a full rehearsal although it can also be applicable to drama or comedy productions. In addition, in the United States of America such programmes are made to convince network executives to commit to the commissioning of a full series although in the United Kingdom such decisions have usually been reached at or before the scripting stage.

Almost all television series have had pilots made for them although not all have reached the screen, particularly in the UK where they can be made in a more experimental prototype fashion to the eventual series. In the United States the pilots usually act as a season premiere and very little difference can be observed by the casual viewer between this episode and the remainder of the season run. Programmes in the latter market whose pilots have acted as transmitted episodes include I Love Lucy, The A-Team, The Golden Girls, The X Files and That 70's Show. In addition, series such as Star Trek and All in the Family had more than one pilot when networks requested a second attempt before committing to a series. In the UK, Doctor Who had a pilot episode made which was intended to be the first episode of the series but in the event was rejected on grounds of characterisation and for being below-par technically but whose script was, with only moderate changes in places, used to remake the transmitted version three weeks later.

Coronation Street’s dry runs

Frank Pemberton and William Roache in the dry run of Episode 1 (note the patterned wallpaper and props on the back set of 3 Coronation Street compared to the transmitted version of the episode).

Coronation Street had two pilot programmes recorded, however they were referred to in Granada Television as "dry runs". The episodes chosen to be made for internal viewing only were Episodes 1 and 3 but, like many events concerning the programme's beginning, different stories have been told about the timing and rationale behind some of the actions taken.

The accepted story to date, based very much on people's recollections years after the event and documented in The Coronation Street Story and dramatised in The Road to Coronation Street is that drama producer Harry Elton was allowed to make a dry run of Episode 1 in the summer of 1960 only with extreme reluctance on the part of Sidney Bernstein, Chairman of Granada, who disliked Tony Warren's scripts, feeling that they gave a negative impression of the North of England. The episode was cast (with Nita Valerie in the role of Ena Sharples) and recorded and then shown to the weekly Programme Committee at Granada, made up of senior executives including Bernstein, his brother Cecil, future Managing Director Denis Forman and others, who all were unanimous in rejecting what they had seen. Elton documented this meeting in his contribution to John Finch’s book Granada Television – the First Generation when he said..

"It was always a tense moment after an audition tape had been played to see which of the committee members would be asked to express an opinion first. No one wanted to stick his neck out with what might turn out to be an unpopular view. I waited with apprehension and high hopes."

Patricia Phoenix in the dry run of Episode 1 (again, note the patterned wallpaper on the back wall which is different to the 9th December live version of the episode).

Elton described the unanimous views of the committee:

  • Eddie Pola: "Jeez, Harry. That’s a soap opera. You don’t put that crap on at seven o’clock at night. That should play in the afternoon."
  • Victor Peers: "Harry, there is not a single thing I like about this programme. I don’t like the setting or the characters or the way they talk to each other. Surely people watch television to be taken out of their dreary lives and not to have their noses rubbed in it."
  • Cecil Bernstein: "Harry, you’ve made a horrible mistake and we can’t blame you because you are a Canadian. That north-country dialect is a joke. It’s the language of Old Mother Riley and George Formby. No one will ever take it seriously."
  • Denis Forman: "Harry, your show is neither funny enough on one hand nor documentary enough on the other. It falls between two stools. People won't know what to make of it."
  • Sidney Bernstein: "Harry, when I get driven in from the airport I can see many houses that are much nicer than those on your street. Is this the image of Granadaland that we want to project to the rest of the country?"

Elton then performed an act of showmanship which earned the eventual approval of the Bernsteins: on an unknown date he had monitors placed around the Granada building and asked all staff to watch a playback of the episode during the lunch hour, filling in a questionnaire with their views on what they had seen. Not everyone was impressed (Gus McDonald, the future Lord McDonald, thought the programme had no future at all) whereas others showed the same enthusiasm for the production that the viewing public would later do when transmissions began at the end of the year. According to a popular version of the story, it was the latter which convinced the programme board to go ahead and commission the programme and they approved a run of sixteen (some say thirteen, twelve or seven) episodes on 25th August 1960. Mixed in with these hazy recollections is that some people say that the dry run of Episode 3 was also recorded prior to 25th August and was also shown and commented on during the lunch playback.

Nora Gordon as Elsie Lappin in the dry run of Episode 1 with Betty Alberge as Florrie Lindley.

However within the Coronation Street production office, the camera script of the dry run of Episode 1 exists. This document, issued on 17th November 1960, shows that the camera rehearsal of the episode was due to take place in Studio 2 at Granada's Manchester Quay Street studios between 10.00am and 5.30pm on Friday 18th November with videotape recording taking place between 7.30pm and 8.00pm on the same day. The script is different to the transmitted version in that the characters of Annie Walker and Susan Cunningham don't appear, the scene of Florrie Lindley being caught selling firelighters after 7.00pm is brought forward from Episode 2 and Peter Adamson (later Len Fairclough) appears as insurance man Harry Bailey, who would appear under the name of Ron Bailey intermittently from Episode 5 (23rd December 1960) onwards.

The full cast of the episode is as follows:

Doris Hare, Nan Marriott-Watson and Alison Bayley in the dry run of Episode 3.

A similar camera script for the dry run of Episode 3 is lost but in this instalment the following characters appeared (actor details come from Daran Little's 1995 book The Coronation Street Story: Celebrating Thirty Five Years of the Street and photographs taken during rehearsals):

The episode combined elements from what was eventually transmitted as both Episodes 3 and 4, such as both of Ena's confrontations with Swindley in the Vestry which resulted in her collapse.

A further notable change is in the set dressings. Although the basic layouts remained the same, flowered wallpaper on the walls of the sets of No's 3, 5 and 11 were abandoned in favour of a more simplistic single tone. As designer Denis Parkin stated in an interview in May 1961, "I started off with wallpaper in the rooms, but the sets are so small that the designs get confused with the actors' heads on the screen. So we had to strip it all off." In addition, antique furniture in No.5 was replaced by more modern props.

As only Nita Valerie and Nan Marriott-Watson are known to have played the role of Ena Sharples before Violet Carson was finally cast before rehearsals for the transmitted version of Episode 1 began on Monday 5th December, this evidence changes the timeline of accepted events. Assuming that the 25th August decision was a formal commission to begin production, casting of the programme would then have taken place in September and October 1960 with design preparation by Denis Parkin taking place in tandem. The negative response from the Programme Committee meeting would then have been after 18th November with Harry Elton's lunchtime transmission to the Granada staff following very soon afterwards, with alternative casting for characters such as Dennis Tanner, Albert Tatlock and Ena Sharples and the creation and casting of new character David Barlow happening in quick succession. This relatively short gap of just three weeks between dry run and transmission is echoed by other productions of the time such as the aforementioned Doctor Who where the pilot was recorded on Friday 27th September 1963 and the transmitted version was also in studio three weeks later on Friday 18th October. Granada had a network obligation to transmit a programme in the 7.00pm timeslot on Friday 9th December and the following Wednesday and Friday slots thereafter and this ties in with Harry Elton's published statement in the above-mentioned John Finch book that the Programme Committee had no choice but to proceed with production as there was nothing else in preparation to fill the transmission slot, however he was also instructed to find a replacement as soon as possible. He further went on to state an alternative reason for the lunchtime closed-circuit broadcast of the dry run:

"Although deliberations of the programme committee were confidential, word soon spread that ‘they’ didn’t like it. I had a team of production people work were working feverishly to get the new show ready for air. Looking for a way to get some positive feedback for our efforts, I arranged a screening for all the Granada staff in Manchester."

He went on to describe the result and concluded…

"...responses to the casting, the sets and the scripts were very positive and we worked with renewed confidence and energy."

Until further contemporary paperwork comes to light, the timeline of the birth of the programme will remain subject to debate.

Archive status

The two dry runs no longer exist in the Granada Television archives although many rehearsal photographs remain. The only other Coronation Street-related material not in the archives are the two inserts for the All Star Comedy Carnival shown at Christmas 1969 and 1970, the two pilot programmes for the spin-off Pardon the Expression and the six episodes of the 1967 spin-off Turn out the Lights and Episode 1202 (24th July 1972).