|This article is written
from a real world
When Coronation Street began production in 1960, the vast majority of its narrative was either videotaped or performed live from the Granada studios in Manchester. In line with most television programmes of the time, sequences filmed outdoors on location were rare for reasons of cost, technical issues (the BBC for one used large unwieldy 35mm film cameras and videotaping on location was difficult because editing of the tape was a technique in its infancy), and the fact that television series at that time had a far higher number of episodes in production than in the present day and this necessitated the actors spending most of their time in constant rehearsals for the weekly studio sessions.
The look of the Street itself had been inspired by houses in the Salford district of Ordsall which lay just across the River Irwell from the Granada studios and series creator Tony Warren and designer Denis Parkin chose Archie Street as a rough template for the look of the fictional Coronation Street. There were differences between the two though - Archie Street had no pub and there was no railway viaduct running across the bottom of the street. Archie Street did appear on screen as a panning-down shot in the programme’s first title sequence, its back alley featured in the second sequence used from 1964 to 1968, and the site was used in occasional location visits in the early 1960s until crowd control became almost impossible.
Aside from these few filmed occasions the Street as seen on screen was a wooden set with houses 7’6” wide erected inside the 60’-long Studio 2 at Granada for those scenes set “outdoors” with the cobbles painted on the studio floor and painted backdrops providing the viaduct at one end of the Street and the view of St. Mary's church seen at the other. The set occupied a lot of space that meant that its full length was rarely seen and there were problems with vehicles being used on the set. In May 1967 the scenes of the train crash over the collapsed viaduct stretched resources to their absolute limit and it was obvious to all that a change was needed.
The first set
As the 1960s progressed and production techniques changed, television programmes began to set more of their scenes on location. American television had long used “back lot” sets for outdoor scenes; and when production of the filmed ABC soap Peyton Place began in 1965 a purpose-built town square set was built. Two years later ATV in the UK began production of The Market in Honey Lane (later abbreviated to Honey Lane), a soap that was successful for a time and which had a purpose-built set erected in the grounds of the television company's studios in Elstree in Hertfordshire (the present day site of the EastEnders set). This set cost £20,000 to build and took a month to construct, something beyond the somewhat more parsimonious budgets allowed by Granada management at the time. However, it was the issue of the well-established railway viaduct at the bottom of the street - perfect for a painted studio backcloth - that created the main problem. As H.V. Kershaw wrote in his 1981 memoir The Street Where I Live:
- ”It was only when electronic editing was fully adopted and it became a comparatively simple process to produce our shows in pieces to be joined together by the miracle men in the editing suite, that we turned our minds to the possibility of building our Street, Hollywood-style in God’s open air. There were, however, what we thought were insuperable difficulties in finding a suitable site. Not realizing that this day would ever come we had made a substantial rod for our own backs…the problem was that Viaduct Street’s far boundary was a fictional but massive railway viaduct which lay at right angles to the bottom of our street. Obviously building our own viaduct on an outside lot was out of the question but where were we to find a location with such a ready-made feature? Fate positively beamed on us.”
Kershaw went on to relate how one day (undoubtedly in late 1967) he received a telephone call from Granada’s General Manager who was aware of the location issue and asked Kershaw to join him on a walk on the road behind the back of the studio building. This was Grape Street, a quiet thoroughfare that ran between the far-busier Water Street and the equally quiet Lower Byrom Street on the south side of the Granada complex. The General Manager took him to a locked set of gates set within a wall on the south corner of Water Street and Grape Street and ushered him inside.
- ”There in front of me was a large cobblestoned area bounded on two sides by a high brick wall, on a third by a bonded warehouse and on the fourth by – and I could scarcely believe my eyes – a railway viaduct.”
The General Manager had already made enquiries and ascertained that British Rail, the owners of the site, were willing to rent the space to Granada and that planning permission to erect a set could be obtained. It was decided, for cost reasons, just to erect the wooden studio street set in the yard, once it had been suitably weatherproofed. The set, purposely built on a smaller scale to fit into a studio, was just small enough to fit into the length between the viaduct in the yard and the entrance gates. Erected against scaffolding, the set had no roof and camera angles had to disguise this fact, although these were not always a total success.
The other side of the Street in the storylines at this point in time housed the Mission of Glad Tidings and Elliston's Raincoat Factory. Whether or not the erection of the Grape Street set led directly to the storyliners deciding to rid themselves of these two structures within the narrative of the programme is not known, but the first few months of 1968 featured the demolition of the Mission Hall (in Episode 742 (24th January 1968), one of the first uses of the outdoor set) and soon afterwards the Raincoat Factory. As the year continued, the planning and construction of the new Maisonettes on the site provided many an episode's-worth of material for the writers. The Maisonettes themselves were a façade but nevertheless a proper brick and concrete structure, unlike their terraced counterparts across the road.
The second set
The ravages of the Manchester weather put paid to the plan to continue using the wooden studio frontage, as it became obvious that, even weatherproofed, they were not wearing well. Some sources state they made it through just one winter before being replaced by brick (which would place the second street set as being built in early 1969); however, close attention to episodes from the years 1968 to 1970 show that the wooden structure with its false brickwork texture was in place in episodes broadcast in November 1969, which would have been recorded a few weeks previously. HV Kershaw stated in The Street Where I Live (1981) that he was eventually given the money to rebuild the set in brick, and this would appear to have taken place in late 1969, in time to avoid the worst ravages of a second winter.
By 1970 a brick frontage was in place with half a roof on each house but no chimneys. Kershaw relates that this change also supplied rear walls and back yards on the houses but the incomplete roofs meant that the indoors of the structures were open to the elements.
Original Street designer Denis Parkin was quoted in Daran Little's 1995 book, The Coronation Street Story:
"I think it was probably about eighteen months later [after completing the original facade] that HV Kershaw found some more money and I built the backs in the back yard."
The set was a vast improvement screen-wise to what had been presented before, and it also meant that publicity photographs could now show the totality of the Street whereas previously it had been supplied to viewers through drawings in TV Times from Denis Parkin and his successor Peter Caldwell or, more often than not, left to the imagination of the viewer.
The absence of chimneys was, however, noted and commented on - as was the fact that the cobbles ran in a different direction to the frontage of the terrace!
Viewers clamoured to be allowed on the set, requests which were constantly denied with one exception: on the Bank Holiday weekend of 29th to 31st August 1970 the set was opened in aid of charity and also to mark 1000 episodes of the programme. Well-publicised in advance: 50,000 people came over the three days and toured the small site. Over the years though, various attempts were made by people to break into the yard to see the set, and, as later producer Bill Podmore related:
- ”there was so much concern that someone would be injured, or even killed, falling from a wall, or the viaduct, that a viewing-hatch was cut into the gates.”
The set did present several problems. One was that its small scale meant vehicles, large trucks especially, dwarfed the houses, as noticed by many viewers when a fire engine was parked in the Street in October 1975 for the warehouse fire storyline. However, the main issue was the hatred felt for the site by the actors involved in the programme. Bounded on the east by the bonded warehouse and on the south by the imposing viaduct, the majority of the set never received direct sunlight. Its cobbled surface didn’t drain excess rainwater away and the area was permanently chilled. Jean Alexander for one was vociferous in her dislike of filming there, stating that nowhere on earth could be as cold. Podmore concurred, saying that he never met anyone who disagreed with her condemnation. He observed that on many of the more extreme occasions portable heaters were set up, just out of camera range, to try and keep the actors warm. Nevertheless Doris Speed stated that her mouth was often so frozen that she had difficulty in saying her lines.
Things improved only slightly in 1971 when it wad decided to remove the Maisonettes from the programme, feeling that they had not been successful to the storylines. They were replaced by the Mark Brittain Warehouse and the Community Centre, and the latter building supposedly had the advantage of a proper roof that provided some sort of shelter, but leakages and the constant mess made by vandals made it almost “intolerable”. Production Manager Gordon McKellar arranged for a caravan to be brought on site on filming days (usually the Monday of the week) but there was only room enough for the principal actors while extras and walk-ons had to brave the elements. Podmore made further changes when he became producer in 1976 by having a small hallway built behind each front door, complete with staircases for illusion, and within each area heaters could be provided for actors waiting patiently for their cues.
Aside from a new frontage to the Community Centre in March 1980 the set remained the same; however, problems abounded: the its scale, dampness, and issues regarding directors having to be very careful with camera angles to avoid showing the gated Grape Street end next to the Rovers.
As a result, in 1981 the decision was taken to purchase land on the other side of the bonded warehouse and rebuild the entire set, complete with roofs and chimneys (albeit fibreglass ones) and to allow viewers to see the Rosamund Street end of Coronation Street for the first time on an outdoor location. The new set was built by Building Design Partnership (BDP) using their own three-dimensional computer-aided design system, Acropolis. Because the new set was full-size, the Street became longer and computer modelling assessed the effect of this upgrading on camera angles and the visual impact of nearby buildings. Construction began on 12th November 1981 while the Grape Street site continued to be used in the programme. This latter set was used for the last time for scenes in Episode 2203 (12th May 1982). Demolition work on the set started on Tuesday 1st June, the yard (and Grape Street itself) being purchased by Granada as part of a general redevelopment of the Castlefield area of Manchester. The site of Coronation Street’s original outdoor set became the entrance area of the Granada Studios tour when it opened from 1988 to 1999 and is now used as a general outdoors parking area by the company.