Hello, Coronation Street fans. I’m Matthew Robinson (now running a film & TV company in Cambodia).
I directed quite a few episodes of The Street in the '70s and '80s. Recently I stumbled on a day-by-day diary I kept in the early '80s, and some of it covered the time when I happened to be hired to direct a single pair of Corrie episodes.
I thought a warts-&-all reproduction in the ‘Blog’ section here might be of interest to some. It was a long time ago, of course, but I hope I haven’t offended anyone. Anyway, for better or worse, here goes:
WEDNESDAY 3 March 1982
Got home to interesting message on answer machine: Carole Lancaster, Bill Podmore’s secretary at Granada, inquiring if I was free to direct a pair of Coronation Street episodes in April. Free? As a bird, dear. Top-rated show in the land (albeit with zero kudos for directors); three weeks’ money for, in effect, one week’s work. I said yes and asked Carole to thank Bill. She said it was her I had to thank, not Bill. Thus, my past sweet words in her ear, not my directorial skill, made April’s prospects less bleak.
TUESDAY 13 April 1982
Last‑minute rush to cross town for the Euston train to Manchester. I rarely leave enough time, usually thinking half an hour will do. This morning it did, but only just. I collapsed into the dining compartment. The train pulled out twenty seconds later.
Towards the end of my ‘Continental Breakfast’, porridge, toast and coffee (the cost – four pounds - permitting travel for most of the journey in the 1st Class dining car), an apocalyptic banging on the coach roof startled the life out of everyone. The steward and stewardess looked terrified. The train ground to a halt near Rugby while a huge branch, half a tree apparently, was cleared from on high.
Manchester always looks a bit depressing. Hard to rest one’s eye on a pleasing sight: many grimy buildings, a lot of clapped-out vehicles, quite a few down-at-heel people. Under its surface, though, the city’s pretty lively. Granada TV, despite a recent foyer facelift, is Manchester’s microcosm ‑ tatty, having seen better days.
Coronation Street churns on exactly as it always did. Two storyliners sit in a glass bowl office churning out storylines. The incoming director’s office, empty and soulless, waits for the incoming director. Two scripts marked ‘Edited’ wait on a desk to be read.
Producer, Bill Podmore, glass in hand, slaps you on the shoulder with avuncular words of welcome, ten being your lot. Not that I’m complaining: this time there was no new casting to be done, no new locations to be found, no new sets to designed. All I had to do was pick up the scripts and go home.
By chance, I caught same train as Bill, also heading to London. We nodded at each other before taking elaborately polite precautions to avoid sitting next to each other. Sat opposite an antipodean smoking himself to death on Park Drive cigarettes, unconcerned he was choking me to death too. I should have moved but hadn’t the energy.
WEDNESDAY 14 April 1982
At home, tried but couldn’t make much effort to familiarise myself with the Corrie scripts. My excuse? Better to wait for the office‑typed ‘Final’ versions. My ‘Edited’ versions are no more than the writers’ first drafts with a few sentences scratched out by the script editor. Not the easiest manuscripts to absorb.
SUNDAY 25 April 1982
After packing my case, I pointed my recently-acquired second-hand BMW up the M1, enjoying the sensation of it driving itself magnificently to Manchester, ready for the Corrie production week.
News on the radio all the way about the retaking of South Georgia. Most exciting. Arrived and parked outside the Midland Hotel where Granada houses all incoming Corrie directors during their production weeks. By chance Carole Lancaster, the show’s production secretary who jokingly describes herself as my “biggest fan”, stepped out on the arm of her handsome boyfriend. She and I hugged enthusiastically. He smiled unenthusiastically and shuffled his feet.
Pleasant hotel room for a change. A large envelope marked ‘Granada’ waited on my bed – the ‘Final’ scripts. Settled down to read and absorb them. Hard to do with Falklands news on the TV.
MONDAY 26 April 1982
Directorish in my silver‑blue skiing anorak and brown soft‑soled shoes, clutching my envelope, I stepped into the Midland lift sharing it with someone also wearing a skiing anorak and soft‑soled shoes, also clutching a ‘Granada’ envelope - another director. We stopped at the second floor and a third director stepped in with his ‘Granada’ envelope. A gaggle of directors, travelling downwards with not a word exchanged.At the studio, immediately whisked off by the Production Manager to Salford
Shopping Centre to film two scenes with Jean Alexander (‘Hilda Ogden’). Crowds of women, replicas of Hilda, gathered to titter. Back to Granada to meet my P.A. and Floor Manager, both women thank goodness.
Long morning doing not very much: read the scripts again making up for what I should have done last week.
Down to the scruffy rehearsal studio with not much enthusiasm to ‘block’ my pair of episodes. Maybe Corrie should be scrapped. It has a tired air about it. The actors tend towards laziness and send up their characters. They become childlike when the slightest thing is not to their liking. They should be spanked, sent home and next week’s pay-cheques cancelled.
The show feels neglected, needing a stiff broom. Several years ago, on my first pair of episodes, I brushed it thoroughly. Today I feel I can’t much be bothered to sweep away a cobweb.
Yes, I can! I will!
Got on the right side of Pat Phoenix (‘Elsie Tanner’) by asking for her advice about the best factory shots. Got on the wrong side of Julie Goodyear (‘Bet Lynch’) by not asking her nicely enough to take on Betty Driver’s lines. Betty (‘Betty Williams’) is absent, suffering from a dislocated hip. Warned Bill Podmore about the coming fracas but he wants to keep the peace at all costs so I must sort things out for myself.
Tried to catnap away my weariness in the hotel, then forced myself to camera‑script. Did half an episode with an ear on the TV for
Falklands reports. Staggered down to the Old Trafford Restaurant for a posh meal to discover it’s gone self‑service.
Cheered myself up with some white burgundy, raising my glass to Ray Colley, head of BBC TV North West, entertaining guests across the acres of empty tables. He nodded back. He was not best pleased when I withdrew from a job I’d begged out of him during the ’79 ITV strike. The wine left me useless for work. The second volume of Proust also went by the board. So I collapsed on the bed, ogling the same TV people saying the same things about the Falklands.
TUESDAY 27 April 1982
Finished the second half of the first camera‑script with only minutes to spare before rehearsals.
This much I’d promised my P.A. yesterday as she brightened up the soulless office in her low‑cut top. Outside the hotel, annoyed to find a parking ticket on my lovely car. A jobsworth had put it on at nine minutes past eight. Ten pounds for nine minutes.
Morning rehearsals were more relaxed. Perhaps I was on better form. The scenes whisked through: one stagger, dispensing encouraging comments to anyone and everyone, then a timed run. Finished everything we had to do by lunchtime, an hour early. Yesterday’s moans and groans became smiles and kisses. Directing Corrie is a question of keeping the cast happy and getting everything done on time.
Couldn’t keep my eyes off an attractive new actress, Cheryl Prime - previously cast by Bill Podmore as 'Kathy Barrett', a four-episode try-out factory girl.
After lunch, back to the rehearsal studios to find half the cast missing. Most were late but one was tipsy ‑ her excuse being the weekend’s expose of her private life in a Sunday newspaper. The charms of Cheryl grew. She’s like Cathy in Wuthering Heights and, at teatime, I told her I’d cast her in that role if ever I was fortunate enough to direct a movie version which, to be fair to both of us, I told her I’ve never be. Cheryl has a vulnerable yet wild quality about her. To my amazement, Cheryl and I effortlessly agreed to go to the Royal Exchange Theatre on Thursday evening.
Later, Julie Goodyear, whispering in my ear while crunching cucumber, asked me to accompany her tomorrow to a nightclub where she’s judging a ‘Beauty Contest’. I accepted halfheartedly looking forward to Thursday evening with anticipation and Wednesday evening with trepidation.
Asked Carole Lancaster out for a drink, a ‘thank-you’ for the gig. She whisked me off to the most fashionable cocktail bar downtown Manchester had to offer. There, while the ‘young things’ Carol had described posed on stools, we exchanged gossip about each other’s private lives.
After we sorted those out, I walked alone through muggy Manchester back to the Midland. But instead of camera‑scripting, watched TV avid for Falklands news. Events grind slowly towards the inevitable counter invasion. Jumped up and down with rage at Michael Foot (Labour Party leader) who, having supported Maggie Thatcher’s decision to send the Task Force, now says we must talk and talk but never actually use it. God help us if he’s in power and war breaks out.
Moved to tears by a documentary about a Swiss doctor who befriends the dying, fortifying those about to venture into eternal darkness. “But this is the end of me!” said a stunned man. “Finito! Nothing else!” He is, of course, correct - however much you call on your ‘inner strength’, ‘refuse to be angry’ or treat suffering and death as a ‘challenge’. Finito it is.
WEDNESDAY 28 April 1982
Rose early to camera‑script the second episode. I may have dropped my standards because I completed it too quickly, breakfasting between Part One and Part Two. Embellished the final shot with a flourish and felt a burden lift.
Rehearsals turned into a glorified stagger with minor adjustments. At one point every person in the room except me was smoking. Nervous neurotic creatures all ‑ patchy skins, bitten fingernails, dark glasses, flip remarks and incessant cigarettes. Not that I refused a fat cigar from Peter Adamson (‘Len Fairclough’) at lunch.
Cheryl bought me a sandwich in the canteen. I rolled an apple to her along the counter. Most other men paid her attention too. Geoffrey Hughes (‘Eddie Yeats’), his character labelled “a great blabber of lard” by Hilda Ogden in these episodes, flashed his eyes at her. Johnny Briggs (‘Mike Baldwin’) tended to move towards wherever she happened to be. The Sound Supervisor showed her his plans that he didn’t show me. Under his breath Peter Adamson remarked that in less clothes “she’d make us all very happy”. I gave him a blank look.
At ten past two, Carole popped into the rehearsal room. “Bill’s just sat down for a long lunch,” she announced. So we did the producer’s run without the producer.
Back to the hotel, desultorily flicking acrossTV channels and trying to sleep until it was time to force myself into Manchester’s grey night for Julie Goodyear’s beauty contest. At Herriott’s Turkish Baths fifteen local lovelies were whittled down to five, selected as they paraded on a rickety catwalk over the chlorinated swimming pool. They told the porky sweating compere they were ‘law students’, ‘photography assistants’, ‘loved country walks’ and other such stuff. How the five winners were chosen was a mystery both to me and Julie who, whispering in my ear again, said the whole result was “fixed”. To what end she had “no idea”. But next weekend the lucky five would be battling each other for the prize - a fortnight in Hollywood and £250.
Later, I had chance to meet the finalists face-to-face. Much of the charm they’d displayed from afar immediately evaporated, rendered professional Beauty Queens all. Julie invited me to join her entourage of groupies and hangers‑on. Complied for a token five minutes then slipped away, leaving Empress Goodyear sitting on a plastic throne in ‘Discotheque Palace’ surrounded by her courtiers.
THURSDAY 29 April 1982
Made my leisurely way downtown to Granada with nothing more pressing to do than read an extra minute of script which writer‑in‑chief H.V. Kershaw was due to phone in at eleven. Episode one had run short so I had suggested a new scene featuring Pat Phoenix and guess who, Cheryl Prime. Devious - but, Cheryl apart, it was a good suggestion dramatically.
Fascinating distraction: a rehearsal for the Queen’s forthcoming Royal Visit to the new Coronation Street street, built with genuine used bricks on waste ground next to the studios. The terrified cast, lined up in matching doorways, bowed and curtsied as an ersatz queen - real name Pauline - put them through their paces. Everyone looked suitably subservient, revering lookalike Pauline who carried a handbag and asked banal questions in a regal voice. I want to know all about Pauline. Where does she live? What does she get paid? What does she say her job is when asked at parties?
Canteen lunch with Crown Court producer Pieter Rogers who, as always, asked how I keep “so slim”. He knows how to flatter a girl! He asked my opinion of producer Julia Smith and script editor Tony Holland who I’d just finished working with on Angels at the BBC. I pegged my lips: Pieter spreads gossip like manure in Essex.
The studio zapped along, camera and sound crews being young and enthusiastic. As usual the cast switched itself on when performing. Almost completed the first episode by six o'clock, not at all bad. Wandered up to Bill’s office for a pat on the back then wished I hadn’t. Felt like a creep. Pleasant gathering of thespian ‘mates’ in the club: Philip Jackson, Alan David, Bill Maxwell, Deirdre Costello. Felt almost at ease.
On to the Royal Exchange where Cheryl Prime arrived late wearing too much lipstick and looking remarkably like one of my aunts. Neverthless, she has stunning eyes and fine features. In her de‑Northernised voice, she told me she’s too compliant with “anyone in authority in any shape ‑ policeman, traffic wardens, directors, even you!”
The Nerd, a mildly amusing American comedy, starred the inexplicably funny Derek Griffiths. Also in the cast was Gary Waldhorn who in ’74 played a car salesman for me in the BBC police series Softly Softly. Cheryl told me she and Gary were both in La Ronde at the Royal Exchange earlier this year, a production in which she took off all her clothes. Made a note to inform Peter Adamson.
FRIDAY 30 April 1982
Stuffed my dirty clothes into my case, grabbed breakfast and shot off to Granada, leaving everything as usual until the last possible minute.
Detoured to a nearby newsagents for an FT and spotted a female hurrying towards me. “This lady has seen better days,” I thought as straggly hair, pasty skin and dark glasses rushed past. Then an aftershock: it was Cathy from Wuthering Heights alias Cheryl Prime playing at being a late actress.
Excellent morning in the studio, pace like Hilda Ogden’s “greased whippet” – another epithet in this week’s scripts. The compliments flew as I passed the cast on my innumerable trips from gallery to floor. Several remarked that they were particularly enjoying these episodes. “Nice to have someone who directs us at last.” “When are you coming back to us?”
Tried to apply a head vice but exhilarating to be able to exercise my craft. Years of experience allow me to solve shooting problems so quickly. And speed combined with flexibility mean the underlying process hums. Except that the first scene after lunch fell completely apart and took twice as long as scheduled. Then I got grizzly in a Rovers Bar scene as I discovered my camera‑scripting wasn’t as watertight as I’d imagined.
But the performances were lively and the shows look fresh (I would say that, wouldn’t I?). We finished an hour early. Jean Alexander’s sulks had been soothed by my shifting scenes round so she could catch her early train. Johnny Briggs took my number to buy me a drink in London. Julie Goodyear, grabbing me round the neck, whispered “I bet you’re warm in bed.” I muttered something about my warmness in bed being matched by my coldness out of it. Julie winked and tweaked my chin. Lynne Perrie (‘Ivy Tilsley’) told me I’d paid her the “best ever compliment ever” when I said she was “reliable”. Other actors, hearing a compliment had been paid, clamoured for theirs.
When I first arrived to do Coronation Street in ’77, Pat Phoenix whispered that I’d made “a lot of middle‑aged women very happy by loving us a little”. Today she said I’d gone off: she was “suspicious - because you’ve complimented everyone.” I left Manchester in high spirits pointing the BMW south and sped off towards London.
MONDAY 3 May 1982
Tonight’s newsreader announced that the holed Belgrano had sunk. How many Argentines are lost no one knows but it’s likely to run into hundreds. My thoughts about the ‘exciting’ war now in total confusion. Bed reasonably early for my final trip to Manchester tomorrow.
TUESDAY 4 May 1982
Bleary‑eyed, hair sticking up at the back like a rooster’s comb, I stumbled on to the early train to Manchester.
Settled down to my usual ‘Continental Breakfast’ in the 1st Class dining car. Granada reporter and ex-university chum Vivian White did likewise in a nearby stall, joining me later in a 2nd Class carriage after we were turfed out of our cheap luxury just past Rugby.
Viv, with his booming voice, enlightened the whole compartment with weighty thoughts on the Falklands. But when I asked him “What would you if you held the reins?” answer came there none.
Laughed uproariously as we pulled into Manchester at Viv’s brilliant mimicry of Enoch Powell: “There is no doubt that a steam roller is an invention. Nor that a loaf of bread is a necessity. It therefore follows ineluctably, as night follows day, that a loaf of bread is the mother of a steam roller.”
Arrived at Granada for five hours of reasonably pleasant editing with elderly technicians, mostly fingers and thumbs. But the two episodes hung together I think.
Called on the cast during their tea break and caught this week’s director finishing off a scene. He was fierce with them ‑ an ex‑pilot I was told. Smiled at everyone (especially Cheryl), then spotted a new dark‑haired actress with flashing eyes. About to smile at her but thought better of it. Hit the trail amid fond farewells and a fat cigar pushed into my fist by Peter Adamson.
So ended my involvement in Episodes 2204 & 2205 of Coronation Street.