Why Tony Warren’s vision of Coronation Street turned out to be timeless

David Brown pays tribute to the man who created the ITV soap

102019

He’s credited as the man who brought kitchen sink drama to our television screens. The creator of a show that, in an era of RP accents and middle class hearths, found drama in back-to-back terraced houses and cobbled streets. But Tony Warren, who has died at the age of 79, was no angry young man in the mould of such playwrights as John Braine and Alan Sillitoe.

Advertisement

Just look at Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, the film of which begins with Albert Finney’s thrusting Arthur Seaton shouldering a backstreet gossip out of his path. Warren’s early episodes of Coronation Street would never dream of elbowing out its matriarchs, indeed he put vinegary moral guardian Ena Sharples and purse-lipped landlady Annie Walker front and centre on his twice-weekly serial.

102020
Tony Warren on the Coronation Street set at Granada TV

It’s what makes Corrie stand out from the likes of A Taste of Honey and Room at the Top, with which it perennially and erroneously gets lumped in. Warren wasn’t looking back in anger, but with real affection, to the wartime period of his childhood when women ruled the roost at home while their men fought overseas. The result was that Coronation Street had Violet Carson casting aspersions in our front rooms at the start of the Sixties while Laurence Harvey and Tom Courtenay brooded on the big screen.

Watch again that opening Ena Sharples scene and you can see why Coronation Street is so much more than just social realism. Her machine-gun patter on the topics of funeral services and eclairs could have come straight out of the music hall: this is grit combined with theatricality, a potent mixture that Corrie still (when it’s at its best) employs. Instead of being disillusioned with the working class north, Warren was embracing and preserving it for, as it turned out, generations to come.

Because despite the bleak smoking chimneys and mournful theme tune, Coronation Street was a romantic view of 1960s’ Salford. Almost – in the words of Housman – a land of lost content. A neverworld. Warren created an urban landscape of battleaxes, snobs, tarts with hearts and feckless fellas – but one where neighbourliness trumped family ties and any adversity was met with backbone and wry humour.

102021
Arthur Leslie and Doris Speed as Jack and Annie Walker

It was a concept so powerful that Coronation Street itself would go on to survive the slum clearances that razed its real-life counterparts, while the writers who took over from Warren made no bones about adhering to the template that he set down. It’s a story now 56 years in the telling, but the links to its earliest chapters are there for those that choose to look. Without good-time girl Elsie Tanner, there’d be no Carla Connor, while Sally Metcalfe spouts much the same snobbery as Annie Walker.

And while the era of the Angry Young Man has come and gone, Coronation Street – like its fearsome matriarchs – remains indomitable. And much of that longevity is down to a very particular vision of backstreet 1960s working-class life that turned out to be timeless. Because as Tony Warren himself once said, “Bricks and mortar are not the real Coronation Street. That is still wherever you want it to be – inside your own imagination”.

Watch a 60-second rundown of next week’s episodes of Coronation Street below.

Advertisement

And visit our dedicated Coronation Street page for all the latest news, interviews and spoilers.