Traditionally, indomitable women have been the lifeblood of Coronation Street. From Bet Lynch to Becky Granger, Annie Walker to Audrey Roberts, they’ve been dusting themselves down in the face of adversity for more than half a century – hardship always breeding backbone and wry humour.
And yet, until 12 months ago, all that was under threat. Corrie was haemorrhaging heroines, with a trio of high-profile characters handed fatal exits during former boss Stuart Blackburn’s reign: Hayley Cropper (Julie Hesmondhalgh), with terminal pancreatic cancer, taking her own life; Tina McIntyre (Michelle Keegan) chucked off a roof; and Kylie Platt (Paula Lane) knifed to death on the cobbles. As unthinkable as it seemed, the Street’s survivors had become victims.
But what a difference a year makes. New producer Kate Oates made the trip across the Pennines from Emmerdale to take charge and in August 2016 the first episodes of her reign were screened. Since then, the slaughter has been replaced by plots that restore power to the women of Weatherfield and keep them on the right side of the cemetery gates.
“The presence of strong women was the backbone of the show as Tony Warren created it,” Oates tells RT, in an interview timed to mark the first anniversary of her era. “The tone and content of the stories have moved on, and so have the female characters, but that strength has still to be there for it to be truly Corrie.
“On Emmerdale, I was uncomfortably aware that I’d been responsible for the deaths of a number of women characters and I didn’t want to repeat that. I did feel like I was punishing the women. When the sense of the downtrodden is relentless, the audience starts to disengage. So on Coronation Street, I wanted to see the characters face trauma, but to come out the other end. There had to be journeys of triumph and strength.”
In most cases, that feeling of hope has followed a life-changing ordeal: Michelle Connor coming to terms with the stillbirth of her baby, or Bethany Platt reporting “boyfriend” Nathan to the police for grooming her and passing her round his friends to be abused – a storyline that produced complaints to Ofcom.
Does Oates think the criticism was justified? “Not at all,” she says. “A lot of the criticism came when people had watched one or two episodes that had been particularly dark and challenging. But this is a serial drama and there was light, heart and optimism as part of that longer journey. And for me, this was a feminist story because Bethany took the power back.”
When Oates, 38, talks of feminism, she knows of what she speaks. Her first job, after graduating from Warwick University with a degree in English and Theatre, was working for Germaine Greer. “I was her researcher and editorial assistant and I lived with her for almost a year after I graduated. She’s a strong lady and sometimes she’d argue with you just because she could.”
That association with Greer came in useful when Oates started out in broadcasting. Before Coronation Street and Emmerdale, she worked as a producer of The Archers and would consult her former landlady, who’s a keen Archers fan, on life in Ambridge. “Germaine gave me Archers feedback and even came up with story ideas. The rape of Kathy Perks [at Christmas in 2004] came largely out of a conversation I’d had with Germaine.”
Greer hasn’t yet given advice during Oates’s time on the Street, though she’d surely approve of her next major move: adding to the female firepower with the reintroduction at Christmas of tough ex-factory boss Carla Connor (Alison King, who, despite earlier press rumours, has only just signed her contract). Carla is a modern-day Corrie icon, but someone frankly ill-served by Oates’s predecessor, who had her leave powerless and in disgrace back in May 2016.
“It’s time to break new ground with Carla,” says Oates. “I didn’t want to put her on that familiar cycle of self-destruction, recovery, followed by more self-destruction. What we’ll have instead are these two strong Connor women – Carla and Michelle – on opposing sides and in conflict for a change.”
This autumn also sees a sixth weekly episode being added to the ITV schedule and an expansion of the soap’s set in Salford’s Media City. “You’ll start seeing it from early spring,” says Oates. “What we’ll get are a couple of new businesses and there’ll also be a little park where we’ll have a special bench dedicated to Martyn Hett [a Coronation Street fan who died in the Manchester Arena bombing] and all the other people who lost their lives in May.”
It’s not hard to see why ITV wants to milk the Corrie cash cow: recent consolidated ratings (for the week 17–23 July) list it as the most popular programme on television, with its highest-rated episode getting 7.98 million viewers, more than a million above rivals EastEnders (6.74m) and Emmerdale (6.39m). But might there come a point when there’s just too much Corrie?
“What it possibly means is that people will now choose to watch one or two soaps rather than the whole lot. Who has that much time in their lives? But the ratings for Corrie show that there is an appetite for it – I’m just hoping that people remain engaged with the storylines.”
There is one area that Oates admits requires improvement – and that’s diversity. The soap has always been sluggish in depicting its real-life backdrop in the North West – the first Muslim family was introduced only in 2014.
“In terms of reflecting diversity and showing black and Asian characters, yes, we absolutely need to do more of it. And we need more black and Asian writers, to bring out the truth of those voices. It’s important to keep the show strong and relevant, so that it’s running long after everyone’s forgotten who I am.”
At the moment it seems unthinkable that anyone in the business could forget who Oates is, seeing as she’s currently the only female producer on the nation’s soaps. During her time on Emmerdale and Coronation Street, has she felt like a woman in a man’s world? “I think because I’m in media, possibly less than I would have done elsewhere. But I learnt early on, probably from living with Germaine, not to get upset by people I neither like nor respect.
“I’ve never felt restricted here. There have been times – such as the grooming story – when I said we should do this and there was resistance. But that was born of concern. However, everyone went with it and is now proud of it.”
Is there a difference between pitching a story for Emmerdale and for Coronation Street? “Matt Cleary, who is my head of production, has this analogy that Coronation Street is Prince William and Emmerdale is Prince Harry. So, here at Corrie, we’re next in line to the throne and we have to behave in a certain way. Whereas Emmerdale can hang out at hot-tub parties and date an American actress. And that is absolutely true.”
And when will she feel that her job is done in Weatherfield? “When people start saying, ‘When is she going?’” she laughs. “At the moment, there are still stories I’m passionate about telling. We’re doing one next year that scares me a bit, but if it’s taken in the way we intend, it could do a lot of good. And that’s one of the reasons I’m proud of, say, the miscarriage and grooming stories. I feel that Coronation Street can help people by reaching out and promoting discussion. Everything’s better if we chat about it.”
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