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Tuesday 26 March 2013

Review: An evening with Tony Warren

A very special guest post from Frank Collins.  Frank is a freelance writer. He writes about television and film on his highly regarded blog and has contributed reviews and articles to many magazines and websites. His book Doctor Who – The Pandorica Opens was published in 2010 and he has contributed to the forthcoming Doctor Who - The Eleventh Hour: A Critical Celebration of the Matt Smith and Steven Moffat Era.  Follow him on twitter at @cathoderaytube

An Evening with Tony Warren, The Metropolitan Community Church of Manchester, Saturday 23rd March 7.00pm

I braved a bitterly cold night on Saturday to join the Metropolitan Community Church of Manchester, the only church in Manchester to be fully LGBT-led, to enjoy a very special evening with Coronation Street creator and legend, Tony Warren. Hosted at Wilbraham Saint Ninian's United Reformed Church in Chorlton, Tony was introduced by Reverend Andy Braunston and then regaled us with some highly amusing stories about his childhood in Manchester, how he became an actor, eventually arrived at Granada Television, created and wrote Coronation Street and then endured his battle with and emergence from alcohol and drug abuse. After a short break, the floor was then opened to the audience's questions and Tony, rapidly losing his voice after his marathon bout as eager and skillful raconteur, responded between gulps of water.

For those of us fascinated by the origins of Coronation Street and interested in Tony's subsequent career, this was an often hilarious and inspiring 90 minutes. Christened Anthony McVay Simpson, our Tony reminisced about life with his mother, his relationship with an absent father he first met at the age of eight, his short-trousered encounters with school bullies and his inspiring Aunt Lily who provided that classic Elsie Tanner line, 'My God love, you're about ready for the knacker yard.' Realising the bus outside Eccles Grammar School not only took him home but also travelled into the cultural melting pot of Manchester, he found his escape from bullying by bunking off to Manchester Central Library and engaging in an education provided by the likes of Noël Coward, Tennessee Williams and Thornton Wilder.

Taking his love of theatricals, Sunday school concerts and plays to heart, he enrolled at the Elliott-Clarke Theatre School on Rodney Street in Liverpool. Tony took great pleasure in describing to us how he blossomed under the wing of its flame-haired principal Shelagh Elliott-Clarke who declared that he was 'blessed' to have talents as an actor and writer but if he should decide to pursue an alternative career Rodney Street could provide training of a different kind at one end with a school for shorthand and, at the other, a cathedral in which to pray.

After being expelled from Elliott-Clarke, he also recalled running away to London and an encounter with a working girl on the streets of Piccadilly whose repartee merely confirmed an ability to use his ear for dialogue already picked up from the women talking around his grandmother's kitchen table. His acting school training and his knack for observing the idiosyncrasies of working class life would stand him in good stead when he undertook his famous sit in on top of a green filing cabinet in producer Harry Elton's office at Granada Television. He refused to come down until Elton agreed to let him 'write about something I know.'

With a certain glee, Tony also took us back to his days as a child actor on Children's Hour in the 1950s where he not only performed with the likes of Judith Chalmers and a young Billie Whitelaw but also had his first encounters with the unforgettable Violet Carson and Doris Speed. He remembers Doris swanning into rehearsals with a new raincoat and attempting to pass it off as 'Balmain of Paris' when in fact under the label it was, as she admitted quite freely to her child co-stars, 'Dannimac of Manchester'. Violet (or Violent as one viewer's letter later addressed her), he reminded us, had threatened to smack his bottom because of his bad behaviour during the recording of Children's Hour. She later thought of walking away from Coronation Street when she was reunited with Tony, horrified to think he was again acting with her. 'Are you in this?' she asked him of Coronation Street and when he declared he'd written it she was moved to acknowledge that it was good. Tony said it was the only compliment he ever had from her.

Coronation Street did not simply appear out of nowhere in 1960 and Tony told us that its first incarnations - a drama called Where No Birds Sing and a comedy Our Street - were actually pitched to the BBC in 1956. He had also been bombarding Granada Television with letters, looking to break out of radio acting and modelling and into television. Tony remarked that many of the knitting patterns, which featured him on their covers, still turn up from time to time. Casting director Margaret Morris, who described Tony as a 'beanpole with a baby face', realised he was now too old to pass as a child and too immature to qualify for adult roles. It was she who suggested he turn his hand to writing and directed him to bluff Canadian producer Elton, a man he openly regarded as a mentor and to whom he still feels he owes a get deal.

Tony wrote half an episode of Shadow Squad, the detective series Elton was producing, and sent it to him. At the end of the incomplete script, it simply stated 'if you want to know how this ends telephone Pendleton 2437'. Despite the subject matter of drug addiction, which was unsuitable for the pre-watershed slot that Shadow Squad occupied, Elton thought the material was very strong and commissioned more scripts from Tony. Risqué material, he told Tony, could only be inferred and although prostitution could not be spelled out explicitly on screen this became the theme of his Shadow Squad script 'Streets of Gold'. However, Elton felt Tony needed to learn more about working in television and secured him a job in the Promotions Department.

Tony remembered it was the script written for Bill Grundy's commentary on an edition of People and Places featuring Christmas pantomimes which caught the eye of Denis Forman, later to become joint managing director of Granada. 'Who wrote this?' he demanded and Tony, believing he was in trouble, was despatched to Forman's office where he was, much to his surprise, offered an exclusive contract at £30 a week. It was after contributing half a dozen scripts to an adaptation of Biggles that Tony picketed Elton's office and persuaded him he could write something 'about a street out there'. 24 hours later and episode one of Florizel Street was on Elton's desk.

According to Tony, in their search for Ken Barlow actor William Roache was spotted sitting on an upturned bucket in an adjacent studio, Pat Phoenix turned up to her Elsie Tanner audition under various assumed aliases - Patricias Pilkington, Marsh and Dean - and Violet Carson's late arrival as Ena Sharples nearly had the entire character scrapped from the series just as its first episode went into rehearsal. When asked by the audience how he knew Coronation Street had made its impact he recalled the actors who frequented the New Theatre Inn on Quay Street gradually altering their greeting to each other, using 'love' to replace the more affected 'darling', and remembers Pat Phoenix being approached at the bacon counter at Lewis's and there asked, of her on-screen daughter Linda's estrangement from her husband, 'she's left him, hasn't she?'

However, Tony acknowledged that after the Coronation Street writing duties became the responsibility of a team he found Granada a less than tolerant place to work. At a story conference he was incensed enough to walk out after he had sat and 'listened to poof jokes, an actor described as a poof and a storyline described as too poofy' and found himself surprised at the strength of his feelings when, after a fellow writer had indicated the comments weren't directed at him, he stridently exclaimed, 'You call my brothers, you call me'. Even though he never went on marches or protests, identifying as an out gay man was clearly a breakthrough for Tony and a brave thing to be in the 1960s prior to the decriminalisation of homosexual offences in 1968. When asked by the audience what gay life was like in the 1950s and 1960s he gave a fascinating account of the various places, including Canal Street, where the LGBT community came together in Manchester. These included The Union Hotel, The Cafe Royal, Prince's Bar and Grill (where, unaware of the venue's status as a gay bar, Tony's father took his family for a celebratory meal) and the infamous bus station cafe The Snake Pit frequented by drag queens and prostitutes.

Of the 1964 film Ferry Across the Mersey, Tony remarked only the title remained of his original script and, despite the success of a three-part drama The War of Darkie Pilbeam in 1968 and writing intermittently for Coronation Street, he left the UK and spent some time in San Francisco. There he found himself tear gassed during protests on the Berkeley campus at the climax of its decade long reputation as the bellwether of political and social uprising. With great honesty, he also described his descent into alcohol and drug addiction as he struggled to find inspiration. The culmination of this was his repeat prescription for tincture of morphine, to calm a poorly tummy, bought from a chemist who recognised the traits of his addiction and demanded more money to provide him with his fix. There was a sense of pride that he had overcome these problems, happily clean for 35 years now after the intervention of a miraculous vision, an angelic figure in white, during a spell of cold turkey back home in Manchester.

He credits Melvyn Bragg's wife Cate Haste as the inspiration to write his first novel The Lights of Manchester, published in 1991 after she had seen him in full-on raconteur mode at the 1985 Edinburgh Television Festival. Amusingly, he remembered talking to Victoria Wood and EastEnders producer Julia Smith about his speech at the Festival and taking great umbrage when, instead of the postcards they claimed they would use as prompts, both turned up with highly planned presentations. He was left to extemporise on the spot but it provided the spur to return to writing when he met Cate on the train back home to Manchester. Since, his life has been reflected in the novels that followed, with The Foot of the Rainbow, Behind Closed Doors and Full Steam Ahead published in the 1990s, and his role as consultant on Coronation Street has reinforced his connection with his own creation.

Of the Street, he feels its continuing success lies in its ability to renew itself. He offered that the history of the exterior sets is a symbol of this change as its original wooden facades erected in the Granada Studios gave way to exterior construction in 1968 on disused railway sidings and to a full-size brick-built set that Tony memorably recalled was opened by the Queen in 1982. The Street has been rebuilt again on Trafford Wharf as part of Granada's move to MediaCityUK and it endures to this day just as Tony Warren did since that first episode went out on 9th December 1960.

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Beth said...

Excellent stuff, thanks for posting. I really enjoyed reading particularly as only last night I had re watched The Road to Coronation Street.

Anonymous said...

Nice write-up. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Interesting stuff.


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