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Saturday 15 November 2014

When Corrie met its match

For the first few years of its existence, Corrie was not troubled by much in the way of competition. The BBC had made a valiant attempt at the soap genre in the form of Compact. However, tales of life in the offices of an upmarket magazine failed to resonate with many. ATV's Lew Grade had enviously noticed the success of Granada's Corrie and wanted something similar. Hence in November 1964, Crossroads was born.

Initially there wasn't a great deal of noticeable competition between the two soaps. Corrie was already established in its twice-weekly slots. Crossroads was shunted out five days a week, although often at different times and in some ITV regions, not at all. Like Corrie though, the Brummie soap emphasised the strong female characters. Or rather one and therein lay the seeds of the eventual downfall of Crossroads.

Corrie was able to draw upon the talents of its leading characters - Ena, Elsie and Annie. Over in Birmingham (or rather the fictional village of King's Oak), most of the action was focussed on the matriarchal Meg Richardson - motel owner, mother and occasional cabaret singer. Viewers loved Meg to bit and when the character married in the 1970s, thousands turned out to see her. Meg was Crossroads in a way that Ena and co never dominated Corrie. Yes, they were frontline characters and the pinnacle of the series but they were never the whole of Corrie. For several years though in the 1970s, it was Crossroads that led the TV ratings at a time when Corrie sometimes only scraped into the top ten. How did the ATV soap manage it? They built a core of characters loved by viewers. Chef Shughie McFee, tarty hairdresser Vera Downend, glamorous David and Barbara Hunter - the nation followed their every move. At the time, Corrie had none of the glamour and were struggling with an ageing cast, a few unpopular characters (step forward some of the Hopkins family other than Tricia) and younger team members such as Deirdre and Gail who were still establishing themselves.

Crossroads also trod where Corrie feared to tread and did so whilst maintaining its status as a family show. By the mid seventies, the Midlands soap had covered alcoholism, rape, prostitution, witchcraft (now about foisting this one on Tracy luv?), women in prison, physical handicap and abortion amongst others.

One thing that Corrie never faced was a savaging by the Independent Broadcasting Authority for the quality of its episodes. The folk of Weatherfield may have been in 'steady Eddie' mode but the whole production was much sharper than Crossroads. Granada edited Corrie expertly whereas Crossroads was recorded 'as live'. The sets wobbled, actors stumbled over their lines, plots appeared to be forgotten and some of the acting was 'unique'. Crossroads allowed Jill Harvey to be pregnant for eleven months. Cleaner Amy Turtle was suspected of being a Soviet spy. Dim but loveable odd job man Benny Hawkins was seen climbing a ladder to change a light bulb. Presumably he is still there as no one saw him again. Faced with this kind of nonsense, the IBA reduced the number of episodes to four per week and then three.

For many viewers, there was stunned disbelief in 1981 when ATV fired its leading star, Noele Gordon, thus bringing to an end seventeen years of Meg. Corrie has always been able to weather the demise of its leading characters. As an ensemble piece, there were always plenty of others to step forward and even in the dark days of 1983 and 1984, Corrie rolled along. Crossroads however never really recovered from the loss of Meg. She was the reason why many tuned it. Within seven years, the show had been axed altogether. The premise of life in a busy hotel was not enough to sustain interest. New lead stars came and went. A chunk of BBC Radio 4's The Archers cast were drafted in playing similar roles. Even Noele Gordon was re-hired in 1985 but died before making an appearance. As Crossroads viewing figures fell, a resurgent Corrie headed to the top of the TV ratings. The gritty realism of EastEnders also did for the pedestrian Midlands soap.

Of course, there was a post-script. Crossroads returned to ITV's screens in 2001 and initially there was a favourable response. However, a lack of regard for the past and a horribly camp re-hash in 2003 finished it off for good. Corrie had finally seen the back of its greatest challenger of the 1970s. Did it learn from the mistakes of Crossroads? Not really as Corrie never set up shop by placing all of its rather wonderful eggs in one basket. However, fifty years after Crossroads Motel swung open its doors for business (one of them no doubt falling off . . .), let's raise a glass of Newton & Ridley's best and toast the 'friendly' rivalry of yesteryear.

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John said...

One reason for the quality gap between Corrie and Crossroads was its budget. I can't remember the source but I'm sure I read that in 1973 the budget for Corrie was roughly double per episode for that of Crossroads. Now some of that was absorbed by actor's fees: at ATV, only Noele Gordon was on a permanent contract and all of the others were on weekly contracts (the same is true of The Archers today - no one has a permanent contract) but at Granada some main cast members such as Phoenix and Adamson were even paid for episodes they weren't in, a situation that caused Stephen Hancock to resign in 1978. The other way that it showed was in location filming. It was something Corrie did frequently, especially on its outdoor sets, but Crossroads was, until the mid 1980s very studio based.

John McE said...

Meg did indeed return for a couple of episode in Venice, where Jill and Adam met her again in Venice.


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