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Thursday, 27 April 2017

Review: Kieran Roberts shares Coronation Street secrets

The Power of Storytelling at ITV
A guest blog post by Tommy Cowell, who is on twitter: @tommytalkstelly,
He's also on Instagram: tommytinker91 and YouTube

“Could Coronation Street and Emmerdale ever cross over?” I ask Kieran Roberts, Corrie’s Executive Producer.

“I don’t see them as being in the same world. More like Parallel Worlds,” he answers.
(Now there’s a storyline!)

I ask this question at the end of an event called ‘The Power of Storytelling at ITV’, held at the Orange Tower in Media City. Alongside Kieran is the wonderful Debbie Oates, writer for the show since 2002. Both go out of their way to make the effort to meet the audience after the event, shaking hands and introducing themselves. 

Storytelling is a big part of the Coronation Street machine. Without the stories, there’d be no show. Writing for any soap is a highly technical process. “It’s like a Rubik's Cube,” says Debbie. ITV has an in-house style for storyline documents – written documents that specify, in detail, what happens in each episode, before the script is written. The documents have got to be written in a certain way; detailing the character’s emotion in each scene, avoiding the use of dialogue and being specific but flexible enough for the writer to express their own voice. Nobody said it was easy!

The advice Roberts gives to new writers keen to get onto the show was that they had to balance three things:

Move with the speed of production.
Coronation Street is on five (soon to be six) times a week. Production is relentless and unstoppable. A Corrie writer must be able to move with the pace, keep to deadlines, and sometimes work on two scripts at the same time.

Be true to the voice of the show
Coronation Street is very different to EastEnders. You might be a wonderful writer for Walford but that might not translate to the cobbles. Know the show, love the show and learn to write for the sixty characters that feature. You might be able to write a wonderful storyline for Sally and Tim, but if you struggle to write for Sinead and Daniel then you’re in trouble. Kieran admitted that some “really good writers” have written great scripts for the show, but they just “weren’t Corrie”.

Keep the voice of the original writer
As well as being true to the Corrie tone, the writer must be able to write scripts that stand out and are unique to them. A Jonathan Harvey script is unique to a Debbie Oates script. (Some fans would probably be able to point out who wrote an episode without even seeing the writer credit.)

The first part of the event focused on the early years of Corrie. Lots of discussion about Tony Warren, the creator of the show, who sadly passed away last year. His advice to actors on the show, keen to get the attention of the writers (to give them more scenes) was this: “Every scene is an audition.”

The panellists used Gemma as an example, showing her in two clips. In the first clip, she was typical Gemma, funny, gobby and embarrassing Audrey in the Street. In the second clip, she was having a heartfelt discussion about the loss of Kylie with Rita in The Kabin. Both scenes showed both the versatility of the actress and the writing.
We were then shown a montage of clips from the first thirteen episodes of Coronation Street, all written by Tony himself. Lots of classic, grainy, drama-filled moments, ending with Ena Sharples barking my new favourite line, “Get yer hands off my vestry!!”

Tony was an important part of the show’s production, even 50 years after he wrote the first episode. Kieran informed us, “every week we’d phone Tony up and he’d give us feedback. He wasn’t afraid to tell us what we were doing wrong!”

So what is it about the storytelling on Coronation Street that’s made it last so long? Debbie has a theory, “as writers, we always ask what’s the secret this character’s keeping?” Nowadays, the audience demand things are revealed faster.

Kieran agrees, “we keep an eye on the show’s history, we don’t change anything. The show now is the same as it was in the first episode. We’re just making a modern version of the same show.”

An audience member asked about social realism in the show. “We have a platform to start discussion,” says Kieran. The current Bethany storyline, in which Bethany is being groomed by the older Nathan, is brought up. “It’s not a comfortable storyline but we’re getting a lot of praise from the NSPCC and the police.” The Corrie team work with these organizations to make sure they’re getting their facts right in stories that may affect audiences going through similar situations. “Bethany’s been through a lot. Discovering a body under her patio, bullying, becoming addicted to diet pills… we asked, what would happen to a young girl in that venerable state?”

When asked if they’ve ever got rid of a storyline that they thought would upset audiences, Kieran remembers a specific example, “we always plan our stories in advance, to make sure they’re not too distressing for our audiences… but sometimes the stories that become controversial are ones you don’t expect. About ten years ago, we planned a story in which Claire and Ashley’s babysitter was going to kidnap their son… and then seven days before we were due to go on air, Madeline McCann went missing.”

Obviously, a real-life event like that is horrific and it would have been insensitive for the channel to air the storyline. What followed was vast amounts of work from the writers who had to cook up a new storyline for the characters, the production crew who had to get everything ready on set and the actors who had to film whole new scenes in just seven days. It was a mammoth task, but the right decision.

When asked about the diversity of the writers, Debbie Oates dedicates the success of that to the numerous episodes that were added over the years. “It started with twelve white men. Then as we moved to three, four, five and now six episodes a week, it means more jobs for writers from various backgrounds to reflect society today.”

The move to six episodes is dawning. Kieran confirmed that they’re beginning the process of storylining these episodes, with filming due to begin in two months to be aired in the summer. “But I can’t confirm what day!” Debbie wants it to be Sunday. (I agree with Debbie!)

The addition of a sixth episode every week will open up “thirty-five to forty new jobs”, according to Kieran. “Which is great, to be able to bring new jobs to this part of the country.” It will also allow for longer scenes. “There was a wonderful seven minute scene of Stan and Hilda rooting through a garbage tip”, recalls Debbie. “Hopefully a sixth episode will allow for more of that.”

Coronation Street has a rich history of characters. An audience member refers to her favourite, Bet Lynch (also mine, alongside Jack and Vera) but who are Debbie and Kieran’s favourites? Debbie immediately says “Becky. She was so tough, so there was more of her to break. And the actor (Katherine Kelly) had such wonderful range.” She also enjoyed Bet Lynch’s attitude to life, “she would put her lippy on and walk back into the pub, even if her heart was breaking.”

This question is tougher for Kieran. I imagine, being the Exec on the show, all the cast would be keen to hear who his favourite character is… so he diplomatically looks before his time as producer and picks Stan and Hilda.

I bring up the subject of Ken Barlow. He’s the only character who’s been there since day one, so I asked, “how much do you keep that in mind when storylining? Technically Coronation Street is the life story of Ken Barlow, isn’t it?”

“Bill Roache, despite being hugely experienced, comes into work every day with the same enthusiasm he had on his first day. He has a great attitude. A lot of people talk about ageism in television, but at Coronation Street, we cherish our older cast and respect our forty-year history,” says Kieran.

Sat in the audience is Angie, the glamorous, firey-haired Irish Goddess who works at the front of house for Coronation Street. She informs the audience that today (25th April) is Bill’s 85th Birthday. The room cheers. “Happy Birthday, Bill!” says Kieran.

Debbie adds, “it’s all about clans. Over the years we’ve lost the likes of Blanche and Dierdre and the Barlows became quite a small group, so in the past year we’ve introduced more members of the family, expanding the Barlow clan.”

The re-introduction of Adam, Peter and Daniel was done in the knowledge that the show would be getting a sixth episode. More characters, introduced slowly over time, will allow for more stories and it won’t feel forced when the episode count goes up.

So yes, like any soap, Coronation Street is a storyline machine. But the team know that it’s also important to meet new voices and give them a platform. That’s why ITV host storyline workshops, to meet potential new storyliners who might one day get to work on the show. (To apply for one of these, keep your eye on the ITV jobs website!)

So in summary; Coronation Street is the home of writers and the eater of storylines. Those storylines have the power to speak to millions of viewers at home who’ve grown up with the characters, and can relate to their everyday struggles. And it takes only the best writers to reach out to that audience.

By Tommy Cowell
Twitter: @tommytalkstelly
Instagram: tommytinker91

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Anonymous said...

Tony Warren wrote the first 12 episodes, not 13

maggie muggins said...

Fascinating report, Flaming Nora, and thanks! I love the part about how the balance of the show is a regular part of the discussion. Particularly for us fans the part about being true to the voice of the show.

I'm amazed and in awe to know that Tony Warren was phoned every week until he sadly died last year, to get feedback on what he thought of current episodes! Knowing that we won't get that feedback any more is surely sad, but what amazing dedication, and how lucky are we to have had those years?


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