We are about to start the Adjournment debate. Some Members from the north-west were determined to come here and, quite rightly, Tracy Brabin came to me and said, “Mr Speaker, we ought to be aware that it is a very important event, and I would like to have an Adjournment debate.” How could I stop that?
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Eddie Hughes.)
What an enormous pleasure it is to be able to discuss the much-loved British institution of “Coronation Street”, as it reaches the grand old age of 60 and is still going strong. Our constituents have gone through so much in these last few months, and it is nice to be in this place to discuss something upbeat and positive. Reaching its diamond anniversary is a phenomenal achievement, especially as it remains so incredibly popular, attracting an average audience of—can you believe that it is more than that of the Parliament channel?—7 million viewers for each show.
First screened on 9 December 1960, “Corrie” was part of a new realism that was sweeping through the theatre, with “Look Back in Anger”, James Dean, Brando, and kitchen-sink dramas. Hardly anyone had a colour telly—remember that?—and there was no such thing as a remote. There were certainly no streaming channels, and we turned the telly off at 11 and went to bed. Created by scriptwriter Tony Warren, “Coronation Street” did not have a straightforward beginning, and was originally rejected by Granada television before being commissioned to run for 13 episodes. It was a slow burn, with Daily Mirror columnist, Ken Irwin, saying that it would “only last three weeks.” Earlier this year its 10,000th episode was broadcast, and in 2010, it became the longest running television soap opera in the world, earning a place in the “Guinness Book of Records.”
Set in the fictional working-class Weatherfield in Salford, “Coronation Street” has never disguised its roots. It is warm and authentic, at times laugh-out-loud funny, and at other times deeply affecting. From the very beginning, the northern dialect was used. I do not know if any hon. Members are old enough to remember those early episodes, with a young man by the name of Ken Barlow achieving a university place and finding himself embarrassed about his working-class upbringing. As a proud northerner, that is not something I have ever felt, and I am proud that this show, which is as much a part of British culture as a nice cuppa, a fish ’n’ chip supper, or sitting down to the Queen’s speech on Christmas day, is played out in a working-class community in the north.
In among the love stories, the breakups, the punch-ups, and the laughs over a hotpot, “Corrie” has always been true to the everyday difficulties that life, particularly working-class life, can bring, with strong feisty women at the centre of the action. As Ena Sharples classically said, “I don’t expect life to be easy. I’d think very little of it if it was”—a good rule of thumb for the moment.
Since those early days on the street, we have witnessed one or two things happen to the people of Weatherfield over the decades—many things—and those famous cobbles have been the stage to storylines that have gripped our country. We have cried together, gasped together, laughed together, and learned together. There have been iconic storylines that caused the nation to take a breather from people’s busy lives, make a cuppa, and pop “Corrie” on the telly—the train crash, the tram crash, the whodunnits, Richard Hillman’s reign of terror, Alan Bradley being killed by a tram in Blackpool, Deirdre, Ken, and Mike’s love-triangle! A certain Tony Blair got involved in the campaign to Save the Weatherfield One, when Deidre was falsely imprisoned, and a certain Tricia Armstrong was sent to prison for not paying her TV licence, and then gave birth behind the bar in the Rovers Return. Alongside all the entertainment, “Coronation Street” has bravely challenged us and our way of thinking with groundbreaking storylines.
I am not sure how to respond, Mr Speaker. “Coronation Street” has been going all my life, and a wee bit more; and I understand, Mr Speaker, it has been going all your life, and a wee bit more as well. My wife is a tremendous fan of “Coronation Street”. She never misses it. Last week, in self-isolation for the second time, I sat and watched “Coronation Street” on numerous occasions with my wife in control of the remote, so I was not able to turn over.
There was a poignant storyline last week about the loss of a young boy called Oliver. We watched every night it was on during the week, and a person would need a heart of stone not to be moved by that story, how they portrayed in a soap what affects people in reality. The soaps have a tremendous role to play in telling the stories of real life out there, and last week “Coronation Street” did that with real passion, understanding, carefulness and caution—
That was a really excellent intervention, because it highlights the quality of the writing and the pressure that the crew and the actors are under, in this time of covid, to deliver those performances while being two metres apart, while wearing masks in public areas and while having all those other restrictions, and often in one or two takes, if they are lucky. Those authentic, passionate, emotional performances absolutely gripped the nation, and it is now on record in Parliament that they are two extraordinary actors. They will definitely be in line for awards.
The stories I spoke of have helped untold numbers to understand their own personal difficulties, to speak out and to get help if they need it. Hayley, the first ever transgender British soap character, was portrayed wonderfully by my good friend Julie Hesmondhalgh, who gripped us right to the end when she committed suicide in Roy’s arms.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate, and I congratulate all the team who work on “Coronation Street” on reaching this milestone. Does she agree that “Coronation Street” should be recognised for its groundbreaking storylines over the years? She mentioned the first trans character in a British soap in, I think, 1998 and how “Coronation Street” has sensitively highlighted social issues such as that, teen pregnancy, domestic violence and male rape.
That is a great intervention, because wasn’t it groundbreaking? So many families watching that storyline in their living room may not have understood the humanity or the difficulties of being trans in 21st-century Britain, but they loved Hayley. It opens people’s mind to things they may not necessarily have experienced, so my hon. Friend is absolutely right. Those script writers pushed the boundaries. They were very brave to have that storyline, but we loved her. We really did love that couple so much. It was absolutely heartbreaking.
To pick up on a couple of other storylines: Aidan’s suicide, which led to more calls to the Samaritans than they have ever had; Shona’s memory loss; revenge porn; racism, with the writers working closely with Doreen Lawrence to make it authentic and to give it credibility; and James, a young gay footballer struggling against homophobia. And, right up to recent days, with Bethany Platt’s sexual exploitation, David Platt’s male rape ordeal, Yasmeen’s marital coercive control and, as was mentioned, the sad death of baby Oliver. Never shying away from a difficult storyline and shining a light into the lived experience of others is what our soap operas do best. They strive to inform as well as to entertain.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. As a long-time fan of the programme and, indeed, her role in it, I am a little bit jealous, having only graced the small screen reading the news—nothing as glamorous as the Street. She mentioned the topical storyline of the challenge of being a gay footballer, but I would submit that the Street has done a great deal over many years to support challenging attitudes to homosexuality, particularly by following the experiences of existing and well-loved characters such as Todd Grimshaw or Sophie Webster as they came out, and more recently gay parents. Does she agree that it is by being entertaining that information is often best imparted and taboos are overcome?
I thank the hon. Gentleman so much for that intervention—he is absolutely right. As we were saying about the trans character, these things could not be discussed in any other forum than that of a show. Looking at fictional characters, we wonder, “What would I think if I was that person?” Storytelling has huge power to change people’s mind.
If my history of soaps is correct, the first ever male gay kiss on television was on “EastEnders” and the first female gay kiss on “Brookside”. We must not forget the power of those shows to get that liberal view and those conversations going in people’s living rooms. As Dame Carol Ann Duffy said at the funeral of the creator of “Coronation Street”, Tony Warren,
“the millions who have loved Coronation Street for over half a century have lost their Dickens.”
Isn’t that the truth? He and others are commentators on our lives; they amplify and give opportunities to share experiences.
“Corrie” has given us actors and characters so well written and so brilliantly acted that they could be part of the family. Names such as Jack, Vera, Roy, Rita, Steve, Gail, Ken, Sally, Jim, Betty, Mike, Fred—the list could go on and on of characters so distinctive that they are recognised across the country by their first name alone. It is also a show that incubates talent, giving new actors a chance to cut their teeth on great storylines and powerful emotions. “Corrie” gave us early moments in the careers of Ben Kingsley, Sir Patrick Stewart, Joanna Lumley, Sarah Lancashire, Joanne Froggatt and Bradley Walsh. Even Sir Ian McKellen dropped by, wearing a very dodgy hat and scarf, I seem to recall.
Writers including Jack Rosenthal, Kay Mellor, Sally Wainwright and Paul Abbott have all worked in the writers room carving out brilliant plotlines and one-liners. So powerful is the writing that as a young girl I felt the trials and tribulations facing the Duckworths were as vivid as those of my own family. To go on to become part of “Coronation Street” was almost an impossible dream.
I happened to switch on my TV, and when I saw “Corrie” was being discussed I had to come down and pay tribute as a north-west MP. It is not just the actors and the writers that “Coronation Street” has developed. There are also the back room staff who are so critical to delivering brilliant television day in, day out—the wardrobe team, the make-up artists, the camera operators and so on. “Coronation Street” and Granada Television have fostered and developed that talent, transforming the north-west of England into a TV powerhouse. I am sure the hon. Lady agrees, having spent time at Granada studios, that that embryonic development has played a significant role in transforming the north-west media environment.
I could not agree more, and I will go on to talk about how creativity and the creative industries can be a powerhouse and an engine of regeneration in our communities in the north.
Let me speak a little more personally for a minute. I grew up in a housing estate in Howden Clough in Batley, watching acts at the Batley Variety Club. For a working-class kid like me, it was a source of pride and wonder that huge stars of the day, such as Shirley Bassey and Louis Armstrong, came to my bit of the world. Seeing photographs of Eartha Kitt eating chips in Dewsbury market is sort of mind-blowing. It set me on a path that was hard. I worked in precarious jobs trying to make it, sleeping on couches and living hand to mouth, like so many aspiring actors do. We all know how tough it is to get on in such industries for those who do not have rich parents,. For working-class northern actors, working on “Coronation Street” meant you had arrived. We had grown up watching it, and we wanted to be in it. I got the chance to work with the legends of “Corrie”—Jack and Vera, Raquel, Bet Lynch and Betty Turpin—watching and learning. As someone who had not been to drama school, the ability to memorise pages and pages of script overnight and bring authentic emotions and truth to the work was a skill I learned on that job.
Many may know me as Tricia Armstrong, but aficionados may also know that I joined the show for three episodes playing Chloe, a toy shop manageress. It was a Christmas episode, and I ended up on top of the roof of the toy shop with Peter Baldwin dressed as Father Christmas. I must have impressed in that role, because I was then invited to come back a number of years later as Tricia Armstrong. That first day was, as the House can imagine, very overwhelming. Everybody in the green room was a famous face. When you have William Roache—he is now, unbelievably, 88—saying, “Would you like a cup of tea, Tracy?”, it is quite a surreal experience, as was working with Liz Dawn, who had her lines stuck all over the set like in “The Generation Game”, because she could not remember all of it. As long as there was a bit of script somewhere, she was all right. Famously one Christmas she pulled out the chicken and the lines were on the bum of the chicken as it came out—I thought, “Very convenient.” Then there was Annie Kirkbride, who we all sadly miss, who played Deirdre. Her wicked sense of humour creased us up in serious scenes.
Having struggled with the feast and famine nature of the freelance life, it was such a huge relief to have regular paid work, a paid holiday and a chance to save. More than that, it was the honour of being part of something so associated with my class and being in the homes of people every night who shared my accent and my experiences.
“Corrie” is not just about portrayal or about telling working-class stories brilliantly; it is, as the hon. Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter) says, absolutely about jobs in the north. It is not just about actors and directors, but schedulers, designers, editors, costume and make-up, researchers, the props team, office staff, accountants, carpenters, electricians, painters, security guards and canteen staff—the list goes on.
Mr Speaker, you may know I am standing to be the candidate for the West Yorkshire Mayor. If I am elected, that experience on “Coronation Street” will drive my creative new deal, because our entertainment industries also have the power to build our economies, to deliver regeneration and to provide opportunity, hope and skills, and that process will take inspiration from “Coronation Street”, as it has shown us how important television can be for the economy.
“Coronation Street” has a bespoke 7.7 acre set in the north-west. It employs about 450 people and hundreds and hundreds of freelancers. It firmly cements the importance of the north in TV’s history, and in its future, too. We know it is a creative powerhouse, and the skills and talent it nurtures and develops have aided and continue to aid the gentrification of Salford.
I know that ITV takes the development of skills very seriously. To this day, it supports Tony Warren’s determination to be a champion of local talent. Tony wanted to support disadvantaged young people to get a career in an industry that is famously difficult to get started in. Shortly before his death in 2016, he worked with “Coronation Street” and ITV to establish a bursary to support local actors from disadvantaged backgrounds to train at drama schools. I can think of no better legacy for a man whose creation has brought us 60 years of public service broadcasting at its best.
The success of “Coronation Street” is built on a healthy and well-supported public service broadcasting system. In order to preserve these valuable national treasures, reforms need to be made to protect and support our PSB. I hope that the Minister, when he gets to his feet, will also reflect on that and work with the broadcasters and Ofcom to ensure public service broadcasters can continue to deliver for their audiences and, more urgently, for our regions.
Like all parts of life, covid has put massive obstacles in the path of “Coronation Street”, and the team has worked hard to overcome them. The Rovers Return is not that busy these days. The desks in the factory are slightly more spread out than they used to be, reflecting the regulations of real life, and keeping cast and crew as safe as possible while bringing familiar entertainment to our homes. While the Minister is here, let me say that large parts of film and television production have been able to get back on track thanks to the support of the Government around insurance. Screen production is part of a creative ecosystem, and to get it fully functioning once again our performing arts, theatres, music festivals and venues also need that insurance support to keep as buoyant as they can be.
During the last few months of pain and frustration, there have been many times when I am sure that many of us would have found familiarity and comfort in these words from the legendary Blanche, written by my good friend Damon Rochefort: “In my day, summit bad ‘appened you stayed home, got drunk and bit on a shoe.” I think that is quite a good metaphor for the times we live in.
If there is one thing in our country that can cross political divides, it is our love of “Coronation Street”. I am incredibly proud to have been part of the show’s history. I am one of thousands of actors, writers, producers, directors, costume makers and off-screen staff who have worked around the clock—trust me, I absolutely mean around the clock—to bring this programme to our screens year after year, decade after decade, never slipping in quality. Now I am proudly one of the millions of fans of “Coronation Street” who make the show so special, and I know that history is still there to be made, so here’s to the next 60 years.
Thank you. As somebody who was born and brought up in Granadaland and who has seen “Coronation Street” develop, it would be remiss of me not to be in the Chair at the start of this debate. Shortly I am going to hand over to another north-west Chair from Lancashire—Nigel Evans, no less. It is interesting that in “Coronation Street”, they always talk about going to Chorley market, because they know the good value of Chorley market. The other thing, of course, is that Ken Morley is from Chorley; he is just one of the stars who have been in “Coronation Street”. At home I have a tray from Newton and Ridley from the set of “Coronation Street”. Both myself and Mr Evans were on “The Politics Show” and we had to answer a certain number of questions. Guess who won—I’ve got the tray!
No more from me. I call Conor Burns.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) on securing this debate; I call her my hon. Friend on this occasion because we are all here today, friends of the Street. The Minister for Media and Data, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), is on the Front Bench. He knows what a long-term, dedicated, ardent “Corrie” fan I am. I have visited the set on a number of occasions with him. I was saying to my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith) earlier that I could just imagine the scene in the Department as the Minister’s officials grappled with putting together a script. I think we could have had a spin-off, watching them going through the history of the storylines and characters.
Mr Speaker, you mentioned the Newton and Ridley tray. One of my most prized possessions is a cobble from the original Street that was given to me in a presentation case by the cast: “To Conor Burns, a great friend of the Street and of the show.” That is used on my desk as a serious paperweight, because those cobbles are very deep.
I have visited “Coronation Street” on a number of occasions, both before I was elected to this place and subsequently; I go more or less annually. I went with my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham in 2009, before I was elected to the House of Commons. We went for the purpose of doing a political leaflet. I wondered how to engage some of the communities in my Bournemouth constituency, so we met up with Bill Roache and had pictures taken in one of the booths in the Rovers. There were also pictures of he and I walking along outside No. 1, and of us both sitting at Ken and Deirdre’s dining room table. We did it as an interview with Bill Roache. The number of people who picked up and read a political leaflet because Ken Barlow was talking to the Tory candidate—they were just intrigued. I think it was probably the best piece of political literature that I have ever done.
I visited again a couple of years ago, and Rita and Audrey were filming in the salon the Christmas scenes. This was in October, and we were at the conference. I made the mistake of saying to Sue Nicholls that I well remembered watching her as a child on “Rentaghost”, without realising this would cause her significant offence, because it pointed out the longevity and the age gap.
My right hon. Friend the Minister worked with Lady Thatcher when, as Prime Minister in 1989, she visited the set of “Coronation Street”. I have never quite known whether this story is apocryphal or actually happened, but it was reported that people were explaining to her on the way up that Alderman Roberts runs the corner shop and Ken Barlow used to edit the local newspaper, and basically setting out who all the key characters were—Bet Lynch was the landlady of the Rovers—and she is reported to have said just before she got out of the car, to the terror of those accompanying her, “Now, which one is Alf Garnett?”
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has yet to visit “Coronation Street”, and I hope that that is something he will rectify, for those of us who are dedicated fans take great offence at the fact that, as Mayor of London, he went to the inferior “EastEnders”, but has not yet paid tribute to “Coronation Street”. The 60th anniversary would be a good occasion for the Prime Minister to go up to “Coronation Street” and say thank you on behalf of the Government and the United Kingdom.
The hon. Member for Batley and Spen went through some of the groundbreaking issues that the writers and the cast have covered, and I think that is one of the things that has embedded “Coronation Street” in the heart of the nation. It has been groundbreaking in the issues it has been prepared to cover. We have talked about the Adam Rickitt and Bruno Langley—Nick and Todd—gay kiss. There is domestic abuse dating back to Rita and Alan Bradley, but most recently with Geoff and Yasmeen. It has dealt with child death, assisted suicide, the Roy and Hayley sex change, rape, adultery, teenage pregnancy, homelessness, stillbirth and suicide. Most recently, there were the incredibly moving scenes in which Aidan Connor committed suicide, played by the brilliant Shayne Ward, and the incredibly moving scenes—award-winning scenes, frankly—with Daniel and Sinead as Sinead died, leaving a young child behind. Daniel is played by the brilliant Rob Mallard, who is the on-screen son of Ken Barlow. I have to say that Rob, I think, is going to have the longevity of Ken Barlow and Bill Roache.
However, there is also the humour that the hon. Lady raised and talked about. Who can ever forget the scene where Blanche, Peter, Ken and Deirdre go to Peter’s meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, and Blanche brings out all the dirty laundry to air it in public? Somebody says to her, “I am not a fan of yours”, and she replies, “I am not particularly a fan of your halitosis either.” She is desperately missed. There was the humour of Percy Sugden and Phyllis, Rita and Mavis, the relationship between Ken and Mike Baldwin, and Stan and Hilda. I remember from when I was a very young child—I have been watching “Coronation Street” for over 40 years—when they win the weekend away to a hotel. Hilda puts on some special lipstick, and Stan kisses her and says, “What does that taste of?”—“It tastes of woman, Stan, woman.” That is one of the best scenes I have ever seen.
Next week, we have the actual anniversary on 9 December. “Coronation Street” celebrated its 10,000th episode on 7 February this year. I think we should all salute everybody who has played a part over those 60 years in making it the national institution it is, and in particular Bill Roache, the longest-serving soap cast member in the world. By the way, for anybody watching this who does not know about “Coronation Street”, I would commend to them the wonderful programme “The Road to Coronation Street”, in which Bill was played by his real life son James Roache. It charts the story of Tony Warren taking this to the leaders of Granada and having it rejected, and then its being played internally and the tea ladies and others being suddenly gripped by it, and they saw the power it could have.
I end by saying this: “Coronation Street” is a family—the cast, the crew, the production teams, the writers, the directors, and everybody at MediaCity who puts so much into turning out this quality, dramatic, humorous production. They have done brilliantly during the pandemic in making sure that there are still fresh, vibrant episodes coming out at each week. I simply say, as a long-term fan, thanks to everybody involved in making “Coronation Street” for the laughter, the drama, the heartbreak, the tears and the smiles for the last 60 years. It sustains me in a positive way to know that it will be going long after I cease to be on this earth.
Mr Speaker, you enticed me to say a few words, so I feel that I should. I really want to, by the way. My intervention earlier was a speech on its own. What lovely and humorous recollections from to the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin). “Coronation Street” always gives hard stories, but it also gives humour. I was thinking back on the 60-plus years that “Coronation Street” has been here—it might be here a wee bit longer—and I remember vividly the things that happened on the black and white TV, because they happened in our village of Ballywalter in the ‘60s and ‘70s. They were facts of life.
We did not have very much when we were young. That did not do us any harm, by the way. It gave us a compassion for others, I always thought. With my mum and dad in my house, while we might not have had much materially, we certainly had all the things that were important in life—the love of our parents and family. Along with the black and white TV and the storylines, one thing that resonated in my mind when the hon. Lady was speaking was the three ducks on the wall, because we had them in our house. Those might have been small things in “Corrie”, but they resonated with us. I could almost say that every one of the characters Members spoke of was so-and-so in the village. Male or female, whoever it may have been—they had the characteristics of that person. I will not say who they were, because that would not be fair, but it was people I noticed. Growing up in Ballywalter in the ‘60s and ‘70s, every one of those stories were real stories, because we could understand and relate to them.
When I got married some 33 and a half years ago, my wife loved cats and I loved dogs. I did not particularly like cats, but I realised that, if I loved my wife, I had to love her cats. That is how life is. I also realised early on that my wife was a fan of “Corrie”, and indeed of all the soaps. Such is her knowledge of all the characters and stories of “Coronation Street” and other soaps that I suspect that my good lady could become a scriptwriter for “Coronation Street”. The other great thing I have realised through all these years of marriage is that Sandra is in control of the remote whenever “Coronation Street” was on, and I have absolutely no chance of watching any other programme, be it football or whatever. That is just how life is.
I loved the mischief, the storylines and the real-life stories. When I intervened on the hon. Lady, I referred to the story of Oliver, the young boy who died on the TV programme last week. People will say that it is only a soap and not real life, but it portrays real life—I saw it in the story last week. Last week, in self-isolation with my wife, and with her in control of the remote, I really became involved in the story that they were telling. That is what the right hon. Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns) referred to. It was hard not to be involved, and it was hard, at the end of the week, not to be moved, emotionally, by the storyline, because I was totally gripped by what was taking place. Through all the programmes that there have been, “Coronation Street” has been able to portray heartache, pain, love and the highs and lows of life. I thank the Lord that I have never experienced what happened on “Coronation Street” last week, but some of my constituents have. That drama and that portrayal gives a feel for what is happening in the lives of others.
Of course, we have always been fortunate to have a good old Northern Ireland accent in among it all. I was just speaking to the hon. Member for Batley and Spen, trying to remember the actor’s name.
Charlie Lawson—that is exactly who it is. His character married Liz McDonald. I just loved hearing his accent, because when I come here to Parliament, my Northern Ireland accent is very different from everybody else’s. Indeed, one of my colleagues and friends from the Government Benches once said to me, “All right, Jim? I’ve really no idea what you said there—would you repeat it?” So I really do value the opportunity to be involved in this debate.
The right hon. Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns) and, of course, my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) will understand this reference: in Northern Ireland, we cannot watch “Coronation Street” without enjoying the continuity announcement from Julian Simmons just before. Sadly, ITN has brought Julian to an end. If people do not understand who Julian is, I hope they check on YouTube for some of his introductions to “Coronation Street”. He always gave a précis in his inimitable, incredibly camp style. Perhaps I can give just one quote: I cannot even remember who he was talking about, but he said,
“once a lying, cheating, two-timing bigamist, always a lying, cheating, two-timing bigamist. A leopard never changes its spots—especially when it’s got a nose like a cooker hood.”
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Julian Simmons had that role as the person who tells us about the “Coronation Street” episode that is on the way, giving us that wee storyline, but his time at UTV and ITV has come to an end.
I thank everyone in “Corrie” for what they have done. What an opportunity this has been to speak, in a small way, about the good things that “Corrie” has brought into our lives, as well as the hard stories. It reminds us that life is not always roses for everyone—it is not always that way—but that it is also fun and laughter. “Coronation Street” does that exceptionally well.
I thank the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) for securing this debate. We should also thank my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, because clearly he set the business for this week and ensured that the debates on the motions before us this afternoon were going to be fairly short so that we could have a substantial, longer than usual Adjournment debate to celebrate the 60th anniversary of “Coronation Street”.
I have been a fan of “Coronation Street” since I was about seven or eight years old. It was always on in our house: my parents loved it and my grandparents loved it—and as they get through their 90s in residential care together, after 70 years of marriage, they still watch “Coronation Street” every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It is very much a family thing that we love and enjoy the nation’s favourite street.
One of the early storylines that I can remember was the murder of Brian Tilsley in the ’80s. I may have been seven at the time and I remember not fully comprehending the storyline—the brutality of it and how a father could be taken from a family, leaving the character we know as Nick Tilsley without a father. I remember that really struck me as a young boy.
I now like to see “Coronation Street” as escapism: after a busy day in this place, I can often be found on the train back to Buckinghamshire watching “Corrie” on my iPad. My doing so also maintains domestic harmony, because I must confess that I have married into an “EastEnders” family. Often, when we have “Coronation Street” on at home, my wife finds a reason to do something else. She is very appreciative that I watch it on my iPad on the way home. I like to try to ensure that that bit of escapism is available to me at the end of a busy day.
I have had the great honour and privilege of visiting the old set and the new set on a number of occasions, each time with my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns). It is a privilege not only to meet so many cast members and see them filming their scenes, but to see the incredible crew and writers—everybody who works so hard to produce six episodes a week. In television, it is no mean feat to produce six episodes a week and get them ready on time for ITV to broadcast them.
As everybody else who has spoken in this debate has said, “Coronation Street” offers us that wonderful breadth— not only the laugh-out-loud moments, the entertainment and the comedy gold, but those very serious storylines. There have been storylines, as my parliamentary neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Rob Butler) said, that break taboos and raise awareness of things that the country is not necessarily as aware of as it could or should be. One that struck home with me—before I was elected to this House, I did some work with the UK Sepsis Trust in raising awareness of sepsis in this country—was the story of Jack Webster, who lost his leg. That really helped to raise public awareness of sepsis, to the point that, almost around the same time that that the storyline was airing, we saw in virtually every hospital and GP surgery up and down the land the “Just Ask: ‘Could it be Sepsis?’” poster going up, so it really is very powerful.
As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, the Oliver storyline in the past few days was really difficult to watch, and the performances, particularly, of Jane Danson, Simon Gregson and Ben Price, really paid proper service to ensuring a greater awareness not only of mitochondrial disease, but of the absolute devastation that any family who loses a child must go through. As I say, it was difficult but important to watch as part of that storyline.
There have been so many other storylines. I do not want to repeat previous speeches, but the wonderful Mikey North’s portrayal of Gary Windass in the loan shark storyline over the last couple of years brought home the brutality of what can happen if people borrow money from loan sharks. Other stories include the coercive control storyline with Geoff and Yasmeen, which was so powerfully portrayed, and the David Platt male rape storyline, not yet complete in the court. We have seen domestic abuse storylines, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West mentioned, going back to Rita and Alan Bradley, and more recently, with Tyrone Dobbs. These are all highly serious issues that “Coronation Street” has helped to raise awareness of in the country, and there are so many more that I will not repeat.
As we look forward to another 60 years—hopefully more—of “Coronation Street”, there are also questions, to be serious for a moment, about the way we look at public service broadcasting. ITV is a public service broadcaster and we need to ensure that there is fairness for our public service broadcasters, particularly as they compete in advertising space with some online platforms going forward, to ensure that ITV is a strong channel that remains not only on our televisions, but on our iPads, computers and all the other ways that we are going to consume entertainment—a competitive player in that marketplace that is not disadvantaged by online programming. I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister, who is far more versed in these matters than me, to consider that going forward, and I know that the Public Service Broadcasting Advisory Panel has now launched.
I conclude by repeating my hearty congratulations to everybody involved in “Coronation Street” on this momentous anniversary of 60 years on our television screens. I look forward, hopefully, to visiting the set on many more occasions, but until then, it is my iPad on a Monday, Wednesday and Friday night—my escapism. I wish them all a very happy birthday and 60 more years to come.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) on securing the debate. I enjoyed very much hearing her share some of her insights from the Street.
Earlier this year “The Road to Coronation Street” was broadcast, bringing to life the story of Tony Warren and his journey to bring “Coronation Street” to our screens 60 years ago. He has been rightly credited as the Dickens of the 20th century. “Coronation Street” is a staple of the TV diet in our household too, faithfully consumed by my partner and more fitfully so by me. I asked my partner which particular incidents in the show over the last 30 to 40 years that we have been watching it I should refer to in my speech, and they have both already been covered by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns): the Hilda Ogden scene in the guesthouse and Blanche’s attempts at attending an AA meeting for Peter Barlow.
During lockdown, a number of special episodes were broadcast with a special focus on the women of “Coronation Street”. These are strong, forthright, vocal northern women who have given the nation such special characters—Ena Sharples, Elsie Tanner, Hilda Ogden, Bet Lynch and Annie Walker, to name but a few—along with hugely humorous comedy characters including Percy Sugden, Norris Cole and Roy Cropper. I am sure that, with Roy’s enthusiasm for the railways, he would be keen to support the campaign in Darlington to save locomotion No. 1.
I want to share my favourite line from “Coronation Street”. It was a spin-off episode featuring Bet Lynch. She was away in Spain, and she was being chatted up in a bar by a much younger gentleman. She turned to him and said, “Go away! I’ve got ladders in my tights older than you.” “Coronation Street” is always reflective of life in our nation, representative of powerful northern voices and mindful of current issues in our society. I commend Granada for its fantastic contribution over the past 60 years to our cultural life.
I am not sure I can claim that title, particularly having listened to the contributions this evening. I would like to start by congratulating the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) on obtaining the debate and managing to unite the House. Members on both sides of the House have spoken with real admiration and affection for what is undoubtedly the world’s greatest soap.
I am delighted to join others in congratulating “Coronation Street” and ITV on the 60th anniversary. At the beginning of this year, the programme transmitted its 10,000th episode, and the 60th anniversary is next week. It is the world’s longest running soap opera, and it is still the most popular. It also demonstrates the extraordinary changes that have taken place in the media landscape over those 60 years. Today, it is still bringing in the biggest audience of any soap, but that is around 7 million, whereas in the ’90s, it was regularly getting 20 million. Indeed, the departure of Hilda Ogden in the 1987 Christmas episode had an audience of 26.65 million. It is still getting something like a third of the audience share. This just shows how linear television has changed during that time, but nevertheless, “Coronation Street” has maintained its position at No.1.
I cannot claim the encyclopaedic knowledge that has been displayed by so many Members, but I, too, have twice visited the set of “Coronation Street”. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns) said, the first time I did so was with Margaret Thatcher in January 1990, and it was indeed the case that I had to brief her on the way to the set on the characters who were stars at that time. I did indeed go through all the various storylines, and she was particularly keen to visit Alf Roberts’ corner shop, because of course her own father was Alfred Roberts, who ran the grocer’s shop in Grantham. She arrived on set and was very upset to see that Alf Roberts’ corner shop had the sign saying, “Licensed to sell alcohol”. She said that that would certainly have never been allowed in her father’s shop, as he would not have dreamt of selling alcohol. Having said that, she did then visit the Rovers Return, but she was very clear that she would have a bitter lemon from behind the bar.
Some 24 years later, I was lucky enough to visit the set again. This was organised by the redoubtable Jane Luca, of ITV, whom I suspect was responsible for the visits of most of my hon. Friends who have spoken of their own experiences. She organised for the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, which I was Chair of at the time, to visit the new set. This was in 2014, after the set had been transferred to the new location in MediaCityUK in Salford. I was indeed accompanied by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West, whose excitement at going to the new set I remember. We met a number of cast members, including Michelle Keegan and Sam Aston. One thing that struck me was that the set had been made slightly bigger so that two cars could drive down the street and pass each other, and 54,000 cobbles had been laid, with extraordinary attention to detail. Each cobble was both positioned and weathered in order that it remained absolutely authentic. My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter) referred to the extraordinary amount of ancillary occupations involved and jobs created on a major TV production—I suspect that the 54,000 cobbles employed quite a lot of people.
Over the years, “Coronation Street” has had a number of famous visitors. There is a wonderful picture of Alfred Hitchcock peering around the door of the Rovers Return, and a young Prince Charles visited. As the hon. Member for Batley and Spen and one or two others have said, many great actors started their careers in Weatherfield; as well as the hon. Lady, we have the trio of theatrical knights, Sir Ben Kingsley, Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart, as well as Sarah Lancashire and Joanna Lumley. As well as the actors, screenwriters such as Jack Rosenthal and Russell T. Davies started off in “Coronation Street”, and directors such as Paul Greengrass, Mike Newell and Michael Apted all directed episodes.
A number of the speakers in this debate have referred to the willingness of “Coronation Street” to confront difficult issues, and we have heard a number of examples of that, starting with the issue of racism in the very early episodes in the 1960s. Since then, it has addressed teenage pregnancy; domestic abuse, of both males as well as females; and transgender issues. It has even covered the challenge of someone having to try to find the money to pay the TV licence and failing, with this resulting in imprisonment. I am happy to tell the hon. Lady that almost nobody now goes to prison for a failure to pay the TV licence or meet the fine. I am sorry that in her case this came at a time when that was not true.
It was pressure from this place that changed that law and a subsequent “Panorama” programme that unearthed all these cases of women who were sent straight to prison for non-payment. So I would like to thank the predecessors of MPs in here who saved so many women from experiencing that.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that. It has been some years since anyone was sent to prison for that and I hope it does not happen again, but it was disproportionately women who suffered.
My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith) talked about the issue of raising awareness of sepsis. It is perhaps worth observing that there cannot be another street in Britain that has experienced so many disasters and so many tragedies in such a short space of time.
Of course, most recently, the programme has had to wrestle with the challenges of covid, both in terms of production and also as a storyline. Covid stopped production of “Coronation Street” in March, but it was able to resume in June under the protocols to ensure safety. I want to pay tribute to the ITV health and safety team and to Magnus Brooke of ITV who played a very large part in helping to draw up those protocols so that not just ITV Studios productions could get going again, but all the other broadcasters and film companies could, too.
I have been chairing the broadcasting, film and production working group, which has brought together representatives of all the broadcasters, film companies and production companies to discuss how we could get production going again. We have now put in place very strict protocols to ensure that production can take place safely. As the hon. Member for Batley and Spen mentioned, we have also put in place the £500 million film and TV restart scheme. She is absolutely right that one obstacle was the difficulty in obtaining insurance of productions against the possibility of their having to stop because of covid. I am glad to say that that is in place and, as a result, productions have been resumed by most of the major broadcasters and film companies, but it has required some quite inventive solutions.
I understand that, on “Coronation Street”, furniture is quite often placed between characters in order that they can remain apart and socially distanced. Indeed, in a particularly inventive way, filming of romantic scenes takes place with one actor sitting on one end of a sofa looking longingly at a tennis ball suspended from the ceiling and then, once that section has been filmed, the other actor takes their place at the other end of the sofa and stares at a different tennis ball longingly and the production crew then splice the two together so that no one can tell. It is very important not just, obviously, that production is done safely, but that a show like “Coronation Street” gets across the public messaging about the importance of maintaining social distancing and mask wearing. “Coronation Street” had the socially distanced wedding between Maria and Gary.
I fear that it is almost certain that Weatherfield would still be in tier 3 at the end of the national lockdown, which would mean that the Rovers Return would be able to supply only a takeaway service, but I hope that it would not be long before the Rovers Return would be in tier 2, which would, of course, allow the sale of alcohol with a substantial meal such as Betty’s hotpot.
The hon. Lady also rightly referred to the importance of the UK production sector and our creative industries and the need to ensure that every region and every nation of the UK benefits from them, and we have been very keen to ensure that more production is done outside London. The BBC now has a major centre in Salford at MediaCity. ITV is now located with the “Coronation Street” set there. I have also had the pleasure of visiting the “Emmerdale” set in Leeds. ITV still has a presence in Leeds and Channel 4 has now established its headquarters in Leeds. I am absolutely clear that it is very important that we continue to encourage production to take place right across the UK, because it brings enormous economic benefits in terms of jobs and wealth creation.
The hon. Member for Batley and Spen and my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham referred to the importance of public service broadcasting. We are living through extraordinary changes in the media landscape that have brought huge extra opportunities for viewers in the range of content available through a number of streaming services that did not even exist two or three years ago. Now we have a choice of Amazon, Apple, Disney and Netflix, as well as Sky and the public service broadcasting companies. The PSBs have a tremendous role in supporting the UK creative industries, and while some of the streaming services are now commissioning content in this country, because we are so good at it here, the PSBs nevertheless still represent the major commissioners of UK content. We have recently established the Public Service Broadcasting Advisory Panel to examine the way in which PSB needs to adapt to this new landscape, but I am absolutely clear that there is still a role for public service broadcasting, and we will be looking at the issues and challenges facing public service broadcasters, such as the issue of prominence that my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham raised.
I would like to conclude by joining all those who have spoken in paying tribute to a show that has not only brought pleasure and entertainment to millions of people over the course of the last 60 years, not just in the UK but in many other countries around the world, but also played a vital role in raising awareness and affecting attitudes on so many important public issues. As several people have said, I look forward to at least another 60 years.
I am not going to let the moment pass without saying a few words. This is rare and exceptional, but we are going to do it, and I am grateful to Mr Speaker for allowing me to chair this part of the Adjournment debate. Congratulations, Tracy, there is nobody more appropriate than you to have this particular debate. I have to say, as well, that I have seen many Ministers answer Adjournment debates with speeches prepared by their own Departments, but John, you wrote every word of that speech. I was looking at it, and that is your handwriting. I do not know if you could read it, but none the less it is your handwriting. You have grown up with the series, as we all have in this Chamber.
I know that Mr Speaker would have wanted, in normal circumstances, to have done a big reception at the end of this debate and had many of the stars past and present in his state rooms, but I am afraid covid has meant that that cannot be. We cannot even go into the snug in the Strangers Bar, because that is closed. None the less, I am sure that at some stage we will be able to properly mark the 60 years of “Coronation Street” in the Palace of Westminster. I know that that Chamber would have been full of some of the stars looking down before we went on to the reception.
I grew up in the 1960s watching “Coronation Street” on the huge TV we had in the corner—a small screen, but a big TV—all in black and white. I lay on the floor and listened to the haunting melody on a Monday and Wednesday. My father would close the shop early in order to watch “Coronation Street” because he loved it so much. Little did I think, watching that series, that I would be chairing a debate on “Coronation Street” in the House of Commons as Deputy Speaker.
I remember once meeting Jean Alexander, the great Hilda Ogden, and I could not get over how posh she sounded when she was not being Hilda Ogden. She was such a great actress, and that is part of the thing about “Coronation Street”: the great actors and actresses—yourself included, Tracy—who have performed in the amazing, longest running soap opera in the entire world.
In the 1960s, Bill Roache opened Swansea carnival. My mother dragged me down to the front to watch Bill in the back of an open-top car. I thought I was looking at a Hollywood actor—that is the height of the fame of people who starred in “Coronation Street” in those days. Little did I think then that I would represent the Ribble Valley, in the north-west of England, in Lancashire, or that in the village I bought a house in, Pendleton, I would be living opposite Vicky Entwistle—Janice Battersby—who is now a personal friend. I went to her wedding in Manchester, when she married Andy Chapman. Lots of stars of “Coronation Street” were there.
Bill Roache, too, has become a personal friend of mine over the years—a wonderful man. He has helped me out in a couple of general election campaigns, as he has a number of people who became MPs. Bill is the longest-serving actor in the longest-serving soap. What an amazing accolade! John, you mentioned Jane Luca, and she helped me to get on to the set of “Coronation Street” as well. We are all grateful for the fantastic facilitation that Jane has given many people over the period.
Another thing that has come out about “Coronation Street” is the humour—yes, the drama, and the fact that it treat difficult subjects, but it is one of the most humorous things on TV, more than some of the other soaps on at the moment, where you feel a bit depressed at the end. With “Coronation Street”, humour runs through the entire series, the entire 60 years of its production. For me, as far as broadcasting is concerned, you can stick your “Crowns”; I am going to stick with “Corrie”, as I have for the past 60 years, and as I am sure we all will in the future.
It is a real shame that at the end of this debate, we cannot have that haunting melody of “Coronation Street” playing, which I am sure we are all thinking about now. It is the thing that got us there to watch the show and, even at the point of highest drama, there would be silence in our living rooms as we listened to that closing melody. So thank you, “Corrie”, for everything that you have done over the past 60 years.
Question put and agreed to.
Below is the list of Members currently certified as eligible for a proxy vote, and of the Members nominated as their proxy.