by FERGUS SHEPHERD
It was launched at the end of 1960, and one reviewer dismissed it for “its dreary signature tune and grim scenes of a row of terraced houses and smoking chimneys”.
But Coronation Street, the world’s longest-running television soap opera, which gave the world Ena Sharples, the Rover’s Return and Ken Barlow, has again demonstrated its astonishing capacity for reinvention – achieving a near clean-sweep at the British Soap Awards, picking up seven gongs to just one for its ailing arch-rival, EastEnders.
The awards for Corrie represent the TV industry’s acknowledgement of compelling storylines from its Manchester-based writing team, which has delivered enormous audiences. The most dramatic example was the climax of Tracy Barlow’s murder trial last month, which peaked at 13.1 million viewers.
The plot development of Barlow’s relationship with bad boy Charlie Stubbs has helped to keep Coronation Street’s average audience at around 10.5 million this year, making the Granada production one of ITV’s solid ratings bankers.
Graham Lovelace, a media analyst, said: “The writing teams are able to constantly reconnect with a younger generation. It’s maintained that mix of serious drama when needed plus a bit of light relief … it provides a talking point at work the next day.”
EastEnders – which picked up only the award of best dramatic performance – has suffered from poor ratings, despite spending an extra £1 million on a storyline involving Phil Mitchell.
Last Thursday, it drew just 4.2 million viewers, losing out heavily to a bumper edition of ITV’s Emmerdale. The London soap that created Dirty Den has come under criticism for being unrelentingly depressing without the spark of its early days.
However, Mark Borkowski, a marketing expert, last night said that the arrival of EastEnders in 1985 had proved a wake-up call to other soaps. “EastEnders gave Coronation Street permission to change. It brought in gay characters and was much more multi-racial as a soap format,” he said.
However, Mr Borkowski said the longevity of Coronation Street was based on a classic formula: “Its history is based on fantastic acting and wonderful scriptwriting. It is promoted well, has great storylines and has quite a hold on the nation’s psyche.”
While sometimes derided by its critics as being a stereotypical picture of northern life, in recent years Coronation Street has touched on more topical issues.
It has developed plots around characters such as Dev Alahan (played by Jimmi Harkishin), and in January last year it was even referred to the broadcasting watchdog Ofcom when an Asian character, Sunita Parekh, said she refused to live like “poor white trash”.
It has also introduced gay characters in the form of camp knicker factory worker Sean Tully, played by Antony Cotton. Cotton was in tears as he picked up his award for best actor on Saturday.
“I absolutely love Coronation Street, so for me to get this is a real treat,” he said.
Coronation Street is not only a guaranteed ratings puller – ITV has on occasion moved it around the schedule to prop up underperforming shows such as Celebrity Love Island. It is also a cash-cow for peak-time advertising rates and sponsorship.
For the past decade, Cadbury has sponsored the show in a deal reportedly worth £10 million a year. While the chocolate-maker is ending its sponsorship later this year, the race to replace it will be hotly contested.
Names including the supermarket chain Asda and Premier Foods, the owner of brands such as Branston pickle and Angel Delight desserts, are said to be among the front-runners.
Despite its strongly British feel, Corrie is also making inroads into the lucrative world of overseas programme sales. Foreign buyers include Belgian television – where it broadcasts with Flemish subtitles – and the Middle Eastern network Showtime.