The Road to Coronation Street

Rachel Cooke enjoys a dramatic homage to our longest-running soap.

The Road to Coronation Street

Completely by accident, I discover that I have been following the career of a young actor called David Dawson. He was a wonderful Smike in
a production of Nicholas Nickleby I saw a few years ago. He was also divine as the loathsome Hugo Fraser-Tyrwhitt in Posh at the Royal Court.
Now here he is playing Tony Warren, the creator of Britain's longest-running drama, in The Road to Coronation Street (16 September, 9pm). I think he's going to be a huge star. He is versatile and affecting; he appears to be able to do accents (rarer than you might think); and he has one of those faces - pointy and vole-like, but also just a touch bland - over which emotions scud like storm clouds in a washed-out sky. When he is doing his thing, it is hard to take your eyes off him.

Anyway, lucky him to have landed this role, in which he got the chance both to look like Pete Campbell from Mad Men and to throw camp stroppy fits, one of which involved sitting on a filing cabinet with a vase of yellow chrysanthemums between his legs and refusing to come down until his boss at Granada Television had given in to his demands.

According to this telling of the tale, Warren was not a man who would take no for an answer. He was also petulant, stubborn and prone to shouting at his superiors. None of which made him seem particularly likeable. On the other hand, he had a great and rare gift, one born of listening to his Manchester aunties talk while sitting beneath the kitchen table (I mean that he would sit under the table; the aunties were on chairs, obviously). He could write dialogue like nobody's business. And the characters who would speak these lines were like real people to him. In auditions, he wasn't waiting to find the actor who would play Ena Sharples. He was waiting to meet Ena Sharples. "She's out there somewhere," he said.

It would be easy to pull apart The Road to Coronation Street. The direction (by Charles Sturridge, who began his career on the soap and later made Brideshead Revisited) was occasionally ploddy, and the script cheesy at times. People said things that were ridiculously full of import. They did not converse; they made speeches. But it was such a huge treat in so many other ways that I'm not going to bother. Among its many virtues was a sincere reverence not only for the glory days of Granada Television, once a truly creative company, but for its best-known show, which turned so many hitherto ignored northern repertory actresses into superstars, and which put the north - its voices, its sensibilities - into millions of living rooms south of Nottingham. (People forget how revolutionary Corrie was in 1960; before Warren and his commissioning editor, Harry Elton, persuaded Sidney Bernstein, chairman of Granada, that his characters would be the heroes of "everyone who'd ever walked across a yard at midnight and sat on a frozen lavatory seat", they were churning out episodes of Biggles, in perfect RP.)

This fondness for Corrie, sweet and piercing, came gift-wrapped in jokes, some more sly than others. The young Ken Barlow was played by James Roache, who is the son of William Roache, who still plays Ken in real life. The young Ken boasted that he was using Granada's new show - it was only supposed to last for 13 episodes - to fill in the time before he made it big in films. Shortly before they began shooting the first episode, Violet Carson, who played Ena Sharples (Lynda Baron), said to Doris Speed, who played Annie Walker (Celia Imrie): "Edna in wardrobe thinks this could last as long as The Archers." Doris wrinkled her nose. "Ye gods," she said. "I hope not."

Best of all, there was the appearance by Jessie Wallace as Pat Phoenix, who played Elsie Tanner. Wallace is best known as Kat Slater in Corrie's only serious rival, EastEnders, and she was fabulous here: waspish, camp, knowingly common, and a touch needy on the quiet. She took to the part in the manner of a swan landing on a too-small lake, half-elegant and half-clumsy. Another reminder, as if it were needed, that our soap operas contain - and always have - some of our very finest actors.

“The Road to Coronation Street" will be screened again on BBC 4 on Friday 17 September at 12.45 am and on 18 September at 11.45pm

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 20 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Catholicism in crisis