As this month is the 60th anniversary of the launch of Coronation Street there has been a lot of celebration and reminiscing, so I thought that I would take a look back at another episode. The one I have chosen was recently repeated on ITV3, and although it didn’t seem like it at the time, this was actually a rather significant episode in the history of the long-running soap as things would never be the same again.
1996 wasn’t really a great year for Coronation Street. This was a time when although the cast were rather popular, they were beginning to age somewhat, and there wasn’t really much happening. I remember commenting at the time that the episodes weren’t exactly packed with excitement. Ratings were still good but they were much lower than about a decade earlier. In November, a fourth weekly episode was added, which didn’t exactly come at a useful time. You didn’t need to be a TV Quick critic to know that this entertainment had become moribund.
In 1997 there was a rather crucial moment in the show’s development when Brian Park became the new producer, who would go on to cause a stir by making several big changes. There were a few indications of what was to come before this when a stuntwoman… er, I mean Judy’s mum Joyce was rather randomly fatally run over by Tony, and there was also what was modestly described by Jim as “your man with the shooter”, when the McDonald family were held hostage in their own home by some gun-waving gangster, before Jim saved the day. Well we’ve all been there.
I have decided to review the episode that was shown on ITV on 14 March 1997, as this was the last one before Park was credited as producer and tried to move with the times. Looking back, it can now be classed as the end of an era, arguably the final “old-school” episode of the show. As far as this episode goes, some ongoing stories that weren’t incredibly exciting were rather abruptly ended, as if to say “that’s boring, stop it now”.
Firstly, Ken was dating the headmistress at his school, Mrs Jeffers. In a meeting he is told that she has resigned and “she’s already gone, and she won’t be coming back”, so that developed no further. And Claire and her daughter Becky who were living with Des suddenly pack their bags too. Becky even says “so it ends? Just like that?”, which was an seemingly unintentional comment on the situation unfolding behind the scenes. Des did that parachute jump all for nothing.
The changes after this reminded me a little of what Matthew Bannister did to BBC Radio 1 in the mid-90s, making the decisions to remove several long-serving and popular hosts because of a much-needed modernisation, even though it was going to be difficult. A sign of Park’s ruthlessness was to quickly get rid of the character of Derek Wilton. Although he and his wife Mavis were a popular double-act with viewers, their stories of the past year or two had consisted of little more than silliness about wellies, gnomes, and budgies.
By the end of 1997, there had been several other cast departures, and younger characters were introduced, with more “hunks” including the recasting of Nicky, and the dysfunctional Battersby family moving in. Other changes included divorces and affairs between cast members that seemed to have been determined by picking names out of a hat at random, and there’s only so many times you can drop an exploding tram on the Rovers Return.
Park definitely did change the show, even it did begin a slow detachment from reality, which led to some people calling the following era “the serial killer years”. If The Weatherfield Recorder (which was at the centre of one of the dullest ongoing stories of the mid-80s, as it mostly consisted of Ken sat at a typewriter and fiddling with his glasses trying to think of stories) was still going, they definitely wouldn’t have any trouble filling their pages now!
Having completed his upheaval, in 1999 Park then went off to become the producer of Channel 5’s soap Family Affairs. Although the ratings were stable, they weren’t huge, and the show was attracting little media attention. So guess what, he decided to blow up the Hart family, the centrepoint of the show since that launch a couple of years earlier, and make a fresh start. But this time it made practically no difference to the show’s fortunes. Oh dear.