‘Coronation Street’ gets telepic treatment

ITV's iconic soap celebrates 50 years in December

Celebrating a TV show’s golden jubilee is a risky endeavor — a nostalgia-fest could make it feel out of date.

Commercial web ITV’s “Coronation Street,” one of British TV’s longest running shows, is marking its 50th anniversary with a telepic, “The Road to Coronation Street,” produced by ITV Studios. The film — a narrative, not a docu — tells how the iconic blue-collar soap, set in the fictional town of Weatherfield in northern England, was made against the odds.

It also follows the story of Granada Television (now ITV Studios), which produced “Corrie,” as it’s affectionately known by its fans.

Helmed by British director Charles Sturridge, the pic stars Celia Imrie and Steven Berkoff, who plays Granada co-founder Sidney Bernstein.

In a truly British irony, the 90-minute film (made in just 15 days) bowed to critical praise Sept. 16 — on BBC4 rather than ITV. The BBC commissioned the pic after ITV turned it down because execs felt they were doing enough to mark the anniversary.

The screenplay is written by Daran Little, who was “Corrie’s” archivist for 12 years and wrote 11 books on the show.

Unlike most U.S. sudsers, which air in daytime, “Coronation Street” has always been broadcast in primetime, changing the shape of U.K. TV in the process.

“After ‘Coronation Street’ British TV was never the same again,” reckons Little, who 10 years ago stepped out of the video library and into the writers’ room. Last year he was a scribe on ABC’s “All My Children” and today writes for “Coronation Street’s” BBC rival “EastEnders,” a soap set in a working-class neighborhood of London.

Adds Little, “Not only did you see ordinary people talking in their own regional accents for the first time in a British TV serial, the show’s creator Tony Warren invented a set of conventions — be it the tart-with-a-heart or the street gossip — that became obligatory in every subsequent soap.”

At the center of the story of “The Road to Coronation Street” is the battle that Warren, a cocksure twentysomething lacking credits as a TV writer, had to fight to persuade Granada to greenlight the show.

Bernstein was convinced “Coronation Street’s” lack of glamour would lead to instant oblivion — despite the buxom charm of barmaid Elsie Tanner, a key character played by the late Pat Phoenix. He commissioned just seven episodes and was ready to drop the show.

But Bernstein’s brother, Cecil, could spot a potential hit, and managed to talk sense into Sidney.

The first of its twice weekly, halfhour episodes was broadcast Dec. 9, 1960. Within six months, “Corrie” had become Britain’s biggest TV show.

Half a century and some 7,420 episodes later, much of the original grit and edge is no longer evident in what today is a more humorous program. But it remains at the top of the ratings for ITV; more than one third of the available audience regularly tunes in.

Remarkably, one character from the first episode remains: Ken Barlow (William Roache), who has matured from a student to an elder of the town during his 50-year stint.

And “Coronation Street” recently racked up another record: It became the world’s longest currently running scripted TV program after U.S. soap opera “As the World Turns” ended its run earlier this month.

Globally, too, the soap has made its mark, selling to more than 40 countries, including Australia, Canada (aired by CBC since 1966), Ireland, Taiwan, Somalia, Morocco, New Zealand, South Africa, Estonia and Poland.

ITV Studios is taking “The Road to Coronation Street” to the Mipcom TV mart in Cannes in October. With luck, it will also find favor internationally.