WHEN ITV came up with the idea of celebrating 50 years of Coronation Street with a stage show, they approached their pool of scriptwriters to see if anyone was interested in taking it on.
Jonathan Harvey, with more than a dozen plays under his belt including the award-winning Beautiful Thing, said yes.
“And then the hard work started,” he reflects, referring to half a century’s worth of research. “The idea is a kind of Reduced Shakespeare Company approach in getting 50 years into a couple of hours.”
Corrie!, which comes on tour to the Sheffield Lyceum on March 7, features more than 50 seminal soap characters, played by just six actors, playing out such memorable storylines as Deidre going to prison, Brian being stabbed and Tracy killing Charlie.
Where do you start to come up with a script which encapsulates the highs and lows of events on Britain’s most famous fictional street?
“What I did was to ask the archivist on the TV programme for a list of the top five storylines for each year,” says Harvey. “That gave me a template: when I saw there were so many mentions of Ken Barlow, Deidre Barlow and Gail Tilsley Platt, they became the main characters.”
It wasn’t simply a matter of reading through selected scripts. “A researcher went into a darkened office at Granada like a Russian spy watching old episodes and writing down as much dialogue as she could because they don’t exist as scripts any more,” he explains.
He was then left with the impossible task of trying to fit in hundreds of vital scenes. “I had to be brutal and something like Ken and Deidre’s divorce meant editing down the dialogue to get it into our timescale. The moment when Gail realises Richard Hillman is a murderer was given two half-hour episodes but I had to capture it in 30 seconds.”
He felt guilty about this. “I saw how great these scenes were and so brilliantly written, although I always knew that,” he says.
It was important to strike the right tone of affectionate comedy. “I didn’t want to rain on anyone’s parade and take the mick.”
As to the whole experience, “It confirmed my love of Corrie 10-fold,” he says, “and what was nice was that everyone involved in the show, lots of people from the cast and crew came along to the Lowry (where Corrie! premiered last year) and I felt the warmth and appreciation. It was rewarding, and writing for TV you don’t get that.”
Perhaps that’s one reason that last year he had his first full-length stage production in nine years when Canary, a dramatic comedy with music charting the last 50 years of gay history in Britain, opened at the Liverpool Playhouse, went on national tour and had three-month run in London.
Nevertheless he regards Corrie as “my main job.” He is one of 18 writers and at the time of speaking was writing an episode to go out in April.
He is proud that the episode he wrote in which Blanche Hunt went to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting with Peter Barlow last year topped a poll of the 50 best moments in Coronation Street as voted by viewers.
But it doesn’t feature in Corrie!. “I put it into the play initially but I thought that a little self-regarding and cut it eventually,” he says. “More importantly, I had to think of whether it coherently fitted into the overall story. “
Corrie! is at the Lyceum from March 7-12 with Gaynor Faye, who played Judy Mallett from 1995 until 1999, as guest narrator.