John is the only surviving member of the original Coronation Street writing team
‘How I came to live in The Street’.
I joined Coronation Street in late 1959. This was before the first episode had been transmitted. I had sent Granada a play, despite having fallen out with them a couple of years earlier over another play (The characters of which ultimately appeared in SAM). This second play I called “The Schoolroom”. They said they liked it and wanted me to write for them. They didn’t apparently like it enough to produce it, however. They gave me a couple of scripts of a horror called Knight Errant, to which, though desperate, I said no thank you very much. Then they gave me early Tony Warren scripts of Coronation Street to read. Real, fabulous characters, people I’d known all my life. Yes please, I said, so they commissioned a trial episode.
The above is the first paragraph of a two thousand word intimate article on the early days of Coronation Street.
by Glenda Young
The Coronation Street blog is privileged to have been in conversation with Mr John Finch.
For those Corrie fans with long memories, the name might ring a few bells.
Back when Corrie started in 1960, John became the first trainee writer to be contracted to write for Coronation Street. He later became Editor and then Producer from 1968-9, and along with Harry Kershaw, is the only person to have done all three jobs for The Street.
John’s first Coronation Street script was commissioned in November 1960 for episode 24, screened in March 1961. He became Script Editor for a year in 1961 and wrote 140 scripts with his final episode screened in December 1970; he also co-wrote two episodes with Jim Allen in May 1967. In 1964 John co-wrote a comedy stage play called Coronation Street On The Road.
John explains how he came to write for Granada. “It’s a rather odd story. I’d sent them a play about Yorkshire miners which they originally accepted and then changed their minds. This was before the station went on air. I turned down some of the series they wanted me to do, but then they gave me the first few scripts of Corrie to read, and Tony Warren’s characters were so marvellous I said yes immediately.”
“It’s hard to say which of the original characters I most enjoyed writing for,” John says. “I loved them all.. but perhaps Ena Sharples as she reminded me of a relative which made it easy to write. Pat Phoenix (Elsie Tanner) was great fun, and I was sorry when Denis went.”
“I very much enjoyed writing scenes with Bill Roache (Ken Barlow) and Ann Reid (Valerie Barlow) after they married. Some of the smaller part characters were a bit of a turn-off, especially if they had phony northern accents.”
“I worked initially with Harry Kershaw, the first editor. We used to knock out the stories for a couple of episodes and then toss a coin to see who did which. Writers came and went, but I somehow survived and became editor, then producer.”
While John was writing for Coronation Street he also wrote several plays for BBC television and some adaptations for Granada. He was an early contributor to The Power Game and other series of that period. He devised and produced City 68 and The System for Granada in 1968-69, and then famously created, edited and wrote A Family At War (52 hours), followed by Sam (39 hours) which won Broadcasting Press Guild and Writers Guild Awards. These were followed by This Year Next Year (13 hours), Spoils of War (20 hours) and then for the BBC Flesh and Blood (20 hours). He also wrote for The Hard Word (Thames), The Life of Riley alongside H. V. Kershaw and produced The Dustbinmen.
John has also written a novel called Cuddon Return and is editor of the book Granada Television, the first generation. These days John lives in the beautiful Yorkshire Dales where he’s resided for the past 40 years.
Find out more about John Finch at his website here.
Read profiles of all of the current Coronation Street writers here.
Copyright: Glenda Young, April 2009
John Finch was one of the first writers on Coronation Street, joining the programme from the beginning. He helped create some of the Streets greatest characters, such as Ena Sharples, Else Tanner and Len Fairclough, writing dialogue that has rarely been surpassed.
When I look back an enormous amount of the stuff I’ve written is based on experiences. If you go straight into television from university what do you write about.
I sent a play into Granada and Derek Granger wrote and said he wanted to see so I went had a chat. He offered me all these different series they were doing at that time but I didn’t like any of them so I said no. Then he said ‘we’re doing this thing Coronation Street’. It hadn’t gone on then, Tony was still writing the script and he gave me a copy of Tony’s first script. Straightaway after I’d read it, I said ‘This is it, I’ll do this’. The characters were fantastic. So I saw Harry Kershaw who was script editor and he commissioned me to do episode 24. The characterisation in that first script was terrific. Up to that time I’d always had great difficulty in constructing a play, I had loads of half-finished plays which had no endings and the BBC tried to encourage me. They said you’re like an exciting boxer, you come out from the corner, with your fists going and then nothing happens. Coronation Street taught me construction, Harry Kershaw in particular. Harry was very good at construction. Jack Rosenthal says the same. Apart from being able to earn a living, I owe Coronation Street that debt.
There must have been a dozen or 18 writers on Coronation Street at that point coming in and out but I was the only one who survived that first stint They were trying people out. You did a trial script. I always remember it was Christmas Eve when the phone rang at home. My wife and I were absolutely stony broke and Harry Kershaw was on the phone and he said ‘We like your script, we’d like you to do another’. A couple of weeks later they offered me a year’s contract so I said ‘OK’. I went back to the engineering firm where I was working in Rochdale and said ‘I’m sorry but I’ll have to resign because I’ve had this marvellous opportunity’ and they said ‘Would you come for a half a day a week and we’ll pay you the same as a consultant’. So I carried on for a year running the two things side by side.
Tony worked through Harry Kershaw and Harry Elton. He wrote the first thirteen scripts himself. I think he and Harry worked on them towards the end, shaping and doing stories. I’ve always thought Tony was a very innovative writer. Granada needed Coronation Street to go on once it got this momentum. They want more from you than you want to give and I think Tony was overwhelmed by the sheer progression of the Street and Granada’s need. He must have resented the fact that other people then had to come in because he just couldn’t single-handed cope with it. I did 39 hours of a series called Sam and I wrote them all myself but it nearly killed me. The pressures are enormous and Tony was a young lad then. He wouldn’t have survived and I think that must have been very tough for him. I’ve always felt for him in that respect. But Harry fought his corner with the management. I don’t think the Granada management were very good to Tony frankly. They seem to be much better to him now because he is figurehead and they can use him.
In the very beginning it was just a dozen people crammed into this tiny office with Harry Kershaw sat behind a desk and everybody tossing ideas around and he was writing it down and sorting it out into episodes and scenes. Then he shoved it into the Typing Pool and then he gave trial scripts to all the people who were there. When I saw him it was a one-to-one thing so I was lucky. Out of that first dozen or so everybody fell by the wayside except me. Harry and I then used to meet and work out a storyline for two episodes between us and then we’d toss a coin to see who did which because the second episode is always the best episode to write. The first episode was setting up and the second episode was really the guts of the thing. I always reckoned he had a double-headed penny because he always got the second episode. We worked like that and then desperately Harry was looking around for writers and in came Jack Rosenthal, Adele Rose and these were people who kept going.
Then later on Harry became producer but he wanted to write more and the script-editing job was getting too much for him on top of everything so I became script editor and worked with Harry Driver and Vince Powell as storyline writers. We used to meet with what writers were going at that time and that started the story conferences. Harry and Vince used to go away after the discussions which used to go on for a whole day and knock up storylines for eight episodes and then Harry would decide who to give which episode to. Generally he’d try and do a strong writer and one he wasn’t too sure about, mix them in.
The construction business, it was a bit like learning computing for the first time. You go through a process where you don’t understand the thing at all and then suddenly the light dawns and the whole thing clicks into place. I found that very quickly I absorbed this business of shaping a script. When I first saw the cast actually playing the parts that’s really when it became almost a doddle because they were so good that you just wrote them. They were so real, so recognisable. I used to love writing for Violet Carson. I once wrote half an episode with one speech from Vi where she talked about being a half-timer in the mill. That was the sort of thing you could do on the Street.
Jim Allen and I were politically opposites but we got on very well. Jim was a very hard-liner but we used to debate things in scripts. I see a script of Jim’s where he was pushing this point of view and then I’d use my next script to counter his arguments. Then he’d come back. Nowadays they’re talking about using the Street for social issues, we were doing this very early on. I remember we did a whole episode on the population theory, Malthus, they wouldn’t that now. The Street wasn’t as pure entertainment as people think. Derek Granger was tremendously interested in the comedy aspect of it. Derek was the producer when there was the episode where Elsie Tanner comes in from the kitchen and says Denis ‘Why’s there a gorilla sitting in my sink?’ Derek was very strong on the comedy. I was his script editor at the time. It was an absolute nightmare to work for him because he was a bachelor and he used to work until three o’clock in the morning and he expected everybody else to do the same. Derek’s stint on the Street was very good and prestige-wise, because he had enormous prestige amongst journalists, it was very good.
Our first serious interview was in 62 and it was in a magazine called Contrast which was published by the British Film Institute and that really took Coronation Street seriously. Serious writers looked at this and thought there’s more to this than we thought. We got some very reviews from then on and of course it became easier to get good writers because there’s no doubt about it writers in the early stages, a lot of good writers were turning their noses up at the Street. I think it was because it was a soap, some of the best known writers wouldn’t touch it with a barge-pole. I think Derek said in that article that the battle for higher standards will be fought in mass entertainment and I pinned my flag to that. I’d always said that I’d never write for television because I wanted to write plays. I’ve always thought it’s quite possible to be good and popular. What held us back in the early days was management’s attitude. They had this business of looking down on the audience. I know a couple of times I got mentioned in the House of Commons, once in a negative sense when they said somebody ought to shut this bloke up and the other one was complimentary when they said ‘If you want to know what the Poor Law’s all about, watch so and so’. I think there were a few mentions over the years.
I used to like writing for Doris Speed and Jack Walker. You used to get very socially involved too. I remember going to his funeral and if anybody got married, we’d all go. We were like a big family, the actors, the writers. Doris met me in the corridor one day and said let’s go and talk about this marvellous script you’ve written. We went into the canteen and I looked at the script and turned it over and it was one of Jack’s. I never quite knew whether Doris did it on purpose. Jack Howarth always used to shout at me if he met me in the foyer ‘I’m going home to learn my line’. Some characters you liked to write for. Peter Adamson when he first came on, I thought I must write more for him because he only did a little bit at the beginning. If an actor made his mark with the writer and the producer, in a way he made his own career. You used to take up what he was giving you and expand it and so he was doing it himself really. I’ve always found it more easy to write for women. I’ve always been a strong supporter of the feminist movement. (Talks about early life) The women were very well cast. But then I liked writing for Arthur Lowe to the extent that we were going to do a play together which I’d done specially for him but then he got ‘Dad’s Army’.
I think I wrote the episode after the funeral of Martha Longhurst. I didn’t agree with her death but we had to go along with it. Vi Carson didn’t speak to me for two years. I thought it was a mistake. I did the funeral of Ida Barlow, the Street peaked at that point, we got an enormous audience. She went under a bus. Harry and I sometimes used to disagree on things like that. Like when the Hewitts’ baby disappeared I wanted it to be found dead because I thought that would make people more aware of their responsibilities. Harry thought it would be too upsetting for the audience. I always wanted, from the beginning, to have a coloured family in the Street which Harry would never wear. My idea was to have a family and just forget they’re coloured but Harry put forward some very cogent arguments against. He used to say ‘If you are in the Rovers Return, you’re going to have this dialogue’, because he wasn’t racist in any form, Harry ‘which is going to be very upsetting for coloured people, because if you’re realistic they’re going to say things that coloured people will find very offensive’. Well I bounced back with the counter argument. In the end that was it.
I used to watch the programme being recorded in Harry’s office. Surprisingly they’d change my words very little. The most changes would be with Harry were you’d battle with a line. He had a very much hands-on approach. Very few actors wanted to leave. If it was felt that it would be better for them to go because they weren’t getting the material, didn’t fit in, then we’d write them out. When an actor wanted to go, Harry would be very upset. He didn’t like losing people and he used to say that one familiar face is worth a dozen new faces. I thought that the first new characters that were up to the standard of Tony’s early characterisations were the Ogdens. They bounced in and I don’t think they’ve anybody of that stature since. The Hewitts had gone. That all happened around the Aspinall/Eckersley period where there was a strong push for comedy but realistic comedy and the Ogdens came in on that basis. I loved writing for them, they wrote themselves almost. The idea for their characters came up out of a script conference and I think Vin and Harry had a lot to do with it. In a way the story dictated the characters.
Harry used to say that for him one of the most exciting things was getting off the bus, going home in the evening and going past the lighted windows of the houses and seeing Coronation Street on inside. Suddenly you were plunged from living a fairly ordinary sort of life, it changed everybody’s lives. From being broke we suddenly had money. With the first script fee which was £100 we bought a washing machine for £99 and blew the £1 on a bottle of wine. To be able to look at something and think ‘I won’t be ashamed to write that’. The Street was a big step forward in television.
Mike Newell and Mike Apted used to come up to our farmhouse up on the Fells and help me to decorate it and there were all these lads who lived in these filthy little flats in Manchester and they used to come up. It was a great life, it was more than a job. John Stevenson says ‘You wouldn’t like it now’. I hadn’t watched it for years and I watched it on Monday and I was very sad about it. I thought it was not up to the standard of the original.
I moved from being a writer to a story editor because the pressures were so much on Harry that somebody had to do it. I was the only one who’d been with it from the beginning apart from Tony and he obviously didn’t want to do it. Tony was thinking about other things then apart from the Street. He did a thing called Darkie Pelbeam? which was very innovative but then I don’t know what happened to him. I remember Jack Rosenthal talking to him and Tony said ‘I want to cut my links with the Street finally so I that I can go on to other things knowing I’ve got to do it’. Jack said ‘Go and get John to fire you’, as I was producer at the time. Tony came in and explained so I said ‘OK Tony, you’re fired’ and we both burst into tears. I was terribly emotional about it. I said to him ‘You’ve changed so many people’s lives. As far as I’m concerned this is a joke but if you’re taking it seriously, don’t ever think that people don’t appreciate the difference.’ As Jack says, he changed so many people’s lives by creating these marvellous characters. He did a great job for the working class because they had been very badly represented on television.
I had no intention of staying with the Street forever. I was story editor for about a year and then I became the producer 1968-69. Harry then went back to writing scripts. At the time I became producer, he became executive producer so he was always there, thank God, because I hated producing. Really only the fact that I got some marvellous directors and Harry there that kept me going. As a producer there was so little that you could do. They used to say to a producer when they were talking to him about the possibilities, what would you like to do, and when they asked me, I said ‘Well I’d like to run it for a bit and then take it off’ and they took a very dim view of this. And I said ‘I’m only joking’. Really I thought it had had its time then. It went through a dip, mostly when I was producing. Soaps do have to go through dips. It’s a natural cycle because the actors get tired. I went through a period when the actors were tired and we had a couple of alcoholics on the show which was very, very difficult. Pat used to complain to management about me because she said I was too hard on her, though we were the best of friends really. I think it’s a natural process. Harry knew I didn’t want to go on forever and I came up for an idea for a series ‘A Family at War’.
When I left Coronation Street I did have some regrets and in fact, I kept going back. I became a sort of trouble-sorter in that if they got problems on a script, they called me in. I seemed to develop a facility for sorting out problems. For example one actress absolutely refused to get out of bed to come and do this script and you couldn’t do it without her because there were two episodes that were entirely her story. I think she knew this. So Harry called me in and said ‘What the heck are we going to do about this?’ and I had a brainstorming session and came up with the idea that we re-wrote the scenes in her bedroom so that sorted her out. She came in in a wheelchair, face-saving. She was in the Green Room for about ten minutes and then she was hopping about.
There was an element of starriness about some of the actors and of course some of them came in very thin and went out much stouter because they were eating. Some of the men would be driving big cars and they went in above their heads and of course some survived and some didn’t. I remember going to a party of Pat’s where her mother did the cooking. She’d got a vibrating chair and I spent the night sitting on it. She was very nice and she was very warm-hearted. She was very intelligent, she did a bit of writing.
Jean Alexander was very good, marvellous.
I think Coronation Street gone on for so long both because of the good writing and the good actors. I was a bit disappointed by the acting the last time I saw it. They were very much just throwing lines away, they weren’t trying. In a way, they were saying ‘Let’s get it over and get down to the pub’. I was very disappointed with it, I’m glad I didn’t watch it too much, I’ve just caught bits over the years. I worked with some great directors. June Howson recently went back in the Street and she says it’s impossible now to do the quality because you don’t have the time and the pressures too much. But as long as that audience figure stays there, they’ll carry on. Whether in fact under the old management they would now take this standard and carry on, I don’t know. They weren’t all saints in the old days, Granada had its dark side too. I think on the whole they were much more aware of quality. They were a good lot the management. Sidney Bernstein was as mean as hell and the budgets were miniscule but he always reckoned that the discipline was good and would produce the quality and there is something in that argument. Nowadays they have too much, it would be better to tighten things up a bit. I used to do my budget on an envelope and now they have an accountant. I had no problem at all doing my budget on an envelope and Bob Williams used to run the Blue Book, where you were scheduled, where you could pick up a couple of days filming. You used to make do with what you got.
Vince Powell and Harry Driver came as a pair. They’d been comedy writers and Harry had done the ‘Harry Worth show’. Harry was paralysed from the neck down with polio. He emanated so much energy that you totally forgot that he was paralysed. He lived at the end in St George’s Hill, next to one of the Beatles. Harry was a junior manager in one of the supermarkets at the time, I don’t know where Vince came from and they were just a couple of lads who wanted to write comedy. They worked together, There was a period when Vince got so tired that something had to be done so we took in turns to take his place. I remember when I did my stint with Harry, it was when I was script editor. You used to have to carry him out of his chair to his car, I always reckoned I got my hernia from Harry. Towards the end he got quite wealthy and had this Rolls Royce and used to belt down the motorway with his chauffeur saying ‘Faster, faster’.
Initially I had a year’s contract and then I had a two year contract and then I decided that because it was exclusive, it was too tying. The money was tempting but it was too tying so I ditched and said I’m not going to go faraway and I went and did odd things at the BBC.
Because of the competition between the ITV companies, although Lew Grade and the Bernsteins were friends, they were enemies at the same time. Granada always wanted to do better programmes to get its share of network time. When the popularity of the Street hit Granada they didn’t expect but they were very glad of it. They pushed it for all it was worth. That was when the pressure became too much for Tony and other people had to come in. They said we want to run it to the end of the year and immediately you think ‘Where are we going to get the writers?’ Usually you were given a couple of weeks to write an episode although in dire circumstances you’d write one in a few days. When I first started, the first scripts I did, I hadn’t seen the actors and what I did, I couldn’t visualise them, they were there on the page but I couldn’t give them this extra dimension that made them alive. So I got this picture of Peter Adamson and stuck it in front of my typewriter and glared at it until it started to move and then I was away and I began to visualise the characters. But initially I had to visualise them from the page. Strangely there was a kind of internal clock which seems to work and I was always within half a page. And also I was pleasantly surprised that there was very little rewriting in the early days, whether that was pressure of time or not. It was just very exciting to then watch it so close. I was talking to Jack Rosenthal on the phone not very long ago and he was saying that nowadays you know that if you go in with an idea you’re not going to see it for eighteen months and you can’t get excited about it.Harry used to bridge the differences in people’s styles but in the early days, I don’t know to what extent it’s true now, but even the audience used to say we know who’s written that before we’ve seen the name. Harry’s style was distinctive, so was Adele’s. Harry’s was always beautifully constructed, Adele’s always had a lot of women’s stuff in that men wouldn’t know about so she had one up on us when it came to the women. That was the striking thing about her, suddenly you’d see a line and think well either he’s been talking to his wife or Adele’s written it. Jack’s was always funny. People used to say that they could tell mine but I could never say why.
I could always tell John’s from the first line that came on without looking, I could always tell it was John’s. I suppose it was the realism, it was so real that you could imagine people saying it. In fact you got so engrossed that when it was finished, you’d wonder where the time.
I remember my Auntie Lil saying that some woman in Kindsley had said to her ‘That John Finch is a bugger. One minute he’s got you laughing, the next minute you’re crying’. So I must have got the mix right.
Occasionally I would have a figure from real life in mind.
You had deep characters, they were not on the surface.
I remember my first episode there was a part in the storyline where Pat didn’t understand how to do the football pools and Denis was trying to explain it to her. And I didn’t understand how to do the football pools and I thought I ought to see somebody about this and then I thought I’ll try and write it because I don’t understand. And it worked like magic. I remember how desperate I was to get that first one right and I only had two weeks to do it. I’ll never forget Harry ringing up and saying ‘We want to commission another.’
Harry Driver was never interested in doing social issues and he used to say ‘Shut up John and take the money’. I was always very strong on doing things like that. Harry Kershaw was in the middle, weighing up the balance, listening to the arguments, very good like that. Jim Allen and I were on the Left in politics, Jim was much more Left than I was, but Harry was a true blue Conservative. Now you wouldn’t have thought that somebody like Jim and Harry would get on but Jim had enormous respect for Harry and Harry for Jim and it would be most unusual for Harry to change anything of Jim’s. He might say to him ‘This is a bit strong’, then Jim would find another way of saying the same thing. That was a debate that on within the team. Peter Eckersley joined when I was script editor, because he wrote to me and said ‘I’d like to do a trial script’ and it went from there and he was always more interested in the comedy as was Jack. I was really the one who was interested in social issues. I often lost out and they used to argue me into the ground. I think the success of ‘Cathy Come Home’ probably influenced the Street to some extent. We did homelessness. There were certain actors in the Street that you could do social issues with more than with others. You could do quite a lot with Violet Carson because she had this memory that went back beyond the Street so I could write half an episode as one speech from Vi. You just knew how she was going to do it. And the great thing with Vi was that you used to be able to write silences because the camera would always find her face at the right time and this face said it without a line. In fact it was much stronger without a line and I used to work to that deliberately. I used to know that in the end there was a line which was silence and Vi’s face would say it. That really is a good example of one of the pluses of working in a long term thing with actors because you know what’s going to happen and the actor knows when they see it on the page. They know that you’ve recognised this and they know what they’re going to give.
You can’t get that know. I should imagine you have a big flashy story conference with about twenty people sat around the table and you’re supposed to be talking about big human issues and how do you
concentrate it from this diversity. I suspect that things either get bland or they get trivialised. It’s all got very frenetic. I always remember speaking at Harrogate Arts Festival and on the platform was me and David Rudkin who was a very upmarket dramatist. We were answering questions from the audience and I was very much aware that Rudkin because I was in television and an ex-Coronation Street writer, looking down his nose at me, until I said why television was getting more and more frenetic and why this was a bad thing, and suddenly I realised he was looking at me with some respect. That really is what’s happened. There’s no quite reflection or very rarely.