My taste of Street life on the set of Corrie
From pulling pints at the Rovers to walking the eerie laneways of Weatherfield, lifelong Coronation Street fan Una Brankin goes behind the scenes on the soap
There's an almost eerie atmosphere in the ginnel, the dingy back alley leading from the Rovers' yard to Dev Alahan's corner shop. On a late spring evening, with the tourists long gone, it's empty and silent, and extremely authentic. The battered brick shells of the houses were originally built in 1968 to look like an Edwardian era terrace; then extended in 1982 using reclaimed Salford brick and roof slates.
The Queen arrived that year to open the new set, which is tucked away on a short stretch of old railway sidings near the former Granada Studios in central Manchester. At 89, Elizabeth II has outlived several of the Street's stars, from Deirdre Barlow (the much-missed Anne Kirkbride) to Patricia Phoenix (original Street vamp Elsie Tanner), whose ghost is said to haunt the place.
Apparitions of a Victorian mother and child have also been reported; the set is built on the site of an old graveyard, apparently. I didn't see any ghosts during my visit last week but some of the soap's brilliantly written characters have left their mark so vividly on the imagination, I can visualise them at every turn - fleeing killers and illicit lovers in the ginnel; scrapping fishwives on the (real) cobbles; Deirdre puffing away by her kitchen window.
The entire set has been recreated and further extended in ITV's new home in the shiny high-tech Media City quarter of nearby Salford, but the imprint of the most memorable characters over the last 55 years is etched indelibly here, the BAFTA-winning show's original home.
The tour begins at the entrance to the newish Drapers Mill apartments, where factory boss Carla Connor and frowny-faced Nick Tilsley live. A rapid-fire guide leads my companion and me through the doors, not to the apartments, but to the green room and kitchen where the actors used to make coffee and breakfast before early morning shoots.
A glass wall separates the unadorned area from a comfortable lounge, where they retired to go over their lines. This is where Roy and Hayley escaped to have quiet time in preparation for the heart-wrenching assisted suicide scene, as our guide Phil informs us solemnly.
Classic black and white footage from 1960 is shown on a wide screen on the wall, along with dramatic and comic highlights of the 8,000 odd episodes since. If you're a fan, it makes you think of the large portion of your life you've spent watching it, when you probably should have been doing something more useful, but there's no denying the entertainment it has given.
Former cast members and Loose Women Sherry Hewson and Denise Welch have left their signatures on the wall by the screen. On closer inspection, I can decipher the autograph of the affable actor Brian Caplan, who played murderer Richard Hillman, and admitted to dissolving into fits of laughter with Helen Worth (Gail Tilsley) when he was trying to glower menacingly.
Then we're whisked off to the corridor leading to the rather pokey dressing rooms. These walls are lined with black and white photos of the cheeky young Tracey Barlow, Rita Sullivan and her psycho ex, Alan Bradley (Audrey's real life husband), Stan Ogden, and the glamorous Pat Phoenix. There's an absolute classic from the mid-1970s of Betty, Emily, Hilda, Rita and Mavis, all quite trim in swimsuits, and a shot of the entire cast in the Rovers from the early 90s - with an obvious photocopy of Ivy Tilsley's head stuck in. The unpredictable actress Lynne Perrie was missing on the day; she was fired in March 1994 after arriving on the set with a trout pout, which dramatically changed her appearance.
There are three floors of dressing rooms altogether. The newest cast members are put on the third one but an exception was made a few years back for the actress Cherrylee Huston, who was diagnosed with the rare connective tissue disorder, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, at 23. Now 40, the Issey Armstrong actress has a wider door on her dressing room to accommodate her wheelchair.
A poster of the 15-year-old Steve McDonald on a locker at the end of the corridor makes me feel old (I remember him well at that age; he's now the middle-aged proprietor of the Rovers). His ex, Tracey Barlow, has not one - but three - lace wedding dresses, from her recent doomed big day, on display in the adjoining costume department. They're all exactly the same apart from a stained hem and a torn sleeve on one of them, from her tussle with the whistle-blowing Carla, who shopped her brother and the groom-to-be Rob for killing Tina McIntyre. (For anyone interested, I sneaked a peak at the label: Captivating by Suzanne Neville, London).
Liz McDonald's hideous stretchy tops are bought from the famous local Arndale market, we're told, and Roy's famous man-bag once belonged to the mother of actor David Neilson. His dowdy beige cardigan is from BHS, by the way, and Rita Sullivan's fur-lined coats are by Windsmoor.
Also on display is an enormous and lurid Hawaiian shirt worn by Jack Duckworth (the late Bill Tarmey) on a trip to Las Vegas, and the squeaky-voiced Ashley Peacock's butcher's uniform and hat. Kirk and Beth's Adam Ant and Madonna inspired wedding outfits are hilarious, and the memorable Becky's bright pink bridal gown is truly ghastly in real life. It has been well pinned back on the display and must have drowned the slender actress Katherine Kelly, before the on-set stylists fixed it on her.
Carla's wedding dress - from another doomed marriage (to alcoholic Peter Barlow) - takes pride of place. It was completely plain when bought off the rack by the costume department, but adorned with beading and crystals by the dying Hayley as a gift to her boss. Speaking of Hayley, it's a jolt when we spot her floral-print biodegradable coffin later on in the tour, lying on a plinth beside Fred Elliot's (real) dark oak one.
The terminally-ill Hayley's controversial assisted-suicide features on a moving and entertaining big-screen look-back over the last 55 years of the series. It's a chance to sit down half-way through the tour, before heading into the interior sets in the former Studio One, a huge hangar sub-divided by pretend living rooms and kitchens, and the iconic bar room of the Rovers Return.
Carla's former Victoria Court apartment is decked out in deep red and black "to reflect her strong character," according to guide Phil. The walls are fake, of course, but don't wobble, and the floorboards and tiles are painted on expertly. Carla's pad is the height of spacious luxury compared to the cramped number eight home of the Platts - which doesn't have a second floor, by the way. So, when the actors climb the stairs to their bedrooms or the bathroom, they have to hide at the top.
"Look closely and you'll see David's foot poking through the odd time," says Phil helpfully. "They had to make another more complete staircase for the scene where David pushed Gail down the stairs, and then the stunt double's foot went through the wall at the bottom and they had to replace that too."
Everything at number eight is small, apart from the amusing David's huge TV in the corner. I have the dubious honour of sitting on the two-seater (and its ugly red and black leopard skin throw), where druggie Kylie gave birth to Lily Platt last year, and turning on the (dry) tap in the kitchen made for Gail by one of her dead fellas.
Until the move to Media City last year, all the taps in all the Street's kitchens were connected to the water supply so kettles could be put on. The actors really cook, too, when required by the script, but the hot pots and chips that we see them eating, are provided by the studio's catering department.
And so to the Rovers. The familiar green gloss doors open onto a smaller space than expected, but the walls and booths can be dismantled and moved to accommodate various camera angles, Phil assures us, and the floor can be widened when they have to pile more characters in for the frequent parties in the legendary pub.
Softly lit and made cosy with warm red wallpaper and stained glass partitions around the booths, it's a welcoming space, with a dart board in one corner and a juke box in the other. Betty smiles down from her gilt-framed photo and boxes of crisps wedge open the door onto the McDonald's living quarters - all as familiar as your granny's or your auntie's.
Of course, I have to pretend to pull the obligatory pint - all visitors can buy a professional photo of them doing so, courtesy of the automatic camera positioned above the bar. There's no real beer however. It's shandy, while the spirits in the optics are apple juice mixed with cola to varying degrees. The gin and vodka is plain water.
The Rovers' toilets lead directly into Ken and Deirdre's living room, dismantled on this occasion. Instead, we find ourselves in the Underworld knickers factory, the biggest interior set, with a looped tape of former boss Mike Baldwin barking orders at the stitchers. There are no needles in the machines; real seamstresses come in when required for close-ups.
The next part of the tour is the most poignant. Among the accessories on show from the props department, are Deirdre Barlow's huge plastic-rimmed glasses, Ena Sharples's dusty hairnet, Vera's cheap hoop earrings, Hilda Ogden's yellow rollers and Elsie Tanner's red dial-phone. Everyone who has lived in Elsie's since, at number 11, has had a red phone in tribute, including the current resident, Eileen Grimshaw.
Sue Cleaver, who plays the likeable Eileen, is convinced the late Pat Phoenix is still around. There have been several sightings of a ghostly figure with "long dark hair that wears a long coat", according to Sue. "So many people have seen and felt the same things that there has to be something in it."
One of the Street's most iconic stars, Pat Phoenix died in 1986 from lung cancer. The series creator, Tony Warren, also attests to spooky goings-on, involving her.
"I would smell this great gale of perfume and one of my dogs, who would always go bananas when Pat came to the house, suddenly started to behave as if she was there again," he recalls.
But it was another ghost - that of Vera Duckworth - that has had the biggest impact both on set and beyond the cobbles. Our guide tells us there wasn't a dry eye in the house when actress Liz Dawn returned to the set - having "died" as Vera in 2008 - for her beloved Jack's death scene, in November 2010.
Terminally ill with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, the rough and ready pigeon-fancier returned to number nine from his 74th birthday celebrations in the Rovers, to rest in Vera's chair. In one of the most moving, beautifully executed scenes in Coronation Street's history, Vera appeared as an apparition to take Jack away, telling him to get a move on as "the bus" was coming. They shared a kiss and slow-dance - and that was the end of Jack.
I have to admit to a bit of a lump in my throat at the memory, when I sit in that old armchair on the set of number nine, but the sight of the awful art and ghastly wallpaper - and the tacky little bar - cheer me up immensely. As, incidentally, does Hiya! magazine, Weatherfield's answer to Hello.
Hiya! can be found on the shelves of the Kabin, where Rita was crushed under a hail of bon-bons during the tram crash of 2011, that killed Mollie Dobbs and Ashley Peacock. 149 Corrie deaths to date - last was Les Dennis's character's secret son, Gavin, and Tina McIntyre.
The sweets by the till are real; the actors help themselves to handfuls between takes, according to the informative Phil. Bigger and brighter than you'd imagine, the Kabin also has real cigarettes and rows of greeting cards.
I could have lingered there for a while but the highlight of the tour was beckoning. At the studio's exit, the unmistakable trumpet of the Street's theme-tune blasts out and our guide leads us, with a dramatic flourish, onto the most famous cobbled road in the world, sun dappled and very, very real.
There's Kevin Webster's garage to the left - with a real car in it. And Street Cars, and Underworld, and Roy's Rolls, and the balcony Tina fell from, and the kebab shop, and the Duckworth's desperate blue-and-yellow cladding - and the front of the Rovers!
Yes, for fans like me, it is quite a treat and an intriguing experience to walk literally in the footsteps of characters you have followed for decades. The set designers have paid very good attention to detail; there are telephone wires, TV satellites and hanging flower baskets - albeit withered now - at either side of Emily Bishop's door.
It makes you feel nostalgic and old, again. After all, I can remember, clearly, seeing Ken Barlow's first wife, Val, being electrocuted by a hairdryer… in 1971.
Unfortunately, this is the final year of the tour of the original Coronation Street set - no plans have yet been announced for a new one. So if you're fan, it's your last chance to go see. I'd recommend it, for both laughs and near-tears.
Three-day trip includes set tour
If you opt to travel to Corrie by boat and coach, the Travel Solutions agency has one of the better packages. Their three-day tour includes the set tour and shopping and sightseeing time, from £169 per person sharing/ £99 per child, departing Fridays, July 17 and 31 July and August 28, 2015.
The Travel Solutions package includes:
Luxury coach travel with pick-ups in Coleraine, Ballymoney, Cloughmills, Ballymena, Dunsilly, Belfast, Sprucefield & Newry
Return ferry crossing with Stena Line Dublin to Holyhead
Two nights' bed and breakfast at the three-star Novotel Manchester West
Entrance ticket to The Coronation Street Tour
Shopping at the 200-store Trafford Centre
Shopping at the Arndale Centre and Manchester city centre
Tour manager services
Visit travel-solutions.co.uk or tel: 028 9045 5030.
A trip to see Coronation Street isn’t complete without a visit to Annie’s
Anyone bound for the Coronation Street tour should make a point of visiting Annie’s, the award-winning tea-shop and restaurant owned by Fizz actress Jennie McAlpine and her husband, Chris.
Sprawling but cosy and comfortable, it’s on Old Bond Street, within 15 minutes walking distance of the set, on the handsome side of central Manchester. The staff are genuinely friendly — the manager showed me a photo on his phone of Jennie’s cute three-month baby, Albert — and serve lovely strawberry jam from the actress’s old family recipe. (The 30 year-old redhead is of Irish and Scottish descent.) Be warned though: the over-zealous security people at Manchester airport will take even the smallest pot off you if it’s not packed away in the hold.
My friend and I had Annie’s signature Champagne Afternoon Tea and scoffed every single dainty sandwich, fluffy scone and fattening bun on the three-tiered serving dish, before heading off to shop at the famous Arndale centre and the small market on Piccadilly Square.
As the ferry-and-bus tours don’t start until July, we flew over and took a train from the airport to Manchester Piccadilly (£4.40 off peak; £20-£30 by taxi), a 10-minute walk from our hotel, the modern four-star Mercure Piccadilly, overlooking the square. We were upgraded to bright luxurious premium-rooms with a great selection of newly released Hollywood movies, and one of the most comfortable beds I’ve ever slept in. The hearty breakfast buffet was good too.
After that, we walked about 10 minutes to the Coronation Street tour but there is a free bus running across the street from the conveniently located Mercure. A taxi costs about £5.
The famous Lowry Hotel (named after the Mancunian Matchstick Men artist) is also worth a visit, as is the Lowry Arts Centre in nearby Media City, which is easily accessible by tram (£5 for a day’s pass). As for dining, the choice is huge, from Wetherspoons pub grub to excellent Asian cuisine.
Mercure Manchester Piccadilly Hotel, Portland Street, Manchester M1 4PH. Tel: 0844 815 9024mercure.com/Manchester.
Coronation Street The Tour is set to close at the end of 2015. Tickets are on sale until December 31 and are available from ticketmaster.co.uk