The Street Writing Man


Tony Warren 8th July 1936-1st March 2016

"The first Coronation Street writing team contained some of the biggest homophobes I've ever met. I remember getting on my feet in a story conference and saying: 'Gentlemen, I have sat here for two-and-a-half hours and listened to three poof jokes, a storyline dismissed as poofy, and an actor described as 'useless as he's a poof'. As a matter of fact, he isn't! but I would like to point out that I am, and without a poof none of you would be in work today.'"

So reflected the writer and television dramatist Tony Warren on his early uphill, but routine struggle with homophobia of late 1950s Britain. It was a brave and brazen stance given that homosexuality was still illegal. He also stated later that "the outsider sees more, hears more, and has to remember more to survive" and that in those days if you were gay you needed to be three times better than your competitors in order to succeed.

Tony Warren was by nature both homosexual and an observer in a world that sought to exclude, persecute and ridicule him and his kind. I saw him once in the 1990s address the crowds in Sackville Park Manchester during the gay Mardi Gras. With genuine emotion in his voice he stated that in 1964 'If I even dared to hold the hand of a friend I would have been arrested and now here I am looking out at thousands of you doing just that.' He hadn't changed but the world around him certainly had.

Innovators are all too quickly absorbed into the mainstream they once challenged. It is hard to believe how ground breaking his proposal for a television drama set in a small street bookended by a public house and a corner shop actually was. Britain in the '50s had been staunchly middle class, a drawing room or stately home tableau dominated the stage and burgeoning medium of television. Warren wasn't an angry young man, but his position from the margins made him a determined one. By the sheer force of his drive and personality, this child actor turned knitting pattern model turned children's dramatist, succeeded in getting the provisionally titled Florizel Street commissioned and the set built in the winter of 1960, for the thirteen episodes he had penned. It became Coronation Street the longest running soap opera in the world, fifty six years and counting, and a blueprint influence on countless generations of actors and writers. It broke the mould but created a larger & more realistic one.

What made it all the more unusual, apart from it's suburban setting, was it's instantly recognisable population of strong, eccentric and at times terrifying women. There was Ena Sharples, the sharp old battle axe played by the redoubtable Violet Carson in a hairnet, and with a face like a very angry bag of spanners who frequently clashed with the glamorously common Elsie Tanner, who being no better than she ought to be and having a shining heart of pure but vulnerable brass. They in their turn experienced the withering wrath of Annie Walker, the haughty landlady of the pub who harboured hotel-like aspirations, but was riddled with all the insecurities of her desire to reach beyond her social confinement. She was wonderfully realised by Doris Speed, a fright in real life, the typical drag dragon woman with a penchant for leopard print. These actresses are now long dead, but they inhabit the collective memory as the archetypes the so brilliantly represented, a testament to Warren's insight, and eye for detail and pathos.

A child of wartime, Warren was brought up by a regiment of women abandoned by husbands who'd enlisted. From his viewpoint under the table he'd listen to these ordinary viragos discuss their worries and their woes, absorbing their mannerisms and gestures. He once told me he'd based Mrs Sharples on his grandmother who was a fierce lady because she hadn't been born beautiful, and there-in lay the grit of her character and the seed for a dramatic pearl. Warren adored women, he felt comfortable with them which is precisely why his creations rang true, but with great success came immense pressure. He found it difficult relinquishing his creation to a committee of script writers, and drink and drugs became the crutches that would ultimately fail him, and when they did he fled to a hippy commune in San Francisco, only cropping up in sensationalised tabloid reports in the English press for the depth of his drunken downfall. It seemed that this talented architect of tragedy and amusement was lazily scripting his own chaotic demise, but the against all the odds of negative expectations, he got sober, and amazingly maintained it for the rest of his life.

By the 1990s he was back at Granada Television as a consultant to Coronation Street and in that decade penned four hugely successful novels. His next project was to be his autobiography, a warts and all confection that would detail his affair with Brian Epstein, the Beatles manager, and feature walk on parts from Noel Coward, Burt Bacharach, and Sir John Betjeman, the poet laureate who in his final years of dotage regarded the soap opera characters as real people bemoaning to Tony his sadness at the trials and tribulations Hilda Ogden was having with her work-shy husband Stan. Alas the warts proved too taxing, he found the process of excavating the details of his often painfully eventful life distressing and the project begun with his usual boyish gusto, was quickly abandoned.

I was with him the night he met the singer Morrissey at a Waterstones book-store event for Michael Bracewell's Englands Dreaming. At one point I could see him scrutinizing Bracewell in his rather quizzical way. The object of his gaze was wearing an old dress shirt which in it's day would have had the cuffs restrained by links, but on this evening they were distractingly flapping around the wrists of their languid, gesturing wearer, which was no doubt the desired impression. Tony leant across and whispered: "What's the score with Michael Bracewell?" and after my expression of uncertainty, he sniffed as an aside "Only a bi-sexual could dress that badly!" He was more forgiving and kindly about his encounter with Morrissey, a major Coronation Street devotee, observing that he's been surprisingly down to earth and nothing like he'd imagined.

Tony Warren was made an MBE in 1994, and his life was dramatized by the BBC in the play The Road To Coronation Street to mark fifty years of the series. In 2008 he was the recipient of an honorary degree from Manchester Metropolitan University for his achievements in television and creative writing. He even had a building named after him in Media City. He lived long enough to be thus venerated, but would have disputed any attempt to apply the term venerable. A witty, modest man who viewed the world with a sense of bemused resignation, he became a part of the mainstream, still observing it astutely from the wings.