Thursday 12 June 2014

Touches on Tour at Coronation Street: The Tour

The last time many of us stepped foot on the Coronation Street set, it was part of Granada Studios Tour, an attraction which had more facets, even though the star of the show always remained gracing the hallowed cobbles. Fast-forward almost fifteen years since the last turn of the turnstiles and this time it most definitely is a tale of a Weatherfield kind from start to finish. 

Making an entrance

Coronation Street: The Tour has an Atherton Street/Great John Street entrance, as opposed to the Water Street gateway which Granada Studios Tour used to welcome people. Up until the end of 2013, it was not uncommon to see committed fans of the fifty-four year old soap opera at the "Corrie Gates," seeking Sally's signature and Audrey's autograph. 

Shining brightly, quite rightly, from the tower of Stage One was the much missed Granada logo. Behind us, another former studio space had been turned into a makeshift cafe, with the pathway outside it lined with Newton and Ridley kegs.

Drafting in a middleman

Industry heavyweight ticketmaster is the chosen distribution channel of Continuum attractions, who are running the Tour under a licensing agreement with ITV Studios. Tour times are allocated with the proviso that Guests arrive 30 minutes early. Like at many visitor attractions, the pricing structure leaves little discrepancy between adult and child (aged 5 to 15) tickets, at £16.50 and £15 respectively. Students (and senior citizens) also only get a mere 50p off, which is strange for an attraction based in a city with the largest scholarly population in the UK. The redeeming feature of the price list is the family ticket (2 adults, 2 children), which at £54.00 saves nearly a tenner.

Last call for the 16:20 tour

The entrance to where the magic happen(ed)
Making the intangible, tangible
Receiving our backstage passes was a nice Touch to the theme of the attraction: Guests are given Access (Almost) All Areas to the home of Liz's min' and Betty's hotpot. Our tour guide was upbeat and delivered his script fresh, as if he had done it for the first time. With one ear for us Guests and one for his radio keeping tabs on operational effectiveness, the combination seemed - just like baby bear's porridge - "just right." There was only really one rule for Guests: no taking pictures until on the exterior lot. 

A Royal, not Royle seal of approval X2
Entering Stage One soon saw the group take up seats in the Green room, that temple of quietness where Helen Worth probably brushed up on her Hillman put-down "You're like Norman Bates with a briefcase." In some respects the actors rest zone was like an OAPs home with its high back chairs, yet it was a fitting starting point in our journey which then led onto the "Corridor of Stars."

 Most of the dressing room doors were open for all to see, however only a few door name plaques remained, the rest logically a memento for the actors who have spent most, if not all of their working life at M60 9EA. Of the silver name slates that did remain, only three actors did not seem fussed about taking it home: Philip Lowrie (Dennis Tanner), Cherylee Houston (Izzy Armstrong) and Malcolm Hebden (Norris or "Dorris" if you are Les Battersby). Choice photographs line the corridor, including one of stalwart Emily Bishop wearing a bikini, which must be a rarer sighting than what can be found in one of David Attenborough's nature programmes.  

At the end of the starry, starry corridor was the dressy, dressy uppy room, the actors' first port of call in their day, so our tour guide informed us. The story goes that wardrobe assistants shop for characters clothing where the character would likely shop, meaning that for Carla's clobber the purchasing ledger gets a Trafford Centre entry. As for who dons George at Asda and Primark, your guess is as good as mine. 

Could have done with some popcorn

Ushered into a dark section of the studio, with a large screen as its centrepiece, over five decades worth of laughs and tears were on show for the group to see. This was reminiscent of the storytelling funnel at many Disney attractions, i.e. a holding room to further add to suspense. The comedy montage was a real Street treat and naturally the late, greatEST Maggie Jones (Blanche) stole the show. "No this is for mi' job interview" Liz McDonald tells Tracy Barlow regarding her latest outfit. "What job?" replies Tracy, and without missing a single backstreet Salford beat, Blanche pipes up with "Prostitute." 

Blanche even had the honour of delivering the curtain line which ended the assortment of television gold. Peter Barlow is the feed with "It's a funny looking thermometer this" and swiftly places the item in his mouth, before a quick about-turn upon delivery of the pensioner's remark of "It's rectal...but it's been through the dishwasher."

Leaving the coliseum of Corrie clips, visitors are immediately transported to Weatherfield Quays and Carla Connor's old flat. The studio environment is quite surprising due to the low lighting grid above each of the sets. As for the sets themselves, it is genuinely shocking just how small they are, not quite dolls house, but close enough. Carla's flat is probably the most visually striking of the lot, but even that would not have looked out of place in an old MFI showroom. As for Gail's gaff, in reality her stairs lead to nowhere and she could probably answer the door and put the kettle on at the same time, given the dinky nature of her place up close. 

Marriage, death and behind the bar

After that, it was the main event, stepping foot in that most familiar of watering holes: The Rovers Return. The frosted glass could be seen, but not much else as this was the only set that was faithfully enclosed by four sides. Whilst waiting for the other group to vacate, three wedding dresses and Hayley and Fred Elliott's coffins were on display, on a large slab of whiteness. To be fair, the guys and girls at Mather & Co have done a splendid job of displaying props, costumes, awards, quotes and quips throughout the attraction. Their portfolio is - dare I admit it - pretty darn impressive, boasting The National Football Museum, Wimbledon's retail offering, The Olympic Museum and Manchester Central Library. 

Taking a pew in the Rovers, the thirty strong tour group were all mesmerised at where they had parked their derrières. The only item that felt out of place was a stray upright piano, which was probably last seen on screen when Hilda Ogden belted out Gracie Fields' Wish Me Luck (As You Wave Me Goodbye) in 1987. Individual couples and families took it in turn to have their picture taken behind the pumps. A simple camera in the top corner of the room -  with a weather presenter style clicker - did the job. Audience participation came in the form of a young girl who was roped into ringing the pub's bell to signal our time was up in the Weathy Arm's competitor. 

Knick, Knack, V & Jack

Exiting stage right through the toilets that lead to nowhere (and if they did they would end up straight in the Barlow's living room), Underworld was the next stop. Not many machines still about, but a chance opportunity for a gag from our tour guide involving prop knickers and the line to a gentleman of: "If you wouldn't mind popping behind there and trying them on..." Our guide even let the cat out of the bag that they regularly get trained machinists in to film a close-up shot and then just intercut it with other footage of Fiz and Sally to make it look like they are all pro knicker stitchers. 

My favourite set was by far a genuine triumph for TV design: the barge which Ken Barlow had his affair with Martha on. At the time of those episodes, one would never have imagined that the love boat had been recreated by the Granada grafters, so bravo to all involved in constructing it. 

Jack and Vera's house, now home to surrogate son Tyrone, was another alarmingly tiny terrace. Just like Gail, Tyrone could practically open the front door, stir something on the hob with his mouth and do the hoovering all at the same time. Jack's trademark green jacket was also proudly on display. What is it about soap characters and coats? Kevin's purple and Hayley's red almost had lives of their own. Alas, they were not on display, but Roy's train set and Deirdre's very first pair of glasses were and completed the best of the props bunch. 

Recognition Street and Mission Control

The awards display reeled off the statistics: 80 British Soap , 22 National Television , 17 Royal Television Society, 8 BAFTAs and a pigeon in a fir tree. Wonder if the cabinet is alarmed? Some money's worth in there on the quiet ! Yet awards would not be possible at all without those people who sit in the dark in the production gallery, our final stop on the tour. This area really embedded why a move to a sparkling new production facility was long overdue: many of the monitors in particular were dinosaurs. In fact, I believe that my Amstrad television from the early 90s (which you switched on by having sharp nails and pulling a piece of metal out) was more cutting edge than those used for ITV's flagship.  

Finishing up behind the doors of Nick's bistro, the group knew that we were about to do it, as Victoria Wood might say. The tour guide asked if one of us would kindly make sure that all 11,000 cobbles are still in place, before allowing the allocated bell ringer from The Rovers to press a tiny green button which unleashed the theme tune and saw the group decamp into Weatherfield's finest neighbourhood.  

Street life

Anyone seeking guitar lessons or leather chaps?
The group did not waste any time with photo opportunities galore : Dev's offy, Rita's toffee shop, Kev's garage and the knicker factory all within a stones throw of each other. Nutty Graeme's window cleaning cart had even been shoehorned in at the side of the Platt's house. Attention to detail was to be found in spades: from the advertisements in Rita's window and the graffiti on Webster's auto centre to the bus information from TfGM (GMPTE) and delivery times from Royal Mail on the postbox. 
Royal Mail for a regally-named Street

A professional photographer - a la Disney's PhotoPass - in front of the landmarks was the only thing that the exterior set was lacking, given the amount of other Guests that were getting roped into taking pictures of each other. I did not mind though, and was more than happy to assist those wanting to pretend that The Rovers was their latest business venture. 
My tumble outside Owen Armstrong Construction
A recent trend has been for visitors to recreate Tina's fall from the top of the builders yard to Victoria Street. I could not resist and also struck a pose on the cold, hard cobbles. No chance of a fry-up though because there was no sign of Roy, or any of his Rolls. Kebabs were also off the menu, as Prima Dona - with its slogan "You ringa we bringa" - was also unavailable for orders. The Crew Kitchen and Crew Kitchen vans seemed to have things covered though, and as the weather was nice, plenty of tubs with vanilla ice cream were being consumed.

 Anyone for a tea towel?

Did Art Attack's Neil Buchanan make these? 
Paper mache snow Croppers 

Strolling into the former health centre, we were greeted by the Roy and Hayley snow people and a penny press. Now once again a gift shop, the queues seemed to be exclusively for The Rovers Return photograph and not for merchandise in general. 

We did our bit and gave them on the spot feedback - great interface
Sorry Continuum attractions, but you have badly slipped up on the range and pricing of the gifts (in my opinion, of course). A good idea to price one Rovers photo at £7.50 and two for £10, as was the idea to sell USB sticks with the photo on. However, at the Point of Sale I felt pressurised to buy two pictures by the sales assistant. 

Trumpet plays and credits roll

Back on the cobbles, one optical illusion that is quite impressive stems from essentially a piece of cloth stuck to the back of one of the old Granada office buildings. The end of Rosamund Street, to be precise, and a similar concept which is often shown to Guests at American movie and television theme parks. The ginnel provided our last few moments of Street action, with automated sound clips playing at various intervals. 

Nothing more than a facade: Mawdsley Street, with  
Granada Studios Tour entrance of old in the background
Exiting through some big brown gates, a quick glance left and the old entrance to Granada Studios Tour could be seen in the distance, along with the backs of Mawdsley Street, propped up by scaffolding. It is this kind of rawness which has secured the attraction a 4.5/5 overall TripAdvisor rating at time of writing. Gin and tonics all round for the team involved. 

Coronation Street: The Tour may have been the beneficiary of well over a decade's worth of suppressed cobble-walking demand, yet that does not take away my admiration for it as a hospitality operation. Achieving its 100,000th visitor in just two months is truly quite remarkable and proves there is hunger for more behind the lens visitor attraction formats. 

 Written by Tom Metcalf

Founder and Lead Consultant

 Little Touches ®
        Hospitality consultancy and accreditation


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