'Coronation Street' brings up 50 years with a bang

7th December 2010, Comments 0 comments

The world's longest-running TV soap opera, "Coronation Street", marks 50 years on air this week with a dramatic scene featuring a tram crashing on to houses and characters fighting for their lives.

The producers of the ITV show have chosen to chalk up half a century with the most catastrophic scenes in the history of the show, which is set in Weatherfield, a fictional suburb of Manchester.

It marks a dramatic change of pace for a show whose beauty -- in the eyes of many of its fans -- lies in its diet of mainly humdrum day-to-day events in northwest England, told with a tight script and a dose of dark humour.

In September it became the longest-running TV soap opera in the world, and will soon pass the 7,500-episode milestone.

Despite the explosion of British television channels in recent years, Corrie -- as the show is widely known -- remains one of the country's most-watched programmes with around 10 viewers tuning in four times a week.

It has also been syndicated in dozens of countries around the world, ranging from the Netherlands to New Zealand.

While it was panned by the critics in its early episodes, its cobbled streets and cosy theme tune soon became a regular fixture for millions of viewers.

It helped launch the careers of a number of big-name actors such as Ben Kingsley and guest stars have included Ian McKellan and even Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne.

Given its popularity, Coronation Street is a commercial juggernaut, generating substantial revenue and sponsorship opportunities, not to mention sales to 40 countries.

Among ITV shows, only Simon Cowell's talent show "X Factor" can rival the impact of Corrie, which spars with the BBC's London-based "Eastenders" for British soap supremacy.

And while Corrie might have started in the days of crackly black and white TV -- the first episode was screened on December 9, 1960 -- it has embraced social media.

The show now has a senior digital producer who seeks out storylines "for opportunities for web interactivity", its executive producer Kieran Roberts told The Guardian newspaper, stressing he wants to attract new fans.

"I want to convert casual viewers into fans. That's the challenge the writers set themselves," said Roberts.

"It's important to do justice to the 50 years and the show's tradition. But even when we plotted out the crash, we were thinking about how this would be a springboard for what we'll be doing into next year and way beyond that."

The chaos, seen by British viewers on Monday, is sparked when an explosion tears apart The Joinery bar, causing the tram to plunge from the viaduct above into the street of familiar red-brick terraced houses.

The incident leaves much-loved characters such as Rita Sullivan, Ken Barlow and Ashley Peacock lying motionless amid the wreckage.

In true soap style, fans who regularly will be left to wonder who survives the devastation as the storyline develops over five nights, including a live special on Thursday, the day of the 50th anniversary.

One of the longest-serving characters, Ken, played by William Roache, and his younger bride-to-be Leanne Battersby, played by Jane Danson, are also floored as the tram plummets into the cobbled street.

Roache said: "I had tears of pride to belong to a team that can produce something like that -- which is not only the best thing in Coronation Street ever, the best thing on TV ever."

The shocking scenes have taken months to film and the tram stunt is believed to have cost up to one million pounds (1.6 million dollars, 1.2 million euros).

It has been a momentous few weeks for Corrie with the tram crash following close on the heels of the death of the lugubrious stalwart Jack Duckworth -- a mainstay of the show for three decades -- last month.

© 2010 AFP

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