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Corrie must keep its wit and warmth says new producer on the Street
You do a double-take as you enter Stuart Blackburn’s office in the city centre ITV studio complex.
The view from the window is familiar and yet fictional, Manchester and yet Weatherfield. For he gazes across the rooftops of the terrace houses which make up the Coronation Street set.
Some reports would have us believe the new producer looks down on this famous corner of tellyland like the Grim Reaper. His arrival as producer was attended by media rumours of a ‘mass cull’ of Corrie characters.
“There’s absolutely no plans for any mass cull,” says Blackburn.
How about reports that he wants to bring back Tina O’Brien in the role of Sarah-Louise Platt?
“Again, that’s come from absolutely nowhere,” says Blackburn.
The reported return of Georgia Taylor as Toyah Battersby?
“Just gossip, complete gossip,” he says.
It would be, says Blackburn, ‘obscene’ for him to be making decisions about comings or goings among the cast when he has barely got his feet under the desk. For now he is reacquainting himself with a soap opera he knows well, having already done a stint as Corrie’s series story editor, overseeing storylines such as the death of Vera Duckworth and the arrival of the Connor family.
“This is week one. Of course, I’ve been avidly watching episode after episode, I’ve been reading storylines going back three or four months, catching up with scripts and taking a look at every bit of Corrie, “ says Blackburn.
“Corrie is in, I think, an incredibly strong position at the moment. The viewing figures are great. It started the year at 9m to 9.5m. It’s rarely below 8.5m and more often than not it’s beating EastEnders.”
Is there a temptation for Corrie to chase those ratings with more and more sensational storylines?
“There will always be those headline-grabbing stories,” says Blackburn.
“Take, for instance, the one playing out now with Fiz and Tyrone.
“The press may make it sensationalist, but it’s a story that came from a place of real truth. It came out of people on the team’s experiences. It’s a story worth telling.
“My vision of Corrie is really simple. The first episode wasn’t whimsical, it wasn’t a comedy, it wasn’t a nostalgic love-fest. It was gripping urban drama done on popular television for the very first time.
“It was kind of revolutionary – the lives, loves and aspirations of the working classes. What I want Corrie to do is retain that wit, the warmth and optimism.
“This is a show about a community in 21st century working class Britain. The characters have to be recognisable to people living that life.”
And does Corrrie reflect real life in 21st century Britain?
“We need to keep on out toes to make it reflective,” says Blackburn.
“Look, there are less and less streets, not just in Salford but anywhere, with cobbles. In a sense, that’s our history. It’s about the stories we tell. All modern cities now have a massively diverse ethnicity. That’s what we’ve got to address and I think Corrie has done to an extent, but we must continue to do that.”
The kind of close community Corrie depicts does still exist, Blackburn insists, citing the area of Armley, Leeds, from which he has only recently moved with wife Naomi Parker, a theatrical costume and set designer.
He hails originally from Keighley (‘known as the town that starts with a ‘K’ and ends in a kicking’ he jokes) and attended the local Greenhead Grammar School where he ‘took far too many liberties and missed far too many lessons’ but did well ‘by fluke’.
As a punishment for being cheeky at school, he was made to take part in a production of Stan Barstow’s A Kind of Loving, and enjoyed it so much he opted to study drama at Birmingham University.
There, he heard a talk about theatre, crime and punishment by gangster-turned-artist and writer Jimmy Boyle.
Blackburn went to volunteer at an Edinburgh drop-in centre for junkies and ex-prisoners, set up by Boyle, and stayed four years, forming a theatre company that worked with drug addicts.
It was here that Blackburn wrote his first play, A Family Affair, inspired by a recovering addict with whom he had worked. The man had been persuaded to re-connect with his parents, but was so physically damaged by years of heroin abuse that he died within a fortnight of the reunion.
In the early 90s, Blackburn moved to Moss Side, Manchester, to work with the Longsight-based Community Arts Workshop.
These were grim times for crime and violence, and a time before the regeneration of Hulme swept away some of the most loathed public housing the city had ever known.
“The houses were free,” he says. “Essentially, you walked into an empty flat, told the council you were squatting there and that was it. There was this tacit deal where the flat was occupied while the council figured out what to do.”
Blackburn frequented the Hacienda and Dry bar, found Manchester a ‘totally exciting city’ and enjoyed his work with Community Arts Workshop.
“One day we’d be putting on a community play with residents in Oldham, the next we’d be making a little video with glue-sniffers, then we’d be building a themed garden-cum-play park on the edge of Rusholme.
“It mattered. I had a chip on my shoulder. I thought drama was for snobs and I had no place in it. It was through Edinburgh and working in Manchester that I realised the arts could matter.”
Fifteen years ago, Blackburn landed a job as a storyliner for Emmerdale, and went on to work for the likes of The Bill and Ballykissangel before his first stint at Corrie six years ago.
He went to Emmerdale to join former Corrie colleague Gavin Blyth in 2009, and when Blyth died the following year, Blackburn became Emmerdale producer.
The chance to return to Corrie came when Phil Collinson, moved to a new role with ITV, developing drama. In relinquishing his Corrie role, Collinson said the drama could only stay at the top of its game if the producer is “re-energised” every two or three years.
Does that mean the clock is ticking on Blackburn too?
“There is this life cycle for producers, where they need to get a life again,” agrees Blackburn, who will stay in Manchester three or four nights a week before returning for weekends at the home in Horsforth he shares with his wife and their rescue dog Rock Star.
“There’s nothing in tablets of stone, but it’s essentially a seven-day-a-week job. I might be at home on Saturday and Sunday, but I’ll never have less than nine or ten scripts to read, and 20-odd storylines.”