Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Theatre's Corrie Links ... and Liam returns!

Here's an article I wrote, which appeared in a number of magazines, about the Oldham Coliseum Theatre.  A full history with lots of pictures can be found in my book They Started Here! which you can still find copies of on ebay now and again.  It's also where Martha was appearing when Ken Barlow went to see her in Corrie.


The extraordinary history of the Oldham Coliseum

The current Coliseum Theatre sits in a tiny back street off the busy Lancashire to Yorkshire road. I say ‘current’ theatre because the building started life in the town centre where the busy ‘Tommyfield Market’ stands today. In 1885 Oldham was visited by a Mr Myers who instructed local builder, and Mayor’s son, Thomas Whittaker to construct a round wooden theatre as a home for his touring circus. Circus was the latest craze - Wild West shows fronted by legends like Buffalo Bill and produced by firms such as Barnum and Bailey had just crossed the Atlantic to huge success and so small-time regional producers attempted to jump on the wagon. Mr Myers was doing just that – he called his show ‘The Grand American Circus’ but they’d probably been no further west than Ormskirk.

When the work on the building was finished Myers couldn’t come up with the funds to pay for it so Whittaker found himself the owner of the circus. Amazingly, with no experience to speak of, he decided to have a go at running it as a commercial venture – and even more amazingly, he had a success on his hands. The first shows were themed events – Chinese Festivals, recreations of Dick Turpin’s ride to York and so forth. A couple of years later and the council decided that they wanted the site in order to build a market hall so Whittaker moved the Colloseum (as the name was then spelt) further down the hill – plank by plank. The market, ‘Tommyfield’, bears testament through its name to the fact that Tommy Whittaker owned the land.

So, down in Fairbottom Street, on the site of a disused colliery, the new theatre was opened to great publicity. The theatre was made of wood but by now new fire regulations were being brought in and so Whittaker was forced to prove that his 3,000 seat venue wasn’t a fire risk. He invited the Oldham Fire Brigade to try and set light to it – they tried, it didn’t burn and so he was allowed to open to the public. Over the next 50 years or so the theatre played host to variety, musicals, pantomimes, circus and film. Charlie Chaplin is rumoured to have made a visit although actual written records and hard to find – the great Stan Laurel definitely did appear however, as a child actor in the pantomime ‘Sleeping Beauty’ alongside Wee Georgie Wood. By the 1930’s business was suffering from both the depression and the growth in the popularity of cinemas – a great many were opening up in the small town and in 1932 the theatre went bust and closed its doors.

Many in the town campaigned to keep live theatre and in 1938 they opened the Oldham Repertory Club in the former Temperance Hall in the street behind what is now called the ‘Coliseum’. They employed a professional team of actors and a professional director (a young Oldhamer called Dora Broadbent (now known as Dora Bryan) was one of them). Such was their success that in 1939 they leased the old Coliseum and moved the company in there – performing a different play every week.

During the war years the venue was used by companies who were forced to leave London such as the Old Vic, Ballet Rambert and Sadler’s Wells. The Coliseum company also gained a reputation for launching the careers of famous actors – Mollie Sugden (‘Are You Being Served?’), Alan Rothwell (‘Coronation Street’), Anna Wing (‘EastEnders’) and Bernard Cribbins amongst them. In 1947 the theatre caught the national headlines when an actor playing the title role in the often-fated play ‘Macbeth’ was accidentally stabbed on stage and later died. His ghost is said to haunt the theatre to this day.

In the late 50s when television was becoming a widely watched form of entertainment the theatre found itself a popular calling place for casting directors looking for new stars – many of the cast of ‘Coronation Street’ were discovered this way. In fact, William Roache, who was cast as Ken Barlow in 1960 had only just completed his first leading pantomime role at the Coliseum, as he told me: “I was cast as Robin Hood – and there I was in Lincoln green, with the tights, boots and a hat with a feather in it. We had a chorus of little girls – a horn sounded and they cried, “It’s Robin! It’s Robin!” as I came heroically down a staircase, centre stage. On the opening night, I made my entrance at the top of the stairs. I threw my arms back in greeting. The orchestra swelled. Then I tripped and bumped all the way down on my bottom! I never did panto gain.”

By the 60s the theatre was feeling the effects of the growth in the popularity of television and was forced to adapt. Smoking was banned from the auditorium, the building was extended and productions started to go out on tour. The strain of producing a different play each week was also causing problems as people now saw the technical achievements of TV studios night after night and they demanded an improving product. The actors had traditionally performed one play at night whilst rehearsing the following week’s production during the day. Under the direction of Carl Paulsen, a man not known for holding his own counsel, the pressure was increased – Carl’s standards were high.

“If he wasn’t happy about something you soon knew it!” actor John Jardine says. “I remember being on stage during a rehearsal when he called the props girl onto the stage. She was stood there holding a tray of props and he said something about not wanting props of such poor quality on his stage and he pushed the tray up in the air – everything fell onto the stage and smashed. What he didn’t know was that they’d all been borrowed from his house!”

At the end of the decade they were forced to make financial savings too – by making productions fortnightly rather than weekly. During the following decade they moved to monthly productions and the invited back many former company members – people like Patricia Phoenix (Corrie’s Elsie Tanner) in a bid to boost the box office takings. For a while it worked and the Coliseum seemed to be back on an even keel but gradually things began to slide again and the 80s were particularly turbulent times as the theatre struggled to maintain full houses and keep the doors from closing.

During the 90s the theatre became a charity and funding was sought form various national and regional agencies. Today the theatre continues to thrive and provides a rich diet of new and established writing using both the 580 seat main house and the smaller 60 seat studio theatre. Although not strictly a repertory theatre any more in that the company of actors largely changes for each production, Oldhamers are still rightly proud of the town’s ‘Rep’ – as I’m sure it will always be known.

• Film stars Ralph Fiennes and Minnie Driver have both appeared at the Coliseum.
• The theatre ghost is an actor who was stabbed on stage in 1947.
• Jean Alexander (Hilda Ogden) once worked in the theatre’s wardrobe department.
• Amongst other famous names to have worked there: Roy Barraclough, Jean Fergusson, Barbara Knox, Kathy Staff, Sarah Lancashire, Anne Kirkbride and Steve Halliwell.
• The late Dame Thora Hird enjoyed a huge success at the Coliseum with the comedy ‘Saturday Night at the Crown’. It was during this run that a booker from Blackpool signed the show for what would prove a record-breaking summer season and subsequent West End run.
• Oldhamer Eric Sykes claims that without a chance to shine on the Coliseum stage he would have continued working in the mills.
• The West End hit ‘Marlene’ starring Sian Phillips began life at the Coliseum.

Text copyright of the author.

Picture copyright ITV
NOTE: I am working on a project until the middle of October so this will probably be my last post until then.  On the recent 'World of Coronation Street' Tour several ladies (it's always the ladies!) asked whether Rob Collier-James, who played Liam, was doing anything else.  Here he is in the forthcoming ITV drama Downton Abbey which airs soon.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Meet the Vicar!

This article appeared in the Coronation St magazine produced for the British Isles Show this year.  It's by my former writing partner Peter Riley, who is no longer with us:

Jim Whelan is a face known to millions of Coronation Street fans throughout the world, and his character has been vital to some of the most controversial storylines in recent years, yet he can still pass largely unnoticed in the street.

For Jim, who has been a professional actor and entertainer for more than 40 years, has been the Vicar of Weatherfield for several years now, and his most recent appearances saw him officiating at the cremation of Vera Duckworth, following the exit of Liz Dawn from the show, and prior to that as the man who finally married Jason Grimshaw and Sarah Platt, played by Ryan Thomas and Tina O’Brien.

His character, Vicar Mike, was also responsible for the wedding of Steve and Karen McDonald, after first attempting to referee the fisticuffs between the bride (Suranne Jones) and her rival Tracy Barlow (Kate Ford) who were trying to tear each other apart under the watchful eye of the church congregation.

“It has become a way of life playing the Corrie vicar and I love it!” Jim said as we chatted at his home in Bury, just a few miles from the famous cobbles. “I am semi-retired now but if I get the call from the Coronation Street office to preside over a wedding or funeral then I am more than happy to do it. I have played the vicar for several years now and I think I should be the ‘official’ Vicar of Weatherfield, with my own vicarage! Seriously, though, I have enjoyed playing the part, though many people don’t realize that I have been in the Street before. In fact I have played six different characters in all but over the past few years the vicar role has been quite frequent and goes back a way.

The church used for Vicar Mike's parish
“Some viewers may remember the plot years ago when Terry Duckworth, (the wayward son of Jack and Vera) married his girlfriend Lisa while he was handcuffed to prison guards. Well when Lisa was eventually killed by being run over by a car I was the vicar who officiated at her funeral.”

For Jim acting has been a long process which started when he was a teenager and he knew he wanted to be in the profession. In 1971 he made his first Street appearance when he was a customer in the corner shop. In 1973 he appeared in the lunchtime drama series Crown Court as a jury foreman and in the same year appeared in the comedy series Last of the Summer Wine, in which he has now appeared four times. Other well known TV shows in which he has also appeared include Heartbeat, and long running rural soap Emmerdale in which he has appeared as many different characters.

But it is undoubtedly Coronation Street which has given him worldwide coverage, and from his first role as shop customer through to being a postman delivering the good news to Jack and Vera Duckworth that they had inherited £30,000 following the death of Jack’s brother Cliff, to his skill as the Street vicar the attraction of the famous cobbles are never far away.

It has also given him, for example, the chance to meet up with old friends whom he first met well before they were famous faces, including Bill Tarmey who plays Jack Duckworth, Barbara Knox, (Rita) and Anne Kirkbride (Deirdre).

An alternative church location - this is where
Betty married and where Joe is buried.
Jim said: “I first met Bill Tarmey many years ago. I had been fixing a table lamp at home when I was electrocuted because it was faulty. I ended up going to hospital and I came out with my hand and arm bandaged. In order to make a living I was singing in clubs in those days, between acting jobs, and one night I was at a club waiting to go on and sing, whether I had a bandaged arm or not, when I hears this gruff voice asking ‘what have you done to your arm then?’ I turned around and saw this chap standing there smoking a cigarette. It was Bill Tarmey.

“Bill had turned up to sing too, because he wasn’t famous then, he also had to make a living and he told me he’d had a heart attack not long before. So like two invalids we started talking and became friendly, so it has been nice to be able to meet him now and then whenever we have both appeared in Corrie at the same time, and it was particularly poignant when we met up to film Vera’s cremation service at Manchester Crematorium.

“It was the same with Barbara, as we worked together more than 30 years ago. And Anne and I go way back to when we both appeared at Oldham Coliseum acting in repertory. That is the nice thing about working on Coronation Street, as it allows old friends to come together again.

“I enjoy appearing in Coronation Street and I get to see some interesting places. For example, when we were filming the wedding of Mike and Linda Baldwin a few years ago we were on location at beautiful Arley Hall in Cheshire which was a treat. Of course there are also some less interesting locations such as Manchester's Crematorium where we filmed the funeral of Vera. But you can’t have glamour all the time!” he laughed.

During periods when he wasn’t acting Jim spent his days helping out by driving children to and from school for a local firm. But Jim, now 66, has now called it a day from full time work, unless he gets offered a full time role as Corrie’s vicar, of course.

“They have a full time vicar in Emmerdale, so what’s wrong with having one in Corrie?” Jim laughed.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Kemptville Tour - Day Ten

Sunday 5 September 2010

Something special this morning to get the last day off to a cracking start. The real vicar of the church where most of the weddings, funerals, baptisms etc are filmed is a real star. Rev. Hackett and I first met several years ago when he’d just taken over in his new post and had a call from me going on about a Corrie tour. He didn’t, I don’t think, watch Corrie at the time – but he sure does now! He’s seen a lot of filming at the church and has built up a collection of memorabilia from big stories such as Mike’s funeral, Bev and Fred’s wedding etc etc. Anyway, he invited us to join his congregation at Sunday service. It was very special indeed – we were guests at a baptism but, much to the delight of our guests, we were very much involved in proceedings.  Everyone was given a certificate to say they had attneded a service plus a knitted mouse to take away.  Each mouse had been given the name of a Corrie character and the idea is that we send postcards from our mice back to the church!  They've even knitted a cat - who has the name Tony Gordon Richard Hillman!  As the service finished, we all noticed that the organist was playing the Coronation St theme tune!

Afterwards we set off on a whistle stop tour of some final locations – the court where Rita and Deirdre were both sent down, Audrey’s house, Mummy and Daddy Taylor’s house (remember when Curly was going out with Kimberley and he endured several dreadful teas with her parents?), the church Tony Warren was christened in, Weatherfield Comprehensive, and so on.

Final stop was the heart of Salford. In the shadow of the town hall (where Les was sent down) I pointed out some of the inspirations behind the show, how it’s rooted in truth, about its matriarchal thread and so on. We were also in the shadow of Salford Cathedral where Maggie Jones’ memorial service was held. It was a fitting end to the tour to pay tribute to that great actress.  We finally had our tally of locations visited or seen - 61!

So, back to the hotel for packing! Glad I didn’t have it to do.

This evening was another wonderful occasion. We all met up at the Midland Hotel (itself used as a location) for a farewell gala dinner. Of course we also had a surprise guest. Now, normally we have one guest but this being a special year Kemptville Travel had two! We welcomed Julie Hesmondhalgh (Hayley) and William Roache (Ken) to the dinner. Again, both were wonderful and posed for pictures, signed autographs and answered hundreds of questions. A fantastic way to finish off the trip – for tomorrow it’s back to Manchester Airport.

Hope you enjoyed tagging along!

For more information on the tour and to register your interest in ‘The World of Coronation Street’ tour look at
For groups wishing to book a guide and coach/driver for one day or more visiting Coronation St locations with a commentary on the history of the show please contact

Kemptville Tour - Day Nine

Saturday 4 September 2010

Lovely – a little bit of a lie-in before we set off for Chorley and the Park Hall Hotel. It’s situated next door to a theme park called Camelot, which used to be owned by Granada TV. Anyway, we enjoyed a buffet lunch before setting out for Southport. The gentile seaside town was always used for Alma and Audrey’s shopping trips and it’s where Maria went into labour (remember Tony Gordon delivering the baby on the beach?) with only Ozzie as nursemaid?

Then it was off to the brasher Blackpool further up the coast. Again we had a bit of a surprise lined up as the BBC joined us (goodness, we’ll be more famous than the Corrie cast soon!) to record some stuff for an upcoming documentary about the Blackpool trams. You might just recall Alan Bradley being turned to strawberry jam on the front of one. We had some free time to explore the town and its attractions before we drove up the seafront – we saw the Tower (remember Norris ballroom dancing in there? And Tyrone proposing to Maria at the top?), the piers (as featured in a Peter/Simon storyline), the hotel where Rita was staying when Alan came for her and the spot where Alan (a much misunderstood man if you ask me!) coped it on the front of tram 710 (did you know that was 21 years ago this December?). We pulled up into a secret location and watched a Corrie video for an hour. Why? Because when the famous illuminations came on at 8pm we wanted to zip out from our secret place and straight into the line-up to see the whole thing.  Rob, our superb driver, did a great job in getting us right at the front of the queue.

The illuminations were switched on yesterday by Robbie Williams (he did ask to meet us but as he hasn’t appeared in Corrie we politely refused!) and they stretch 6 miles, have over a million light bulbs, and cost £2.5m. Quite a sight!

The BBC stuck with us ‘til the bitter end – recording my commentary and some interviews with the guests. We’re getting quite media savvy now!

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Kemptville Tour - Day Eight

Friday 3 September 2010

Manchester was founded by the Romans in 79AD (they were called that because they did a lot of roamin’ about! – the group had to suffer that one, so why shouldn’t you?) We passed the Castlefield district where the Roman fort was and where Michelle and Steve split up, where Tony tried to drown Roy and where Les tried to kill himself (not a happy place really!) etc etc. We had a better time visiting the Science and industry Museum, which actually backs onto the Coronation Street set. Part of it is housed in what was the world’s first railway station - and the original outdoor Corrie set was built on the cobbles from the railway goods yards next door. The museum is being redeveloped at the moment so some parts were closed but we enjoyed the trains, planes, cars, steam engines (including Thomas the Tank Engine), underground sewers exhibit and the small Corrie exhibit where we could watch backstage videos and classic episodes.

Next stop was the green and canal bank where Martha lured Ken into her clutches! That Martha! We all stood on the bridge where Ken had been, carrying his suitcase, wondering whether to leave Weatherfield behind or not. Sad!

Then we drove out to Bury to look at a little corner where we found the prison John Stape was in and where Fizbomb sat outside waiting on her wedding day. Nearby was the location used in Monday’s big episode (spoiler below) and where Antony Cotton recently had his 35th birthday bash. We just had to have a peek!

Then we had time to explore the town and to do some shopping on the market. Actually, quite a few of the costumes used to be bought from here – and we were reminded of that fact when we spotted stalls covered in aprons and overalls (a la Hilda). It’s also the home of the Black Pudding, which is an acquired taste for many.

Back to the hotel for something to eat and then off to the Oldham Coliseum Theatre. Now, not only did many of the Corrie cast start their careers in the theatre company based here (Alec, Rita, Bet, Ken , Deirdre and others!) but this is the theatre where Martha was appearing when she dallied with Ken. Anyway, we weren’t there for that reason – but we do like our Corrie connections! No, we had come to see a production of Kes (Lynne Perrie, who played Ivy, was in the film!). A very moving play (and often hilarious) set in the industrial North of the 60s – so very Corrie really.

Roy and Hayley’s wedding featured the East Lancashire Railway Line which we saw today.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Kemptville Tour - Day seven

Thursday 2 September 2010

Another day in the country, but this time it was Derbyshire.

The route out of the city is great as we drop down into rural Cheshire and then through pretty towns, scenic valleys and up into the Peak District.

Our first stop was the spa town of Buxton. We had a break at the historic Pavilion and park where we stretched our legs and took in the views. Then it was on a bit further south and a stop at the Peak Village Outlet which is a café, shops and so on. It beats sitting on the coach too long!

Each year the tour has a different itinerary (obviously some of the Corrie locations come up each year - and that allows us to take in a good variety of places and means that so many people come back year after year. Our main stop today was the Crich Tramway Museum which has period shops, tram exhibitions (it’s 150 years this year that the first tram line opened in the UK) and unlimited rides on vintage trams. There was also a blue police box like Dr Who’s! It’s also set in the pretty village where the TV series Peak Practice was set.

After a three hours visit we made our way back to Manchester via a different route which took us past pubs which had been owned by Betty Driver and Pat Phoenix and near the pub in which Tony Warren penned the first Corrie episodes.

Some of our guests met Tyrone and Jessie whilst out and about!

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Kemptville Tour - Day Six

Wednesday 1 September 2010

The joy with Manchester is that leaving the city you are very quickly into beautiful countryside. This morning we drove back into Yorkshire and the city of Bradford. The town hall was used for Tracy’s trial (and another trial yet to be shown in Canada but which involves Tracy again – I’m beginning to think she might be a troubled child). Our first stop was the National Media Museum, which has a large collection of exhibits relating to film, TV and photography. We were especially interested in viewing some of the old Corrie episodes they have available in their viewing area, in seeing the special EastEnders exhibition they had there (well, a bit of healthy competition and all that!) and visiting the shop (of course!).

It was then off to stop two and another nod to the soap rivals. This time it was the village of Esholt where Emmerdale was filmed for many years before a full replica was built nearby, which is where they film today. I’m told that the Woolpack serves lovely ale!

It was gloriously sunny and so we did a little detour to Skipton for a little picture stop.  Whilst there we spied their decorated sheep including this one, in a building society window, by Jayne Tunnicliffe (Yana).
We then had about an hour and a half’s drive back into Lancashire and the town of Colne. It’s home to Boundary Mills, a family owned department store where everything is heavily discounted. We enjoyed an hour in there before tucking into a fish and chip supper in their restaurant.

Some of the guests have bumped into cast members in Manchester this week - they include the actors who play Sean, Ciaran, Kevin and Janice!