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Warren, Tony (1937-)


Main image of Warren, Tony (1937-)

The wave of social realism launched in the theatre by John Osborne's Look Back in Anger (1956), and in literature in the work of novelists such as John Braine, Alan Sillitoe and Stan Barstow, ultimately found its way into cinemas in the form of the British 'New Wave' explosion of the late 1950s and early 1960s, in films such as Room at the Top (d. Jack Clayton, 1958) and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (d. Karel Reisz, 1960). On the small screen, this revolution continued with dramas such as Alun Owen's Lena O My Lena (Armchair Theatre, ITV, tx. 25/9/1960), but its most popular manifestation came with the première of North Country serial Coronation Street in December 1960.

Tony Warren was just 24 when he devised Coronation Street. Born Anthony Simpson in Swinton, Lancashire, he left grammar school and went to a 'school for the creative child' in Liverpool. When he was 15 he ran away to London and continued as a child actor (he had been acting in BBC radio's Children's Hour during the early 1950s) until he developed rapidly and became a male model. He also changed to his stage name of Tony Warren.

He was dubbed 'Britain's youngest scriptwriter' when the police series Shadow Squad (ITV, 1957-59) produced his script, 'Streets of Gold' (pts. 1 and 2; tx. 3 & 6/11/1958), a gritty tale about the world of prostitution. There were also contributions to the children's drama Biggles (ITV, 1960), six scripts in all.

The first Coronation Street concept was offered to the BBC in 1957, as Our Street (it was rejected by the lofty, upper-middle-class BBC) and it was Granada TV (under its more down-to-earth chairman Sidney Bernstein) who accepted it and started work on what was, for a time, called Florizel Street.

Based on an actual street of back-to-back houses in the City of Salford, Lancashire, it introduced the unforgettable TV characters of Ena Sharples (played by an acid-tongued Violet Carson), Len Fairclough (Peter Adamson), Elsie Tanner (Pat Phoenix), Minnie Caldwell (Margot Bryant) and Stan Ogden (Bernard Youens). Granada originally commissioned just 12 episodes, but Coronation Street would become the world's longest-running soap serial (since the demise of CBS's As the World Turns, 1956-2010). Even half a century after its inception, the serial retained - for the most part - Warren's distinctive blend of down-to-earth drama and character-based humour. It was that humour, and the series' obvious affection for its older characters, however set in their ways, that from the start distanced Warren's creation from much of the cinema new wave.

Perhaps inevitably, Coronation Street overshadowed Warren's subsequent career. In the wake of its success, now considered something of a 'creative ambassador' for the North and Midlands, he was called upon to devise the Gerry and the Pacemakers film Ferry Cross the Mersey (d. Jeremy Summers, 1964) as a 'based on an idea by' celebration of Liverpool (which turned out to be a sad attempt at repeating the 1964 hit A Hard Day's Night minus The Beatles and director Dick Lester).

The War of Darkie Pilbeam (ITV, 1968), a curious trilogy of plays written by Warren about civilian life in Britain during World War Two, with its emphasis on spivs and the black market, first appeared little more than a crude exercise in instant nostalgia (the voice of Vera Lynn, the sound of air raid sirens, etc.). But it was acted with skill and tenderness by a cast chosen with delicacy (Trevor Bannister, Christine Hargreaves, Rhoda Lewis).

In order to cultivate a new (post-Coronation Street) creative life, Tony Warren is still in pursuit of that so-far-elusive soul-satisfying, provincial novel. In 2010, to mark Coronation Street's half-century, he was the subject of a BBC Four biopic, The Road to Coronation Street (tx. 16/9/2010).

Tise Vahimagi

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