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Soaps Interview

Exclusive: Phil Collinson - 'Coronation Street' producer

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Corrie Producer Phil Collinson

© ITV

Coronation Street has had another big year with memorable moments including the 50th anniversary tram crash disaster, Sally and Kevin's acrimonious marriage split, John Stape's dark crimes, the end of the line for Steve and Becky, Stella Price's arrival as the Rovers Return's new landlady and Dennis Tanner's return to the cobbles after 43 years. The Weatherfield drama also scooped the most prizes at the British Soap Awards in May, picking up nine gongs including the prestigious 'Best Storyline' and 'Best Single Episode' awards. Here, Digital Spy now catches up with the show's producer Phil Collinson to ask about recent events and future plans for ITV1's flagship soap.

You've done quite a few interviews about Coronation Street recently following various reports about the show's performance. Was it important for you to speak out and have your say?
"I think what we've tried to do is quite robustly defend our position, in terms of just pointing out the inaccuracies of the claims about the ratings. Reports that people are switching off were completely untrue, as the ratings are up year-on-year - we're doing better than we did last year so I think the show's in great health. Ordinarily, I might have thought, 'It's just a couple of inaccurate stories', but it was actually picked up by quite a lot of papers. The reports were very inaccurate, so that's why I appeared on This Morning and BBC Breakfast - I just wanted to explain to as many people as possible that it wasn't true and people are watching Coronation Street in bigger numbers than they did before."

The residents look on in horror after the tram comes crashing off the viaduct
What do you think the highlights of Coronation Street have been in recent times?
"I think our 50th anniversary couldn't have gone any better. It just became everything I'd hoped for and I think the country stopped for a week and turned to Coronation Street. Everybody talked about it and everybody watched it as we had massive audiences right across the week. I think it was a great showcase for the talents of the cast and the crew up here - it showed people what Coronation Street could do, what Coronation Street could be, and it reminded people how important it was to them. More recently, we've had the big week that went alongside Britain's Got Talent and did incredibly well for the show."

Have there been any particular challenges over the past few months or do you think everything has gone quite smoothly?
"Logistically, the effort that went into the anniversary week had some fallout - from having so many artists involved in the episodes and from taking so long to shoot them. It's taken us a few months to get back on an even keel in terms of production and delivering the episodes as early as we can. But the team here is more fired up than ever! We learned a lot from that big week in December - it's given us a renewed vigour and sense of purpose."

Leanne walks into the Bistro and spots Peter and Carla
You've said in the past that you're a real fan of long-running storylines, which we've seen with the Websters' marriage breakdown, John Stape's crimes and Leanne, Peter and Carla's love triangle. Are you keen to keep telling stories that could last for a year or more?
"I think the most important thing is the balance. I like to have a couple of long-running stories running through, but then also have some stories that are lighter, shorter and incidental. I think that's the Corrie mix and that's what sets it apart from all of the other shows - you can literally be watching something that's very dramatic, moving and dark, but then you'll be seeing something that's very funny in the next scene. I think that's what people expect from Coronation Street and that's very important.

"The Peter, Leanne and Carla storyline is far from finished - there are still a couple of chapters, and I like that. I think it's important to take characters on long journeys as these shows are on 52 weeks of the year, so you have to engage the audience over a longer period of time. And you've got to engage a very broad audience as well. That's the trickiest part of the show, actually - telling stories that are going to appeal to someone who's 18 but won't alienate someone who's 80! And similarly, making sure that there's going to be something in it for the older viewers that isn't going to turn the younger viewers off!"

How do you think the Corrie we see today compares to the show's roots?
"We can't stand still but, at its heart, the show is in many ways the same as the show that transmitted in 1960. But we've got to move with the times when it comes to the stories that we tell, the way we tell them and the speed that we tell them. I think emotionally, we have to challenge the audience more than ever. At the same time, I think we have to remember to keep that humorous element as well, because it's very important to people."

Do you think Corrie is becoming a more gritty and hard-hitting show?
"No, I don't necessarily think it's becoming more hard-hitting - I think it's always told difficult stories but I think our strength is that it's character-driven and we don't do 'issue-based' storylines. So we wouldn't necessarily embark on some of the stories that EastEnders would do. For example, I couldn't see Whitney's prostitution story having a home in Coronation Street - not because it was a bad story, as I thought it was a brilliant story that was wonderfully told - but I think the two shows are tonally different and that's why both are uniquely popular. If I may say so, I think our strength is in character-based stories, so Peter's alcoholism story wasn't necessarily a study of alcoholism, but was a story of a family man and how his problem impacted on that family. When we embark on a story, we always start by thinking about where we want it to take the characters involved."

Carla Connor from Coronation Street
It's been reported that there's a rape storyline on the way for Carla, so will that also be character-based rather than issue-based?
"Carla's journey across the autumn is a tough one and it is quite a hard-hitting story, but the story is as much about how her friends swing behind her and how the people who work for her help her through. There should be hope for her - hope that she can rebuild her life and carry on, as I think that's very important."

We've seen Corrie go post-watershed again recently, so was that your decision or ITV's?
"For the Britain's Got Talent week, we were told that we'd be sitting at 9pm. But it doesn't change the stories that we tell or the way that we tell them at all. With the episodes that we transmitted in that week, there was literally nothing in them editorially that we couldn't have put out at 7.30pm. So if and when we do another stripped 9pm week, it won't be for an editorial reason because I feel very strongly that the show has to stay the same and be the programme that people know and love. So it's entirely a scheduling decision and not an editorial one. Having said that, the post-watershed episodes force us into doing something that's a bit special and unmissable, as we saw in the Britain's Got Talent week where we brought two big stories to a climax."

Character-wise, Leanne Barlow seems to be becoming increasingly popular and Jane Danson has been getting a lot more recognition…
"Jane has been fantastic this past year. I think one of the best moments of the Soap Awards this year was her winning 'Best Dramatic Performance', which essentially is a 'Best Actress' gong. She thoroughly deserved that and had some very tough competition. I think that over a long period of time, Jane has just proved that she engages the audience in such a brilliant way. She's the most remarkable actress and quite rightly now is at the very heart of the show."

Katherine Kelly
Recently it's seemed that the character of Becky is perhaps becoming slightly less popular with fans, so do you think the viewers will get back on her side before she leaves?
"I don't know if that's necessarily true, because the research that we conduct here into characters and storylines shows that Becky still sits among the most popular characters. So I don't get the sense that she's becoming less popular and I think the opposite's true, actually! I think Kate has been amazing and brought us some tour de force performances. Becky is unique and I think it's an interesting new chapter for her now. As Becky and Steve have separated, it means that we can broaden the character group that she interacts with over the next few months and explore a different side to her character. So I haven't felt the need to consciously rehabilitate Becky - I think people love her for all her faults."

Will Becky's exit storyline do her character justice?
"Yes, of course - it has to! She's been a big part of the show for five years, is a very popular character and people love her. So the storyline that we tell across the next six months is really wonderful and ties up a lot of those stories that we've been playing for the past 18 months. I hope that when she leaves, it will be a massive event - as it should be."

Do you see the character of Kylie as the 'new Becky'?
"I think Kate's performance has been brilliantly unique, so I don't think there's been any intention to find someone to fill a Becky-shaped hole. I think Paula's performance is wonderful and very different. I think in many ways, Kylie is more damaged than Becky, as Becky got out of the toxic home environment early enough. So as Kylie is more damaged, she's slightly more in need of love. I adore her and David together - the relationship is so multi-faceted, and both Jack and Paula bring so much to those characters. I hope they will be a couple that we'll be entertained by for many, many years."

Kate Ford as Tracey Barlow
We seem to have seen glimpses of Tracy Barlow's softer side in some of the recent storylines. Will that continue?
"Yes. I think Tracy is a really important character, and not only for her part in the Steve and Becky story. I think Number 1 is a brilliant house to go to and we want to go there because of Tracy and her mum and dad. It's a very rich environment story-wise. I think, very consciously, we have wanted to put more flesh on the bone in terms of Tracy's character. We've always known that Steve is her Achilles heel, and I think he brings out the best in her. We saw the line recently where she told Steve, 'When I'm with you, I'm everything I want to be'. Steve has often led her to some of the extreme behaviour that she's had, but it comes from the heart. I hope that over the coming months, the audience is going to actually start to feel for her. The story that we're going to tell is as much of an emotional rollercoaster for Tracy as it is for Steve and Becky…"

Are you committed to the new family of Stella, Karl and Eva and will they be staying at the forefront of the show?
"The family in The Rovers are very important to the show. I think it's fair to say that Stella, Karl and Eva have had a bit of a bumpy start due to some of the press, which has been unfortunate for the actors involved because obviously they're busy trying to settle into a massive change in their working life - getting to grips with a new place and a new set of people. The crew here are very supportive of them, though, and that's been a great help to them. We're very committed to them and the new energy that they've brought into the pub, so we'll see them over the next year and hopefully well beyond that."

Sally Dynevor as Sally Webster
The war of the Websters has been one of the biggest stories of the year. Would you rule out a reunion for Sally and Kevin?
"I definitely wouldn't rule out a reunion in the future, but I have been riveted by Sally and Michael's performances. The Websters were our nuclear family and I think taking one of the most functional families on the street and blasting them apart has given us an awful lot of story material. I have loved watching them through the wars, through the lottery win and their struggle to stay on the best terms they can.

"Sally is going to take a long time before she can forgive Kevin and trust him again. I think that we'd sell that story and those characters short if we put them back together too soon - and indeed if ever. The jury's still out on that one, but we've still been telling stories about them and that story machine is still pumping away. There are as many stories that we can tell about poor Kevin wanting to get back with his wife than we can with them under the same roof. They're certainly not getting back together in the near future, but I wouldn't rule it out."

Gary Windass feels guilty about not helping out at the scene of the crash.
What's coming up for the Windasses over the next few months?
"I think what we've just seen is the climax to Gary's storyline, which is another one that we've run for a long, long time since he came out of the army. It's not over yet, but we've just seen a climax because his relationship with Izzy broke down and we saw the roaring, raw emotion that he had inside of him. Gary's journey to getting back on an even keel again is going to be a long one.

"I love the Windasses, and our plans over the next six months centre around putting Anna and Owen together - they're going to have a romance and create what will be an important family at the heart of the show. They're a very modern family in many ways - Anna has an adopted daughter who doesn't like Owen, Gary is in love with Izzy but she's not sure about going down that path with him again because she's damaged by what happened previously, while Katy is having a baby with Chesney at the age of 16. It feels like that will be a really rich, important house across the next year."

> Head over to Soap Scoop for more Coronation Street chat from Phil in the second part of this interview. Get the Inside Soap magazine on your iPhone or iPad

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