Coronavirus finally comes to ‘Coronation Street’

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND—For now, the most famous street in Britain still exists in another world. The pub is open. Friends meet in the cafe. Neighbours fight and lovers kiss. People get their hair cut, visit one another’s houses, gather in groups of more than six.

They can do so until July 24: the day when, four months after the rest of the country went into lockdown, the coronavirus pandemic will finally hit “Coronation Street.”

Off screen, the world’s longest-running soap opera — and a staple of British weeknight television — has been dealing with the effect of the coronavirus since March. Production was officially halted March 23, the day Britain went into lockdown, and episodes have since been rationed to keep the show on the air: instead of watching six nights a week, viewers have had to make do with three.

Filming resumed this month, but with strict social-distancing measures in place. Any characters played by actors in high-risk groups have disappeared completely, crews have been stripped back to the bare essentials and all scenes have been shot with actors no less than two metres (6.5 feet) apart.

But on screen, the show has remained blissfully unaware of this new reality. Even sequences shot since the resumption of filming have not yet acknowledged the reason for the lack of physical contact: Iain Macleod, the series producer, felt it would have been “incredibly strange” for episodes to be a mix of the old world and the new.

Instead, the pandemic will arrive in Weatherfield — the fictional part of Greater Manchester where the show is set — effectively overnight on July 24, when the first episode entirely written and designed after lockdown is set to air. “It will be a day/night thing,” Macleod said. He joked that it might look like a “continuity error: Now there is a pandemic.”

Macleod and his writers have, he said, “agonized long and hard” over how to introduce the coronavirus into the show, a challenge that in some way struck at the heart of what “Coronation Street” — and Britain’s other long-running soaps, “Emmerdale” and “EastEnders” — are meant to be.

Unlike their American peers, British soap operas are not designed to be fantastical. They are neither set in a specific period nor entirely contained within their own universe. Instead, they occupy a delicate, liminal territory between fiction and reality.

“The way British soaps organize time is important,” said Christine Geraghty, a professor of film and television studies at the University of Glasgow. “They take place on a day-to-day basis. Characters wake up in the morning and go to bed at night. British soaps keep going: You don’t always start a new episode at the exact place the last one finished.” Cliffhanger endings, she said, tend to be deployed only for major plot lines.

“Mostly, the postman comes in the morning, and the day ends with a drink in the pub,” she said. “The rhythms in a soap make it a recognizable world. You might know, as a viewer, that things like that don’t quite happen in real life, but you can place it all within the scope of your own experience.”

The stories can, of course, be outlandish — planes crash on the Yorkshire village where “Emmerdale” is set with alarming frequency — but the landscape, too, is constructed to feel familiar.

“It is our world, but it is not our world,” said Carole O’Reilly, a senior lecturer in media and television studies at the University of Salford. “It looks and feels recognizable: a heightened version of the world we see.”

She picks out the backdrop of “Coronation Street” — based on Salford itself — as authentically northern: the architecture of back-to-back terraced housing and cobbled streets, the social life revolving around the pub. But so, too, is the tone of the characters’ interactions. “Direct and to the point,” according to Geraghty, or gregarious and outgoing, to O’Reilly: all of it distinctly (if not uniquely) Mancunian.

But while British soaps set out to reflect the world, they are selective about which elements of the real world are allowed to seep in. “‘Coronation Street’ has taken on a lot of social issues,” Geraghty said. “It has dealt with racism, domestic abuse, violence, trans rights. But it doesn’t do current events; soaps are filmed too far in advance to deal with real events in real time, and besides, they’re too political.”

Most news events are ignored completely — though there is a bench on the “Coronation Street” set dedicated to the victims of the 2017 Manchester bombing, incorporated onto the set in 2018 — but the pandemic is far more complex.

“It is a health event, a political event, an economic event,” Geraghty said. “It is changing lives.” To her mind, British soaps, which set themselves the task of showing “everyday life and how it is lived, cannot ignore it as they normally would.”

Macleod and his team knew that, but were conscious of the other side of a soap’s appeal: the need to provide some form of escapism. “We want to let viewers see the world we live in,” he said. “But we have talked about the pandemic and basically nothing else for months, and I don’t think they need to see more people banging on about the pandemic.”

Their approach, then, will be to acknowledge the change in the world, but with what he described as a “light touch.” “It will mainly be the visual element,” he said. “There will be a lot of evidence of social distancing: people won’t touch, they’ll conspicuously stand apart, older relatives will be sequestered and shielding.”

There will, he admitted, be some discrepancies. Not only will the pandemic suddenly appear — four months late — but, by the time episodes air, the world may have shifted once more. “Coronation Street,” might, once again, be experiencing a different reality than its viewers.

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ITV — the network that has aired the show since it appeared in 1960 — is confident that audiences will not object to the inconsistencies. “They are quite forgiving,” said John Whiston, the broadcaster’s managing director of continuing drama.

Over the last few months, the show has conducted research that has shown that viewers have, in a way, started to appreciate that what they are seeing on screen does not quite mirror what is happening in the world.

“We have had a lot of people say to us that it has been an antidote to what is happening, and that’s been appreciated,” Whiston said. He is not worried that people might object to the “Coronation Street” pandemic not quite matching the experience of the rest of the country. “Besides,” Whiston said, “if we were true to lockdown, it would all be quite dull: just people going to the shop once a day.”

TORONTO STAR