Hi Mark, thank you very much for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to us. You are known to many fans as the tour guide for the groups of Canadians who come over on the Corrie holidays but how far back does your connection to the show go?
The first episode I vividly remember watching was the lorry going through the front of the Rovers in 1979. Deirdre had left Tracy outside and everyone thought the lorry had crushed her but she'd been kidnapped moments earlier. We now know that it would have been better if Tracy had gone under the lorry! I trained as an actor and worked with, or met, lots of the Corrie cast (some of whom became friends) and then I moved from London to Manchester to work at the Oldham Coliseum Theatre where lots of the cast began their careers and several of whom worked there during my time - Alan Rothwell (David Barlow), Suranne Jones (Karen), Malcolm Hebden (Norris), Roy Barraclough (Alec) and so on. Whilst there I had a call from the guide working for Kemptville Travel asking if she could bring some Canadian Corrie fans to the theatre for a tour - this is about 17 years ago - so I met them and talked about the history of the theatre. The next year I was asked to take over as guide for the whole 10 day visit and it went from there. These days I just do a couple of days on the various tours (taking them to the studios and around some of the filming locations) with another guide doing the non-Corrie bits. I'm getting older and find doing the 10 days too tiring now!
Or are you just busier? How come you own a garden centre?
I had a PR/Events company for several years and amongst the places I put on events was here at Daisy Nook Garden Centre. Then in 2011 I was in having a coffee and the owner told me that he wanted to step back a bit and have his son take over but he felt it was too big a job for one person. You know, it covers 5 acres and sells everything from clothes to compost! I had been thinking of doing something new and it all came at the right time. I'd just inherited some money from a great aunt who loved gardening so I used that to buy a half share and the son, Andrew, and I now run it as joint Managing Directors.
It's a bit of a change of direction.
Well, yes and no. I started as an actor then did a bit of broadcasting and worked in marketing. My job at the Coliseum was as Director of Marketing and I've dabbled along the way with other things - I've had a couple of books published, I part owned a magazine, I've done the Corrie tours. I love meeting people you see. Here we now do lots of events including live theatre and retailing is about connecting with customers. I'm at my happiest on the shop floor chatting with the customers. It also allows us to get involved in the community - we do loads of events for charity, we have a room which any local group can hire for free, we've just helped with a sensory garden and we also supplied the plants for Jennie McAlpine's dad's charity Mood Swings in Manchester. They built a garden for people with mental health issues. It's good to be able to do things like that.
And you managed to sneak Corrie into it too?
Yes. Everyone who comes on a Corrie tour wants to know where they can buy mementoes. Well, there never was anywhere. So when I came here I thought: I've picked up lots of Corrie bits and bobs so why not put some of it on show? So we used an empty room to put on this unofficial Corrie exhibition. Jennie and Graeme (Fiz and John Stape) declared it open and we've added to it over the past year. Several cast members have been out to see it and Kevin Kennedy (Curly) did one of his book launches here. We also sell Corrie merchandise and we get fans call in from all over the world.
What do the staff think of it?
Most of them are Corrie fans so they like it when one of the cast visits. We also provide plants to several TV shows - from The Mill to Last Tango in Halifax. Even Princess Anne planted a tree from here when she visited Salford Quays (where Corrie is now filmed).
Daisy Nook is a lovely rural location but yet so near the city centre - it's about as far away from Weatherfield as you can get.
Yes, it's next to the main motorway and 20 minutes from the city centre but you wouldn't really know it. It was a little village called Waterhouses and in the 1860s a man called Ben Brierley wrote a book entitled 'A Day Out in Daisy Nook' about a visit to this lovely fictional place. The illustrator copied the houses here and when the book was published so many readers came to visit that the villagers changed the name of the place from Waterhouses to Daisy Nook and opened pubs and cafes. They made a fortune! The famous painter LS Lowry (remember when the Platts and Peacocks swapped houses and they thought they'd found a Lowry in the attic?) painted here. In fact one of his paintings of this area hangs in 10 Downing Street. Opposite us is a house which Kathy Staff (TV's Nora Batty) once lived in and behind that is a country park and we also own the adjoining Tudor manor house.
During your long connection with Corrie you must have met many of the stars. Did you have any favourites?
Well, there are favourite characters - and favourite actors. For me the golden days character-wise were those of Stan and Hilda, Annie Walker, Mavis…. I suppose there were fewer episodes and fewer characters so you cared about them more than you do today. I've met so many of the actors - I adore Sue Nicholls (Audrey) who is a very funny lady, Helen Worth (Gail) is always lovely too. I see most of Julie Goodyear (Bet), Barbara Knox (Rita), Roy Barrclough (Alec) and Jennie McAlpine (Fiz). I'm lucky to have been to the studios many times and watched many hours of filming (which is utterly boring after a while because there's so much standing about and waiting!) but it's often the private occasions which are most memorable. Barbara's 80th birthday party was a lovely evening. I also remember being seated next to Jean Alexander (Hilda) at one of Liz Dawn's birthday do's. A lovely unassuming lady. Hearing Betty's voice singing away at her funeral (they played one of her records). People sometimes ask if I get star struck but they're just people. I was very close to Jill Summers who played Phyllis Pearce. She was very funny - and outrageous. She used to sing with her brother and they toured the theatres. One day he was sick and she had to go and collect the wages and she discovered he was getting more than her so she dumped him and went solo. She was singing Ave Maria dressed as a nun when a prop stained glass window fell on her head and she started swearing. The audience laughed and she embarked on a career as a comedienne. But she could be very blue. I inherited her personal papers and there's a whole load of letters from working men's clubs asking her not to come back again because she'd offended the working men with her filthy jokes! One of her favourite tricks at the studio, particularly if a new cast member had just started, was to come out of the toilets with her dress tucked into the back of her knickers. She'd walk around the Green Room and wait to see if they dared tell her. She was from that touring variety era where they sent everything up - but also didn't know where the next meal might come from. There's an old story about Uncle Albert (Jack Howarth) stealing all the cream cakes from the cast tea trolley before anyone else got to them. He would put them in his jacket pockets. Neville Buswell (Ray Langton) wised up to it and came in and slapped him on his sides and cream shot out from his pockets. Well, Jill would have done the same. She stayed in a hotel during filming and if you went round to her flat her fridge would be full of those little packs of cheese, jam and butter and so on - she'd take it all from the hotel to keep her going when she wasn't filming. She couldn't help herself. When she died I went in to help clear her dressing room and it was full of hotel shower caps and shoe shines and goodness knows what.
You spent a lot of time at the old Quay Street studios. How do you feel about the move to Salford?
It doesn't really affect me of course. I have a brick from the front of Hilda's house from the 1968 set which is a reminder that the show has to move on. Salford has all the latest mod cons - the grass in the gardens is plastic, the pavements are lower and so on - all made to help with production. It's like anything, I had the honour of watching a lot of things at Quay Street and I also did some filming there myself - on the quiz show Krypton Factor and one or two other things - so it has lovely memories there.
Do you still find time to give lots of tours?
I still look after the groups from Kemptville Travel and Coronation Travel when they come over from Canada - at least for a couple of days. I also take quite a few coachloads of British fans on location day tours. I also do the rounds of groups giving a one hour talk on Corrie's history and a few behind-the-scenes tales. I probably do that once a week somewhere. Now and again I get asked to talk about the show on radio or TV. I spent a few days on the 'Corrie Crazy' show that CBC did and I also appeared on one for Irish TV. I was on the BBC on Saturday for example. So yes, I still keep the Corrie flag flying!
Which places do you take the tours to?
Well, there are the classic locations - Portland Basin where Richard Hillman drove into the water, Ryecroft Hall where they do the registry office weddings, the church, the Red Rec and so on. Then there are the places where John Stape fell off the hospital roof or where Martha had her narrow boat or Audrey's house. With the Canadian groups you always get a mix of new people and people who've been before (sometimes many times) so I always try and squeeze in a few newer locations if I can - I'll do Phelan's house on this year's tours maybe.
Have you ever appeared on Corrie?
Yes. Years ago I brushed past Des Barnes outside the bookies and I was pictured on a poster in the Sunliners Travel Agency during the 'Jon the Pilot/Deirdre' story. I was once mistaken for a cast member which was quite odd - particularly as he is about 30 years older than me! I had gone to a hospital fete with Katherine Kelly (Becky). Alan Rothwell, who played Ken's brother David in the 60s was also due but didn't turn up so I was sat in his chair watching Katherine signing autographs when I saw this man approaching wearing big headphones and carrying a microphone. He was saying: "And here we have two instantly recognisable stars of the small screen…" Well, Kate was busy you see so he made for me and was going on about how famous Alan was and what a joy it was to meet him. He was broadcasting live on the radio. He reached me and said: "Here is Alan Rothwell. Alan - you're live on - whatever the station was called - have you anything to say to our listeners?" And he handed me the microphone. I explained that I was not he - but he ploughed on. I'm not sure he ever realised!
You've also worked with many Corrie stars at events?
Yes. Some of the biggest events have been Christmas Light Switch-Ons. I've often hosted those and we get crowds of up to 12,000. I remember Sam Aston (Chesney) coming on when he was quite young and was taken aback by the crowd. I had to interview him for about 20 minutes and he barely spoke - luckily I knew what stories he had coming up so I answered for him too!
What would you suggest Corrie fans do when they come to Manchester?
Obviously a must, while it's open, is a visit to the Quay Street studios to see the old set - and a visit to us at Daisy Nook to see our little exhibition. We're quite close to Portland Basin and Ryecroft Hall, two of the main filming locations. Salford Quays is also interesting and that's where the set is today (go up the viewing tower at the Imperial War Museum) and you might just get a small glimpse of the Corrie studios from the top but I have yet to go to the Quays without spotting a cast member or two on a break! Eat at Annie's, Jennie's restaurant of course too!
Speaking as someone who has visited all those places I can second that! Also, when you have had your fill of Corrie (does that ever happen?), the Trafford Centre is a fabulous place to shop! Also, if they ever get it going again, a ride in one of the pods on the Manchester Wheel gives you a fabulous birds eye view of the city.
Thank you for this Mark, as always it has been a great pleasure listening to all your stories, both the ones we can - and can't publish! :-)