Hi Helen, it's lovely to see you again. Tell me, for those who don't know, what exactly is the job of the Coronation Street archivist?
Well, the title doesn't really do the job justice because it has so many aspects to it. On a day to day basis, all year round, I read all the scripts for every episode, and from those, I write a synopsis - a reduced version of each episode. Then from those, I update everybody's character biography for that week. Then those synopses and biog's are used for all sorts of things. They are sent to the Press Office, they are very useful to the Directors because they have to read the block before their's, then they read their block, and the block after that, so they can see where their story fits. Sometimes they will come back to me and ask for a few extra blocks if they have been away for a few months, in order to get a better handle on what they are dealing with in their segment.
Those must be very useful for the production process. I always wondered how they keep track when so many different people work on it in blocks, I am always amazed how it airs in the right order at the end. So you keep a file on each character do you?
I do, and it gets updated every time they are in the script. This is useful when someone like you asks me for a clip of say Hilda Ogden's trolley dash when she won the supermarket prize. I just have to go into Hilda's file and can find when that took place.
Ooh, what I would give to have access to your files! I would find it so useful when I have to find a certain Extra attending a certain wedding etc.
Another thing I do is watch every episode in advance before it airs, and time code each clip that I think might be useful. Not just the funny clips, but I will make note and time a clip of someone or something that I think might be useful in a montage. For instance, when Alison King left recently, we made a montage for her leaving 'do'. We obviously included all her big 'Carla moments', but the glue that ties it together are the little shots, maybe of her just walking down the street, and turning to look over her shoulder, with experience, you get to know instinctively the shots that will be useful later on. The list I compile from this exercise is incredibly useful, I call it my 'Best Moments List'.
Do you use that list for purposes other than for making a montage?
Yes, as you probably know, on a weekly basis, a lot of our cast appear on other television shows, like 'This Morning', 'Loose Women' or 'Good Morning Britain' etc. and those shows will come to me for clips. If they are going to interview Tina O'Brien, they will probably ask for a clip of her first appearance, one of her with Jason, another of her with Todd, and something from the current storyline. It would be so difficult to find these if I didn't have my 'Best Moments List', and her biography.
Did you have all the previous character biographies to fall back on when you started this job? How long ago was that incidentally?
I find it hard to believe myself sometimes, but it was sixteen years ago when I took over this job. We did have character biographies, but they were not as detailed. We also didn't have a 'Best Moments List'. I wish now I had started the list sooner than I did, but when I took over, I just continued in the same vein for a while. Now I have lists of everything, all the Blackpool trips are on a list, I have a list of all Ken's girlfriends, a list of every time we have filmed abroad, lists of absolutely everything. I think they are essential in a job like mine. They were especially useful in the run up to the fiftieth anniversary.
Yes, I guess you were getting the media asking you all sorts about things that had happened over the previous fifty years didn't you?
Not only that, but a lot of Coronation Street merchandise was produced for the fiftieth anniversary, and I oversee that too.
We never get our hands on any merchandise in Canada, unless we find it on e-bay or somewhere. There doesn't seem to be a distributor of it over there. You used to be able to find a few Coronation Street books or a calendar in Costco, but haven't seen much there lately either. (Since this interview, I have done a search, check the gallery below to see what I found - Christine)
I should look into that then, because merchandise is still being produced. I have just signed off on the pictures to be used for a new jigsaw puzzle, that I think was going to be available in June. They also produced a set of Streetcars merchandise, key rings, air fresheners etc. all branded with Streetcars.
I would imagine they would be very popular in Canada too. What about the Quiz Games they produce, do they have to go through you too?
Yes they do, in fact one was produced prior to the fiftieth too, and they wanted 3,500 questions written. Now these companies often offer to write the questions themselves, but it takes far longer to check them all for accuracy than it does to write them ourselves, so we now insist on the latter. They have to be perfect, because there are super fans out there who will notice immediately if you get something wrong, and quite rightly so. So we insist on writing them these days, as it's much quicker. It's the same with the official calendars, we pick the photos and write the dialogue alongside ourselves.
So do you provide the material for the media, like the Radio Times?
No, that is done by the Press Office, who do use the synopsis that I send over, but reduce it down even more, picking out the main storylines and writing it up in such a way to grab attention. However, some box sets of episodes were produced for the Canadian market a few years ago, and I wrote a synopsis of the episodes on the back of each one. That's the sort of thing I do.
How about the award ceremonies? Do you decide on the clips they use for those?
I do, in fact we have just had the British Soap Awards, which is the biggest one of the year and consequently is a tremendous amount of work. It kicks off in January when the paperwork arrives, and we have a round table meeting with the Executive Producer, the Producer, the Assistant Producer, the Press Office and myself. We then discuss who we should put forward for the different categories.
Once we have it thrashed out, and I have a list of the nominations for each category, I then go away and research all the clips and get them compiled into lists, which are then handed over to the post production guys, who compile them into bins for me, one bin per category. Then I get to the tricky part. Some of those clips compiled together can run for about three hours, and it is my job to cut it to about four minutes without losing gist of the story.
That must be a very difficult thing to do, how do you ever decide what to leave out?
I admit, even though I have been doing this for many years, I still get rather overwhelmed on that first day. But you have to be tough, and keep reminding yourself that even though a clip might be your favourite, that it was sweet, or funny, if it is not absolutely essential to get the story across, it has to go.
I had a very hard time whittling down Patti Clare's clips as Mary Taylor, as she was up for 'Best Comedy Performance'. I love Mary, and find everything she says hilarious, and this time I had to get it down to three minutes, it was almost impossible, I felt I was leaving out some of her best performances. But I had to keep in mind that it was material that would appeal to the judges, not what makes me laugh.
Well, you must have done a very good job, because she won, didn't she?
Yes, she did, we were very pleased about that.
I have to admit, I didn't know about all these aspects to your job, I thought the Archivist was mainly in charge of historical continuity, do you have that job as well?
Oh absolutely, in fact you could say that is the main part of my job. This is the reason for the files and lists etc., and I am constantly making notes of things as I read the scripts. Then often the writers will e-mail me and ask things like "Has it ever been established that so-and-so has an aunt in Bournmouth?" I can then look in that character's file, and find a mention of that aunt. I also have a section in each file for little oddities, like Amy's milk allergy, and the fact that Ken is vegetarian. I don't know why Ken is still vegetarian anyway, because he only went that way to please Nessa, who turned out to be a fraud, and was caught stuffing her face with turkey, so why is he still a vegetarian?
Ha ha - I don't know, maybe he thinks it makes him look more upper class, along with the kimono. Oh, but he got rid of that didn't he? So maybe it's time to eat meat again too!
So if we are talking about historical continuity, how do you handle it when the fans are in an uproar about something or other being changed historically?
Yes, it does get tricky from time to time, but the thing is, it is a work of fiction, and sometimes the Producer will tweak history a little in order to have a good storyline. For instance, we may change someone's birthday so they can have it on a day we go to air. We know the diehard fans get upset if we change events of the past, and quite rightly so, and we do try very hard to stick to Coronation Street's rich history, but sometimes if we have a story we want to tell, it can't be helped. I may not always agree with it, but ultimately it is their decision.
Also, I don't think any of us want it to be totally true to real life, because it would be extremely dull. Yes, pregnancies are short, and if we followed real life in the case of a murder trial, people would have forgotten that the crime was ever committed by the time it went to court.
This is true, it does happen in real life, it can take a couple of years for the trial to get going, who wants to wait that long to find out if our Corrie villains will get their just dessert? Sarah would have another breakdown for sure!
Yes, we couldn't do that. It's a drama, not a documentary. We are here to entertain.
You certainly do that very well, I don't think you will get any arguments there. You recently got a new Producer didn't you? How do you think the Street will fare in her hands?
We did, Kate Oates is brilliant. She cares very deeply about the show, and has great respect for the long history. You are now seeing her episodes on screen, and I think you will agree she is producing some really great stuff. Since she has been here, I think she has asked me more archive questions than I have been asked by anybody in a very long time.
That's great, it bodes very well for the future of Coronation Street. She certainly did a great job with Emmerdale when she was Producer there, so I think I speak for everyone when I say we have been looking forward to seeing her episodes.
Now, you are not old enough to have seen every episode, do you do your research by watching old videos?
Yes, would you believe all our episodes are still on VHS tapes? But it is currently being addressed, and eventually, the archives will all be digitised, I look forward to the day when I can watch them all on the computer. I haven't watched all episodes chronologically from day one, I have had to dip in and out. But I would say I have probably seen most of them by now. When we put together those box sets, which contained ninety something episodes, I was asked to select the episodes for those sets. Now I had to include those iconic scenes that everyone wants, like the water bed scene, Hilda crying over Stan's glasses etc. The researchers always insist on those, but with that many, I also got to include some of my favourite episodes that I felt were brilliant, but were often overlooked.
When Daran Little was in your job, he wrote books inventing a history of the Street and its characters before we were introduced to it in 1960. Do you ever use any of that fictional history?
Occasionally, for instance he decided when the Rovers was built, and we used that date to celebrate the centenary of the pub under Jane McNaught's watch. So yes, we do use it from time to time.
You were saying they were working on getting all the episodes converted to digital, can you forsee the day when every episode might be available to the public online - even if a subscription was charged? Speaking purely personally here, as someone who is constantly looking for certain stills from episodes, or trying to find something for research purposes, a service like that would be fantastic, especially if it had a search function, whereby you could type in say 'Rita's wedding to Dennis', and have the episode come up. Is that a pipe dream on my part?
Oh I see what you mean. Well, I don't know what plans ITV have for the future, but I wouldn't think it would be beyond the realm of possibility, and might make good business sense. It would certainly be invaluable to us, but whether they would make it available to the public is another matter, but I will certainly mention it.
Wonderful! Now back to your job. How closely do you work with the Storyliners?
Very closely. In fact their office is just off my office, so they often pop their head round the door to clarify something they are working on. For instance, they could say they plan to have David go off the rails, and want to know if it's true he has behaved badly in the past. So I will remind them of his many misdeeds.
I have read that when a new main character is introduced, it is usually with a bit of a back story, that I assume goes into your file on them. However, quite often, the personality of that character is changed very drastically over the years, does that back story get changed too? Especially if it hasn't been mentioned on screen?
Yes, it can be decided to go into a completely different direction with a character, they may have come in with a family back in Australia or something, but we can change that and go down a different road altogether if it hasn't been mentioned.
What about Mary? Will we ever know if her mother is alive or not? What about her history with knives that she hinted at? Will we ever know more about her past?
Well, the thing about Mary is that she is a fantasist. She went to her mother's funeral at one point, but then at another time, she talked about her as if she was alive. So possibly she is just trying to get attention.
So will we ever see her mother? Or will she be like Fat Brenda, and never be shown?
Never say never, she has a huge storyline coming up soon which may or may not delve a little into her past - and that is all I am saying on that!
Ha ha - enough said! However, I kind of hope we never do see her mother, along with Fat Brenda, she should stay in our imaginations.
Do you find your job more difficult these days with the prevalence of social media? Do you pay attention to what is being said on Twitter, Facebook etc.?
I don't personally follow it, other than in a second hand way. The Press Office have an online team that are constantly watching it and taking notes on what is liked and disliked, what the buzz words are, and what is making people tick, who is popular and who is not etc. Then once a week they send what is called a 'Social Roundup' to us, and I do make a point of reading that.
I think people will be gratified to know that their likes and dislikes are being noted.
What do you like to do when you are not working?
I love gardening. I just have a small garden, but I love to potter around out there. I have turned it into a pretty little English cottage garden, I love it.
We'd love to see some photos if you have some please?
Thank you so much for doing this Helen, I have always been very envious of your job, but didn't realise just how much work is involved. There is never a dull moment is there?
That's why I love it, it has so much variety to it, it's never boring.
I am sure it isn't, thanks again, you have been terrific!
If you missed any of our previous interviews, they are all listed in our ARCHIVES:
After talking with Helen about jigsaw puzzles, I decided to check to see what is available in Canada. I found only two at Amazon.ca, the Rovers puzzle was $27.58 with free shipping to Canada, vs the same puzzle at Amazon.uk which was £34.98 + £4.48 shipping to the UK. That converts to $67.46, so the Canadian puzzle is a better buy.
The Doubles puzzle on the right was $20.05 + $10.81 Cdn shipping = $30.86 at Amazon.ca. Same puzzle at Amazon.uk was £36.41 + £3.99 UK shipping = £40.40 which converts to $69.07.
So we may not get the variety in Canada, but what we do get appears to be cheaper.
UK buyers have to beware though - among the many puzzles being offered at Amazon.uk, I came across two listings for the double puzzle below, one was offered for £15.00 + £2.99 shipping, and the other one - exactly the same, had a price of £538.21 + £5.64 UK shipping - yes, that converts to $929.72 Canadian - and they say you had better hurry as they only have three left in stock! They won't ship them to Canada for that price either! LOL!!
The photos below were taken a few years ago when Helen and her husband David (right) escorted my sister Pat and myself around the old studios to gather material for a magazine article. The other two fellows are Peter Riley, now sadly deceased, and Mark Llewellin.
Helen inspecting the filthy Battersby kitchen
Pat and Helen waiting for Gail Platt
The factory set
I think Maria was living at No. 7 back then, but I don't somehow think that was her fancy car parked outside.
Helen & David's beautiful cottage garden - note the very cute cat.