Coronation Street, for those of you who may not live in the UK and be that familiar with, it is a much loved British soap opera that first transmitted in December 1960 and on the 17th of April this year transmitted episode number 10,053. A staggering achievement by anyone’s standards. In its heyday it would regularly have viewing figures over 20 million. It was invented by Tony Warren a young writer from the North, who it has to be said was shamefully treated by Granada. He should’ve been a rich man but his agent persuaded him that a ‘crested by’ credit was much more valuable than any residual payment. In fairness I suppose he never thought it would last as long as it has. But it beggars belief to think how rich Warren would have been as the programme is sold all over the world, still. Granada did make some amends with Tony towards the end of his life but I’m afraid it still doesn’t reflect well on them. To call it a soap opera I think is a great misnomer, it is so much more than that.

I came to direct it in 1987 and began with the leaving a great character Hilda Ogden, played by the actress Jean Alexander. The actual leaving episode was directed by another director, Ric Mellis, but I handled the lead up. It felt like a really important time, to be safeguarding the departure of a nationally loved character. But Jean made me feel like it was just any other bunch of scenes and didn’t really want too much fuss made. I worked on the Street for just over a year and I still maintain that it is one of the best training grounds for any drama director starting out. The list of names that came through its ranks bear testament to that – Mike Newell, Michael Apted, Roland Joffe, Charles Sturridge, Julian Farino, Julian Jarrold. There used to be something in this country decades ago, which was hugely popular before the advent of television, called weekly rep. In theatre a cast would be employed for a season and they would do a different play every week during that season. It’s quite extraordinary to think of them learning and rehearsing a new play every week, performing it and the discarding it the next. Corrie is a bit like that. The finest weekly rep company in the world. It has spawned many great actors over the years and attracted some into its embrace – notably Sir Ian Mckellen in 2005 after he’d found international movie fame in Lord of the Rings and the X men – and many still remain, having made it a life’s work.

It was quite intimidating the first week on the Street. But all the actors want is guidance and security. They want to be treated with respect as any actor does. Some of them don’t suffer fools gladly and why should they. But the best of them are always open to help and ideas, something fresh. Some became friends and I saw their work outside the Street, Thelma Barlow at Bristol Old Vic and Roy Barraclough giving his Death of a Salesman at Nottingham Rep stick out. Spencer and I were lucky to be taught as trainees for a while by Michael Apted as he was working on one of the 7 Up series. He told us not to use the Street to prove to everyone that we were great directors, but to respect it and direct it the way it demanded. It was salient advice and I still baulk at shots or set up that directors occasionally use that have no place on the Street. It’s not a calling card for a chance to direct Killing Eve. It’s a chance to work with great actors and writers and learn and hone your craft. I often feel that one of the things that sounds a little unglamorous, but was essential was learning how to apportion your time. To give time to the scenes that were really important to the episode you were working on; to understand when some scenes should have more shooting time apportioned to them than the page count might dictate. It’s a lesson that doesn’t lose its validity even when directing a feature.

I have many fond memories of that year. One was a mystery that somehow was kept out of the press. In those days we had the luxury of making two episodes a week – I can hear today’s directors gasping in disbelief. We would film exteriors on a Monday morning – on 16mm film which however graded never sat well when intercut with the studio video – block the scenes Monday afternoon. Rehearse Tuesday and Wednesday morning, then do a producer’s run for Bill Podmore, the writers, the following week’s director and the executive who was one David Liddiment who had trained me a few years before. If there was any additional exterior filming to do, which was rare, it was done on Thursday morning. We were then in studio on Thursday afternoon and all of Friday. You had to finish band on time, there was no overtime. We would then edit the following Monday and Tuesday. One particular Monday we sat in the video edit and pulled up the tapes. They were these huge reels of tape that was maybe two and a half inches wide – I’m sure someone will correct me. I seem to remember they were kept in great big cartridges the size of a small brief case. When we tried to cue the first tape up, there was a problem. It was blank. Further investigation revealed that the entire tape was blank. We checked that it was the right one, it was. We tried the second tape. Same result. It was blank. There was no footage from the whole of the Friday studio shoot. I remember the hairs standing up on the back of my neck and the first warm rush of panic, just before the stars appear… a call to Podmore. This was a first. Within fifteen minutes Podmore, Liddiment, Steve Morrison and David Plowright were in the edit suite. Aside from the logistics of how we reshot the footage we came, with advice from the technical engineers, to the stark realisation that there was only one explanation. Sabotage. Someone had wiped the tapes. We approached the cast, everyone was sworn to secrecy and Bill Podmore told them that the Thursday studio day would art in the morning and go into the evening. Once that week’s Thursday schedule had shot, I would step in and reshoot the wiped material. Many of the cast were in a state of shock and worried that they wouldn’t be able to do it. Liz Dawn came up and explained to me that every week she wiped last week’s script out of her head. It was the only way she could learn the next week’s script. In fact if I asked her what happened in her scenes last week she couldn’t even tell me. Many of them were worried, that still learning the new week’s lines they wouldn’t be able to recall the lines from the previous week. I reassured them as best as I could but came into the studio on the Thursday not knowing what to expect. The main thing I wanted to achieve with the crew – my crew from the previous week had come back in – and cast was a calm, unpanicked atmosphere, as if this was the most normal thing in the world. I had made a decision the night before. I wasn’t going to run or rehearse any of the scenes. We would go straight for a take. We started the first scene. The lines flowed smoothly from the recesses of their brains and we got it in one take. There was spontaneous applause and cheers all round the floor. The cast in that scene were thrilled. The rest of the cast reassured. Most of the scenes were completed in the one take and there was a bit of a “singing in the lifeboats” atmosphere all round. We finished early and David Plowright appeared on the floor with several bottles of champagne. It was a remarkable thing I thought, and still think. The crew and cast felt they’d been part of something special – to have rescued a bad situation and had a really good time doing it. I think it actually gave some of the cast a bit of a lift. But we never got to the bottom of what it was. Was it a mistake or sabotage. I’m convinced it was the latter because the technical crew of Granada were far too professional, they excelled at their jobs week in week out, to have made such a fundamental, huge mistake. Someone out there knows the truth.

Not everyone in the Street was proficient with their lines however. Bill Tarmey was a lovely man, part of a classic double act with Liz Dawn as the Duckworths. They were great comic relief at times and he effect of that was that when they had emotional storylines they carried so much more weight, because of the contrast. We were shooting a scene in the Duckworths’ kitchen. Their “son” an actor called Nigel Pivarro had made a return to the series after a long break. I was directing from the floor, something, like many other directors, I had come to prefer to being in the control room. I liked see the actors performance in front of me rather than in a monitor. We did the rehearsal and everything was fine. Then we went for the take. In the middle of it Bill dried. We cut. I asked him if he was okay to which he replied ‘He took the sugar bowl!’ pointing at Pivarro ‘He didn’t take the sugar bowl in rehearsal!’ I was slightly surprised that this had put him off and said so, to which Bill replied – ‘Of course it put me off. It had me fucking lines in it!’. Pivarro had done it deliberately, of course, but it was very funny. Bill apparently left scraps of paper strategically placed all over the set with his lines.

I love actors, love working with them but some are, it has be said, difficult. But after a while I came to the conclusion that it almost invariably came down to a couple of things. Firstly fear, an insecurity that maybe lurks in all of us that they aren’t good enough. Secondly, a lack of trust in those around them; particularly those directing them. There are a lot of frauds in the tv and film industry. Chancers and bullshitters whose skills in those areas have got them into situations they should never have been in. Some have outrageous luck. But I have worked with one or two directors who should never have been let near a tv studio, film location and certainly never near an actor. For some directors it’s all about the shot, for others they simply don’t have a clue how to work with actors and their solution is just to go for take after take hoping the actor will get it right somehow, some time. It’s almost like the “I can’t tell you what I want, I’ll know it when I see it.” So with good actors you don’t have their respect and trust just because it says director on the shooting script. You have to earn it. This was very much the case with Sylvia Syms.

I was asked by Ray Fitzwalter, the head of World in Action, to direct a drama documentary about Margaret Thatcher’s last three weeks in power. He explained to me that everything in the script would be based on meticulous research so we had to be loyal to the final script, not veer from it and run any changes by him first. Sylvia came in for a casting in Granada’s HQ in Upper St James’ street, just off Golden Square in Soho. I had only really known Sylvia as a British movie icon of the fifties; as the stunningly beautiful Sister Diana Murdoch in the classic “Ice Cold In Alex” opposite John Mills. Here she was opposite me in London interviewing for the role of Thatcher. I thought she was quite on edge, nervous even, which really surprised me. But then she did something which completely took me aback. About five minutes after the interview had ended and I was talking about her with the casting director, Simone Reynolds, Sylvia burst back into the room. “I can do this,” she exclaimed, “I can really do this. I want you to know that. I want to do this,” and as quickly s she had appeared, so she disappeared. We were going to cast her but I now had no illusion as to whether she wanted to do it or not. Which made her behaviour for the first couple of days of the shoot really difficult to understand.

We were rehearsing in the West End Great synagogue in Dean Street, now the site of the Soho Theatre. We had a great cast playing Thatcher’s cabinet. John Wood who was also giving his Lear at the RSC, Paul Rogers who had given his Lear at the Old Vic in 1958 (the year Sylvia appeared in “Ice Cold in Alex”) and one of my favourites Harold Innocent. (A few years later I was due to have lunch with Harold one day. I’d spoken to him the week before and arranged it. That morning I was reading the paper and to my astonishment, staring out at me from the Obituaries page, was Harold. He’d died two days previously. So strange.) One of the first things that I came to realise at the readthrough, about Thatcher really, was how Sylvia was the only female member of cast. Literally. She was aware of it to as she came up to me and said, “Well, now at least I know how she must’ve felt surrounded by men some of whom clearly resent the fact that I have the lead role. Story of her life.”

We went up to Manchester and began to shoot. It being World in Action we didn’t have a drama budget and so we were limited in time and sets. But I had a great crew, a DOP called David Odd who I’d worked with before and was a friend and the designer Christopher Bradshaw. We had no money to build the interior of 10 Downing Street properly, one of the most famous bits of which is the long corridor going from the front door back into the building. I wanted to give the illusion of us being in number ten and the scale of it. Chris designed a series of receding archetraves going back into the distance and then David lit it to give the impression of natural and other lights seeping in. It was wonderful. With some set dressing an floor painting this six or so door frames, the first of them flanked by two flats as walls, completely gave the impression of the long hall. Anyway my point is we were really on a tight schedule and had to move quickly. But on day one Sylvia was late out of make-up, wouldn’t come onto set when she was ready, was difficult and frankly rude. I talked about it with Michael Cox the producer that night who was concerned that we’d never get through the shoot if she carried on like this. The next day was much of the same except for one thing. I looked at her on set at one moment when she thought no-one was looking and I saw it. Fear. Sylvia was terrified. That’s all it was and it manifested itself in being difficult and unpleasant. She was completely wrapped up in her lack of self-belief. So my solution to this was to be exceedingly nice and charming and comforting. Which made things ten times worse. It was only on day three, a night shoot at Tatton Hall that I thought I knew what the answer was. I came to work that day wearing a baseball cap – not something I did often, the last time being on Hold Tight some six years before. I don’t know why I wore it. It had been given to me by the Captain of the Ark Royal when we shot on it for a quiz show called Busman’s Holiday. But I went into make-up and hair to greet Sylvia and continue my charm offensive but she turned to me and laughed saying to everyone in the van “Oh look he’s come dressed as a director today. Well it’ll take more than a hat dear.” And that was it, I knew what the problem was. She had no respect for me. She didn’t trust me. Didn’t trust me with her performance, so to an extent she was lost. She needed someone, namely me the director, to take charge. I wasn’t sure what to do but then her behaviour in the first scene that night made up my mind for me. We were shooting Thatcher in the British Embassy in Paris at the moment she realises she’s lost the parliamentary party and that her time as Prime Minister was over. She was going to lose the leadership election which was unthinkable only three weeks before – the time frame of our film. We knew from witnesses that just before she left the embassy and was famously door stepped by the BBC reporter John Sargent – something we were about to recreate – she as sitting at a dressing table doing her hair. A tiny domestic moment prior to the first time she was going to be seen in public with everyone knowing it was over. We set the room up in Tatton and lit it. Sylvia arrived and promptly refused to sit at the table. “There’s no way she would be doing her hair at a time like this,” she said. Well, I told her, we know for a fact that she was. “Well I’m not doing it,” she said. I looked at her for a moment then said, “Fine do it wherever you want. Choose a part of the room we haven’t dressed or lit. Do it standing on your head for all I care.” And I walked past a shocked David Odd saying “That’s wither fixed it or now we’re completely screwed.” I went downstairs and got some coffee. The first assistant director came down and said “Sylvia’s ready.” “Tell her I’m having my coffee I replied.”

I wandered up five minutes later. We shot the scene. We checked the gate. I said “print” and left the room. As I walked our Sylvia said “No notes?” to which I replied “What do you care. You obviously know what you’re doing.” The next scene was downstairs as Thatcher walked through the reception hall and out of the embassy. We had several extras assembled in the foyer which we rehearsed. I had avoided Sylvia, telling her what I wanted her to do, through the first assistant. When we were set up I shouted – “Is everyone ready?”, to which Sylvia, at the other end of the room shouted back “ready when you are Mr. De Mille!” We had a wonderful shoot after this. She just wanted to be able to trust me, to know I had a view, that I was strong enough to look after her performance. I’m not saying my dealing with it would work with everyone. It all depends on the circumstances.

I learnt a lot from Sylvia as most directors learn from great actors. The last shot we filmed – I had scheduled it as last deliberately – was in the cabinet room as Sylvia leaves cabinet for the last time. We were shooting her in close up. A tear appeared in her eyes and then she got up and left. I asked for another take as I felt she needed to give us a little more. She asked me what size the shot was. I told her. She said that one was good. Could I have another, I asked? Of course she said. She did two more takes and I said the final one was perfect. “No it wasn’t,” she replied, “the first one is the best and that’s the one you’ll use.” She kissed me goodbye on the cheek and left. As she was walking away I said – “It was definitely the third you know.” “You wait,” she said, over her shoulder, you’ll use the first.” “I won’t,” I replied. “Call me and let me know.” she said and was gone.

I did of course end up using the first take. She was right. That’s the thing about working with great actors as a director, you really have to pay attention. Sometimes the greatness of their talent, the nuance of their performance, is tiny. I called to tell her several weeks later, “It’s Tim,” I said and before I had a chance to say why I was calling she said, “You used the first one didn’t you?”

One final story about Sylvia who after a rocky start became a friend. She phoned and asked me and my wife Rachel for dinner. Rachel was eight and three quarter months pregnant with our first child. So I explained and said no, there was every chance she could have the baby after the starter. “Nonsense she said. We’ve all had babies here. We’ll look after her.” Rachel had never met Sylvia, but we duly arrived at her terraced house in Hammersmith later that week. I rang the doorbell and stood there with a bunch of flowers, Rachel behind me, waiting for the effusive greeting from my new actress best friend, when she opened the door, pushed me and my flowers to one side and reached her hand out for Rachel. “Bugger you,” she said to me, “There she is, darling you look absolutely wonderful come with me.” She took Rachel by the arm into her front room where a high backed armchair had been placed in the middle of the room, stuffed to the gills with cushions. Syliva took Rachel’s coat and thrust it at me as she helped Rachel down into the chair. Rachel thanked her then a mellifluous, familiar voice opposite her said, “Hello my darling you look positively beautiful. My name is Herbert.” It was Herbert Lom, one of Rachel’s childhood idols. Sylvia couldn’t have stage managed it better.

The Cross Chronicles

Sign up & get a free short
story every six months

Subscribe to Tim’s newsletter and receive a FREE short story every six months! Get special offers as well as updates on upcoming books.
Start reading now!

A body in a countryside hedgerow. A tragic accident or a terrible murder?