COVID-19 has been a difficult reality for months now, yet it’s rarely reflected on television, aside from news programs. But now the virus has finally hit Coronation Street, the world’s longest-running soap opera.
“It’s an unprecedented time that we’re living in, and I think it’s absolutely right that Coronation Street reflects it,” said Patti Clare, who describes the character she plays, Mary Taylor, as a bossy-boots.
“She has drawn up daily routines for them all to do. She’s got them learning Italian online — she’s got them singing out the window, ” Clare said.
Production on the British soap in Manchester was shut down on March 23 for nearly three months because of the virus. The show had a stockpile of unaired episodes and scaled back from airing six a week to three to ensure fans could keep getting a dose of “Corrie” during lockdown.
“Coronation Street is as part of the furniture as the Queen, or the weather report,” said Clare.
The show played an especially important role during the pandemic, she said.
“When people have had the most terrible day, they put on Corrie, and they feel immediately comforted because they know exactly the lay of the land.”
Virus appears out of nowhere
On the first episode with COVID-19, which aired in the U.K. on Friday, the virus seemed to appear out of nowhere. Shop counters have hand sanitizer, posters promoting social distancing are plastered in Roy’s Rolls café, and the virus enters plotlines.
It’s as if the characters had been dealing with it for months but previous episodes never even mentioned it.
The first COVID-19 episode will air in Canada on Aug. 17.
Some actors not yet allowed on set
Intimate and passionate scenes are a big part of soaps around the world, and they’re coming up with creative solutions to keep the romance. In the U.S., The Bold and the Beautiful are using actor’s real-life partners as body doubles to get around social distancing rules.
Corrie isn’t going that route. Its writers are bringing passion to the show with words rather than kisses.
Production resumed on the show in early June with physical distancing rules on set. Cast and crew are required to stay two metres apart, and there’s a person on staff with a stick to make sure they do. The number of people on set is limited to only essential cast and crew.
“Safety first,” said show producer Iain MacLeod.
There are health checks for anyone entering the set and actors who are considered vulnerable — such as 88-year-old William Roache, who plays Ken Barlow — are not back to work yet.
Ryan Russell, who plays Michael Bailey, the eldest son of the first Black family to move onto the street, said he is constantly second-guessing himself.
Russell said acting is normally very physical but in this new world of physical distancing, he has to ignore his instincts at times.
“Should I move or should I not move? You do feel quite stationary at the moment, because you can’t really roam around on set, like you do as an actor,” he said.
“The staple of a good soap episode is a punch-up or a fight,” MacLeod said. But right now, that’s tricky to do because the cast can’t touch each other.
To get around it, the crew are using creative editing, dummies or write the script so the fight scenes happen off screen.
“You might end one scene with an aggressor turning up and holding a pipe,” MacLeod explained. “Then the camera drifts into the alleyway and we find the victim badly beaten.”
‘Humour will help resolve this conundrum’
The Bailey family will be directly impacted by the disease in the new episodes. Michael’s mother works as a nurse. The show will explore the challenges and concerns the family has for her safety during the pandemic.
Other popular soaps in the U.K. and around the world, such as Emmerdale, have chosen not address the pandemic in its storylines.
“That will be very difficult, to be honest, to completely ignore the virus,” said Carole O’Reilly, a senior lecturer in media and cultural studies at the University of Salford in Manchester.
O’Reilly said Coronation Street needs to strike the right balance when it comes to dealing with the virus. It has to take COVID-19 seriously but stick to its comedic sensibility.
“Humour will help resolve this conundrum about how much of the virus and how sick of the virus we all are,” she said.
A lifelong Coronation Street fan, she rarely misses an episode. She said soaps are personal and emotional for viewers, but they are also important for neworks’ bottom lines — which is why the show needs to get it right.
“They are big business,” O’Reilly said. “They’re really key money-makers. For advertisers they are very important.”
Clare said her character will help people reflect on the humour that can be found in light moments of this pandemic.
“I hope they find some of it funny and I hope they laugh at Mary’s homemade mask, which is pink with white ribbons — don’t ask why.”
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