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COVID-19 comes to Coronation Street: How the world’s longest-running soap is dealing with a global pandemic

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.

Patti Clare, who plays Mary Taylor on Coronation Street, says her ‘bossy boots’ character is adjusting well to life in lockdown and has her neighbours singing out their windows. (Submitted by ITV)

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.

Coronation Street character Adam Barlow, played by Sam Robertson, is shown during a visit to Roy’s Rolls, where the bulletin board features public health signs and coronavirus warnings. (Submitted by ITV)

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. 

A behind-the-scenes look of one of the Coronation Street sets, which was used for filming during lockdown. Yellow tape keeps the crew and cast from getting too close. (ITV)

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.

Ryan Russell, who plays Michael Bailey on Coronation Street, said he is constantly second-guessing himself filming new physically distanced episodes of this show. His character’s mother works is a nurse who will play a central role in upcoming episodes as she works on the front line of the COVID-19 fight. (Submitted by ITV)

“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 behind-the-scenes look at filming of Coronation Street during the pandemic. Producer Iain MacLeod said physical distancing and limiting cast and crew is key. (Submitted by ITV)

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.”

How to watch

Watch Coronation Street on CBC Television or stream it live on CBC Gem. Download the CBC Gem app from iTunes or Google Play, or watch it in your web browser

Sign up for a free membership on CBC Gem to watch the stream live in your region.

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