Fifty years of Coronation Street in two hours

The British soap Coronation Street will soon celebrate half a century of melodrama, a historical feat in televised histrionics. After all that, a live, turbo-charged stage version has condensed it all into a couple of hours.

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As Coronation Street prepares to mark its golden anniversary, the ravens have begun to circle over Weatherfield, the cobbled suburb of Manchester which for 50 years has been home to Ena Sharples, Ken Barlow, Bet Lynch, Hilda Ogden and Vera Duckworth - some of soap operadom's best-known names. And why are those grey northern English skies doom-laden? It's got nothing to do with ratings or the famous Manchester weather. Coronation Street is still enticing more than 8 million people into its world of kitchen-sink drama and high farce.

It's because anniversaries in soaps are less an excuse to light candles on the cake and more an invitation to call the emergency services. The Yorkshire-based soap Emmerdale marked 21 years of rural charm by essentially destroying the entire village in an aviation disaster. And in early December there will be a tram crash in Coronation Street, which the producers have already said "will kill significant people".

The rumour mill has gone into overdrive. Old favourites such as former shopkeeper Rita Littlewood (Barbara Knox, who has been in the show since 1964) are apparently for the chop. The perennial loser Jack Duckworth will definitely be killed off. But this isn't just about making the soap younger. No one is safe. It's the silly season in the UK, but the column inches devoted to a storyline still four months away are staggering.

All of which proves that, in the UK at least, soaps are in rude health after the excitements of EastEnders' own murder-and-death-laden 25th anniversary earlier this year, broadcast live. And if Coronation Street won't exactly be celebrating in December, then a new play certainly attempts to mark its golden jubilee in a slightly more traditional way. Corrie!, which had its world premiere at The Lowry centre in Greater Manchester last month (just a stone's throw away from the setting of the Coronation Street pub the Rovers Return), romps through 7,400 episodes, 2,000 storylines and 1,700 characters in just two hours. It's great fun, a cast of just five amplifying the broad humour and inherent farce in not just the Street, but soap operas themselves.

Take the example of Gail Potter. In her 36 years on the show, she's had one husband murdered, then married a serial killer. When that failed she went down the aisle again, only to find he was a depressive. And when she did find the "right" man, he was unfaithful to her. Meanwhile, her daughter got pregnant at 13. Is she the unluckiest woman alive? By the standards of Coronation Street, where normal rules of misfortune don't apply, she's actually quite normal. And such misfortunes are condensed into the stage play to hilarious effect.

Perhaps the greatest compliment you can pay Corrie! - and therefore Coronation Street - is that it's the kind of endeavour you could imagine the excellent Reduced Shakespeare Company having a go at. The Californian comic theatre company most famous for whizzing through The Complete Works Of William Shakespeare (Abridged) in 97 minutes has been so successful, its stage plays are now performed across the world by other professional theatre companies, inlcuding in Dubai last year.

It would probably be rather good at Coronation Street too. After all, its actors have taken on the Bible (The Complete Word Of God), classic film (Completely Hollywood) and literature (All The Great Books). Would Americans understand the nuances of northern English life, though? Corrie! played it safe and commissioned Jonathan Harvey, a fantastic playwright but also a Coronation Street scriptwriter and heavily ingrained in the series. But write off Coronation Street as a local concern at your peril. It genuinely has global appeal: perhaps you'd expect Ireland to enjoy the soap, but in Canada it enjoys a daily prime-time slot. New Zealand tunes in on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and in Australia there are in effect 10 episodes a week. Admittedly, this is on a pay-TV network called UKTV, but Coronation Street has been shown in Australia in some form since 1963.

Language hasn't even been a barrier: there have been subtitled episodes in Holland in the past, while Belgium and Sweden have also been introduced to the weird world of Weatherfield. And of course, right here, we enjoy the soap on the Orbit Showtime Network. Strangest of all, the US rapper Snoop Dogg, someone more readily associated with Compton than Corrie, recently admitted he'd been tuning in for 11 years. He even asked his agent if it could be arranged for him to appear on the Street.

His pitch? "They should definitely put some Snoop Dogg in there. The butcher's would be the cool spot." And what would he bring to the show? "I'd have my man David Beckham in there working with me," he told fans before his recent Manchester show. And though that might seem a world away from Dennis Tanner wandering into the Rovers Return and ordering a half of mild in that first black and white episode, perhaps it's not actually so much of a stretch.

An appearance from Snoop Dogg would be hilarious, and Coronation Street has always stood out from the crowd because it's funny. True, there have been 124 deaths, and enough marital infidelity to suggest a drop-in counselling shop might do a roaring trade in Weatherfield, but it's not an aggressively gritty show. And perhaps that's because, right from the very start, the creator Tony Warren was keen to re-create the streets he'd grown up in, full of strong domineering women and weak men.

In that sense, it doesn't matter that the soap is set in a version of northern England where life can be slightly grim and unglamorous. Because once you've got past the accents (not, in truth, that difficult), Coronation Street isn't about living in a fictional part of Greater Manchester, just as EastEnders isn't a commentary on London life. These places are just the settings for stories that are as old as the hills.

This was the thrust of a recent BBC documentary on the links between Greek tragedy and soaps. The similarities were revealing; the presenter Natalie Haynes spoke to a writer who had based EastEnders storylines on Aeschylus's Oresteia. Apparently, Haynes wrote on her blog, the BBC Writers' Academy trains future generations of soap writers by giving them Aristotle's Poetics to encourage them to think about time and place.

It's not over-intellectualising soaps to make these comparisons; infanticide, patricide, dysfunctional families, suffering women ... they're all tropes of Greek tragedy and soap opera. It's a theme Corrie's Jonathan Harvey has been keen to discuss recently, too. "There's something inherently theatrical in soaps and they are like Greek tragedies," he told The Daily Telegraph. "They have archetypes that are created again and again through different generations, and they have a chorus in other characters commenting on what happens."

In the end, that's why Coronation Street is celebrating 50 years of drama, because the writing is so strong. Audiences may have fragmented and commercial pressures have led to five episodes a week, which stretches matters rather thin. But arguably the most notable date in this lovable show's long history won't be December 9, 2010, at all. It'll be September 17, when the US drama As The World Turns broadcasts its final episode. At that moment, Coronation Street will be able to call itself the longest-running soap in the world. Let's hope that for once, they don't mark such a milestone in traditional soap fashion ... with a few murders.