Shoppers had a chance to take a stroll down Coronation Street at The Dubai Mall last week, and meet two of the stars of the much-loved, long-running British TV soap opera.
To celebrate the fact that from tomorrow the drama will be shown in the UAE as little as 48 hours after its UK screening, broadcaster OSN built a replica Coronation Street set in the mall, including a replica Audrey's Salon, where visitors could receive beauty treatments, and Roy's Rolls Cafe, which served traditional British snacks.
Actors Sam Aston, who stars as Chesney Brown in the soap, and Katie McGlynn, who plays Sinead Tinker, also flew in to meet fans.
Aston joined the cast of the soap – which in December will celebrate 55 years on the air – in 2003 at the tender age of 9, and after 11 years on the show, he is one of the best-known faces on British TV. And he is in no a hurry to move on.
“I love the fact that I’m involved with it and that they’ve always given me good, fun storylines to do,” he says. “It’s a great, fun team to be involved with.
“The family I’m a part of, alongside Sinead, is always doing good, fun stuff too – like we had the wedding that was all 1980s themed, and it’s good fun doing stuff like that.
“I’m still really enjoying it and, hopefully, I’d love to be in it another 11 years, or whatever it is now, but we’ll have to wait and see. We only sign a contract 12 months at a time, so you never know what’s going to happen.”
McGlynn is a relative newcomer to the soap (indeed, they both are compared with Bill Roach, who has played Ken Barlow in the show since its first episode in December, 1960), having joined the cast in 2013. Is it daunting to become part of a national TV institution?
“It is at first, but I didn’t think much of it because I didn’t think I’d be in it for long,” she says. “I was only originally brought in for a few episodes, then they kept bringing me back – and it goes so quick you don’t really think about it.”
“It helps that it’s such a great team too,” Aston adds. “It’s really not one of those jobs where you dread going into work, and I really do get on with everyone I work with. I think that helps new characters to settle quickly.”
Coronation Street – five episodes of which are broadcast each week in the UK, two on Monday, one on Wednesday and two on Friday – is one of the biggest shows on British TV. But many in the Middle East will be unfamiliar with the show, about the lives of the residents of the fictitious suburb of Weatherfield in Manchester, in the north of England.
McGlynn offers an introduction for the uninitiated: “It’s very northern [British], very working-class, very everyday life – but their everyday lives aren’t boring, there’s always something going on.
"The thing I like about Coronation Street, compared with other soaps, is that there's a lot of drama running through it, but then the next scene will be really funny. There's a real balance between humour and drama, which I love. You don't want to watch something that's really depressing all the time."
McGlynn and Aston recently appeared in their biggest storyline yet as a soap couple, when Sinead was injured in a bus crash. Aston says he enjoyed playing more serious scenes.
“It’s the biggest storyline we’ve been involved in,” he says. “I wasn’t directly involved in the crash, but Sinead was quite badly injured in it. That was big for us as we’d not really done that sort of a big, serious storyline.
“It’s just nice to feel ... not necessarily appreciated, but to know that the writers are still thinking about you and coming up with good storylines to really get into.
“I do enjoy the fun stuff, too, like the wedding, but it’s tough to pick a favourite because you do everything so fast, you literally finish one scene and straight away discard it and move onto the next. We do so many episodes you really do just have to keep moving constantly.”
“The crash was a really great storyline for me, too,” says McGlynn. “It was strange, because Sinead was unconscious through a lot of it, so I didn’t really see what was going on. I really couldn’t wait to see the whole thing when it was all put together.
“Even the contrasting scenes where you’d have shots of the crash scene, then everyone having a laugh in the Rover’s [Return, the show’s public house and community hub], it was great to see how it was all done and great to be part of.”
I wonder whether the relative anonymity the pair can enjoy in Dubai will be a nice change from the UK, where the show’s five weekly episodes regularly pull in about 30 million viewers.
But Aston says he has never had any unpleasant experiences with fans.
"It's great that the show's so real," he says. "When people come up to me on the street, they speak to me like I'm Chesney. It's not like we're filming some big Avengers thing where everything's make-believe, it's just everyday life and people get to know your character and really connect with them.
“I remember when my dog in the show died about four years ago and I still get people coming up to me saying: ‘I’m sorry about Schmeichel.’
“I’ve always just been a lad that gets a lot of bad stuff going on around him, so I’ve been OK. But I remember Jack Shepherd, who plays David Platt, got a lot of abuse on the streets when he went through a streak where they made him really bad, and he said he got some grief when he was out and about.
“It was the same with the character John Stape (Graeme Hawley). He was a really bad guy and kidnapped Rosie Webster, and he told me he was in the park with his daughter and people were coming up to him saying: ‘You’re not fit to have her.’ I think he was a bit freaked out.”
Coronation Street has filmed a number of special episodes on foreign shores. Could the pair's trip to Dubai serve as a reconnaissance mission for a future storyline?
“You never know, they do things like that,” says Aston. “We did some filming in South Africa for a special, so you never know.”
• From Monday, May 18, Coronation Street will be broadcast two days after the UK broadcast, at 8.10pm each night on ITV Choice (Ch217), exclusively on OSN