It is 55-years-old but shows no sign of slowing down. The TV institution that is Coronation Street produces five episodes each week, a far cry from its original remit of just one weekly show.
A lot of hard graft goes on behind the cameras to keep the show on the road (street?) and a team of hard-working, dedicated individuals all play their parts as much as the actors on screen.
I spoke to Dom Stevenson, a third assistant director on the show to get an idea of what’s involved. Firstly though, I wanted to know how he first got into the business.
“I studied film production and technology at Stafford Uni. Then I moved to Manchester and did a few things until a friend, who was an extra on Hollyoaks, introduced me to an artistic director there who offered me a week on the soap shadowing a runner. It went so well that by the end of the week I was working unaided. This business is all about making contacts and luck and while I was there a gap opened up and I was asked back to work more and more. I also did some post production work at ITV and they also needed runners so I was offered a full time contract.
“It really is all about working hard, getting to know people, being enthusiastic and timing. If you’re passionate and enthusiastic it really helps you to stand out. If you’re a good runner you’ll speak to everyone, make contacts and a good impression anyway so once they know you they’ll think of you when stuff comes up. Things can progress from there like every other job.”
Enthusiasm is one of the key traits to succeeding in the business and Stevenson’s love for his work very much comes across. But how did he manage to make the big move to the Weatherfield cobbles?
“I love this environment and I’d really enjoyed doing all sorts of bits and pieces and building up a good body of experience,” he says. “At Hollyoaks, I worked on a massive storyline – explosions and all – so when an internal job at Corrie came up I got a great reference and felt confident that I could bring a lot to the table. I understood scripts and what people needed so it was a natural progression. I started as a runner on The Street and now I’m a third assistant director.”
So what does the job entail? Is there such a thing as a typical day?
“Not at all! Every day is new, we never do same thing twice and every story and director is different. That’s one of most interesting things about the job. I get entrusted with a week’s worth of five episodes. Sometimes more if there’s a gap in the schedule or a big storyline happening. You’re given a shooting schedule explaining how it is going to be filmed – how long, what days, what scenes, etc and it usually comprises three to four weeks of work.
“I’m given a sort of blueprint camera plan with background information about the scenes, the set, the cast, that sort of thing. I plot out all that is needed in terms of extras to give a scene background realism. So, if the pub has to be really busy I will choreograph where the extras in the background should be. You create things in your mind of how you want it to look on screen.”
He adds: “It’s an artform in itself. The scene has to look busy, natural and three dimensional but the background artists shouldn’t overwhelm things – you shouldn’t notice the extras are there. You know it’s busy but you’re still focusing on the main characters. If the peripheral distracts your eye then it has to go. The other week a woman wore a pink coat and although we liked what she was doing, she had to lose the distracting garment.
“The director can also change their mind on shots so you have to be adaptable and re-think your plan on the run which keeps you on your toes. It’s particularly fun if there’s a long scene tracking the main characters as they walk along because you can put extras in all sorts of places and bring the whole thing to life.”
It sounds like careful planning and attention to detail are key to the whole operation then?
“Totally, but there are always restrictions. We film six to seven weeks ahead but as you only have a certain amount of sets, studios and actors, things have to be well planned. I have to ensure there are no issues that could disrupt the schedule. Scripts can be changed or cut and I have to ensure that the cast have any amendments.
“It’s often a 12-hour day and you have to be able to deal with whatever happens in order to keep things on track. Everyone in front and behind the camera has to be well disciplined, professional and reliable. We also have to factor in bad weather, noisy aircraft overhead, building works nearby. I am basically trying to push the production along as fast as I can, but not get in the way, to meet deadlines. We also have to be finished by 6.45pm to allow de-rigging.”
“All scripts are top secret and watermarked so no one can get away with leaving one lying around for storyline leaks,” Stevenson explains. “It’s a friendly, creative place and everyone enjoys working there and cares about the programme. We have a responsibility for all those loyal viewers and we need to provide the best we can. There’s a reason it has been on so long. I’ve grown up with some of these people and to have them as colleagues and friends now is amazing. I still call Bill Roache ‘Ken’ which is really embarrassing though he never minds.”
It’s been a great career trajectory so far for Dom but where does he see himself in the next few years?
“I’d eventually like to move up to first assistant director and I also love to write so being a storyliner is another ambition. Corrie and ITV are good at training their own so a lot of options open up if you work hard. It’s a great show to work on and some of the most creative people work in soaps so I’m in my element.”