I’m stood outside The Rovers Return watching two of Coronation Street’s newest residents – the Bailey brothers – fool around. It’s the older brother’s birthday. He’s got a spa trip planned for the weekend but tonight he’s just chilling. “Probably play some PlayStation. Watch some Love Island,” he says.
“Caterpillar cake?” asks the younger one. “You can’t beat caterpillar cake.”
They have the kind of sparring relationship that brothers do. Except, of course, they’re not brothers at all. They’re only playing them.
“You do seem like you get on,” I suggest.
“We’re just acting, mate!” Ryan Russell and Nathan Graham both quip back.
That’s the thing about the so-called “magic of Coronation Street”. It’s almost realer than real (or, at the very least, the only uncanny valley where you can get a pint of mild for £2.90).
The world’s longest running TV soap opera, it’s been a presence on British screens since 1960, when 24-year-old Granada employee Tony Warren had the idea for a show about ordinary people. Set in the Greater Manchester town of Weatherfield (a sort of fictional Salford), Warren’s idea surpassed all expectations. Coronation Street became the most-watched programme in Britain within six months, climbing to over 20 million viewers at its Eighties peak. Almost 10,000 episodes, 106 marriages, 96 deaths and 45 births later, it is still, by any metric, the Nation’s Favourite Soap.
So, it’s not surprising that to arrive on set is to be filled with the kind of reverence typically reserved for the Sistine Chapel or Old Trafford football ground down the road. A world away from Salford’s adjacent MediaCity, with its neon meeting pods and sofas made of recycled nettles, even walking through the car park is like being transported to some fantastic past: a warm northern voice greeting you over the intercom, a racing green Newton & Ridley van ferrying props about in the distance (N&R being the show’s fictional brewery).
“Welcome to Coronation Street, Matthew,” says Angie, an immaculately hairsprayed Northern Irish woman who has served as receptionist to the show for some 26 years. Angie is famous for learning the names of every visitor in advance, the only time she was anything less than effusive being two years ago, when Tom Jones stopped by on a promotional tour. (The Welsh lothario, it would transpire, had been responsible for her almost losing her job at a nightclub in the 1960s.) She’s one of several strong, matriarchal figures on set: from Margaret in costume, a servant of the show for over 25 years, to Alison, the soap’s chief publicity manager of 26 years, who guides me around the studios with an affectionate yet assuredly no-nonsense manner.
I’m here to meet the youngest members of the soap’s newest family: the Baileys. Comprised of dad Edison (played by Trevor Michael Georges), mum Aggie (Lorna Laidlaw), eldest son Michael (Russell), and youngest James (Graham), they’re the first family to arrive on the show since the quarrelling Windasses over a decade ago – and it appears they’re already making quite the impact.
“They’ve got a great buzz about them,” Alison tells me. You can certainly feel it in the way the boys saunter down the famous street, stopping outside the house that once belonged to Norris Cole and Emily Bishop and that, after only two months of filming, feels very much theirs.
“Come on in, take a look!” Russell offers, swinging open the door to No.3.
It’s a week since the boys’ first episode went out, revealing Edison and Michael as the new owners of the builder’s yard, James as a good looking footballer with a secret (more on that in a mo), and Aggie as, well, an affectionate yet assuredly no-nonsense matriarch. “Have you been recognised in the street yet?” I ask them.
“Once!” says 28-year-old Russell who, before landing the role as cheeky-chappie Michael, was a presenter on the children’s channel CBeebies. “I was in Lidl the other day and someone came up to me and said, ‘I know you’ve already been on telly, but you’re also in Corrie now!’ Sunday morning, trying to get my breakfast food! I was, like: ‘Shh, keep it down!’”
Of course, there’s another reason why the new additions have not gone unnoticed. While the show has featured black characters in the past, the Baileys are – rather mind-bogglingly – the first black family to join in its entire 59-year history. When they were announced, back in April, the story was picked up everywhere from the Manchester Evening News to The New York Times – and mostly with confusion that it had taken so long.
“Short answer: I don’t really know,” said producer Iain MacLeod when asked about the Baileys by The Guardian. “In the past, new families came in one at a time. I find that a harder way to do it, which is why [the Baileys] all turn up and you get the dynamic. Manchester has a large proportion of black residents so it did feel sort of overdue that we did this and represented modern Manchester a bit more accurately.”
While the longer answer will pose questions about the diversity of the show’s writing room (the casting required an outside consultant in the form of Amanda Huxtable, of black British theatre company Hidden Gems), the boys are united in their belief that the time has come to move on.
“I think there comes a point where you have to… Not forget about it, but embrace it,” says Graham, 28. “Celebrate the fact, instead of saying: ‘Oh, it’s taken this long. Now it’s happened, let’s crack on and enjoy it.’ It’s just one of those things, innit.”
It is. And for Graham there’s a bigger storyline on the horizon, when footballer James is forced to deal with his teammates’ reaction to the news that he’s gay. While Aggie already knows and Michael couldn’t care less, James is concerned about telling both his dad and his club.
The story reflects the ongoing challenges of a sport in which the only professional male to have come out while playing in the UK was Justin Fashanu in 1990. Fashanu took his own life, following sustained homophobic abuse, eight years later.
“I didn’t really register it at first,” says Graham of his character’s sexuality. “When you don’t have a problem with something, you don’t really think about the difficulties or ramifications. But obviously there are people out there who wouldn’t accept it. And especially in the world of sport, where you have to be ‘masculine’, you have to be this, you have to be that.”
Although Graham is straight, he’s acutely aware of his responsibilities, not only to a community, but to a TV show that was created by a gay man in the 1960s, and which has since featured breakout LGBT characters such as factory machinist Sean Tully (Antony Cotton) and the street’s much-loved first transgender resident Hayley Cropper (Julie Hesmondhalgh). “With it being a big storyline, there is pressure,” he admits. “I don’t want to do anybody a disservice. It’s important that I do it right.”
Until then, it’s business as usual. Joined on the street by their onscreen parents, the four stand together, arm in arm, mugging for photographs.
“Let’s do some outside The Rovers,” I suggest. “Whey-hey!” they all laugh back, gladly shuffling to the famous green doors.
“You look like a band,” I tell them. “Whey-hey!” they roar again. “Why did the chicken cross the road?” asks Russell at one point. “To get to Coronation Street!” They fall apart in hysterics. They’re actors, sure. But they’re not that good – are they?
“You can act chemistry but there has to be a certain amount already if it’s a family,” offers Graham, as we walk back to the red-brick façade of his new home.
“We kind of just vibe together. We all have a mutual understanding. We all respect each other. We’re all looking at it from the same point of view. I’m sure we’ll make other relationships on the show but ultimately we’ll stick together. We’ll help each other through.”
He looks up at No.3, with its new front door and freshly painted window frames. “It looks so modern, doesn’t it?” he says. A fantastic past, brought just a little more into the present.