“Doris, love…”

“Doris, love.  Will you please shut up? Somewhere in there are your eyes and

it’s my job to find them.”

The Doris in question was actress Doris Speed, acknowledged as the Queen of Granada TV’s Coronation Street, and adored by the viewers as Rover’s Return pub landlady, Annie Walker.

At the time Granada TV’s hit soap, “Coronation Street” (originally titled “Florizel Street” until a Granada cleaner said it reminded her of a disinfectant) was well on its way to becoming the world’s longest running television drama serial and Doris had put her indelible mark on the role .

The occasion of the riposte was an early morning make-up session at Manchester’s Granada Studios. The deliverer of the remark, a northern make-up artiste of redoubtable bluntness, even by Lancastrian standards, feared no actors, not even Doris who had slumped into her favourite make-up chair feeling a little the worse for wear. At seven o’clock in the morning a television make up department is an unforgiving place. Crystal clear mirrors and rows of naked bulbs reflect back not just the imminent anxieties of that day’s shoot, coupled with the recent ravages of a heavy past week’s schedule but sometimes the effects of last night’s “few drinks”. A tradition among actors since Thespis slipped out of his buskins to down a goblet (or three) of Retsina.

The Granada studios were declared an alcohol free zone when they were created by the brothers Bernstein in 1955, Granada having been granted a license to transmit television in the north of England. Naturally, several bars and many restaurants had sprung up in the area to cater for cast and crews looking for rest and recuperation after a long day in the studios. Nearest was the Cinema Club where a talented but spectacularly alcoholic actor, on being asked if he wanted a drink would always exclaim, “Can fishes swim?” Manchester in the Sixties had already begun to swing and the choice didn’t stop there.

Another favourite was The Press Club, still housed today in a basement off Deansgate.

It was originally founded in 1870 as a drinking den for late finishing journalists. It’s the kind of place you “go on to”–fateful words— not really a nightclub, more of a good old-fashioned northern drinking hole. If you entered it’s basement after midnight you knew you’d have a great time but that ultimately you were doomed and heading for the daddy of all hangovers. If the bouncers looked grim at midnight they certainly didn’t look any prettier as you staggered out at dawn.

It had the feel of, Gerry’s Club, a show biz basement drinking den in London. Gerry’s was owned by actor Gerald Campion who’d once played Billy Bunter on TV in the early 50’s. Like a lot of basements, it smelt, which led actor Peter O’Toole to remark to Peter Finch on their way downstairs, “What’s that funny smell?” To which Finch replied, “Failure”.

In the 60’s in Manchester, the Brown Bull, a hotel not far from the studios became popular not only with the Granada crowd but–open as it was all hours–with professional footballers released from a morning’s training. One afternoon, having finished rehearsals early, I went back for an afternoon’s nap to find George Best and a young blonde girl availing themselves of my empty bedroom. This was the Sixties and George was just getting into his stride on the pitch and off it. He was to score heavily in both departments. A legend at Manchester United, George scored 138 goals in 361 appearances. His score off the pitch was also the stuff of legends. “I used to go missing a lot,” said George,” Miss Canada, Miss U.K., Miss World.”

There’s no record of Doris ever being involved in any of this and certainly not with George Best. She lived quietly in a semi-detached house with her mother, who died aged 97 in the early 1970’s. A long life, as was Doris’. In October 1983 when Doris was admitted to hospital, it was discovered that she was not 69 as she claimed, but 84 and was to live, retired from the Street until she died, aged 95.

If you can tear them away from their crosswords, the make-up artistes–they are predominantly female–generally respond to actors early morning grumbles (hangovers or no) with a Nightingalian sense of sympathy. One suspects that they’re taught it at make-up school or wherever they learn their dark arts of concealment. Sympathy was what Doris had invited as she complained about hardly being able to open her eyes and although the response was brusque, even Doris would have been wise enough not to respond to the remark. A make-up artiste able to retrieve an actress’ eyes from whatever ravages had caused them to disappear is to be cherished and allowed a certain jester’s licence.

Doris, suitably restored then patrolled the set of the Rovers Return, her re-opened and beautifully made up eyes well able to spot any transgression.

Like all battle hardened troupers she had an eye for an upstart.

Actor Roger Brierley at around 6ft 5in tall found himself on set at the Rovers bar in front of Doris and aware that his height was casting a shadow across her. Wanting to avoid a reprimand, Brierley started to sway nervously from side to side in trying to get out of her light.

“Roger, love,” she said, “Whatever are you doing?”

“I’m just trying to get out of your light, Doris. I think I’m shadowing you.”

In her best Annie Walker style, which employed the sweetest and yet most acidic of smiles Doris replied, “Let me worry about that, Roger, love. The employment exchanges of Britain are littered with actors who’ve tried to get into my light.”

Like many actors, Brierley used to tell his story with relish and like so many others obviously adored her.

One day in the 1960’s, reclining in the same make up seat with pterodactyl eyes closed and her character, Annie Walker’s beatific smile already fixed firmly in place, she’d felt someone gently take her hand and plant a kiss on it. Opening her eyes she saw a bespectacled middle aged man in a business suit kneeling by her side.

“Forgive me,” said an inimitable voice,” I just wanted to kiss the hand of the greatest actress on television”.

It was Sir Laurence Olivier.


One thought on ““Doris, love…”

  1. I remember the character of Annie Walker (and her husband Jack) very well. In those early days Coronation Street was a very real slice of northern life, absolutely unmissable and adored by its audience. We all knew people like those characters.

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