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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Anthony Hayward

John Stevenson obituary

ITV ARCHIVEEditorial use only. Exclusive - Premium Rates Apply. Call your Account Manager for pricing. Mandatory Credit: Photo by ITV/Shutterstock (852820lr) 'Coronation Street' TV - 2005 - John Stevenson, Writer. ITV ARCHIVE
John Stevenson was hired to help revive Coronation Street’s humour. Photograph: ITV/Shutterstock

John Stevenson, who has died aged 86 after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, was one of Coronation Street’s most prolific scriptwriters, brilliant at both drama and comedy. He wrote 447 episodes of the ITV soap opera over three decades from 1976.

In one of the earliest of them, Ernie Bishop, the wages clerk at Mike Baldwin’s denims factory, was killed in a bungled armed robbery. The story was Stevenson’s idea, brought about when the actor Stephen Hancock, who played Ernie, husband of Emily, refused to sign a new annual contract over what he felt was an unfair anomaly. Several long-time cast members were paid for all episodes regardless of whether they appeared in them, whereas the rest were guaranteed payment for only half.

Bill Podmore, the producer, was not prepared to change the established system and Hancock was unwilling to compromise on what he saw as a principle, so he had to be written out, and Podmore sought a believable exit for Ernie.

“We eventually came to the conclusion that, if Emily Bishop was to stay in the Street, Ernie had to die,” Stevenson told the author Daran Little. “It did not seem fair to send her away when she [the actor Eileen Derbyshire] did not want to leave the show. The death of Ernie Bishop was to save Emily Bishop.”

The 1978 shooting was the first violent death of any character since Coronation Street had begun 18 years earlier – and met with uproar from viewers, who bombarded the switchboard at Granada Television, which made the ITV soap. Other dramas from Stevenson’s pen included Ken Barlow’s doorstep confrontation with Mike Baldwin after discovering his wife Deirdre’s affair, and Don Brennan dying after driving Mike’s MG Midget at the factory boss and crashing into a viaduct.

But Podmore had hired Stevenson to help revive the soap’s humour, after he contributed scripts to sitcoms such as Nearest and Dearest (1968-73), starring the former music-hall comedians Jimmy Jewel and Hylda Baker. His Street episodes included Eddie Yeats supplying Hilda Ogden with the mountain vista wall mural that she called her “muriel”; Fred Gee, the Rovers Return’s potman, donning a wig; Reg Holdsworth and Maureen Naylor’s waterbed springing a leak; Raquel Wolstenholme starting French lessons with Ken Barlow; Derek Wilton buying a Mile Muncher running machine; and Jack Duckworth modelling nude for an art class.

Having created the character of Raquel, Stevenson was responsible for the programme’s first two-hander – an episode featuring only two actors – when Raquel (Sarah Lancashire) returned in 2000 to tell her former husband Curly Watts (Kevin Kennedy) that she had given birth to his baby and was marrying someone else.

When one of his 1982 scripts included the Liverpool brothers Wesley and Cyril McGregor attending Eddie Yeats’s engagement party, Stevenson and his fellow Coronation Street scriptwriter Julian Roach spotted the potential for a spin-off. The result was the sitcom The Brothers McGregor, which starred Paul Barber and Philip Whitchurch as the half-brothers running a second-hand car dealership, and ran for four series (1985-88).

Stevenson’s other big sitcom success, again created and written with Roach, was Brass, a parody of northern “trouble at t’mill” dramas, with Timothy West starring as the self-made mill and mine owner Bradley Hardacre. After running for two series on ITV in 1983 and 1984, Brass was revived by Granada for Channel 4 in 1990.

ITV ARCHIVENo Merchandising. Editorial Use Only Minimum use fee 50 Mandatory Credit: Photo by ITV/REX Shutterstock (669448ub) ‘Coronation Street’ TV - 1972 - Emily Nugent [Eileen Derbyshire] and Ernest Bishop [Stephen Hancock] get married. Ken Barlow [William Roache] is best man and Lucille Hewitt [Jennifer Moss] and Bet Lynch [Julie Goodyear] are bridesmaids. ITV ARCHIVE
The wedding of Emily Nugent (Eileen Derbyshire) and Ernie Bishop (Stephen Hancock) in Coronation Street, 1972. Photograph: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

Stevenson was born in Manchester, to Hughina (nee Chappelow), a library assistant, and John, an electrician. He attended Manchester grammar school and graduated in economics from the London School of Economics. After working as a journalist on the Oldham Chronicle (1958-64), he became showbusiness reporter and northern theatre critic for the Daily Mail, based in Manchester.

While having a drink with Granada’s head of comedy, Peter Eckersley, he was invited to watch an episode of a sitcom pilot, Her Majesty’s Pleasure, set in a prison, and asked to come up with a storyline for the subsequent series. On seeing his page of dialogue, Eckersley commissioned a script from Stevenson, who shared writing duties for the two runs (1968-69) with Leslie Duxbury.

That sitcom also brought him to the attention of Podmore, one of its directors, who was making Nice Time (1968-69), a series of wacky sketches and inventive stunts that boasted early TV appearances by Kenny Everett and Germaine Greer as presenters. Stevenson contributed ideas such as choirs of massed ventriloquists’ dummies.

His other early sitcoms were The Last of the Baskets (1971-72), with Ken Jones as a factory worker who inherits a title and rundown mansion, and Arthur Lowe as his faithful servant, and How’s Your Father? (1974-75), the writer’s own generation-gap creation, which starred Michael Robbins and Arthur English.

Later, he and Roach scripted Dead Ernest (1982), set in heaven, where a football pools winner (Andrew Sachs) finds himself after being hit in the eye by a champagne cork. On his own, he devised and wrote Mother’s Ruin (1994), starring Roy Barraclough running a health food shop with his domineering mother, a gin-soaked former child film star played by Dora Bryan.

Only Peter Whalley and Adele Rose wrote more Coronation Street episodes than Stevenson. He also scripted spin-offs, including a 1977 sketch for a silver jubilee variety show performed for Queen Elizabeth II at the Palace theatre, Manchester, and a moving mini-episode featuring the return of Hilda for ITV Telethon ’90.

Stevenson’s first two marriages, to Barbara Sutcliffe in 1957 and Sheila McGregor in 1977, ended in divorce. He is survived by his third wife, Myra (nee Davies), whom he married in 1985, their daughters, Frances, Alex and Caroline, and Anna and Andrew, the children of his first marriage.

• John Stevenson, writer, born 10 May 1937; died 5 September 2023

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