Street of Dreams, a stage version of Corrie, is the biggest in a wave of live shows based on TV dramas… and an EastEnders musical might be waiting in the wings
When Street of Dreams, the musical based on Coronation Street, kicks off its arena tour next month, several BBC executives will be sitting among the 18,000-strong audience of ardent soap fans. They will be keen to see whether the combination of Paul O’Grady as narrator, Russell Watson performing the keynote song and appearances by present and past stars of the soap William Roache and Julie Goodyear, can produce a crowd-pleasing money-spinner. If so, they will be tempted to follow suit with live events based on BBC shows, headed by EastEnders.
While there is a tradition of television programmes becoming plays and films, the pressure for “brand extensions” is intensifying as sales of DVDs dip. The hunt is on to tap the wells of loyalty of millions of fans as well as the mood of conservatism induced by the recession.
Phil Murphy, BBC Worldwide’s managing director for live entertainment, said: “What we have here is a tremendous amount of goodwill and affection.” He said the BBC events arm was turning a range of propular TV shows into tours.
The appetite for live shows linked to successful television programmes in the UK and around the world was growing fast, he added. Tickets to see BBC Worldwide-licensed productions are expected to more than double to between 2.6m and 3m in the financial year 2012-13.
Live shows have been going for more than a decade but Murphy said: “It is only in the last few years it’s taken off. We were slow to take it up. Disney has been doing live shows for years; we are emulating them.”
He added: “EastEnders is a lovely idea [for a live event]. I would like more drama. You would need a great script and the stars, but it would be interesting to see it done. If someone came to me for an EastEnders Live, I’d not kick them out of the door.”
Michael Harrison, producer of the new musical about Susan Boyle, I Dreamed a Dream, which started a national tour in Newcastle upon Tyne last month, said that while there have been theatrical versions of Take the High Road and Coronation Street in the past, the interest in live events in front of audiences of thousands was new. “Part of the reason is that theatre audiences are divided into two. There are those who go to the Royal Court and want something new; others like what they know. A television show is very easy to sell to an audience. In a recession people are far less prepared to take a risk with their money. If they spend £60 or more on a theatre ticket, they want to spend it on something they know they will like before they go. I have no idea how Street of Dreams will do, but I’m going to see it.”
ITV Studios’ decision to license Coronation Street for the show, which will offer 18,000 seats a night at Manchester’s MEN Arena, is also clearly in a different league to revivals of old BBC hits, such as Birds of a Feather, which was dropped by the BBC in 1998 but is now touring and filling theatres with its original cast. Yes, Prime Minister, another BBC-licensed drama, was a recent West End hit.
John Yorke, the BBC drama controller with responsibility for EastEnders, one of those with a ringside seat for Street of Dreams, said: “I am very intrigued. We are in a whole new era of live entertainment, which began, perhaps, with the Strictly Come Dancing tours. In this case Street of Dreams is playing in its home town. Conversations are always going on about brand extensions for EastEnders. About nine years ago there was talk of EastEnders the Movie. Culturally we’ve come to accept it, as the BBC becomes more commercial. I’d be cautiously welcoming to the idea of doing it.”
However, he warned that nostalgia suited Coronation Street better than EastEnders. “It is hard to see an EastEnders musical. It would have to be something more gritty, scripted say by Arnold Wesker. I can’t see [Dirty] Den and Michelle doing a high-kicking number.”
TV producer and writer Tony Jordan, the former lead writer on EastEnders, disagreed: “EastEnders at its heart has a very real dramatic beating heart, it’s about the blitz spirit of the East End, the ability to overcome adversity. It has a Dickensian feel to it and it would make a fantastic live show – Pygmalion merged with Oliver Twist. As a musical it would be a triumph. We could open with The Clash – ‘London Calling’ – and end with ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, with a smattering of ‘My Old Man’s a Dustman’ and ‘The Lambeth Walk’.”
But if a television soap is on up to five times a week, like Coronation Street or EastEnders, will fans flock to see the same thing?
Mark Shenton, theatre critic of The Stage, said Birds of a Feather was selling out because it had the original cast of Pauline Quirke, Linda Robson and Lesley Joseph, while The King’s Speech was ending its West End run because the film was a hit only two years ago. Street of Dreams is a mixture, with some former stars playing roles from the past, including Brian Capron, who brings murderer Richard Hillman back to life, alongside current actors in the show such as Kym Marsh, who plays Elsie Tanner, the part immortalised by Pat Phoenix.
It also features a 25-piece orchestra that will play along to a ballad for Elsie Tanner about lost love (“I Know How It Feels”), Bet Lynch’s battle cry (“Nowt a Bit of Lippy Couldn’t Solve”) and Ena Sharples’s opening song (“Who Are You?”). A troupe of dancers adds glamour, while a revolving set lets the audience peek into the homes.
The Street of Dreams tour, which is going to Belfast and Newcastle, exploits the soap’s northern fan base. Coronation Street’s share of audiences is 29% in London and the south-east, but it rises to 48.8% in the north-west and Ulster, 43% in the north-east and 44% in the Scottish border region. So it may not have the fan base to come to London, unlike EastEnders. BBC Worldwide has just begun a Dancing with the Stars 12-week production in Las Vegas tied to the American version of Strictly Come Dancing. It is launching Strictly Presents for smaller British theatres this year and Walking with Dinosaurs, featuring life-sized animated beasts, returns to London’s O2 Arena at Christmas for a second run, after seven million tickets were sold worldwide.
In a new departure, The Hairy Bikers tour starts on 30 September, at Barrow-in-Furness, in Cumbria, mixing cooking and humour. Planet Earth in Concert, with a symphony orchestra and matching video on a big screen, will also tour concert halls along with The Dr Who Symphonic Spectacular, a prom with orchestra and a chorus featuring Daleks, weeping angels and monsters. A Frozen Planet event is planned for the Hollywood Bowl in July.
But not everything works. One live adaptation, Human Planet, was pulled and Ticket prices have to be carefully pitched. But BBC Worldwide is planning more drama spinoffs. “BBC drama, such as Luther or New Tricks, they could make great stage plays. Up to now we’ve done very little with drama,” Murphy said.