Back in the early 1980s the Observer Magazine ran a feature, “The Scriptwriter’s Scriptwriter”, where TV writers nominated the best in their field. John Stevenson – who died recently at the age of 86 – won the vote. It was no surprise: when it came to creating incredible soap characters, crafting dramatic and comic storylines, and dominating every writers’ room with charm, confidence and schoolboy glee, John was in a league of his own.
Born in Manchester on 10 May 1937, John was from humble roots. His father an electrician, his mother a librarian, he went to Manchester Grammar on a scholarship and studied at the London School of Economics before completing his National Service in the army. A job in journalism followed, and for five years he worked as Northern theatre critic for The Daily Mail. It was here, chortling to himself in dimmed Manchester theatres, that he finetuned his ear for comedy.
John got his break in television in 1968, writing scripts for Granada’s sitcom Her Majesty’s Pleasure, a forerunner to Porridge. His writing caught the eye of Bill Podmore, producer of the hit sitcom Nearest and Dearest, starring Jimmy Jewel and Hylda Baker. The show ran for five years and dominated the television ratings.
Further comedy shows awaited, including two he devised himself: How’s Your Father (Michael Robbins) and The Last of the Baskets (Arthur Lowe) – wonderful character-led comedy with silly plots that would never be commissioned today. In the mid-1970s, Bill Podmore took over as producer on Coronation Street and John agreed to write for the show for a year, to help bring comedy back to the cobbles. He remained for 30 years, penning 453 episodes, scripts for two Royal Variety shows, two Telethon specials and the Street’s first feature-length video set on the QE2. These were glory days for Coronation Street and John was at the helm, creating iconic characters, from Mike Baldwin to the Duckworths, Alec Gilroy to Alma Sedgewick, Curly Watts to Raquel Wolstenhulme.
But it wasn’t just about the Street. Alongside his friend and fellow Street writer, Julian Roach, John created comedy shows Dead Ernest and the 1983 runaway success Brass, which won three television awards and ran for 32 episodes. The Stevenson/Roach double-act scored big again with a Coronation Street spin-off The Brothers McGregor, which ran from 1985 to 1988.
Over the years John wrote for many of Granada and the BBC’s big dramas, including Family at War, Yanks Go Home and Oh, Doctor Beeching!. In all he scripted over 600 episodes for television.
John retired in 2006. Coronation Street was changing. His beloved Mike Baldwin was killed off, and he was told his brand of comedy was outdated. Those of us who were writing on the Street at the time felt his comedy was as relevant as ever. Personally, I’d grown up on it and it inspired me and still does today.
John Stevenson was a genius. Tony Warren aside, he was the greatest writer to ever work on Coronation Street. He knew what sort of material actors craved, he knew Northern humour, he knew Manchester, and he knew the importance of telling a damn good story. On the killing off of Ernie Bishop, back in 1977, John mused, “There was to be none of the usual television drama of cops and robbers, no car chases leaving skid marks all over Weatherfield. In the aftermath of the shooting, we stayed in the Street, reflecting the utter futility of Ernie’s death and concentrating on portraying the desolation and immense sadness it had caused.” John Stevenson always delivered what the viewers wanted.