Manchester's answer to Universal Studios in LA - but a little bit err... not as good.
Growing up, teachers only really ever seemed to have the choice of 3 places to go on a school trip at the end of the year. I suspect this was either due to a lack of funds, lack of imagination or just a sheer lack of places in the region to go to entertain 35 kids for a full 9 hours.
One such trip was Alton Towers, which quickly came crashing down around us when I told a few girls that the meeting time had been changed to an hour later – meaning everyone kicked off and I got into some serious trouble.
Another was Camelot, which was a bit of a dump to be honest, and nowhere near as cool or as exciting as heading to Alton Towers and losing your shit on Nemesis.
The third? Drum roll please – the Granada Studios Tour. Wooooo!
The Granada Studios Tour was the result of reaching deep into someone’s brain, dragging out a load of mad ideas and then throwing a ton of money at it. And surprisingly – it all seemed to work. For a bit anyway.
The person’s brain was Granada producer David Plowright, a man who became Controller of Programmes from 1969 to 1979, and through his connections (his sister) he managed to get Laurence Olivier to appear in several Granada drama programmes, most noticeably the brilliant Brideshead Revisited in 1981.
He was interested in developing the derelict and un-used land around the Granada Studios complex, so he proposed to create a ‘Hollywood-on-the-Irwell‘, bringing in crowds of people who were eager to see behind-the-scenes of some of television’s biggest shows.
After gaining the support of the big wigs of Granada, the project was green lit and funded, with some serious cash going into the renovation of the derelict warehouses on the site, and the results were very impressive indeed.
Granada Studios Tour first opened its doors in July 1988 and estimated visitor figures for the first year stood at around 250,000 people. Well, they absolutely smashed that with over 600,000 in the first 8 months alone. Manchester now had a brand-new attraction that was pulling in crowds from all over the UK. Good one Dave.
As a kid I went a few times to Granada Studios, and I have even been lucky enough to visit the site in recent years – and here’s what I remember from it all…
When you first went through the gates you were greeted with a ‘re-production’ of Times Square which was home to a few American cars, most noticeably some police cars, yellow taxis and at one point I definitely remember a small ice skating rink in the middle of this square too. To the left of you as you entered was and old cinema/theatre, and to the right was the entrance to the ‘Tour’.
A short walk up from the square was a recreation of one of the most famous boozers in history, Corrie’s Rovers Return, where you could nip in for a pint of Snakebite before you went on the tour.
The tour itself was rather exciting – especially for a kid. You got to walk through the backlot of many of Granada’s biggest shows, catching a glimpse of Matthew Kelly in his waistcoat presenting Stars in their Eyes, and even walking down a full-scale replica of a Victorian Baker Street, used extensively for the Sherlock Holmes TV series.
There was also one bit where they took you into the Costume Department and told you that it was haunted. Whilst telling you this, they had set up a series of mirrors so that some poor aspiring actor could loiter in the distance, all dolled up to look like a frightening old woman, and scare the shit out of everyone.
In the final stages of the tour, you’d all be squashed up in a little room, which then opened up to reveal a HUGE living room, complete with massive furniture and a big cat, all from the show ‘Return of the Antelope’.
Finally, the cherry on top was the chance to walk down the most famous street in the UK – Coronation Street. It was the actual street that they used for externals in the show, and although there was nothing in the houses, you could open up the letter box and shout “Veeerrraaa!” at the top of your voice – much to the delight of everyone around you.
That’s pretty much all that I remember from the whole thing. I’m sure there’s loads that I didn’t get to see or memories that have been destroyed through years of heavy boozing. Although actually, one of my most favourite memories was in the old cinema bit away from the tour, where they’d set up an innovative new ride.
As part of the initial refurbishments to the site, David Plowright demanded the renovation of the old Bonded Warehouse opposite the main Granada Studios. For 3 million quid he had it transformed into an old 1930’s cinema, complete with golden staircases and massive curtained screen. When I went, they’d installed an amazing simulation ride in there based on the hit movie Aliens.
You’d sit down on your (seemingly) normal looking cinema seat and the show would start. However, as stuff happened on screen, the seat would move and jolt and generally throw you all around the place while Ripley was kicking the shit out of some alien on screen. It was seriously brilliant, and I still think about it to this day when I watch the film.
You’re probably thinking “What happened to it all then?” and thus comes the decline of Granada Studios Tour and eventual closure. After a decade at the top, with visitor numbers quickly dwindling, the tour was seen as a loss-making enterprise and closed for good.
One of the main reasons for the closure was down to the rather unfortunate business practices at ITV, many of which managed to lose the company millions of pounds in revenue really bloody quickly.
The main culprit was something called OnDigital, which older readers will probably remember as a rubbish new digital channel that launched in 1998.
The idea was pretty simple, but executed really rather badly. It was essentially a pay-TV service for ITV, meaning that instead of getting telly free through your normal TV aerial, you had to pay for a box and a monthly subscription fee to watch shows.
It sounds a lot like SKY really, and that’s because it was pretty much exactly the same, except without anything bloody on it. The exclusive shows were shite, and a deal made with the Football League to show footy matches on it ultimately ended up costing the company dearly – forcing it to enter into administration in 2002.
ITV had lost millions off the back of OnDigital’s demise, and so Granada Studios Tour was seen as an unnecessary expense and closed down. For years later, the site remained empty and unused again, apart from the old cinema, which I was lucky enough to have a walk around during a stint in the Costume Department of Corrie back in 2007.
Everything was still in place, and it was just how I remembered it to be as a kid. In fact, the only thing that had changed was that the site was now being used to store all of Coronation Street’s old costumes, including Les Battersby’s old denim jacket, which I slipped on and admired when nobody was looking.
When most people think of Granada Studios Tour nowadays they instantly think of the ability to walk down Coronation Street, and it was indeed the attraction’s most popular section when it was open.
After moving to MediaCity in 2013, ITV are still offering up tours of a brand-new Coronation Street set, one that has been built to a greater scale than the original Granada one, as well as adding additional internal details to allow for greater mobility and shots when filming.
2018 also saw a brand-new extension with the addition of a Victoria Street set, which features a garden and a memorial bench paying tribute to the Manchester Arena bombing 22 victims, including Coronation Street super fan Martyn Hett.
I’ve not been on the tour itself, but it looks great and I’m sure once this pandemic is out of the way, people will go flocking back to it. In the meantime, though, let’s just sit down and remember the old Granada Studios Tour for what it was.
Sure, it wasn’t as flash or impressive as the studios you’d find in LA – but it was ours and it was pure Mancunian through and through.