Memory Lane: Ena wows crowds

Some of the 23 cast members of Coronation Street, pictured in Manchester, ready for their outing to Blackpool

Some of the 23 cast members of Coronation Street, pictured in Manchester, ready for their outing to Blackpool

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It was the happiest, liveliest and gayest Switch-On of all...

No, not a summing up of last night’s festivities with comedy creation Keith Lemon, but The Gazette headline 50 years ago.

And who was doing the honours in September 1961?

Bispham actress Violet Carson – known to millions as Coronation Street battleaxe Ena Sharples – supported by 23 members of the TV soap cast, who had travelled from Granada’s Manchester studios in an open top double deck bus, decorated all round to represent Corrie’s brick walls.

When Violet had been announced as that year’s celebrity, Mayor Coun Clifford Cross described her as “one of our best loved residents”, adding: “We have decided to pay this tribute to her long public service in the fields of radio and television entertainment, and, at the same time, compliment the country’s most popular and successful television programme.”

Miss Carson told The Gazette: “I believe I am really doing it on behalf of ‘The Street’ and, as ‘the old bag’, I am going to do the actual job of switching on.

“As a matter of fact, I am having a bit of a friendly fight with the Corporation over this.

“They want me to appear as Ena Sharples, hairnet and the lot.

“I want to be myself for a change. I don’t know who is going to win, but I hope I shall.”

In the end there was something of a truce, or perhaps a draw, because the crowds in Talbot Square – free to come and go without any need of Friday’s balloted tickets – saw both.

As The Gazette reported: “Thousands of faithful fans had the double pleasure of seeing the guest of honour perform a quick Jekyll and Hyde transformation from an elegantly-gowned Miss Carson into Ena, complete with old raincoat and hairnet.”

And, unlike the current razzmatazz format of live radio broadcasts with big chart names, in 1961 the proceedings got under way with rousing community singing, led by MC Wilf Wells, Harry Pope on accordion and singer Cliff Aldersley.

Then representatives of 20 Commonwealth countries, in Britain for their parliamentary conference, received “a warm Lancashire welcome” as they took their VIP seats, their countries announced one by one by the Mayor.

It was down to Bill Grundy, of People and Places (a forerunner to Granada Reports) to introduce each of the Coronation Street cast before Miss Carson came to the stage.

She told the crowds: “So here I am in wonderful Blackpool, playground of all people. She is a lovable town, our Blackpool, very warm-hearted and very lovable indeed. Her Lights, her Illuminations, embody her spirit.”

Then she switched on the Lights with the words: “Let us be gay. It is our night. We are going to put the Lights on. Bless you all. Please God, for our children and for our children’s children may they never fail to shine.”

As the seafront burst into colour, Violet briefly left the platform, re-appearing amid even greater cheers as the one and only Ena Sharples.

“Shut up!” she shouted to the delighted crowds, with her fiercest television scowl. “I’m going in me ‘air net and in me raincoat. Very nice to see you all. ‘ave a good time. Ta, ta.”

The launch of the 1961 Illuminations had been in jeopardy because of a pay dispute involving the department’s electricians, who had threatened an overtime ban when refused a pay increase of 6d (2.5p) an hour.

At the 11th hour, normal working was resumed pending discussions between management and union.