Stars were born on Cookson TV dramas
Catherine Cookson’s colourful page-turners proved as much a hit on the small screen as they did in book form. Marking the 20-year anniversary of the first mini-series airing, Barbara Hodgson hears from the man who made it.
IT’S now two decades since The Fifteen Streets launched what became the first in a hugely popular series of TV adaptations of Catherine Cookson’s romantic sagas.
Starring Owen Teale as a working class hero, with Sean Bean as his wayward brother, and filmed by a local crew on specially-cobbled streets in Tyneside, the drama shouted quality and the public loved it.
If anything, viewers couldn’t get enough of the South Shields author’s gritty, class-conscious romances – or historical novels as she called them.
So, 17 more mini-series followed The Fifteen Streets, helping to launch the careers of then relative unknowns such as Bean and Catherine Zeta Jones.
Those were happy days – before local TV fell victim to cash-strapped times, of course – for award-winning producer Ray Marshall who set up independent company Festival Film & TV in 1992.
He recalls his conversations with the late authoress, and the fact The Fifteen Streets was a particularly special book; one she called ‘my little miracle’ because the story had come to her in a moment of inspiration.
Ray thinks the 1989 drama “came at the right time”.
“Catherine’s popularity was at its height and she was a North East institution,” he says. “The Fifteen Streets musical was on in the West End and it seemed logical to try to bring that to the screen first.
“Catherine was very happy for us to make it and told me that if I got that right I could do some more – so the pressure was on to get it right!”
With Teale as dock worker John O’Brien, Bean was cast as his brother Dominic and Clare Holman as his love interest Mary, a teacher from a wealthy family.
Among more well-known actors, such as Billie Whitelaw and Ian Bannen, the cast also included Jane Horrocks and local talent Scott Frazer who made his acting debut as young brother Mick O’Brien. With a budget of £1.3m, Ray set about creating an authentic 1900s backdrop.
“Considering everything we had to do – cobbling entire streets, major snow scenes, filming drowning sequences in the middle of the Tyne – it was quite an achievement,” he says.
“Interestingly enough, 20 years later, if we were making it for ITV now, we would only have a budget of about £1.6m.”