Liverpool-born ‘Corrie’ writer talks to YM Liverpool – Jan McVerry interview
As a long-time writer on ITV’s ‘Coronation Street’, Orrell Park-born Jan McVerry has been behind more than 200 episodes of the nation’s best loved soap.
We caught up with the storyliner putting a scouse stamp on Manchester’s greatest export to discover how she got her big break, her favourite Weatherfield resident and how she helped create one of telly’s nastiest villains.
Interview by Lawrence Saunders
When did you realise you wanted a career in television?
I thought I was going to be an English teacher actually. I went to university in Sheffield to study English and Spanish but I loved drama.
I did a bit [of drama] at uni but despite having done a lot of it at school, I felt very intimidated. Everybody in the drama group seemed very posh, middle class and confident.
I bottled it a bit really and kind of stepped away [from drama].
I lived in Barcelona as part of my year abroad and taught English as a foreign language with no training – I totally blagged my way into the job.
I realised teaching was actually really hard and [at the same time] I became more and more interested in writing.
But coming from the background that I did – my dad was in the civil service, my mum was a school cleaner and we didn’t know anyone in the media – I never thought I could be a writer.
“I got my first break working on ‘Brookside’ as a script continuity assistant.”
How did you get your first job in the industry?
I had a lucky break. I was working for a recruitment agency during the day, and then in the evening I saw as many plays as possible and attended night school.
We were really lucky because brilliant writers would come in and talk to us, and one of them was Jimmy McGovern.
He was so charismatic, honest and frank with us – he just told us how it was.
I loved his writing but I was completely blown away by his charisma, passion and his anger.
A few weeks later I was in The Beehive on Mount Pleasant with a mate of mine, Joe Ainsworth (BAFTA award-winning writer), and we saw Jimmy.
We’d had a few drinks so we plucked up the courage to go over. I said ‘you’re Jimmy McGovern aren’t ya?’, which I now think might be the stupidest thing anyone has ever said.
But he stood and chatted to us for ages and was really encouraging. He even gave us his address and said ‘send me some of your work’.
He got Joe some work with Phil Redmond which led onto some other writing for ‘Brookside’.
I wasn’t as developed as a writer as Joe but [Jimmy] put a word in for me with Phil.
Later on – not because of Jimmy, but it helped further down the line – I got my first break working on ‘Brookside’ as a script continuity assistant.
How did you end up at ‘Coronation Street’?
Telly is a very small world and it’s very fluid – people move on and take people they’ve worked with.
They were looking for writers at Granada for an afternoon show which was run by Kay Mellor called ‘Families’.
It was a really cheap programme which was set half in Cheshire and half in Australia. They used all the same sets and just made the lighting a bit brighter for the scenes ‘down under’.
From there I went to storyline for ‘Coronation Street’, where I’ve been on and off for over 20 years now.
What was the writing setup like when you first joined?
It was very hierarchical. There was only one woman, and three older white men who really dominated the stories.
I was told when I joined ‘don’t speak for the first three months – storyliners don’t speak for the first three months’.
I was like ‘what if I’ve got a good idea?’, but it was very much ‘know your place’. Coming from Liverpool though, I spoke in the first meeting of course!
Who is your favourite character to write for on the show?
Currently it’s David Platt, played by Jack P. Shepherd. He’s such an amazing actor; you can give him everything. His humour is so dark, bleak and brilliant.
He’s very funny and dry but you can give him amazing dramatic stories and he will just play them so brilliantly.
I quite often work with another Liverpool writer, Jonathan Harvey, and together we pitched a story for David which was a male rape story.
Jack played it absolutely brilliantly – it was really fantastic.
I would say David is my favourite character [to write for], but prior to that it was Pat Phelan because I invented his character.
Pat Phelan has been voted the soap’s greatest ever villain by fans. What gave you the idea for the character?
The man who was building the extension on my house told me about the cowboy builders he’d worked for in the past.
He told me about serial bankrupt offenders who stiff people all the time and I just thought it would be great for a character.
We wrote a story about Gary Windass (Mikey North) and Owen Armstrong (Ian Puleston-Davies) who were running a small building firm, when Pat Phelan comes along.
The story was only meant to last a fortnight, but he was so brilliant that six months later one of our writers pitched a two-year story which brought Pat back as a much more sinister character who was going to torment the Windass family.
It ended up being one of our most popular stories – it was brilliant.
“I was told when I joined ‘don’t speak for the first three months – storyliners don’t speak for the first three months’.”
There are some people who claim scousers play an inordinate proportion of the villains on ‘Coronation Street’. Are they right?
Not all the baddies are scousers and I think as a city we are quite sensitive about how we are portrayed.
I can see why [people complain over the number of scouse villains] but we are also giving people really amazing, juicy roles with three dimensions and giving Liverpool actors a chance to shine.
Quite often an actor will come in to play a small part and if we like them we will bring them back and use them again and again.
To mark the launch of film-making charity Clapperboard UK’s #MeToo Media Merseyside project you appeared in conversation alongside Maxine Peake. Why is it important to support an organisation like Clapperboard?
Clapperboard is just fantastic. It brings [into the creative industries] people from black and ethnic minorities, people from the disability communities and working class people.
It’s an organisation which, unfortunately, is becoming more and more important.
Especially now [for working class people] with the way funding goes and how difficult it is to get into drama school – even getting an audition for drama school can cost £150 plus travel down to London.
Here in the North West, we as writers have a philosophy of paying it forward and helping people along the way if we can, rather than blocking all the entrances and stopping any competitors.