When I was asked ''Do you fancy a day in The Rover's Return this Christmas?'', it took a fraction of a millisecond to say yes. If nowt else I was open to the possibility of uncovering some juicy backstage dirt. Purely in the name of investigative reporting of course.
The politically correct term for them these days is ''background artistes''. Everyone still calls them ''extras'' though to be honest. They are the people you see in movies and TV shows, fleshing out the screen and adding depth and presence; whether the thousands of mourners in the funeral scene in Gandhi or a handful of punters in the pub on Coronation Street.
I must say I am not the most regular of viewers these days but Corrie will always have a special place in my heart. Still going strong after over 50 years of existence, it's influence and importance can not be overstated. On a personal note, I remember how it was the only telly show my dear old mum considered unmissable. I'm also old enough to get a touch misty eyed at the slightest mention of Elsie Tanner (aka The Greatest TV Character Ever).
Production of the show has moved out of Manchester in recent years to a purpose built studio complex at Media City, Salford. The studio is just yards away from BBC North and the legendary cobbles and familiar terraced houses are a stones throw from the sleek glass and metal, Blader Runner-esque buildings of Salford Quays.
On arrival at reception, extras are ushered into a nearby area called The Hub, a holding area where we await further instruction. With its white and bright orange walls, it is not dissimilar to the breakfast room of a budget hotel. Trays of ITV branded mugs sit in a small kitchen area, next to a fridge crammed with milk and loaves of bread. After making coffee and toast, it was time to sit and wait to be told the plan for the day.
Young assistants, or runners, rush in and out in their unofficial uniform of hoodies, battered jeans and Converse. They clutch clipboards loaded with lists and wear headsets constantly connecting them to the show's Mission Control, as vital as life support to the smooth running of a logistical juggernaut like The Street. The runners are friendly enough but have the brisk, no nonsense manner of people well drilled in getting disparate tribes of people from A to B with minimum fuss on a daily basis.
I asked our runner, Paul, if the novelty of working on Corrie ever wore off.
''It does become just a job, yeah. But when you tell someone where you work and see the reaction, you remember it is a cool place to be working.''
Paul took us across into the studio, a vast low ceiling hangar like space. Off the main walkway are the individual sets; rows of plywood boxes with words like ''The Kabin'' and ''Bookies Flat'' written on the back of them. Moving through the studio, I caught brief glimpses of familiar rooms through gaps in the flimsy walls.
After a brief delay, we were taken onto our set; The Rover's Return. An obvious statement but the first impression was that it looks just like it does on the telly but smaller and darker.
The scenes we were filming were short and light in tone. They were for the Christmas episodes, so the pub was festively decorated including a string of silver tinsel around the picture of the much missed Betty Turpin on the wall. That made the inner long term viewer inside me go “Aw''.
Us extras were briefed on what we were doing and when and where to move and work on the scenes commenced very shortly after. Film and TV making can be notoriously slow moving and exacting, but turning out over two hours of television a week Coronation Street is factory like in approach. Flubbed lines or technical hitches cause only the briefest of breaks in the production line and it resumes at a relentless pace.
From my privileged position as ''Man At Bar Reading Wetherfield Gazette'' I eavesdropped as the regular cast on set gossiped, joked and chatted between takes. Listening in it all seemed to me so, for want of a better word, normal. As they discussed weekend plans and showed each other You Tube clips on their phones, it felt exactly like the light, time killing banter that takes place in a million other workplaces day in and day out. Although not many workplaces have a cabinet packed full of BAFTAs and Royal Television Society Awards in the foyer admittedly. The cast shared private jokes, talked about family and gently teased each other; the universal language of professional colleagues who get on well together.
It stands to reason actually. With their grinding schedules and constant demands, Coronation Street and the other long running soaps are the actor's equivalent of a 9 to 5 office job. And just like in any other place of work, there is even a spot of office politics as I overheard a couple of long standing stars having a grumble about management. Discretion of course prevents me from naming names. That and I would quite like to be invited back one day.
So I can't say I was privy to any major revelations or noteworthy nuggets of gossip during my visit to The Rovers. However next time I read one of the show's stars tell an interviewer how the cast are One Big Happy Family, I'm now slightly less likely to write it off as PR bull and roll my eyes in cynicism.
This Christmas On Coronation Street:
Will Gary Ruin Christmas? Does Kylie stand to lose everything? Find out in the Christmas Day Episode on ITV1 at 8pm.
By Richard Glen