If there ever was a question why Karl Wells is a fan of “Coronation Street” it might have something to do with the way he grew up. Born in Buchans, Newfoundland, he moved with his family to St. John’s and spent a large portion of his impressionable days of childhood living in an apartment above his father’s grocery store at 75 Golf Avenue.
Wells’ Groceteria was the hub of neighbourhood information – gossip, innuendo and the dirt that never reached the local papers. This was back in the day when everyone knew the grocer and the grocer knew everyone, whether he wanted to or not. Not unlike merchants of “Coronation Street”: Dev Alahan, the owner of D&S Alahan's Corner Shop; or Norris Cole, the nosey operator of The Kabin corner store. On the show, these characters are always within sight or earshot of everything that takes place on the street and are generally privy to what some might consider an unhealthy dose of information.
“People came to our shop every day and bought stuff and they were the same people over and over and you knew them. They were your neighbours. They were your friends,” says Karl. “They’d come in and buy a half pound of boiled ham and Dad would slice it off, wrap it up, tie it in string, write the price on it and give it to them. They’d probably have a chat about what was happening down the street or something that was going on with Mrs. so-and-so, you know, her mother had a stroke, or whatever. All the neighbourhood gossip and news was communicated in our shop. I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s and that’s the kind of life I remember – and that’s the kind of life that’s portrayed on ‘Coronation Street.’”
Karl is best known for his 30 years as the weatherman on the CBC evening news in Newfoundland and Labrador. Since his retirement from CBC, he has also been hosting a cooking show from his home on Topsail Road in St. John’s. He says his passion for food and cooking has been lifelong. Just like his interest in “Coronation Street,” it stems from his childhood, when his father worked as a cook on the trains.
“Coronation Street” dual citizenship
The first episode of “Coronation Street” aired in Britain on December 9, 1960. Initially scorned by critics, the show soon proved to be the dark horse that would dominate television in the UK for the next half a century.
Not long after the show took off in Britain, two CBC producers – one from Newfoundland, the other from P.E.I. – happened upon a pilot episode at a convention and decided to take a chance on the quirky unconventional soap in their respective local markets. Karl recalls watching the show in black-and-white, and that before the end of the 1960s, he had already fallen in love with it.
The “Coronation Street” tours
In recent years, Karl’s involvement in “Coronation Street” has risen to something other than faithful viewer. He’s been involved in bringing characters from the show to their Canadian fans.
A high school friend of Karl’s, Andrew Stuckless, had been involved in bringing characters to Halifax to meet the local fan club. He managed to piggyback the arrangement with a major British Isles trade show in Toronto that brought actors over to sign autographs. The promoter in Toronto agreed to the stopover in Halifax because it gave the actors the chance to acclimate themselves with Canada prior to the Toronto show. It also broke up the long flight from England to Toronto.
Meanwhile, Karl had already organized a couple of fan club-style events in St. John’s for “Coronation Street” enthusiasts. He teamed up with Andrew and his company, Stroll Promotions, and they started bringing the British soap stars over on their own.
Karl with Coronation Street's Bruce Jones (Les Battersby)
In 2007, Jenny McAlpine (“Fizz” on the show) met fans at the Delta Hotel in St. John’s. It was a sold-out event. A second show brought Bruce Jones (“Les Battersby”) and a third show in 2010 introduced Antony Cotton (“Shaun Tully”) and Katherine Kelly (“Becky McDonald”) to the local fan base.
Karl poses with Coronation Street's Katherine Kelly (Becky) and Antony Cotton (Sean).
Karl emcees the talk show-style events, where audience members also get a chance to ask the stars a few questions. Anyone purchasing VIP tickets gets front row seats and a chance to meet the stars backstage.
“There’s no show like this in the UK, and there was no show in Canada until we created it,” Karl explains.
Canada is often mentioned on “Coronation Street” and always with high regard. And Karl says that so far, the stars appreciate coming to a place like St. John’s because they can walk around without being swarmed by fans, unlike at home in England. They enjoy the level of obscurity here and the politeness shown to them even when they are recognized as a celebrity.
Karl and Coronation Street's Jennie McAlpine (Fiz Stape)
We the fans
“Coronation Street” followers in Newfoundland and Labrador fall along a broad spectrum. Karl says that from his experience, the fans are of all ages and “not just women. There are a lot of men who watch ‘Coronation Street,’” he says. The show’s popularity is proven by the fact that in terms of generating revenue for CBC across Canada, it is behind only “Hockey Night in Canada” and “The National.”
“That says it all,” Karl quips. “I think it has to do with the fact that the characters are not plastic. If you watch an American soap opera, you see characters that are beyond beautiful. They’ve never got a hair out of place. And the situations they get into are not real. I’m not saying the ‘Coronation Street’ situations are real either. They just look more real. People go out and pick up a plate of chips and they eat their chips on the sidewalk. They get fat, they drink beer and they get into fights, and it’s just a more realistic kind of portrayal.”
Roy and Hayley on "Coronation Street"
As for whether or not “Coronation Street” is a fair representation of life in England, Karl says no way. “I don’t think it’s much like that these days. It kind of hearkens back to a simpler time, which is another reason I think people like it, because it’s all so simple. It’s community. You do your job. You cut people’s hair. You work in the corner store and sell newspapers and magazines. Lunchtime you go over to the pub, you gossip a bit; you have a hot pot. It’s a less complicated way of living.
“You can kind of picture yourself in ‘Coronation Street,’ but you can’t really picture yourself in ‘The Young and the Restless.’”
Next month, Karl will again play host to the actors and the fans. An Audience with the Croppers, featuring the characters Roy and Hayley Cropper (played by David Neilson and Julie Hesmondalgh), will kick off its eastern Canada tour at Holy Heart Theatre in St. John’s on April 17, followed by shows in Halifax, Ottawa and Mississauga.
Want to win tickets to An Audience with the Croppers? Click here to enter.