From soap to sit-com, to dot-com

May 5, 2000

It began as an exercise in html, but grew into a cyber-monster. Olga Wojtas reports on the rise and rise of

By day, Graham Allsopp is chief cartographer in Sheffield University's geography department. He prepares maps and graphs and charts from a huge range of data for research and teaching, not only for geography, but for the university as a whole.

By night, he is an avid Coronation Street fan. This is not unusual: the vintage soap, set in a fictional suburb of Manchester, attracts 18 million viewers per episode. But Allsopp's interest involves more than sitting in front of the television for half an hour four times a week. In 1995, he founded a website for other fans, which has evolved into a staggeringly popular site across the world,

Allsopp keeps his Corrie interests firmly divorced from his university work. But he admits that working on the geography website for the university stimulated his foray into cyberspace. He realised that html (hypertext mark-up language), which allows documents to be represented in a graphical form on a worldwide web browser, was a perfect vehicle for information about the soap's characters.

"Html meant a document could have a number of links from it, and it mirrored the life of the characters in a peculiar way," he says. Ken Barlow, for example, played by Bill Roache, the only surviving character who appeared in the first episode 40 years ago, has become the street's lothario with a total of 21 screen lovers. Website readers can click on links to them, from exotic dancer Pip Mistral to headmaster's daughter Elaine Perkins.

"In the whole fabric of his life, I imagine there are about a hundred links. On a page, if you need to find out who Elaine Perkins is, you have to read through the Ps, and then look back to the Bs. But html is an ideal way of presenting it, because people can browse and then come back quickly and easily to where they were," he says.

"I started it as an experiment in html, really, and it grew from there. I put a few pages up on the worldwide web, and I remember in 1996 having the thrill of 4,000 readers a month. In those days, that was beyond my wildest dreams." The site has now expanded from a Who's Who of actors and characters, written by Allsopp, to a cornucopia of episode updates, previews, and a chatroom for fans, involving a team of 20 people. "I'm still in charge of profiles, but beyond that other people are doing most of the work and I'm acting as central clearing house editor. It's a very complex site to manage. We must have over 15,000 files."

The site attracts 600,000 hits a month from about 100,000 individuals. This has obliged Allsopp to shift it from its original University of Sheffield server. Christine Sexton, Sheffield's director of corporate information and computing services, says: "We obviously give members of staff personal web space. But got bigger and bigger, and perhaps it was becoming slightly embarrassing to have it on our server. It was ultimately agreed to have it moved."

But the link has not been entirely lost, with Sheffield still holding's entry on the domain name system, the internet equivalent of the telephone directory. Earlier this month, the machine controlling this failed and the address defaulted to the university homepage, to which hundreds of fans were redirected for about 12 hours. Sexton is not entirely dismayed by the problem. "From my point of view, the more people we have looking at the university website the better. When it was on our server, Graham always acknowledged that and had a link to our homepage."

Allsopp has to seek internet service providers that are free or minimal cost because is resolutely non-profit making. Many avaricious dot-com outfits can only envy such a large regular readership, but Allsopp insists he has never thought about the site's commercial value. It now accepts some advertising (Allsopp prefers the word "sponsorship") that "just about covers all of our costs". Coronation Street's producer, Granada, views with "benign tolerance", he says, "but if we were making a significant amount of money out of it, I'm sure its attitude would change."

A third of users come from the United Kingdom, while a quarter come from Canada, where episodes lag eight weeks behind the UK. "There's a huge following there," Allsopp says. "A lot of the impetus to keep the website going was from Canadians, who have the highest per head internet connections in the world. It has a very different model for internet provision, with free access. A significant proportion of our readers in Canada are retired women. About 50 per cent of our readership is female, which is unusual for the internet, and we have a huge age range, from 11 to 80."

There are expatriate readers in places such as Singapore, Hong Kong and the United Arab Emirates, but there are also hits from such unlikely places as Macedonia, Azerbaijan, and Fiji. "One reader is in a top secret military station in the north of Sweden where they seem to sit watching TV all day."

The soap was an integral part of Allsopp's life, growing up in Manchester in the 1960s. These days it attracts academic interest, particularly from media studies and sociology departments, with Allsopp frequently approached for help by postgraduates. "The internet is now seen as an information repository. Websites tend to be the first port of call now, the first reference tool we use," he says. "And Coronation Street is used as an examination of Britain over the past 40 years, a microcosm of how the north of England in particular has changed."

Allsopp acknowledges it is by no means an accurate mirror of the area of Salford that was its supposed model. But he believes it is nonetheless a "useful barometer", with a shift from a street in which everyone was white, working class and employed, to one with a much wider social spectrum, including single-parent families, professional people and ethnic minorities.

The drama itself reflects social attitudes, Allsopp believes. "It was more violent in the 1960s, there was far more fighting, women being slapped round the face. This was shown on screen, but now the violence has been toned down and is more implicit. It very much reflected the gritty 1960s kitchen-sink dramas, and then in the 1970s, Coronation Street realised that comedy was one of its fortes," Allsopp says.

"It has one main purpose, and that is to entertain. It differs significantly from other dramas such as EastEnders in having more of an entertainment ethos. It is escapism that people enjoy, and I think it should be celebrated for that."

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