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I saved The Street; He killed some of your favourite characters ...but TV's most feared axeman Brian Park says he has breathed new life into Weatherfield.

You'd expect the walls of The Axeman's office to be spattered with the blood of dead luvvies.

But there is no sign of slaughter in the kitsch, turquoise room which is dominated by life-sized pictures of Stan and Hilda Ogden - and a black and white sofa that bears an uncanny resemblance to a freesian cow.

From his vast, wing-backed chair Brian Park can see all that happens on the soap's set below him. He can see the actors, but they can't see him. Hence the fear.

It is 12 months since 43-year-old Park took over as the Coronation Street supremo - and the shock waves are still being felt.

The man who has been likened to Freddy Kruger was hated and feared not just by the Street's terrified cast, but by millions of viewers who believed he was destroying the cosy institution they believed to be their own.

But this week, Park went from devil to demi-God as Coronation Street attracted nearly 16 million viewers on one night while EastEnders pulled in less than five million.

But the road to Damascus, or in this case Weatherfield, hasn't been easy. Park had to axe more than half the Street's scriptwriters as well as some of the best-loved characters.

Dopey Derek, Don Brennan, Bill Webster, Maureen Holdsworth and Andy McDonald were all given the chop.

The missile which exploded their cosy existence was delivered quickly and cleanly by Park who, with his sandy hair and baby-face looks more teddy bear than hatchet man.

But although their end was quick, Parks admits it wasn't painless. "How could it be?" he says. ""I know I'm hurting people and in some cases ending a livelihood that has existed for 20 years.

"My job is to secure the future of the Street and if that means having to get rid of some people, then so be it.

"Of course, I have to psych myself up when I'm going to fire someone. It's very hard - especially when some people have the impression that I actually enjoy doing it.

"But the kindest thing you can do when you're sacking someone is be straight with them. There's no way of coochie-cooing the fact that you're not renewing their contract.

"Sacking comes with the territory. It's my head that's above the parapet and if I don't make the Street work it's my backside that will be kicked out. The best thing I can do for actors is try to find a way of explaining to them it isn't personal. And that's not easy - for them or me.

"These people are human beings and I know what I'm doing will affect their lives. But I can't run away from the fact that it has to be done."

Park says the decision to fire Derek, played by actor Peter Baldwin, had been talked about months before he came on board. "The feeling was that Derek and Mavis had had their day," he says.

"It was difficult telling Peter I was letting him go, especially because I had to do it on my first day in the job and because he genuinely didn't know it was going to happen.

"He was terribly upset, visibly so, and he wanted to know what he'd done wrong. But he hadn't done anything wrong. Peter is a fine actor. I know he has said that he died when his character did. But he wasn't sacked because he was a bad actor. He was sacked because there was nowhere else for Derek to go.

"I know it sounds clinical, but it was demographics. We had an ageing cast, a lot of whom were men. And some of them had to go."

Sacking one of the street's best-loved characters earned Park a string of vicious nicknames - Hatchet Man and Assassin to name but a few. But the worst insult came from one columnist who said putting him in charge of the Street was like "putting Fred West in charge of a bunch of schoolgirls".

So does the public venom wound quietly-spoken Park? "Absolutely not," he says. "I don't like hurting people. But I wasn't put in this job to be Mr Nice Guy. People must have had a vague idea that when I was put in charge of the Street it was with a brief for change."

But no-one could have imagined that for Park change equalled bloody revolution. He waited just three months after sacking Peter Baldwin to wield his axe on Maureen Andy, Bill and Don.

"That round of sackings had to be done en masse because a newspaper had got hold of the story.

"I couldn't allow a reporter to turn up on these people's doorsteps saying, 'Did you know that Brian Park is about to sack you?' I was between a rock and a hard place."

So far, Park says, none of the ousted actors have abused him or swung a punch. "But there's still time, I suppose," he says.

Before taking on The Street the sandy-haired Scot from Aberdeen had been working on a string of dramas for Granada.

He'd produced one of the Prime Suspects, a series of September Song and a comedy drama called True Love. "I got the call asking me to join the Street when I was in Australia researching a film.

"My first reaction was 'Oh God' because this job is a hell of a lot of hard work.

"It meant producing two hours of prime TV every week of the year. I wasn't scared of the challenge of the job - although it did feel it was a bit like leaping into the unknown without a parachute.

"In the end I just thought, am I going to enjoy this? And the answer was yes."

The first thing Park wanted to do to the ailing soap which had slipped back to fewer than 12 million viewers, leaving Eastenders free to storm to the top of the ratings, was to bring back big, exciting storylines.

"The programme had lost the art of telling good stories," he says. "Everyone I spoke to, including my own family who are forever ringing me up to tell me what I'm doing wrong, said 'It's fine. we'll always love it. But nothing happens'."

Park moved onto the cobbled set guns blazing and within weeks the ratings had started to race back up. And now, a year on, his bully-boy strategy has paid off - and how.

"I won't pretend I'm not proud of what I've done this year," he says. "I think the fact that the show is back on top shows I was right to do what I did.

"Of course, there were times when I was worried that maybe I'd got it wrong because the criticism was so fierce.

"But I had to hold on to my gut instinct. And I'm glad I did because now Coronation Street is back where it belongs."

So does he take credit for the new storylines which have seen Jim McDonald's affair with Fiona the hairdresser, Kevin's and Sally's marriage break- up and Deirdre's disastrous affair with the airline pilot? "There's no real authorship,"" he says. "I sit down with the scriptwriters and we work them out together. We just ping-pong ideas around until we come up with something exciting."

Park says he is particularly proud of The Battersbys. "I know everyone hated them at first. And I'll admit it, I made them so awful in the beginning because I wanted impact. And I got it.

"They arrived in the Street like the Beverley Hillbillies and got everybody's backs up. I knew we couldn't sustain that 'in-your-face' level all the time so they're toning in now, people on the Street are beginning to accommodate them."

But even though Park is riding high he says there's no room for complacency. "This time last year everyone was saying EastEnders was the best thing ever. Look at it now. The Street is a voracious machine.

"It eats up storylines so when one ends we've got to have another fantastic one to replace it."

And he has. On New Year's Eve, Deirdre will finally find out about her cheating lover's double life. "I can't say too much about it," says Park. "But there's going to be a startling development.

"And there will be massive repercussions. I mean you've seen how Deirdre's been spending on that credit card. I'll leave you to speculate on what happens to her.

"But I can promise you this story is nowhere near over." There will also be more men and more trouble for Natalie Horrocks (Denise Welch) who Park says is set to be the 90's Elsie Tanner.

"Let's just say there are a lot of men left on the Street for her to get her hooks into. She's definitely going to create trouble. There's also a hilarious Christmas storyline involving the Battersbys and a live turkey."

So will Gary and Judy Mallet's surrogate baby story end happily? "How can it?"" says Park. "They did something wrong. They shouldn't have bought Zoey's baby and there will be a price to pay."

But with a whole host of exciting new characters, Park says it's unlikely that he'll ever bring back any of the old ones - not even Julie Goodyear, who played Bet Gilroy.

"I never say never,"" he says. "But bringing back Bet is not on the cards. It's wrong to go back. I'd feel I'd failed if I had to do that."

Park says it's sometimes hard for him to believe he's doing the job he is. "I used to watch the Street with my granny in Arbroath when I was a little boy,"" he says.

"It was when Ena Sharples, Minnie Caldwell and Martha Longhurst were in their heyday.

"Even when I first started working at Granada I'd see Doris Speed, who played Annie Walker, and Pat Phoenix (Elsie Tanner) in the canteen.

"It's a strange feeling being in charge of a show that had such a big impact on the lives of me and my family.

"Even now, I get feedback from the Peterhead British Legion Club where my Mum and Dad are members. They ring every week to tell me what the club members like and don't like about the Street.

"I'm proud of what I've achieved here. I think my granny would have been too. And Coronation Street never had a bigger fan than my granny."

12m

January: Brian Park takes over on the Street as the viewing figures languish at around 12 million

16.5m

April: Millions more tune is as Brian kills off Dopey Derek (Peter Baldwin)

18m

April: The drama bites even deeper as Don (Geoff Hinsliff) tries to kill Alma (Amanda Barrie)

16.5m

July: Natalie (Denise Welch) and Sally (Sally Whittaker) have a cat fight on the doorstep

17.7m

November: Jilted Fiona (Angela Griffin) confronts Alan (Glenn Hugill) and Jim (Charles Lawson)

15.8m

December: The Street storms 11million ahead of EastEnders as Kevin (Michael Le Vell) lashes out at love-rival Chris (Matthew Marsden)
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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Malone, Carole
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Dec 21, 1997
Words:1835
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