Greater Manchester soap was meant to take on EastEnders - but only lasted a year

The cast of Albion Market in front of the market gate in 1986
The cast of Albion Market in front of the market gate in 1986 -Credit:ITV

It was meant to be the new Coronation Street and win a TV ratings war for ITV. But it ended up being one of the costliest flops of the 1980s.

In February 1985, the BBC had launched their new, gritty flagship TV soap opera EastEnders to immediate acclaim, with the first episode attracting 17 million viewers.

ITV's flagship Coronation Street Coronation Street, was itself pulling big audiences, but as EastEnders' popularity continued, the commercial broadcaster decided to go for an even bigger share of the soap watching audience by launching a new soap of their own.

Of course, in the mid-1980s, satellite TV broadcasting was still in its infancy in the UK, with just four main domestic TV channels in Britain - BBC1, BBC2, ITV and Channel 4. Channel 4 had only started broadcasting in 1982 and Channel 5 was still over a decade away.

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With TV audiences dominated by the two biggest channels, BBC1 and ITV, there was fierce competition for prime-time evening viewers.

So ITV turned to Granada, the Greater Manchester studio behind their most successful show, Coronation Street, for a new show. The answer Granada came up with was a soap based around a street market, set in Salford.

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The twice-weekly programme was to be based on the lives of the market folk, at work and at play. And with EastEnders dominating newspaper headlines as well as the ratings war, no expense would be spared on Albion Market, which at the time was reported to be the costliest soap opera made in Britain, costing £3 million.

The massive new set itself would cost £500,000, and was built in a 40,000 sq. ft storage warehouse near Granada Studios. In August 1985, Manchester Evening News journalist Keith Macdonald got to walk around the set and interview its designer.

To make sure the set was the best it could be, TV bosses had brought in Denis Parkin - the man who designed Coronation Street's sets, turning creator Tony Warren's dream into reality back in the '60s.

After touring the set, the journalist wrote: "Imagine if you can, that Bury market has been transplanted from its traditional site, lock, stock and customers, and deposited overnight in Water Street, alongside Granada's television studios in Manchester. Then you begin to have some small inkling of the vast scale of the permanent set for Granada's new twice-weekly drama serial, Albion Market.

TV set for Albion Market, 1986
TV set for Albion Market, 1986 -Credit:@Manchester Libraries and Local Archives

"So massive is it that, as you stroll from the garden stall to the shoe stall, from the pottery to the blouses, past the full-sized, friendly café, towards the pub... you have to keep reminding yourself that Albion Market belongs to the world of make-believe."

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The set of Albion Market even came with a 'Rovers' style pub, and upmarket wine bar-disco called Bubbles, a betting shop, and Peggy's Café. Every episode, 50 TV extras were also employed to mill about and give the feeling of a real street market.

But, despite the expectations surrounding the show, the original cast contained few household names. Of the original cast, Carol Kaye, one of the singing Kaye Sisters; Bernard Spear, a variety comedian-turned actor, and TV veteran David Hargreaves were familiar faces.

Derek Owen played by David Hargreaves in the television soap Albion Market, 1985
Long suffering market owner, Derek Owen, played by David Hargreaves in the television soap Albion Market, 1985 -Credit:TV Times/Future Publishing via Getty Images

The show was scheduled to air on Friday and Sunday evenings, with the first episode broadcast on August 30, 1985. And, in the months before it went out, the hype surrounding the show was growing.

In April 1985, Sunday Mirror journalist, Keith Richmond, wrote: "A fierce battle of the soaps is being fought by Britain's TV networks - matching anything being waged between American series rivals. Granada is preparing a new show called Albion Market to take on the BBC's hit saga EastEnders - and even its own Coronation Street."

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It was reported the show and the set were under such close guard, the cast had to sign a contract with a special clause warning 'talk to the Press and you're out.' There were also reports that in the run-up, many of the show's original storyline ideas were axed and nine of the 18 central characters were sacked for not being 'up to scratch'.

Actresses Sally Baxter (L) and Noreen Kershaw (R) in character as Lisa O'Shea and Lynne Harrison in television soap Albion Market, circa 1985
Actresses Sally Baxter (L) and Noreen Kershaw (R) in character as Lisa O'Shea and Lynne Harrison in television soap Albion Market, circa 1985 -Credit:TV Times/Future Publishing via Getty Images

There was also said to be bitterness brewing at sister soap Coronation Street - with talk of mass defections from Weatherfield to the new show, and apparent resentment at Albion Market's large budget. That reportedly caused one Corrie actor to tell the Daily Mirror: "We think it's a sick joke. We have become the poor relation. We're produced on a shoe-string budget."

Despite this, Granada Managing Director, David Plowright described the show as: "Granada's most recent missile in our programme armoury." Adding: "I'm reluctant to aim it at the BBC in its present state but I hope it will be more welcome than a call from the Home Office."

Nonetheless, the show turned out to be less of an Exocet and more of a wet firework. Despite the hype and the expense, the show was panned by critics and had underwhelming viewing figures.

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The Daily Mirror reported in October 1985, just two months after its launch, that it was attracting only four million viewers - well under par for the era. And while the Friday episode was just about holding its own against Terry Wogan's chat show, the Sunday night episode was being massacred by rival BBC comedy series Open All Hours, with 16 million viewers in the same time slot. This caused the Sunday night episode of Albion Market to be moved from its peak time viewing slot to earlier in the evening schedule.

In the same month, a reviewer for the Daily Mirror, said of that decision: "It looked like hello and goodbye to Albion Market, the ITV soap opera which came in with a bang two months ago, and then went out of everyone's minds soon afterwards. ITV seemed set to put a 'closing down' notice on it - and moved the Sunday episode off peak to six o'clock."

Anthony Booth was brought in to play a pub landlord in ITV's Albion Market, January 1986
Anthony Booth was brought in to play a pub landlord in ITV's Albion Market, January 1986 -Credit:mirrorpix

By December, the picture was even bleaker, with one Daily Mirror journalist writing: "Does the cast now outnumber viewers?" It was also announced the same month that veteran actor Tony Booth - who played Alf Garnett's layabout son-in-law in Till Death Us Do Part - and singer Helen Shapiro were being added to the cast to help draw more viewers.

In February 1986, The Sunday People reported TV bosses had given Albion Market an ultimatum - giving it six months to drastically improve its viewing figures. The news coincided with a shake up of the soap, which saw a new producer brought in and a number of the original characters axed.

But, by the summer of 1986, the inevitable announcement came that the soap was a complete flop and would be scrapped after 100 episodes.

Indeed, in June 1986, The Sunday People reported that Granada TV were inviting budding writers to come up with ideas on how to end the doomed soap as 'the regular scriptwriters can't make up their minds how to wrap it up.' The winner would be treated to an all-expenses paid trip to the set and have dinner with its outgoing stars. The final episode aired on August 24, 1986.

For years after the soap ended, the outdoor location, with its distinctive arch-shaped 'Albion Market' sign above the River Irwell, remained in place. When the Granada Studio Tours ended in 1999, the sign was removed and the building that was once Albion Market sold. It now forms part of the Victoria and Albert Hotel.

Do you remember Albion Market? Let us know in the comments section below.