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Julie Goodyear, who played barmaid Bet Lynch, outside the show's iconic pub, the Rovers Return Inn, in 1986.

The past half-century has been one long test of British pluck for the working-class denizens of Coronation Street.

The venerable soap notches its 50th birthday on British television on Thursday and viewers who follow the show in this country - and they are legion - can attest that the show's blue-collar characters have been put through the wringer over the years.

Since its debut on Dec. 9, 1960, Coronation Street ( Corrie to the fans) has produced countless character couplings, many of which have resulted in weddings (86) and births (37).

Along the way, the show's run has also brought an inordinate number of deaths (118, according to one tally), along with innumerable kidnappings, blackmailings, swindles and other woes. The secret to the show's longevity lies in its ability to repackage the heartaches for each new generation of viewers.

"People keep watching Corrie in Canada and Britain because they keep storylines young and real," says design diva Debbie Travis, who hosts the special Corrie Crazy: Canada Loves Coronation Street (CBC, Thursday at 8 p.m.). "Young viewers can relate to the stories about teen pregnancy and students getting thrown out of school, and at the moment the show has really gone down this avenue of current storylines. It's not just for people who have watched it for 40 years."

And what doesn't destroy the sturdy people of Weatherfield - a fictional neighbourhood in Manchester - only makes more people watch. In Britain there are upward of 20 million viewers, and the show holds commensurately healthy audiences in Ireland, New Zealand and Australia.

Despite several attempts, it's never taken off on American television. In Canada, however, a recent CBC ratings check indicates the show pulls roughly 775,000 viewers nightly for the network's early-evening broadcast - an increase of 18 per cent over last year, and a number that means that this season one in five Canadians have tuned in to the show. That's about the same as CBC's primetime broadcast of The Tudors and about 350,000 more than Being Erica.

Only in Canada, you say?

"The fact Coronation Street has never found an audience in the U.S. is simply another difference between Canadians and Americans," says Travis, who was born in Northern England and raised in a neighbourhood much like the one depicted on Coronation Street. "Most Americans watch television to find something to aspire to - they really want that beautiful dress on Dallas. Canadians watch Corrie because they can relate, not necessarily to a back street in England, but they relate to the hardships and everyday life."

Certainly, no matter how outlandish the plotline, life always goes on at the show's epicentre, the Rovers Return - the local pub where characters gather to quaff pints, share their troubles and gossip. Forget tea and sympathy, this is the real world.

In the tribute special, Travis interviews media watchers, broadcast executives, academics and, of course, more than a few hard-core fans. She also tours the Canadian naval vessel HMCS Fredericton, which has scores of Corrie fans on board.

Likely the most telling segment comes with Travis's visit to The British Isles Show held in Toronto earlier this year, where an appearance by Corrie stars Katherine Kelly and Antony Cotton - who play Rovers barmaid Becky and barkeep Sean - drew long queues of autograph seekers.

"Honestly, you'd have thought Miley Cyrus was in the house," says Travis.

If nothing else, the Corrie fandom is devoted. Canadian viewers regularly exchange opinions on the series via websites and fan blogs, even though the storylines here are 10 months behind the British broadcasts (thanks to CBC bumping the show for the Olympics and other special events).

Of late, much of the buzz for Canadian viewers has stemmed from the storyline surrounding a coldhearted bloke named Tony Gordon (Gray O'Brien), who just might be a serial killer. Across the pond, meanwhile, the fate of several beloved Corrie regulars is currently in question following a spectacular tram crash; coverage of the fictional catastrophe made front-page news in the English newspapers last week.

Regardless of the time lag, either plotline will end up as fodder for discussion over pints at the Rovers, which likely explains both Coronation Street's longevity and its unique viewer involvement.

"That strong sense of community is probably why the show is more popular than ever these days," Travis says. "It's a warmth you don't really see in England or Canada any more. Corrie takes viewers right into this tight-knit community - with the factory at one end, the shop at the other end and the pub in between - all on the same street. Wouldn't we all love for that to be real?"

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