Coronation Street producer Phil Collinson has spoken out following recent press speculation about the ITV1 soap.

Reports at the weekend suggested that viewers had begun to desert the show – due in large part to the arrival of Michelle Collins and the Rovers’ barmaid Stella Price.

Many have criticised Michelle’s accent in the soap, saying she’s unconvincing as a Northerner.

But Phil stands by the decision to cast Michelle, saying: “We interviewed lots of actresses for the role and screen tested six and we (Phil and senior execs at ITV), believed Michelle’s performance was the best.”

He added: “We are delighted with Michelle and her performance and hope that she will stay with us for a long time. Michelle is a well-respected actress and we’re lucky and pleased to have her as part of the cast.”

Phil is certain that once Stella and husband Karl – played by ex-Taggart star John Michie – have settled in on screen, they will become more popular with audiences and critics.

He said: “When the Battersbys arrived, a newspaper’s poll showed 97 per cent of people wanted them to leave. Leanne has gone on to become one of the most-loved characters in the show. It always takes time. I am convinced audiences will take both Stella and Karl to their hearts.”

Phil also confirmed that viewing figures for the soap had actually increased since Stella’s arrival, up eight per cent on the same period in 2010.

And responding to a recent newspaper article by critic Brian Sewell about the number of gay characters in the soap, Phil states that only four characters out of 65 are gay.