It is one of those apocryphal stories that passes into the mists of showbusiness legend. Four years after taking on the then irregular role of Jack Duckworth in Coronation Street, William Tarmey had a bit part in Granada Television's 1983 production of King Lear. He was sitting on a horse next to the star, Laurence Olivier, who recognised him and asked: "What the bloody hell are you doing here?" The actor replied: "It's what they call experience, Sir." Olivier just smiled and shook his hand.
Such deference and modesty was typical of Tarmey, who never let sudden fame as a soap star go to his head. His role in Coronation Street came after a long struggle to make it as an entertainer and Tarmey's screen partnership with Elizabeth Dawn, as the feuding but funny Jack and Vera Duckworth, was one of television's great comedy double acts. The pair immediately established a rapport, as Dawn explained about shooting their first scenes together on location.
I was freezing, so I stood right up against the heater and my crimplene shirt kept brushing on to it. It caught fire... suddenly Bill grabbed me and threw me on the floor and started slapping my backside. I screamed. I thought, 'I'm sure this isn't in the script. He must have flipped.' Bill said, 'I'm sorry, but you're on fire.' And of course we had a great laugh about that. It was a real ice-breaker between us because we both saw the funny side straight away. It was the start of what has been for me a wonderful partnership."
Born in Ardwick, Manchester, in 1941, Tarmey began life as William Piddington and grew up in the working-class Bradford district of the city. When he was three his father, William, was killed during wartime service as an ambulance driver with the Royal Army Service Corps in the Netherlands, and his mother, Lilian, later married their next-door neighbour, Robert Cleworth, an able seaman.
One of the youngster's school reports read: "This boy is wasting space." At 15, he went to building college and tried to put right those wasted years. "I realised I was totally thick," he recalled. "Four of us went to the head and asked for extra lessons – he couldn't believe what he was hearing." He was then apprenticed to his stepfather in the building trade and worked as an asphalt spreader.
Shortly afterwards, fuelled by his experience in a church choir and a rock band, the teenager started singing in clubs and cabaret in the evenings. As well as giving solo performances, he worked with dance bands and jazz quartets. One Stockport club owner decided his name was too long to bill on a board and changed it to William Tarmey – "after that famous American singer, Mel Tarmey". (In fact, Tormé.)
In 1968, his wife and childhood sweetheart, Alma (whom he called Ali), persuaded him to give up his work in the building trade and try to make it as a professional performer. Guaranteed a small income from the grocery and hardware shop that she ran, he helped her there by day, although they eventually lost it in a redevelopment scheme.
After suffering a major heart attack in 1976, Tarmey returned to show business as a compère at Manchester City's social club. A friend who was an extra in television programmes suggested that he could get similar work and he appeared in that capacity, as well as taking bit parts, in Strangers, Crown Court, The Ghosts of Motley Hall, The Glamour Girls, the sitcom Chintz (as a railway porter, 1981) and a Play for Today production, "Thicker Than Water" (as an abbatoir slaughterman, 1980). "I was always the guy with the gun, the guy with the mad dog, the guy that got shot," he said. Tarmey also performed as a singer in the BBC1 talent series Rising Stars (1979).
From 1976, he was seen as an extra in Coronation Street, often throwing darts in the Rovers Return, and eventually took a bit-part as Jack Rowe (1978), who accompanied his friend, the violent and jealous Dave Barnes, on a visit to the pub to "warn" Ken Barlow against teaching Dave's wife to read and write.
Then in 1979 Tarmey was offered the role of Jack Duckworth, whose wife, Vera, was employed as a machinist at Mike Baldwin's factory and had been seen in the serial since 1974. After being introduced as the character at Gail and Brian Tilsley's wedding, he appeared on and off for four years until, in 1983, he became a regular cast member when the Duckworths, complete with their ne'er-do-well son Terry (Nigel Pivaro), moved into No 9 Coronation Street. (Tarmey soon had to give up regular singing work with the Take Ten Orchestra & Singers, under the bandleader Gerry Jones.)
Jack worked as a taxi-driver, then a shirt-seller on a market stall, before Vera bought him Stan Ogden's window-cleaning round, which lasted until his fling with a customer, Dulcie Froggatt (Marji Campi), came to an end when he broke his ankle in falling off a ladder on the way to her bedroom. In becoming a cellarman at the Rovers Return, he found the working environment to his liking and spent many hours alone below the pub, ensuring that the beer was of the finest quality. The loudmouthed, aggressive Jack of the early years graduallly mellowed and showed a more sensitive side.
Finally, in 1995, the Duckworths realised their dream and bought the pub with an inheritance from Jack's brother, Clifford (Dave King), satisfying his own love of ale and Vera's yearning for social standing. To no one's surprise, the couple lacked business acumen and, after being landed with a £17,000 VAT bill, went into partnership with Alec Gilroy (Roy Barraclough), a former landlord. The trio constantly argued and Alec eventually bought them out, before selling the Rovers to Natalie Barnes (Denise Welch). Jack and Vera found refuge in bed-and-breakfast accommodation but later bought back No 9, their true home, replete with gaudy stone cladding.
Like Vera, Jack had his pretensions, stemming from his years as a crooner in Manchester pubs and clubs, an experience passed from Tarmey's own CV to that of the character. Many Coronation Street viewers still fondly remember the 1983 episodes in which Jack, who always fancied himself as a Casanova, went to a video dating agency in the guise of a singer, "Vince St Clair", complete with gold-plated chest medallion. Bet Lynch (Julie Goodyear) visited the same agency, saw his video and goaded Vera into doing the same, with the result that she arranged a date with Jack in the Rovers, posing as the widowed "Carole Monro" in red wig, red dress, fur coat and high heels. When she turned round to reveal her true identity, Jack had to take a bashing from Vera's handbag.
The relationship between the couple was built on their constant bickering but ultimate love for one another. "He's a bit dim, he's very naïve," explained Tarmey of Jack. "He thinks he's God's gift to everything. But he wouldn't do anyone any harm."
Tarmey's screen partnership with Elizabeth Dawn – another former club performer – extended into the recording studio when they made a single together, "I'll Be With You Soon" (1989). Three years later, he released The Other Side of Me, a tape containing his performances of 11 pop classics. His subsequent albums included A Gift of Love, Down Home (1997), Time for Love (1998), After Hours (1996) and In My Life (2001). He had a Top 20 hit single with "One Voice" (1993) and also made the charts in 1994 with "Wind Beneath My Wings" and "IOU".
In 1989, Tarmey was invited to sing with the Hallé Orchestra, at Manchester's G-Mex, and the Huddersfield Philharmonic. In his later years, he also enjoyed performing vocals with a jazz trio at his local pub, the Broadoak Hotel, in Ashton-under-Lyne.
The actor was constantly dogged by heart problems. Eleven years after his cardiac arrest, he underwent quadruple by-pass surgery and, in July 2002, another by-pass operation followed. He left Coronation Street in 2010 partlly because of his own health problems and partly to care for his son Nigel, who was ill with cancer. In the episode of 8 November that year Jack died in his sleep in his chair, just as Vera had done two years before. Dawn made a final appearance as the spirit of Vera and the pair enjoyed a final dance.Tarmey's autobiography, Being Jack – My Life on the Street and Other Adventures had just been published.
William Piddington (William Tarmey), actor and singer: born Ardwick, Manchester 4 April 1941; married 1962 Alma (one son, one daughter); died Tenerife 9 November 2012.