Anne Kirkbride: 'Coronation Street' stalwart across five decades entrusted with some of its most dramatic storylines

An admirably naturalistic performer with a tasty line in distress, but also invaluable comic timing

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The Independent Online

Anne Kirkbride devoted her working life to Coronation Street. As the alarmingly bespectacled Deirdre Barlow, a part that over the course of four decades demanded just about every emotion an actress could ever wish to convey, she carefully balanced a maternal warmth and a rainy-day cheeriness with the ever-present suggestion that despair was never far below the surface.

Her significance to the programme is enormous, statistically as well as artistically. Hers was the fourth longest-serving character, appearing in 1,439 episodes, and the character at the centre of what is still the most celebrated plot in the show's history, the Ken-Deirdre-Mike love triangle of 1983.

Born out of a desperation to "find something new to do with Ken", the storyline was a sensation, and the question of who Deirdre would finally choose was Britain's successor to Dallas's "Who Shot JR?" teaser three years earlier. Reportedly a tape of the crucial episode was sent for the Queen to view while she was overseas, and the result was displayed on the Old Trafford scoreboard during a match between Manchester United and Arsenal: "Ken and Deirdre reunited. Ken – 1, Mike – 0".

Before that, on 27 July 1981, when Deirdre married Ken, the event drew an estimated domestic audience of 24 million – more than watched the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana two days later. After nearly a quarter of a century of affairs, separations and divorces, Ken and Deirdre retied the knot in 2005, the day before Charles married Camilla Parker-Bowles. Again, the Street won the ratings battle, by 13 million to 9 million.

She was soap royalty, although through longevity and talent rather than grandiosity. Tracy Brabin, who played Tricia Armstrong in the 1990s, remembers that "she welcomed me into the Corrie family with open arms and a genuine humility. She was a straight talker with a brilliant sense of humour and a heart the size of Weatherfield. More than anything it was her warmth that just made you love her."

Kirkbride was an admirably naturalistic performer with a tasty line in distress, but also invaluable comic timing. Her naturalism was carried over from an era when Coronation Street was a more low-key affair, but she was entrusted with an impressive number of the more melodramatic storylines from the start.

When Deirdre was attacked in 1977, The Stage noted of the character that "the gradual decline of a chirpy young dolly bird into a harassed young mother (hair not washed often enough, a tatty pinny and no new clothes) is the sort of perceptive observation that has always made Coronation Street more than just a soap opera." The attack nearly drove the character to suicide; a memorable instalment two years later saw her close to the edge again after mistakenly believing that her daughter Tracy had been killed in an accident.

The influence of the love-triangle saga on EastEnders, which arrived in 1985, was colossal. The brutal episode in which Deirdre confessed her affair with Mike to Ken was full-blooded, angry drama in darker hues than audiences of the programme were accustomed to at the time, and it certainly gave them a taste for it.

The daughter of a painter and decorator who became a cartoonist for the Oldham Evening Chronicle, Anne Kirkbride was born in 1954. Encouraged by her father, the same year that she enrolled at Count Hill Grammar School, she joined the Saddleworth Junior Players; from there she joined Oldham Theatre Workshop, run by a first-class talent-spotter, David Johnson. She then trained as an assistant stage manager on £1 a week at Oldham Rep, and became a member of the company in 1970, her wages rising to £18 a week.

"Anne Kirkbride is certainly the audience's favourite Fairy Godmother" read a review of the company's Cinderella over Christmas 1970. She stayed with the company throughout her early years on Coronation Street: in 1973 she played opposite Dora Bryan in the revue Dora at the Coliseum, a show celebrating Bryan's return to the theatre in which she too had begun her career as a trainee stage manager.

She was spotted by Granada TV and cast in a charming little role in the play Another Sunday and Sweet FA (1972), one of writer Jack Rosenthal's typically winning celebrations of everyday eccentricities, in this case in Sunday league football. The play won the TV Critics' Circle Best Play of the Year Award, and scored Kirkbride an invitation to read for the role of Deirdre. She made her first appearance in the soap on 20 November 1972.

Coronation Street maintained good links with local theatre at this time. The Manchester Drama Group was a lunchtime theatre project that regularly brought in cast members from the Street to star in its productions: at the Grapes Hotel in Quay Street in 1974, and Kirkbride starred for them in David Halliwell's Muck from Three Angles, directed by Ken Farrington (who played Billy Walker in the soap), and two years later, back at Oldham Rep, she appeared in The Axe's Edge, written by Peter Adamson, who played Len Fairclough.

After the love triangle storyline, Coronation Street began to change a little, but whether it was an ever-more punishing schedule or more improbable storylines, Kirkbride gave the job her all. The miscarriage-of-justice storyline in 1998, when Deirdre went to jail after becoming innocently caught up in a boyfriend's financial scams, sent the nation a little silly for a while – "free the Weatherfield One!" – and was even referenced in Parliament, Tony Blair, with his promise to have the Home Secretary intervene, proving again that politicians and popular culture don't mix. But it was also proof that something about Kirkbride's performance over the years, perhaps the mixture of unpretentiousness and unfulfillment, had given the character an identity beyond the programme.

Coronation Street writer Jonathan Harvey says of Kirkbride, who died after a short illness: "She was a dream to write for as she relished anything you gave her. As a person, Annie did everything to the max. She didn't just like you. She loved you. She was incredibly sensitive. A phone call from Annie could go on for hours. And every five minutes she told you how much she loved you. Even if she was calling you from the food aisle of Marks and Spencer."

Anne Kirkbride, actress: born Oldham, Lancashire 21 June 1954; married 1992 David Beckett; died 19 January 2015.