A coronation street storyline in February this year had Betty Williams, formerly Turpin, celebrating her 90th birthday and being acclaimed as Manchester's oldest barmaid. Next week, the actress Betty Driver, who has been playing the part since 1969, catches up. She turns 90 on Thursday, and never mind Manchester's oldest barmaid, is she the world's oldest television soap-opera star? Certainly, none more venerable springs to mind, and even if there is a nonagenarian already operating on some Mexican or Portuguese daytime soap, can he or she claim a longer showbiz career than Driver?
she earnt her first pay packet in 1931, for heaven's sake, and an afternoon in her comfortable south Manchester flat, listening to her stories about treading the boards with George Formby, the Crazy Gang and just about every other star from the so-called "golden age of variety", is one of those journalistic assignments for which it seems almost indecent to be paid. The irony of being associated with Coronation Street, and more particularly with hotpot, Betty Williams' speciality dish in the Rovers Return, does not escape Driver. For one thing, she's a useless cook. For another, she was pushing 50 when she landed the part of barmaid Betty, with a glittering career already behind her. If the past is a foreign country, then to watch the YouTube clip of her singing "Stick out Your Chin and Smile" from the 1938 film Penny Paradise, is to be swept to another continent.
She has recently been in hospital with pneumonia, and shortly before that she needed a knee operation, but on a bright spring afternoon I find her in marvellous fettle, looking just like she seems to have looked for the past 30 years, and indeed she assures me that she has known very little illness in her long life, apart from doing her back in while working with Arthur Lowe in the mid-1960s, on a sitcom called Pardon the Expression. The series was actually a Coronation Street spin-off, with Lowe continuing in the part of the self-important draper Leonard Swindley, and one episode called for Driver to perform a judo throw on him. So reluctant was he to be touched, however, and so eager was she not to hurt him, that she gave herself enduring back problems.
"I never met him again after that," she tells me. "He was a mean actor; if you had a line that got a laugh in rehearsals, he would demand it. We did a read-through once, and I had a lot to say, but every time I got to the gag, Arthur would say, 'Just a moment, I think I should have that line'. After a while I got my handbag and my coat, and the producer said, 'Hang on Betty, we haven't
finished yet'. I said, 'I have. He's taken all my lines.'" We both roar with laughter; she has the deftest of comic timing with an anecdote.
"I once got a call from his son," she continues, "who was writing a book about him. 'Would you talk about him?' he said. I said, 'I don't think I should. I worked with your father for 20 weeks and he never bought me a cup of tea, even though he accepted plenty.' He said, 'I know, everyone's said the same thing.' But it's true. A very difficult little man. But he had a lot to put up with. His wife was an alcoholic, you know, and he adored her. And of course he was brilliant in Dad's Army. They all were. I knew John Le Mesurier well and adored him. He was a lovely man, such a gentleman, but I really don't know how they kept their lines from Arthur, him and Clive Dunn."
It wasn't the first time she'd had to cope with the showbiz ego. Driver was 11 when she was pushed on to the stage by an overbearing mother, and it wasn't long before George Formby, a colossal star at the time, heard about this precocious child working the variety halls of the north of England.
"He called me and asked if I'd like to be in a film with him called Boots! Boots! Ooh yes, wonderful. It meant going to London and I'd never been to London. So down I went to this little film studio at the back of a garage on Albany Street, which wasn't how I thought films would be. Anyway, I sang a song and did quite well, but Beryl, George's wife, also had to be in the film, singing and dancing. Dreadful, she was. A monstrous woman, and very jealous, although very clever. She ran the business side of his life, and everything else, really. But when she saw my bit in the editing room she said, 'Either that kid goes or I go'. Well, I've never been so heartbroken. I cried all the way back to Manchester. And when the film came out [in 1934] my name was on the credits but I wasn't in it."
Formby, as always, had been forced to kowtow to Beryl. "He was so damned wet it was ridiculous," says Driver. "I don't think he was the full shilling. Everything she said, he did. But later I joined Henry Hall's dance orchestra, and I was with him for seven years. One week George Formby was invited to be in the show, and naturally Beryl had to be in it with him, so I said to Henry, 'Where's she going to dress?' He said, 'Do you mind if she shares your dressing room?' Well, she arrived covered in mink and diamonds, and she said, 'Do I know you?' I said, 'Yes, you damn near ruined my career.' I told her a few home truths. In the end she was very friendly."
By the outbreak of war, Driver was top of most variety bills she played on, and once, after performing at an RAF airfield south of London, she recalls being asked by the officer in charge if she would like to see some planes. "He took us, myself and my sister Freda, to a hangar and said, 'The planes I'm going to show you will win the war for us'. He said they were called Spitfires, and I said, 'Ooh, what a wonderful name'. They looked so pretty, those little planes, and then he said, 'Would you like me to name two planes after you?'
"Well, me and Freda were in tears. They wrote Betty on one and Freda on the other, and later, you know, a lot of them crashed and the boys were dead, and I didn't like to think too much about what had happened to them. But many years later, long after I'd joined Coronation Street, the fellow who ghosted my autobiography took his two sons to a museum right next to Granada Studios in Manchester and one of the boys said, 'Look dad, why does one of these say Betty and the other say Freda?' And it was two little old compressors, which was all that was left of those planes. Isn't that amazing? They have followed me from 1940, or whenever it was, right to the end of my life. I told that story to the producers at Granada, and they couldn't give a bugger. But don't you think it's a sweet story?"
I confirm that it is indeed a remarkable story, and ease her gently on to the next phase of her life, the variety shows of the 1950s, when her friends and co-stars included Frankie Howerd and Tommy Cooper.
"Oh God, Frankie Howerd, I loved him dearly. One day the producer said, 'Look, I'm going to take the show to Hamburg, do you fancy coming?' So me and Frank went and worked in the fabulous studios they had there. But Frank was a terror. He took me to this little club, where there were the most gorgeous-looking girls serving drinks, really breathtaking, and one of the girls comes and sits on his knee and was kissing him and mauling him. Well, obviously Frank was gay but they were getting on so well. I said, 'Frank, you stop here, I'll go back to the hotel. I don't want to spoil your chances with this girl.' He said, 'Don't be daft, they're all fellas.'" A huge laugh. "I don't know where they tuck everything," she adds.
"Then there was Tommy Cooper. His poor wife, he used to call her 'Dove', and after he died she found out he'd had a mistress for 18 years. Tom was a brilliant straight conjuror, you know. Terribly correct. But one night he made a mess of one of his tricks, and out of sheer nerves he did that laugh." She gives me a perfect impersonation. "And the audience screamed laughing. So from then on he changed his act."
A rare pause. "They're not being replaced, you know. Tommy Cooper, Frankie Howerd, Les Dawson. I loved Les. What a warm, lovely man. But who's replacing them? Who's replacing Morecambe and Wise? Ant and Dec? I don't know whether the talent's not there, or the dedication, but it's a shame. I worked with them all. And I wouldn't change my life, though I'd have liked a bit more happiness."
It's hard to imagine, talking or rather listening to Driver as she fills the room with her charisma and anecdotes, that she has ever wanted for personal happiness. But the template was set by her parents, who exploited her talent without offering any affection in return beyond "a kiss on the cheek on New Year's Eve"; her brief marriage, to a South African singer called Wally Peterson, was childless. Her one devoted companion in life was her sister Freda, who died aged 85, nearly 18 months ago.
It was with Freda that she spent her semi-retirement
from showbusiness running a pub – the Cock Hotel in Whaley Bridge, Derbyshire – until the producer of Coronation Street came in one day in 1969 and suggested that she might like to pull pints on screen. Some years earlier she'd been asked to read for the part of Hilda Ogden. "They said they were looking for someone to be the cleaner of pub, but I wasn't so struck on that. And they admitted they were looking for someone thin." She hoots with laughter. "So I ended up as Betty Turpin for what I thought was half a dozen episodes. And here I am still, working 12-hour days with a contract to do 40 episodes a year."
As Betty, she joined the ranks of strong, bossy women who inhabited Coronation Street, and at the Rovers Return she answered to the bossiest – landlady Annie Walker, played by Doris Speed. "Ooh, I loved Doris. I remember when the man who played my husband died, and we sat in Betty Turpin's house on the day of the funeral, next to each other on a couch, waiting to do a scene together.
"She said, 'Are you going to be moving a lot, dear?' I said, 'I shouldn't think so, Doris. We're burying Cyril so I shan't be getting up to dance.' She said, 'Oh good, because I want to pin my script on you. I haven't learnt it.' And she did, she pinned her bloody script on me from my shoulder down to my knee. 'What are you doing?' I said. Ooh, she was wonderful. And she looked just like a Salford landlady. I loved the Street in those days. It was so true, with those long conversations at the bar, a very Lancashire thing. I shouldn't say it but it's so flippant now. They're aiming so hard at getting young people to watch that they sometimes forget it's still just a Salford pub, in an insignificant little street."
An insignificant street, however, with some highly significant fans, not least Sir Ian McKellen, who five years ago played in 10 episodes as Mel Hutchwright, a conman. "I'm his greatest fan," says Driver. "The sweetest man, and what an education it was to watch him. I said to some of the youngsters on the show, 'If you kids have got any bloody sense you'll watch everything this man does'. 'Why?' they said. Ooh, that word. I cannot stand that word. I said, 'Every move he makes, the way he does his props, should be a lesson to you'. But they didn't want to know."
It was McKellen, she adds, who went indignantly to the producers when he discovered that at the age of 85 she still drove herself to work every day. "He said, 'It's a disgrace, she should have a driver'. Well, I've got one now." Another hoot. Of course, I say, another theatrical giant, the impresario Bill Kenwright, played her son, Gordon Clegg, in the show. "Ooh, I adore him," she says. "He calls me mum, and every Mothers' Day, every Valentine's Day, he sends the biggest flower arrangement you've ever seen, with a card saying, 'To my second mum, who I love'. For 20 years he's done that. What a fine man. And why they haven't given him a knighthood for services to the theatre I don't know."
Indeed. And while they're at it, or not at it, how about Dame Betty Driver? If only to make Annie Walker turn in her grave.