William Roache: The role of a lifetime

There's never been a TV career like it. Same actor, same part, for 50 years. So how has this legend of Coronation Street done it?

It is by any measure truly remarkable for an actor to be going strong in a television serial 50 years after his, and its, debut, but that is the singular achievement of 78-year-old Bill Roache, far better known to the nation as Ken Barlow. He appeared in the inaugural episode of Coronation Street on 9 December 1960, and will doubtless loom large in the episodes planned for every day next week, including a live outing on Thursday, to celebrate the venerable ITV soap's half-century.

Almost as remarkable is that Roache plays a character widely perceived as boring. At the time of writing, meaning that I exclude the events of last night's episode which might render these stats out of date, Ken has been married four times (twice to the same woman), widowed twice and divorced once. His first wife, Valerie, was electrocuted in 1971 by a faulty hairdryer, although not before giving birth to twins. He has fathered two other children, both illegitimate. His second wife Janet died in 1977 after taking an overdose. He has had 27 girlfriends and almost as many jobs.

And that's not all. In 1981, Ken's wedding to Deirdre Langton garnered more viewers for ITV than the real-life marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer two days later. In 1983, during a football match between Manchester United and Arsenal, the resolution of an engrossing love triangle involving Ken, Deirdre and rag-trade mogul Mike Baldwin was flashed up on Old Trafford's electronic scoreboard. It said: "Ken and Deirdre reunited. Ken 1, Mike 0." The crowd roared its approval. We should all be so boring.

Nevertheless, the B-word continues to dog both Barlow and Roache, despite Roache's successful legal action against The Sun almost 20 years ago, after the paper had branded him as unexciting as his screen character.

It is easy enough to see, despite the extraordinary number of broken relationships and personal crises in his wake, why Ken tends not to make the pulse race when he opens his mouth. After all, he usually opens it only to drink halves of bitter, or to say something sensible or worthy. For 50 years he has been the nearest thing Weatherfield, the fictional area of Greater Manchester where Coronation Street is located, has had to a social conscience. In 1960 he marched to ban the bomb, and his liberal sensibilities are just as finely tuned now.

Roache, however, is a manifestly more interesting individual, with the incalculable bonus of being real. Take merely that libel case against The Sun in 1991. Yes, he was successful, in that the jury awarded him £50,000 damages, but that was the same sum the paper had offered to settle out of court. The strict laws of libel decreed that he was technically responsible for wasting the court's time, and he duly had to pay his own £120,000 costs. Outraged, he then turned on his solicitors, Peter Carter-Ruck and Partners, pulling off the adroit trick of ill-advisedly suing them for giving him bad advice. He fell more and more into debt until, in 1999, he was forced to declare himself bankrupt.

Politically, he and Ken are leagues apart. Roache is a Conservative voter, close to his local MP George Osborne, and was one of the few friends of Neil Hamilton MP to rally round during Hamilton's own very public travails. But spiritually he's even more intriguing than his alter ego, having embraced Druidism, and like all good Druids, has celebrated the summer solstice at Stonehenge.

His 1993 autobiography, Ken and Me, reads, in parts, like a self-help manual for the spiritually challenged. One chapter begins: "One of the great discoveries I have made while pursuing the quest for enlightenment has been the universal and timeless efficacy of astrology." Mmm. Perhaps we'll blame that on the ghostwriter. Not surprisingly, though, he has also declared a fervent belief in reincarnation, kindled by the death from bronchial pneumonia of his 18-month-old daughter, Edwina, in 1984.

He has four surviving children, among them the actor Linus Roache, with whom he had a turbulent relationship for many years, although the pair are now said to get along famously, and indeed Linus has recently been playing Ken's long-lost illegitimate son in Coronation Street. It would be going some for Roache to match Ken's record of romantic misadventures, but by all accounts it was an affair with Ken's Coronation Street co-star, the late Pat Phoenix, that ended his first marriage to Linus's mother, Anna. His second wife, Sara, died suddenly last year, aged 58, but he was recently reported to be going out with Emma Jesson, an ITV weather forecaster getting on for 40 years his junior.

Inevitably, the recurring theme of Roache's adult life is the comparison and sometimes confusion between himself and the character he has played for so very long. At times, not least during the libel trial, this has been a source of great annoyance to him, and yet he frequently courts it himself. Why else call his book Ken and Me?

Maybe he is also a victim of his own talent. Despite what we know of his Tory sympathies, it is tempting to assume that he is just playing himself – that Ken is effectively Bill, and Bill effectively Ken – yet that would be to diminish a rather remarkable acting performance. For although the bouquets tend to go to actors who repeatedly display their versatility, it is in many ways even harder to inhabit one role for five decades. That said, for sheer staying power Ken and Bill are clearly indivisible: one has lived in the same street practically all his life, the other in the same role.

Almost three months ago, Roache at last acquired the distinction that most of us thought had been his for years, that of the most durable actor in a television soap anywhere in the world. In the United States a fellow called Don Hastings had been playing Dr Bob Hughes on a CBS daytime serial, As the World Turns, since October 1960, just pipping Roache to the record, but in September As the World Turns breathed its last. There is no chance of Coronation Street, still such a cash cow for ITV, doing so. Nor is there any chance of Roache calling it a day, unless bad health forces his hand. If he is spared, he will doubtless continue treading the cobbles into his nineties, like his good friend Betty Driver, something of a newcomer by comparison, having played barmaid Betty Williams (previously Turpin) only since 1969.

Also like the evergreen Driver, Roache doesn't remotely look his age. And like her, I wonder whether he has really had as much popular acclaim as he deserves. On Monday, ITV is screening the very first episode of Coronation Street, in which 21-year-old Ken Barlow (Ken being seven years younger than Bill) clashes with his father, who thinks that a university education has turned him into a snob, ashamed of his roots in a shabby terraced street. That we have been able to watch the evolution of that young man into the Ken Barlow we know today, no less self-righteous but with 50 years of experiences behind him, is frankly one of the wonders of British television.

A life in brief

Born: William Patrick Harry Roache, 25 April 1932, in Ilkeston, Derbyshire.

Family: His father and grandfather were doctors. He has been married twice and has four children. Now dating the television presenter Emma Jesson.

Education: Attended a Steiner school which was set up by his grandfather in the garden of the family home. Later went to the independent Rydal School in Colwyn Bay, Wales.

Career: After three years in the Army, Roache began acting at the age of 26 and joined a theatre group. He is the only remaining original cast member of Coronation Street and is in Guinness World Records as "the longest-serving actor in a soap". He was made an MBE in 2001 and has just published a memoir, 50 Years on the Street: My Life with Ken Barlow.

He says: "I'm not Ken, but I am his keeper."

They say: "He's like a national institution. I remember going with him to some event and it was just crazy. It was like the Beatles had arrived." Linus Roache, son and co-star.

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