Following the sad death of Coronation Street icon Betty Driver, aged 91, we revisit Gareth McLean’s interview with the actress earlier this year…
Such was the legend that was Betty Williams (previously Turpin, née Preston) even people who don’t watch Coronation Street knew who she was. Due in part to her celebrated hotpot, but as much to do with her 41-year tenure behind the Rovers bar, Betty became a bona fide British cultural icon.
The actress who played her, Betty Driver, was glad she didn’t get the role she auditioned for in 1964 – that of Hilda Ogden. “They wanted someone thinner, which was a relief, because I couldn’t have lived my life in curlers,” she said. “And I wouldn’t have liked being called Hilda by people in the street. I was so lucky they decided to call Betty by my name.”
Driver thought she’d be in Coronation Street for “five or six episodes and that would be that” when she landed the role of Betty, but five episodes turned into rolling six-week contracts and then she was given one for three years.
More than four decades and ten licensees later – starting with Annie Walker and now Liz McDonald – Betty was Weatherfield’s longest-serving female resident and arguably one of the Street’s unsung heroines.
Her recent role as comforter-in-chief to Claire Peacock, widowed by the tram crash, resulted in wonderfully tender scenes, while her fractious relationship with twinkly-eyed charmer Ciaran, played by Keith Duffy, was repaired with a Christmas kiss – one that’ll have had women (and some men) up and down the land going green with envy. “It was quite a smacker,” Driver recalled. “He really went for it.”
But even those who do watch Coronation Street may not be aware of Driver’s career before she arrived in Weatherfield, aged 49, in 1969.
Prior to purveying hotpot, spawning an illegitimate son and being widowed twice as Betty, Driver had been a child star from the age of eight who’d starred alongside George Formby on film, graced the West End stage at 16, been a big-band singer in the 1940s, had her own radio show and a slew of hit records.
She had actually retired from showbusiness to run a pub in Cheshire with her sister Freda when she was spotted by Coronation Street producer Harry Kershaw.
Getting to 91 meant Driver had a certain perspective on life – “The secret to living a long life is laughter. Once you have lost your sense of humour, you may as well dig a big hole” – and on Coronation Street.
She understood why “it’s mostly action nowadays”, but said, “I’d like to see more conversation with the older artists.” As for those Walford whippersnappers, “I’m sick of EastEnders getting awards and not us. I watch it every night – it’s brilliant, but very sombre.”
And who’s to argue with the divine Miss Driver? Up until the end you had the feeling she could still give you a clip round the ear. But what an enjoyable clip it would have been.
The Betty Driver Story is at 8:00pm tonight, before Coronation Street, on ITV1