“I can still feel Deirdre around”: Coronation Street’s William Roache on life, death and departed co-stars

The Ken Barlow actor remains sanguine aged 86, even though his life has proved just as turbulent as for his on screen character

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On the morning I’m supposed to be interviewing William Roache, websites are reporting that he’s died of a heart attack, which kind of puts the kibosh on my plan to visit him at his home in Wilmslow.

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But just as I’m about to tear up my train tickets, word comes in that the Coronation Street star has been the victim of a death hoax, so off I head to leafy Cheshire. “Apparently, it’s out there that I’ve died. It’s fake news,” he says, looking – it has to be said – the picture of health in a crisp white shirt, pressed trousers and sporty Reeboks. “Well, come in. At least you can provide proof that I’m still alive.”

He zips around his kitchen, fetching me a cup of tea (“Almond milk? Is that OK? I can’t taste the difference”) and looking 20 years younger than 86. He ushers me into his living room and I set my cup next to a jigsaw of himself and his family standing outside the Rovers Return.

“They’re lovely children,” he says. “It was actually Will [his youngest] who wanted me to write this book. He said, ‘Dad, you’re 86, you’re still working and when I see you with other old people, you don’t seem like one of them. Why don’t you write about what it is that you do?’”

The result is Life and Soul, which finds him offering up his unconventional philosophy on how to live a long and healthy life. I’d had a clue as to what to expect within its pages after speaking to Roache earlier in the year. Back then, he said to me: “I’m getting younger because my cells are renewing themselves. The body was actually designed to go on for ever.”

In the book, we get an extension of that view, as well as his conviction that our “soul” chooses the moment of our death. But then comes the startling postscript in which Roache reveals that his eldest daughter, Vanya, died at the age of 50 as the book was about to go to press. The pair had been estranged for decades following Roache’s split from Vanya’s mother Anna Cropper in 1974, but healed their rift in recent years. So did he death put his ideology to the test?

“It did, but Vanya’s death [from liver failure as a result of a blood disorder] totally affirmed what I know,” he says. “Yes, she was very young. Too young. But she’d not been well for a while, so it wasn’t a shock. She was ready to go. And I knew that she’d gone to a very happy place. We are immortal beings and we just change environments. You only grieve for so long because her battle’s done and she’s gone home.”

His attitude towards the loss of co-star Anne Kirkbride is similar. The actress – who played his screen wife Deirdre – died from cancer in 2015. At the time, Kirkbride’s terminal diagnosis came as a surprise to Roache, who’d been unaware that his friend and colleague was so ill. “She’d been given three months off to sort herself out. We thought it was an emotional thing and that she’d get over it and come back. Then it was discovered it was much more serious and we got the message that she was dying. We’d had no idea.”

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But three years on, Roache says that Kirkbride’s presence is still palpable on the Corrie set: “Even now, I can still feel her around. It’s very powerful, particularly at the Barlows’, where Ken and Deirdre were called upon to do a lot of crying and shouting. But I know all is well for her. And you get to the point where you can think about the happy times and enjoy them.

“She’s only ever a thought away and love is a great connector. I can say to Annie, ‘Didn’t we have a great time?’ They love it if you become happy again and are thinking about them in a loving way.”

Hearing all this, it’s perhaps easy to mock and think of Roache as an eccentric. But it’s an outlook that has seen him through tough times, not just the deaths of loved ones, but also at the trial that could have cost him his liberty. In 2014, he was cleared of raping and sexually assaulting five women in the 1960s and 70s (in some cases – it was claimed – at Granada Studios) when they were aged 16 or under. But in Life and Soul he explores the trauma of being accused, rather than the courtroom details. So why did he choose to look at it from this angle?

“I don’t talk about the actual case at all. I go forward. I’m forward-looking.” It’s the one time in the interview he’s slightly terse. “The court case was a challenge and human life is full of challenges. Everyone, at some stage in their life, will be hit by big trauma – something that upsets you because you can’t understand why it’s happening. Yes, there’s initial shock and hurt, but it’s very important that you don’t put yourself in the position of being a victim.”

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In the book, he talks of creating “a sanctuary” at home as the trial date loomed – he and actor son Linus sought solace in golf, chess and back-gammon. Looking back, he sees his year suspended from Coronation Street as “a gift” as it gave him more time with his family than ever before. But after being found not guilty, he must have been concerned about being rehabilitated in the eyes of the media and public? “No, I didn’t have a lot of rehabilitation to do. I’m a gentle person. A loving person. And if you’re strong inside and know who and what you are, then you can’t be affected by what happens to you.”

He openly admits he’s explored many spiritual paths in his time (Druidry, Hinduism, Buddhism, the Pure Love Movement) before arriving at these conclusions. But he doesn’t see a need now for either religion or politics in his life. He was once a high-profile supporter of the Conservative Party and a champion for the disgraced Neil Hamilton, so it’s startling to hear him say, “The trouble with politics is that you have to follow the code of the party, often when you know it’s not right. You have to say others are wrong when you sometimes know they’re right. That’s a violation of the truth. I’ve been through them all. I even have photos of Margaret Thatcher around here. But I don’t need politics and I don’t need religion. I just follow love, truth and wanting to make the world a better place. It’s not that grand.”

William Roache

The one thing he has remained loyal to for nearly 60 years is, of course, Coronation Street and the role of Ken Barlow. With the soap having just emerged from a brutal phase that saw Pat Phelan stabbed to death after a bloody shootout, I wonder whether he feels the show he’s starred in since its inception has now become too dark?

“You had a very strong character in Phelan, who offered a powerful storyline. But it’s like life: everything passes. Coronation Street may be going through a phase you don’t like, but it’ll pass into a phase you do. It should try to entertain you with its humour and grip with its drama. It’s a balancing act – you need to attract youngsters without alienating the elderly. And every so often, it’ll lurch one way when it follows something particularly strong. You will find older people saying, ‘Oh, it’s not what it was.’ But if it wasn’t adapting and changing, then it wouldn’t be bringing in new, younger viewers.”

And what did he make of the suicide storyline that saw Aidan take his own life? “Well, Ken himself once attempted suicide and Bet Lynch saved him. The only thing I really remember though is Alec Gilroy saying, ‘Oh, he’s always doing things like that.’ Which was a fine example of the humour of the Street. Look, anything that happens in life is acceptable in Coronation Street, but it’s the way they handle it that’s important. And usually, it’s all treated with the right level of responsibility.”

If the tone of Corrie has shifted over the decades, one thing has remained constant: press interest in its cast, as Roache knows only too well. He was on the receiving end of negative headlines in 2013 after appearing to suggest in an interview that abuse victims were being punished for their actions in previous lives.

An apology followed, with Roache insisting that he had “utmost sympathies to anyone affected by sexual offences and paedophilia”. So, as we finish, I ask whether the experience has made him think twice about giving interviews of the type he’s doing with me now.

“I have suffered unbelievable misinterpretation. I should not have tried to discuss reincarnation. It’s a very complex subject and what I say now is that the Buddhist teaching is the nearest to what I believe. Misinterpretation is annoying, but I don’t get upset about it. It’s part of what the media does all the time. But if something gets into the press – like me supposedly having a heart attack, as has happened today – then I don’t start shouting about it because it’s going to get rectified the following day.”

It’s a remarkably sanguine outlook from someone whose mortality has today been writ large by every news outlet. So, as I return my teacup to the kitchen, I ask for his tip for staying centred. “Be true to who you really are – a gentle, loving, kind, compassionate person. That’s what every human being is. And I mean every human being. A lot forget who they are and do things that aren’t so acceptable. I’m still learning, nobody’s perfect.

“But if you’re living your life by what others say, you’re going to get torn apart. So go into yourself, find out who you truly are and be strong in that. Then nobody can harm you.”

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William Roache’s book Life and Soul is published by Hay House on 19th June


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