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Bill roache "It's a real privilege to make people happy"

He has faced more than his fair share of triumphs and tragedies, but this Coronation Street legend always manages to find the positives in life. By Simon Evans

At the age of 86, Bill Roache could be forgiven for thinking he’d earned the right to swap the daily traumas of the longest-running soap character in history for some armchair and slippers downtime at his home in Cheshire.

Bill was 28 when he was offered the role of young know-it-all Ken Barlow in a new 13-week drama serial called Coronation Street, which first aired in the winter of 1960. Although he had been hungry for acting work ever since leaving the army three years earlier, Bill’s career was just starting to take off, with a role in the Norman Wisdom film The Bulldog Breed. When he was offered the role in Coronation Street, Bill was unsure whether to take it, as he had already been engaged for an important role in a Granada television play Marking Time

Bill’s agent made his mind up, persuading him that as Coronation Street would only be running for 13 weeks he had nothing to lose.

But that three-month stint turned into a remarkable 58 years, and Bill couldn’t be happier, as he told Choice, on the line from his home in Wilmslow.

“I’ve always had great job satisfaction, The Streetis a very happy place to be, and I’m very lucky, at my age, to be involved in something like this,” he said.

Bill admits that although he has occasionally been tempted to take on other roles he has always been drawn back to the Street.

“When I was about 40, I thought if I’m ever going to do anything else now is probably the time, but that passed. Don’t forget that when Coronation Street started there was no such thing as soaps, it was realistic, cutting edge drama.

“We were the television version of Look Back In Anger, James Dean and Marlon Brando, and highly respected. I still feel that in my heart, and the word soap still rankles with me a bit.”

Bill caught the acting bug early in life, encouraged by his mother, a member of the amateur dramatic society in the Derbyshire town of Ilkeston, where the family lived. Although Bill’s father and grandfather were both GPs there was also a fascination with spiritualism running through the family. In his new book, Life and Soul(Hay House, £16.99) Bill writes of his grandfather, also christened William, and how he “inhabited the worlds of science and the spirit”.

William senior donated half the garden of the family home, Rutland House, in Ilkeston, to the Rudolph Steiner Society, so it could establish a school there.

Bill would later attend the school, Michael House, by which time it had moved to premises further up the road. He says he benefited enormously from the school’s ethos which, like all Steiner schools, put the emphasis on learning as something that should be enjoyable, and not a chore.

“It was two and a half years of creativity and fun that shaped the quest for spiritual truth that was to come,” Bill writes.

When he moved on to boarding school in Colwyn Bay Bill admits that he made rather a nuisance of himself.

“I couldn’t help but challenge the theology master… I was always wanting answers, rather than ‘God works in mysterious ways’. I’ve always needed to know why we’re here and what happens after death. I’ve always felt there was more to life than our normal perception of it.”

Over the years Bill has explored many paths, including astrology, Hinduism and druidism, as well as the spiritualism practiced by his grandfather and sisters, but insists that he does not identify with any particular religion or belief describing himself simply as “a seeker of truth”.

In his new book Bill does not set out to preach about his beliefs but rather to share what attitudes and practices work for him.

“It’s not setting out to lecture people and say ‘this is what you should do’, it’s simply about my experiences and knowing, my attitude to life,” Bill told Choice.

“I am 86, still active, still working, still playing golf, and my children said to me ‘why don’t you talk about why you are still so healthy and fit’, so we went to Hay House who gave the go-ahead for a book.”

Choice last spoke to Bill in 2009, just before the sudden death of his second wife, Sara. It was just one of many setbacks Bill would face over the next nine years, including being put on trial for alleged historic sex offences, the death of his friend and long-time screen partner Annie Kirkbride and, earlier this year, the shock of losing his daughter, Vanya, at the age of 50. Her death inevitably hit Bill hard, “the shock and grief is immeasurable”, he says.

The family only had two weeks to arrange the funeral and chose to make it a celebration of Vanya’s life.

In a postscript to his book, written after it had gone to press, Bill writes movingly of Vanya’s death: “It is good to grieve for a while, because you miss your loved one, but also good, as soon as you can, to get to the stage where you can think about the happy times. I know that Vanya is now dancing in a wonderful place.”

Not surprisingly Ken admits the past decade has, at times been difficult.

“There have been joyful times and intense personal challenges, times when I felt incredibly spiritually uplifted and days when meditation became my sole refuge.”

He told Choice: “You can’t control the challenges that life throws up, but you can control how you deal with them. We are all imperfect as human beings but you deal with them the best way you can.”

That includes an attitude to death as a step through a door rather than an ending.

“We move on. We are eternal beings and, in a sense, when you die you go home. You don’t need to grieve for someone who has gone, it is more like them being called home from school; it’s fine.

“Of course you will grieve when you miss them, but you soon get to a state where the grieving lessens and you start to think about the happy times you had with them, and just send off a loving thought here and there; that’s what I do. It works for me.”

The cornerstone of Bill’s life has, of course, been Coronation Street and the role of Ken Barlow, an alter ego who could not be more different to the real Bill.

Ken gets angry and has been in and out of relationships and jobs, while Bill describes himself as “pretty peaceful”, was married to Sara for 31 years and has had the same job for nearly 60 years.

“I get irritated but I don’t get angry, and in some scenes with Annie we would be shouting and screaming at each other, so I would experience those kinds of emotions vicariously through Ken. He gives me a safe experience of emotions I don’t usually have.”

Although his role in Coronation Street has brought him a degree of celebrity, Bill could not be further removed from the image of the self-centred star.

“Show business is very ego-driven but actors are generally very sensitive people,” he told Choice. “This is why I didn’t go into acting at first, I thought they were all extroverts and ‘hello darling,’ all of that, and I was actually quite shy.

“When I did come into acting I found, to my great relief, that the majority of actors are very sensitive people, but when you start getting celebrity and fame you have to be careful not to start thinking you are better than everybody else. I am recognised pretty much anywhere I go, but that does not make me any better or any worse than other people.”

Although it has been his lifelong profession, and a passion since childhood, Bill came late to acting.

At first he followed in his father’s footsteps, staying on at school an extra year so he could study to be a doctor, but that stopped when he was called up for National Service.

Bill extended his National Service by taking a short service commission, reaching the rank of captain, and later volunteered for Trucial Oman Scouts in the Persian Gulf, which lasted for another two years.

So, by the time Bill left the army, he was 25, too old, he feared, to embark on the acting career he had now set his sights on.

Still he persevered, renting a bedsit in Earl’s Court, going to films regularly and writing to the directors he saw in the credits, asking for work. His efforts paid off, and Bill landed his first role in the film Behind the Mask, which led to a stint in repertory theatre, in Nottingham and Oldham, and on to Coronation Street.

Acting seems to be in the blood; Bill’s two sons, Linus, from his first marriage, to actress Ann Cropper, and William (now known as James), from his second marriage, to Sara, are both actors. Sara was also an actress and for a while in the Seventies Bill and Sara ran their own production company as a sideline, putting on plays.

In 1984 the couple suffered the loss of their daughter Edwina, who died of bronchitis aged just 18 months. Bill says he and Sara had to learn to forgive themselves for her death.

“Parents are responsible for their children, especially when it’s a young child. We did everything we could but she died very suddenly, very quickly, and the doctor said there is nothing we could have done.”

Sara’s death, at the age of 58, was equally sudden, and shocking.

“We were just spending a relaxing morning together. Just sat up in bed talking. Then all of a sudden I heard Sara give out a little sigh and she slumped to the side.”

Sara never came round and specialists later gave the cause of death as heart failure.

“She’s with me in spirit,” Ken writes in his book, “love never dies.”

Six years later Bill was at his Coronation Street co-star Annie Kirkbride’s bedside when she died in January 2015. Annie had played Ken’s wife Deirdrie in the series and, so close were they that Bill said “it was like being married in a parallel life”.

“Losing Annie was very painful,” he recalled, “like losing a close member of the family. There was a big gap when she went; she was wonderful to work with, and I loved her as a person.

“She was always wonderful company off screen; you were never far from a laugh when she was around, and if anyone was in any kind of trouble she had the biggest heart you could possibly imagine. I was privileged to have her as my partner for 35 years.”

Two years before losing Annie Bill had faced another traumatic episode in his life – being arrested for historic sex offences. Although eventually acquitted Bill had to take a year out from Coronation Street, but even during these darkest of days he was still keen to see the positive side of his predicament.

“Looking back I see that year as a gift,” he writes. “I was never alone and I had more time with my family than ever before.”

For a while Bill had become estranged from Linus and Vanya, the two children from his first marriage. Bill and Anne divorced after Bill admitted being unfaithful (Anne died in 2007), but the trial brought the family closer together than ever before.

“Everyone faces challenges in their lives, it’s part of being human, but we can choose how to react. When something happens to me I will look at it and embrace it. It’s important to stand in your truth and be positive and optimistic, which isn’t easy. But that is what has pulled me through. Everything passes.

“Just as there have been bad times, there have been wonderful, glorious times. We are all flawed as human beings but it’s a wonderful life, and having a loving family is the greatest joy of all.”

Bill has enjoyed growing up with Ken and does not see any time when he might want to retire. Not only does Bill enjoy still being part of the Coronation Street family, he also regards it as a privilege to be a part of the extended family of viewers, although that can have its downside.

“There was a time when Ken was having an affair in the storyline, and I was dropping my daughter off at school. One of her friends came over to talk to her, and the mother came up and said, ‘get away from that man’, thinking I was Ken. About a year later someone came up to me, who had been through exactly the same situation, and thanked me for helping get him through it. So that was a wonderful example of how people can relate to it in that way. We can reflect things going on in society that are meaningful to people and difficult for people.

“And I love it when older people come up to me with a glint in their eye, because we are part of their family, and that’s a real privilege, that we can help to make other people happy.”

Life and Soul, by William Roache, is published by Hay House at £16.99, ISBN 978-1781809778.

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