A street star's inner journey

The red-bricked facades of the Coronation Street set are just about visible from the entrance to Stage 1 at the Granada Studios…

The red-bricked facades of the Coronation Street set are just about visible from the entrance to Stage 1 at the Granada Studios in Manchester where a group of young girls are waiting, pens and paper at the ready, writes Sorcha Hamilton.

Since the 1960s, this has been home to all the drama, tears and door-slamming of Britain's longest-running TV soap. It's also where Ken Barlow, the only remaining member of the original cast, has been living for 47 years - and been married four times, divorced once, widowed twice and had more than 20 girlfriends.

Tanned and wearing a comfy green jumper, the actor William Roache looks a lot more relaxed than his on-screen persona. It's hard to believe this is the same man - with that never-changing, side-parted hairstyle - that once threw over a table full of crockery in a fit of rage. Roache has written a second autobiography Soul on the Street, which tells of the many ups and downs of his acting and personal life. Unlike Ken and Me, this book focuses on his spiritual beliefs. "Ken and Me was the normal celebrity autobiography," says Roache, "this one is different."

Sitting at his dressing room table, the lightbulbs all around the mirror and the walls covered with photographs from a long and successful TV career, Roache certainly doesn't look like your average spiritualist type. But he is very open about his beliefs, which he says are not attached to any church or institution. "I am just someone who is seeking the truth," he says. "The only motivation for this book was to get down what I understand about life. I wanted it to be an understanding of our spiritual state."


At times reading like a self-help manual, the book has mottos and spiritual dictums throughout: "I'm not preaching or trying to say this is right for everybody - but this is what I have found out for me on my journey. And this book is here to help anyone who may be on a similar journey."

You can't help thinking that Barlow could probably do with a few calming words after all the years of drama on the Street. "Poor old Ken, he's a nice, well-meaning lad. He tries to be the voice of Weatherfield but he fails miserably," says Roache. Playing Barlow is enjoyable for Roache, who says the role allows him to do the rowdy, angry things he wouldn't normally do. "If you've got an angry scene or crying scene, there's a real immediacy and urgency to it - you only do it once, there's no rehearsals," says Roache. "I don't blame him for getting angry - especially being in such a wonderfully dysfunctional family."

Despite a rather tumultuous love life - Ken's first wife Valerie was electrocuted by a faulty hairdryer - he has often been dubbed "boring Barlow" in the tabloid press. "The fact that he's a schoolteacher means they tend to write for him kind of seriously," says Roache. "He's trying to keep the peace, keep the family together."

Unlike his left-leaning alter-ego, Roache has been openly supportive of the Conservative Party and has met, and even canvassed for, Margaret Thatcher. "I'm sort of loosely conservative," he says, "but spiritual matters are more important to me than political matters."

Ironically, Roache had to be persuaded to audition for Coronation Street, which was first broadcast in 1960. Initially called Florizel Street - until a tea lady remarked that "Florizel" sounded like a brand of disinfectant - it planned to run for just 13 weeks. "I didn't want to be there for 13 weeks - never mind 47 years," says Roache, laughing. He was 26 when he got the role of Barlow, an 18-year-old 1960s rebel, and he was strongly urged by his agent to take the part.

Set in the fictional town of Weatherfield, based loosely on Salford in Manchester, the series became an immediate success. Quickly associated with its strong female characters such as Ena Sharples and Elsie Tanner, the Street also marked the first time a realistic, gritty portrayal of life in a Northern English town was seen on TV. "It wasn't called a soap in those days, it was respected," says Roache. "People forget it was at the time of realist acting, kitchen-sink drama - we were of that genre. It hit the screen with colossal impact."

Although it has been criticised in the past for portraying a sense of community spirit no longer seen in many English towns, Roache says this is part of the show's popularity. "The basic goodness of the people is one of the appeals, you don't see a lot of that in real life, so people like to see that on TV," he says. "There's something laid-back, homey and good-humoured in the Lancashire psyche . . . there'll always be a funny little line coming up, even amongst all the gloom, some little valiant spirit will always try to make the most of things."

Around Roache's dressing room, there are photographs from the first black-and-white episodes: "Those old shows from the 1960s are like a different world," he says, "it's like looking back at your old childhood videos." In the early days, actors were not allowed appear on other shows: "they wanted people to really believe you were the character . . . in those days when a character on the show died I remember getting a letter asking where should they send a wreath."

After those first few episodes, Roache quickly shot to fame - although it wasn't all easy. In the book he writes how 10 years into his time on Coronation Street, he found himself at his lowest point. His first marriage to the actress Anna Cropper, with whom he had two children, broke up after he had a string of affairs. "We all make mistakes," he says now, "you are what you are now, and you try to look forward."

Dealing with the media has also been tough at times. In 1991, he learnt a hard lesson when he sued the Sun newspaper for libel. The case concerned a series of allegations, the main sticking point a claim that he was "as boring and smug as Ken himself", Roache writes in the book. It was a costly battle: "That was a bad time, that was a mistake, but life is about learning," he says now.

One of his saddest moments was the death of his 18-month-old daughter, Edwina, from bronchitis. In the book he describes the moment when he and his current wife, Sara Mottram, discovered their daughter lying motionless in the cot.

"You're not meant to lose a child - it's the wrong way round," he says, explaining how they suffered from terrible guilt after her death. Roache, who has had two other children with Sara, has slowly learnt to come to terms with his loss. "I know she's fine, and I know I'll see her again. There's a reason why she was only here for that short time - I don't know what it is, but there was a reason."

Walking around the studio with him, you get a sense of a busy, friendly team behind the show. There are waves and hellos from lots of the crew and cast as we wander through the Rover's Return, past a scene being shot of Vera Duckworth doing the dishes, and onto the cobblestones of the outdoor set, where Fiz and Sally have stopped for a chat on the Street corner.

Even after all these years, Roache still gets great satisfaction from his job. "I have no intention of retiring," he says. "There's always good stories and always good humour, and as long as the characters are likeable, strong and believable, there's no reason why the Street shouldn't carry on forever."

Soul on the Streetby William Roache, Hay House, £16.99 in UK

Sorcha Hamilton

Sorcha Hamilton

Sorcha Hamilton is an Irish Times journalist