Interview: Coronation Street's Ken Barlow, aka William Roache

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THERE was life before Coronation Street," the late Russell Harty once said, "but it didn't amount to much." On 9 December, 1960, a gritty 13-part drama written by a young northern upstart called Tony Warren was commissioned by Granada Television.

• Ken and Deirdre's 1981 wedding got 2 million more viewers than the wedding between Charles and Diana two days later

TV execs didn't think much of this supposedly "dreary" idea to take a working-class back street in Salford with a pub at one end, a shop at the other, and a bunch of ordinary folk with – shock, horror – regional accents in between and turn it into gold. The BBC rejected it twice. Journalists branded it "doomed from the start". But the nation disagreed. And it turned out it wasn't so grim up north after all.

"Just as the North wasn't being represented on screen, neither was Scotland in the 1960s," says William Roache, who pitched up as Ken Barlow in the very first episode, earning a modest 10. He is now the longest-serving soap actor not just in Coronation Street but the world.

Many of the 400 letters denizens of the Street receive each week are from Scots. "In a way I think the Street has no region," Roache continues. "It could be Glasgow or it could be the south-east of England. It's about people struggling against adversity and that happens everywhere. But I do think the spirit of Coronation Street has always appealed to the Scots. They like strong characters and strong women and I've always said that's who inhabits the Street. It's the matriarchs."

Now the world's longest-running soap is gearing up for its 50th anniversary episode on Thursday in the time-honoured tradition – by killing off a few residents with a tram crash.

"I don't like the word soap," says Roache, who is on a lunch break from filming. "I resent it. A soap is a commercial. That's how the word originated in America. It's washing powder.

"In 1960 the word 'soap' didn't exist over here. We were all about the new realism. It was the time of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger. Tony Warren wrote it as a kitchen-sink drama.

"We were a drama serial then and that's what we still are," he goes on. "I tell you, in Coronation Street right now there are some top-notch actors. There is a snobbery when it comes to soaps and maybe some of them are done flippantly. But we care. Everyone on the Street does."

Over the past half-century celebrities from Joanna Lumley to Jane Horrocks, Ian McKellen to Ben Kingsley have graced Weatherfield. But what about Scots?

Ken Barlow, whose marriage to Deirdre in 1981 clocked up two million more viewers than the Royal Wedding of Charles and Diana two days later, used to regularly nip up to Glasgow. Scotland's largest city ended up with a modest off-screen role.

"Glasgow has certainly been in the background over the years," he says. "When his first wife, Val, died in 1971, Ken tried to bring up the kids on his own, but he wasn't doing so good. So he sent them up to Glasgow to live with his mother-in-law. I'd often say, 'Right, I'm off to Scotland.'"

In 50 years a smattering of Scots have passed through the Street, some staying longer than others. Roache jokes that out of an eye-popping 26 girlfriends none have been Scottish.

"Ken should have gone out with at least one Scottish woman," he laughs. "That would have sorted him out."

Roache has clocked up more than 2,000 episodes and worked 12 hours, six days a week for half a century. Ken has been married four times, done everything from driving a taxi to editing the local paper and has, in Roache's own words, "ended up with a wonderfully dysfunctional family – my daughter is a murderess, my son an alcoholic bigamist and things with Deirdre are a bit dodgy". So if anyone is going to remember the Scots who have pulled up a bar stool at the Rovers Return, broken up a marriage, killed someone, worked in the Underworld factory, fallen under a tram or simply staggered down the Street over the past 50 years, it's Ken…

Corrie's other Scots

1961 DR GRAHAM played by Fulton Mackay

Dr Graham was Weatherfield's resident doctor, most often seen treating legendary battleaxe Ena Sharples, and played with typical good humour by Paisley-born actor Fulton Mackay. Following his minor role on the Street, Mackay would go on in the 1970s to become best known for his role as fierce prison warder Mr Mackay, in Porridge. He also played the wise old beachcomber in Local Hero, and many thirtysomethings will remember him best as the original lighthouse keeper in the British version of Fraggle Rock. "Oh Fulton," sighs Roache. "He was such a good actor. Full of good humour, a delight to work with, which is probably why I remember him more off screen than on. Every performance was straight from the heart. A lot of those early bit parts I've completely forgotten but not Fulton. He could play hard men but he always had a twinkle in his eye. And, my God, he could hit lines."

1998-2001 LINDA SYKES/BALDWIN played by Jacqueline Pirie/Compton

Linda Sykes started out working at Mike Baldwin's factory, a Corrie euphemism for "they were having an affair". Renowned for making transsexual factory worker Hayley Cropper's life a misery because of her prejudice, she was rarely seen in the Rovers without her roll-up and pint of bitter.

Linda and Mike had their affair, married and lived happily ever after – until Linda started sleeping with Mark. She left the Street, her car was found near the canal, and was never seen again. Did Mike kill her? Who knows, but Stirling-born Jacqueline Compton (ne Pirie) went off to run a drama school in the UK and Canada, where she now lives.

"Now she was a strong female character," says Roache. "She became so popular. Jackie was very friendly with Anne (Kirkbride, who plays Deirdre Barlow]. I can't remember what happened with Linda and Mike.

Did they get married in the end? I'm sure she was having an affair with someone."

2005-08 DIGGORY COMPTON played by Eric Potts

Diggory Compton owned the bakery on Victoria Street until the business failed and he left in 2008. His daughter, Molly Dobbs, has since become a major character, who is set to be killed off this week in the tram crash marking the 50th anniversary episode. Eric Potts, who played Diggory, is originally from Ayrshire. He left Glasgow University to study drama at the Bristol Old Vic and has been in Still Game and Doctor Who.

"Ah, the baker," recalls Roache. "John Betjeman once said that out of good characters come great stories. The strength of Coronation Street has always been the characters – from the main players to the smaller bit parts – and Diggory was a real character. I probably bought a loaf of bread off him now and then but I remember thinking he was a typical Street character. The schedule is so tough – no rehearsal time, just get on with it. Some people can't take it. Others, like Eric, just fit in."

2001-07 ADAM BARLOW played by Ian De Caestecker (2001-2002) and Sam Robertson

Adam Barlow first appeared on the Street aged 13, visiting his grandfather, Ken. In 2001 his mother died in a car accident and Adam went off to boarding school in Glasgow. Oh, and he discovered he was, in fact, the son of Mike Baldwin. When he returned to the Street he was so much changed by all this he was played by a different actor. Sam Robertson, from Dundee, is a former model who became a Corrie pin-up when he took on his first acting job. He claimed he quit because of the hassle he was getting walking down the street. More recently he appeared in River City as Innes Maitland.

"Sam left university to come and play my grandson," says Roache. "People always wondered why he was Scottish but he had been brought up in Scotland. It was Sam's first big professional job and he was a delightful bloke. Poor Adam was a punchbag between Ken and Mike Baldwin. He was the young guy, just starting out, drawn into longstanding family rifts."

2007-10 TONY GORDON played by Gray O'Brien

Tony Gordon was one of the Street's greatest villains. A ruthless local businessman (what else?) he alienated most of Weatherfield with his dodgy dealings. He had an affair with Carla Connor, and her sister-in-law and arch enemy Maria Connor. And he hired someone to kill their brother, Liam. Eventually, he died in the way only soap villains can: by setting fire to the Underworld factory and perishing in the flames.

At least we think he did… Gray O'Brien, from Ayrshire, won villain of the year at the British Soap Awards for the classic baddie.

"Wow," says Roache. "What an impact Tony had. He had to be Scottish to be that kind of hardman. He really was splendid. It's important to have loveable characters, but the Street needs its baddies. And he was one of the best. You could see it all in his eyes. He could turn that look on for any occasion. It was so incredible watching him throw Roy in the canal. To carry a part like that you need real power behind you. Real Scottish power.

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