Obituary: Anne Kirkbride, actress

Born: 21 June, 1954, in Oldham. Died: 19 January 2015, in Manchester, aged 60

Anne Kirkbride: Actress who made the character of Deirdre Barlow a Coronation Street favourite. Picture: PA
Anne Kirkbride: Actress who made the character of Deirdre Barlow a Coronation Street favourite. Picture: PA

Anne Kirkbride will forever be associated with Coronation Street’s Deirdre Barlow – the girl with giant spectacles, a beaming smile and a feisty personality. She was in the middle of the bitter feud between Mike Baldwin (played by Johnny Briggs) and Ken Barlow (William Roache) and numerous other high-profile dramatic plots. The feud was an ongoing story for more than two decades and Deirdre became involved in the famous fisticuffs between the two.

She got wider fame in 1998 when her character was wrongly sent to prison after an affair with a conman which went badly wrong. He used her name in a mortgage and credit card fraud and Deirdre was found guilty.

Huge support was marshalled – “Free The Weatherfield One” was the cry – and even Tony Blair appealed in the House of Commons for her release. He asked the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, to investigate any miscarriage of justice. Viewing figures soared.

It was Deirdre’s love life that became a central talking point throughout Weatherfield. There were four marriages – Ray Langton in 1975, Ken Barlow in 1981 and Samir Rachid in 1994 before finally remarrying Barlow in 2005. The 1981 marriage was watched by more than million viewers. Corrie historians think Deirdre notched up 13 lovers.

The public loved Deirdre whatever she did – it was a reflection of Kirkbride’s imaginative acting and authority in the studio that kept the character fresh and vibrant. And, of course, the perm, the full moon glasses, the throaty voice and that glorious laugh helped.

Anne Kirkbride was the daughter of Jack Kirkbride, a cartoonist who worked for the Oldham Evening Chronicle. On leaving Count Hill Grammar School in 1970 she joined various local youth theatres and worked at the Oldham Rep as an assistant stage manager.

She was given occasional cameo roles but her big chance came in 1972 in Jack Rosenthal’s television drama Another Sunday and Sweet FA. Kirkbride made a strong impact in the comedy about an amateur football match. She played a girlfriend shivering on the touchline and had an argument with her boyfriend, the goalkeeper. Her fine sense of timing caught the eye of the casting director at Coronation Street and she was initially cast as Deirdre Hunt, a guest at a party in the Rovers. Deirdre later got a job in the pub and Kirkbride became a Corrie regular. Deirdre soon became the femme fatale of the Rovers and within a year was engaged to the landlord Billy Walker.

It was because of her undoubted talent that the character of Deirdre was developed and on whom so many vital stories were hung. The viewers believed in her and sympathised with her despite the many fracas she experienced in her personal life. The extra-marital affair with Baldwin divided the nation – a lifelong fan of the soap, Sir John Betjeman, the poet laureate, pronounced that Ken Barlow deserved better behaviour from his wife.

The celebrated showdown between the two – with Deirdre trying to separate her lovers – demonstrated her grasp of the character. As the door slammed on Briggs, Roache turned on Deirdre and in an unrehearsed moment, grabbed her throat and threw her against the wall. Viewers could see the panic in her face as she fled in tears to the next room.

That night Manchester United were playing at home to Arsenal. At half time the scoreboard flashed up: “Ken and Deirdre United. Again!’’

The list of storylines to which Kirkbride brought colour, wit and a touch of glamour is long. It was her careful preparation of a scene that brought them a convincing credibility. They are all now part of Corrie history: Gail (Helen Worth) throwing a custard tart at Deirdre, numerous tense scenes with her erratic mother Blanche (Maggie Jones), her redundancy from the council, the skirmishes with the wayward son and the rebellious daughter Tracy.

One of her final episodes saw Kirkbride in splendid form. She was entertaining Tracy’s family for supper and the jelly hadn’t set. In high dudgeon Deirdre threw the bowl at the wall and stormed out: screaming: “Jelly shouldn’t run. It should wobble.”

They were all focal points of The Street and Kirkbride brought to them an honesty, passion and dramatic zest.

Kirkbride was called as a character witness in Roache’s trial on sex assault charges last year. She said of her co-star: “He was always a perfect gentleman.”

In 1994 she was written out of the soap when she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and last September she took leave of absence.

Kirkbride was a keen painter and in 1992 married the actor David Beckett, whom she had met on the set at Coronation Street. He survives her.