It's a wonderful life with Ken Barlow, says Ilkeston's William Roache
IT'S a little after 5.30pm and William Roache is sounding decidedly groggy as – rather on the star-struck side, frankly – I call him at home for our pre-arranged chat.
Ah well, I think to myself, he must have just woken up after his afternoon nap – he is 78, after all.
Not a bit of it.
"We've been working nights – 7pm at night till 5am in the morning," William explains. "I've been sleeping during the day when I can."
William, better known to millions of Coronation Street viewers as the legendary Ken Barlow, is currently filming the soap's long-awaited 50th anniversary special.
The dramatic plotline – due to be aired in early December – will see a tram come crashing over the viaduct on to those famous cobbles in a week-long series of thrilling episodes.
William enthuses: "It's going to be very exciting. It's going to be really dramatic and very good stuff.
"I've been at this show 50 years and when I do things like my new book about my time on the Street, I look back and it reminds me of all I've done.
"But, for me, it's very much about the here and now. And right now, I'm part of this massive storyline. We're all looking forward to it and it is brilliantly done and very exciting."
While the cast is currently pre-filming much of the tram crash action, there will also be a live episode, as William understands it "some time around December 9" – the show's actual anniversary.
He adds: "There will be five shows that week, all taking place around the tram crash and one of those, somewhere, I don't know where yet, is going to be live."
Of course, William is no stranger to filming Corrie live. That is, after all, exactly what he had to do when he uttered his first rather dreary words "No, thank you" on the very first episode in 1960.
His journey to Weatherfield is lovingly retold in the new book 50 Years On The Street: My Life With Ken Barlow.
Both his father and grandfather had been prominent doctors in his home town of Ilkeston – but William knew from the start he wasn't quite cut out for a career in medicine.
"I was the black sheep of the family," he admits. "But when my family actually saw me on screen, they felt very happy that I was working and I was in something good.
"And all the neighbours could see it as well. It was a great thrill for them that I was earning a good living."
After a spell in the Army, William turned to acting at 26, learning his craft in repertory theatre. This included a memorable seven months at Nottingham Rep, then based in a separate warehouse near the current Theatre Royal.
Among the other unknowns working at this highly respected venue at the time was a certain Brian Blessed.
"We shared a dressing room and became great friends," William explains. "I remember I was applying for other work and Brian would help to coach me.
"It was hard work in Nottingham. I mean, I'd done weekly work before, but Nottingham was twice weekly. We had two weeks to prepare a play, but it was a great training ground.
"The great thing was I could live at home with my parents, who'd by then moved to Trowell."
Over the years, William has often made nostalgic trips back to the Ilkeston area.
His family home was on the land now occupied by Weleda in Heanor Road. "Yes, there ought to be a plaque," he laughs.
The actor also has fond memories of his first school, Michael House in Ilkeston.
"It was literally next door, I just had to walk through the hedge, which was a little bonus," he recalls.
William's transformation into Ken Barlow, British institution, was perfectly captured in the one-off drama The Road To Coronation Street earlier this year.
"With my young son James playing me. That was very funny," William laughs.
During the warmly nostalgic piece, ambitious James aka William is seen reluctantly accepting the part he would end up keeping for half a century. Eventually, he gives in with the words: "It's only for a week, what harm can it do?"
William says: "That was absolutely true because I had all sorts of different things going on at the time. I had the lead in a new television play and all sorts of film bits. Then I'd got my flat in Primrose Hill.
"My agent said about going up north to do this – he thought it was a comedy – and I didn't want to do it.
"But of course the minute I agreed and we did it and it hit the screen with such colossal impact, we realised it was something special."
Corrie at the time was seen as a television version of the kitchen-sink dramas so popular in the cinema at the time, with classics such as Saturday Night And Sunday Morning.
"It was the television version of the new realism sweeping through the profession," William explains.
And, of course, with the unprecedented success of the new drama (the word soap was as yet unheard of), William got his first taste of fame.
He says: "It was amazing, because it just literally in the first two weeks went straight up into the stratosphere. I remember us all saying to each other – what have we got here?
"It was the top programme within six weeks and it's never been out of the top ten since."
Among the highlights of playing Ken has been his "wonderful" on-screen girlfriends such as Joanna Lumley and, more recently, Stephanie Beacham.
"I've had some wonderful stories," he says. "The one that had the greatest impact was the Mike and Deirdre affair, which really hit the pulse of the nation.
"It was flashed over the stadium at Manchester United and a great roar went up. It was front page of the news everywhere."
So many beloved characters have come and gone while Ken has remained in Weatherfield, but William admits there is one person he misses above all.
"Dear old Albert Tatlock, my Uncle Albert," he says. "He was always a lovely guy and I miss him."
And as for Deirdre and the rest of the frankly barmy Barlows, William reckons he owes his longevity to this thoroughly dysfunctional family.
He says: "You've got Chris Gascoyne, a great actor, playing Peter, an alcoholic and a bigamist. And we've got Kate Ford playing Tracy, who's a murderer.
"I blame Ken for how they've all turned out. He shoved his kids up in Scotland, didn't really look after them. But you don't want a happy family in the Street. You want a wonderful dysfunctional one like the one I've got, they're great and Deirdre is wonderful."
William says he would also like to have more scenes with his real-life sons Linus and James, who were recently seen playing his long-lost son and grandson on the show.
"I hope they'll be back," he says. "Linus is doing another television series over in America (Linus plays Assistant District Attorney Michael Cutter in the popular New York-based drama Law And Order). It's just a question of whether he can get time out."
Although William has never been one to court the paparazzi, he's often found himself the centre of newspaper headlines, especially during a difficult period in the early 1990s. He sued The Sun for calling him "boring" and won – but lost close to £1m in the process, resulting in bankruptcy and a spell in hospital with an ulcer.
Even in recent weeks, his friendship with TV weather girl Emma Jesson has been the subject of wild speculation in the tabloids. Does he get annoyed by it?
"Not really. I understand – they've got to do what they have to do," he sighs.
"They've got to earn a living. That's all perfectly OK."
William reckons being involved in the soap for so long makes him one of the luckiest people around.
He says: "I've been very lucky. I still love it.
"I appreciate how lucky I am not only for being in work regularly but for being in something like Coronation Street, which gives so much happiness and is an institution.
"If you care about acting, you care about getting it right. And I still do.
"It's been 50 years, but I still want to be relevant to the show. I still care about it."
50 Years On The Street: My Life With Ken Barlow by William Roache is available now in hardback, published by Mainstream Publishing, at £14.99.