Coronation Street star William Roache has been cleared of all charges of sexually abusing five youngsters.
Roache was found not guilty by a jury of two counts of rape and four counts of indecent assault following a four week trial at Preston Crown Court.
The 81-year-old actor, who plays Ken Barlow in the ITV soap, was said to have used his fame and popularity to exploit the “starstruck” girls, aged 16 and under, between the mid-60s and early 70s.
The women told jurors they were sexually abused by the defendant either at Granada Studios in Manchester, in his car or at properties he owned.
But Roache told the jury he had no knowledge of any of the women and the alleged abuse simply did not happen.
Roache said he was “astounded” and “horrified” at his arrest on suspicion of rape at his home in Wilmslow, Cheshire, on May 1 last year.
ITV announced he would not appear in the programme until legal proceedings were concluded.
The widespread publicity of the arrest led to four other women coming forward to allege they too had been victims in the same era.
Roache was arrested again last June and then charged with five counts of indecent assault.
But the world’s longest-serving soap actor - who has appeared in Coronation Street since its 1960 launch - told the jury sexual abuse was not in his “nature” and he had no interest in underage girls.
Louise Blackwell QC, defending, said the case against her client was “nonsense”, with the trial haunted by the “spectre” of Jimmy Savile.
Criticism of police and prosecutors over Savile’s impunity despite years of suspicions of sex abuse meant accusations against other celebrities had to end in a trial, it was suggested.
“In the post Jimmy Savile era, once someone makes an allegation, it’s got to go to court, no sense will prevail, it has to go to court,” Miss Blackwell said.
Glowing testimonies about Roache’s “caring” and “lovely” nature were given in evidence by three of his Coronation Street co-stars including Anne Kirkbride, who plays his on-screen wife Deirdre.
It was not credible the jury were told that the “perfect gentleman” and “father figure” they described had been a “sexual predator”.
And the “inconsistencies and contradictions” of each complainant’s “story” was picked apart under cross-examination.
During the trial the prosecution offered no evidence on one of two counts of indecent assault, relating to one complainant, as she had “no actual memory of the episode”.
The involvement of the press was also highlighted.
The husband of one complainant, whose sister was also allegedly abused, contacted the papers before the police - which “coloured” their allegations, Miss Blackwell said.
After Roache’s initial arrest for rape was “all over the press” she asked the jury whether any of the other women who came forward later could be regarded as “truly independent.”
The jury spent 5 hours and 59 minutes deliberating before coming into court to deliver the verdicts at 11.19am.
Roache was asked to stand and the jury foreman confirmed they were all agreed on verdicts on all of the counts.
Roache, hands by side, looking at the jury, made no reaction as he was cleared of all charges.
But the months and weeks of strain overcame his family in the public gallery.
Youngest son James dissolved into tears with a hand over his face, his brother Linus also wiped away tears and Roache’s youngest daughter Verity was hugged before she also began to weep.
One of Roache’s minders sprung to his feet and shouted “Yes!” and began to clap before the judge told him to be quiet.
After the jury of eight women and four men delivered their not guilty verdicts, Miss Blackwell asked if the defendant could be discharged from the dock and the judge, Mr Justice Holroyde agreed.
“Mr Roache you are free to leave the dock,” he said.
Miss Blackwell said she would be applying for the defendant’s legal costs to be paid by the taxpayer.
Roache then left the dock and walked to the door of the courtroom where he was embraced in a bear hug by his minder and for the first time he smiled broadly.
Outside the courtroom he went into a side room which he and his legal team have used during the four week trial.
Shortly after, Roache’s family left court and each entered the room to hugs and smiles from their father, including hugs shared with his legal team.
ITV said it would be discussing the actor’s future in Coronation Street shortly. In a statement, the broadcaster said: “We look forward to talking to Bill soon about his return to work.”