Six months after the death of Anne Kirkbride, it’s time for Weatherfield residents to give Deirdre Barlow her send-off. Bill Roache, aka her on-screen husband Ken, talks about the emotional scenes in store
The news of Anne Kirkbride’s death in January shocked the nation.
The 60-year-old actress, known to millions as Coronation Street’s Deirdre Barlow for the last 42 years, had been off screen for a few months, following that infamous scene in which a fed-up Deidre hurled a trifle at the wall, yelling, “Jelly shouldn’t run, it should wobble!”
Fervently private, few people knew that, away from screens, Kirkbride had been battling cancer.
Now, six months on, it’s time for the residents of Weatherfield to say goodbye to the much-loved character.
Deirdre’s husband Ken is happily planning a surprise 60th birthday party for her, when her old friend Bev Unwin, with whom Deirdre has been staying, arrives on the street to break the news of her death.
“It’s totally and absolutely out of the blue, and in complete contrast to what we were expecting, so it’s a terrible shock,” explains actor Bill Roache, who’s played Ken since the soap’s first episode in 1960.
“When something really big happens, you don’t do anything. You’re dumbstruck, literally - bang. If it’s something as awful as that, you don’t scream, you don’t shout, you don’t cry, you are just literally struckdumb. So that’s how I played it.”
And so, instead of planning a celebration, he finds himself organising a funeral.
“There are some lovely scenes with Bev, where she talks about how Deirdre died, which was very peacefully, so that’s a blessing for Ken,” continues Roache, who explains how conversation moves onto why Deirdre stayed away for so long.
“He thought she’d gone off him, found another man, or something like that, but it turns out it was because of [their daughter] Tracy’s awful behaviour.
‘‘She was so embarrassed about Tracy having the affair with Tony and upsetting her best friend Liz,” reveals the 83-year-old actor.
Understandably, Ken is left reeling from this revelation.
“He’s been deprived of the last few weeks and months with the person he loves, so he has this double emotion to deal with; tremendous grief at the loss of Deirdre, and colossal anger at Tracy.”
While Ken isn’t the sort of man to show his emotions, it’s hard for him not to break when he’s handed Deirdre’s glasses.
“It’s highly emotive as glasses are very personal, they’re very close to the person,” says Roache, not least Deidre’s eyewear, which have iconic status.
“But of course, when I got the glasses, they were also Anne’s. Anne had worn those glasses for 20 years, so there was a complete merger for me.
‘‘There was no Bill and Ken and Deirdre and Anne, it was just one. I felt the loss of both.”
In an emotional episode written by Damon Rochefort, due to transmit on Monday, July 13, the residents will pay their respects at Deirdre’s funeral, which happened to be filmed either side of the weekend of Kirkbride’s memorial service in Manchester Cathedral.
“It’s classic Barlow really, nothing ever goes smoothly and the funeral is no exception, as Ken has three things going on,” explains Nottinghamshire-born Roache.
“He’s got the grief of losing Deirdre, the anger at Tracy, and then his son Peter doesn’t turn up when he’s meant to be a pall-bearer. So poor old Ken’s trying to think of his eulogy and he’s got all those mixed feelings going on. But that’s good. It’s good writing and a good story, it gives it a three-dimensional aspect.”
As fans of the soap know so well, Deirdre was pretty much the only person who always forgave the callous and wayward Tracy, played by Kate Ford.
“Deirdre spent a lot of time trying to excuse Tracy’s behaviour, which was inexcusable. Ken would go at her for her behaviour, quite rightly, and so that all comes out,” says Roache. “He really goes at her... How she never listens, she never cares, brought her misfortunes on her own head, and I say awful things to her in the church.’’
Peter, played by Chris Gascoyne, does briefly return, and he, Ken and Tracy spend the evening of the funeral dissecting their troubled family and attempting to lay ghosts to rest.
“Whether it’s sorted by the end, and they can accept that nobody’s perfect, you’ll have to wait and see. Ken hasn’t behaved well, Peter hasn’t behaved well, Tracy hasn’t behaved well. So at the end of it, hopefully they can come out more cleansed, as it were, maybe clear the air a bit.”
Tracy’s ex Robert makes an appearance at the funeral, admitting he still has feelings for her, Peter’s son Simon is misbehaving, and then there’s Tracy’s daughter Amy, “who’s coming out as quite a tough little character”.
“Any child brought into the Barlow household is bound to suffer some deep psychological scarring,” notes Roache.
But first, it’s time to bid a fond farewell to Deidre, to reminisce about the good and bad times and pay homage to one of Weatherfield’s most memorable characters.
“I think, from Annie’s point of view, she’s had a wonderful send off, both as a person in the memorial service and from the story that plays out on screen,” Roache adds.
“Everybody loved Annie, they really did, and the stories show and respect that.”
:: Coronation Street continues on ITV on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Deidre Barlow’s funeral will air on Monday, July 13