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'I felt married to Anne': Bill Roache reveals heartache at the death of Corrie co-star Anne Kirkbride

Mirror logo Mirror 11/06/2018 Janine Yaqoob
a man and a woman in glasses looking at the camera: Bill Roache says he felt he and Anne Kirkbride were kindred spirits © Getty Images Bill Roache says he felt he and Anne Kirkbride were kindred spirits

For 35 years the nation was gripped by the on-off relationship of Ken and Deirdre Barlow in Coronation Street.

Their 1981 wedding was watched by even more people than Prince Charles and Lady Diana’s just two days later.

So when Anne Kirkbride died after secretly battling breast cancer, aged 60, Bill Roache, who’s played Ken since the first episode of Corrie in 1960, was left shocked and bereft.

Here, in an exclusive extract from his book Life and Soul, the 86-year-old actor tells of his love for Anne and his visit to say goodbye to her in hospital.

He also reveals he believes his wife Sara died because it was her time, when she passed away by his side from a heart condition.

William Roache, Anne Kirkbride are posing for a picture: Bill says had no idea Anne was so ill as star kept her health battle a secret © Trinity Mirror Shared Services Limited Bill says had no idea Anne was so ill as star kept her health battle a secret

For the first time in my life I was virtually speechless. There I was, on stage at the 2015 National ­Television Awards, my tribute on the autocue, but I knew this was going to be one of the most difficult things I’d ever been asked to do.

I was saying goodbye to the woman who had been my on-screen wife for 35 years, and it had to be right, just as she would have wanted it. No tears.

“Oh, come on, get on with it!” I could almost hear that throaty laugh, as if Deirdre – or Annie, as she was known to us – were standing right beside me, ­chivvying me on.

a man and a woman smiling for the camera: 24 million watched them tie knot in 1981 © Trinity Mirror Shared Services Limited 24 million watched them tie knot in 1981

Like everyone else, I was in shock. Just two days before that tribute, Anne ­Kirkbride had passed away.

I had been at her bedside that night, Monday, January 19, 2015, along with others close to her. When I’d arrived at the hospital, I’d been told, “She’s lost a lot of weight. Be prepared.”

Annie was frail, but she looked so beautiful – the weight loss had revealed her exquisite bone structure. All I could see was her beauty.

She was unconscious, sedated with morphine, but she had a glow that seemed to come from within. I held her hand. I felt a tremor and hoped that was a sign she knew I was with her. I thanked her for everything. “Goodbye, Annie,” I said. “You know you’re going to a beautiful place.”

a man wearing a suit and tie: Bill speaking at Anne's funeral © Trinity Mirror Shared Services Limited Bill speaking at Anne's funeral

She was going back home to the spiritual realm and I felt she would be so happy when she got there. And that gave me a great sense of peace.

We’d had no idea she was physically ill, although she’d had many ups and downs – she suffered from depression – and in the last few months she’d started getting more tearful, often sitting outside smoking when we needed to do a scene.

I’d comfort her, and when she came back she’d always do the scene brilliantly. But the crying was becoming more frequent, and the producers said, “Look, Annie, you need to go and sort yourself out.”

So she agreed to take a three-month break. She was on anti-depressant medication, and I wondered if it wasn’t right for her. I felt sure if it was corrected, she’d be back. That was to be the last time I would work with her.

When I talked about Annie at the National Television Awards in 2016, just a year after her passing, I was heavily criticised for disrespecting her memory.

I referred to her alcoholism, and her bouts of tears. But Annie had been so open – she’d laughed about the pills, laughed about having been an alcoholic – that when I was talking about her, I felt that same openness.

a couple of people that are looking at the camera: Bill with Anne, left, and his real wife, Sara © Trinity Mirror Shared Services Limited Bill with Anne, left, and his real wife, Sara

Everybody knew about her condition. She liked talking about it if it helped people. Obviously I meant no ­disrespect to Annie. We were very close and I really did love her.

I met Annie in 1972, when she was 17. She’d only come in for a small part, but the producers saw how good she was and later they were to discover her brilliant comedy timing.

They decided to put Ken and Deirdre together. Ken, a so-called intellectual, and Deirdre, a homely girl – there was sure to be conflict, and there was.

a group of people posing for a photo © Trinity Mirror Shared Services Limited

Then there was Deirdre’s relationship with Mike Baldwin, whom she’d been involved with before, and the Ken-Mike-Deirdre love triangle hit the pulse of the nation.

The media realised the power of the Street when they flashed up on screen “Ken and Deirdre United Again!” at a Manchester United game. The story was front-page headlines.

Later, the first wedding of Ken and Deirdre in 1981 got 24 million viewers – more than Charles and Diana’s marriage two days later.

You couldn’t help but love her – she was always so giving, generous and sensitive. I called her a “love bomb”. She’d get really upset if someone was going through a hard time.

With Annie, it felt like being married in a parallel life – Ken and Deirdre – even though we’d go our separate ways in the evenings. The vicar who married us on screen, Frank Topping, was a minister in real life.

Annie and I were kindred spirits in many ways. When I was studying astrology, she began studying it too, and became quite good. I cast her chart in the early 1990s, and saw her Venus was going to be conjunct with her Sun.

I said, “It looks as though there’s a relationship coming up,” and shortly after that David Beckett joined the cast, playing handyman Dave Barton. They were married in 1992.

A few weeks after her passing, when we went back to the Barlows’ living room, a wave of emotion really hit me. In that room were all the photos, all the memories – all the laughter and tears of the 35 years we’d been together. The cast and crew still feel her presence today. She is greatly missed.

My wife's sudden death was so shocking but her soul chose it

My wife Sara died six years before Annie, at just 58 years old. The shock was profound and deep.

We used to joke that in my dotage she’d be pushing me round in a wheelchair, and I never imagined she’d go before me. It wasn’t just the 17 and a half years between us; she was so vibrant and beautiful.

Coming home from the hospital without her, I felt a huge wave of grief. I adored Sara, and admired her too.

She organised everything for me – I even used to call her “head girl”! She had been an actress and had given that up to support me.

For Sara, family came first. She was incredibly close to our children, Will and Verity, and together we had such a close, loving bond.

a person standing next to a building: Bill and Sara married in 1978 © Trinity Mirror Shared Services Limited Bill and Sara married in 1978

Her passing happened so suddenly. February 7, 2009 was a normal Saturday morning, we were sitting up in bed when she froze mid-conversation with an “oh”. Then she lost consciousness. She died that moment. When I saw her again, she looked so serene. I knew her spirit had departed, so, touching her hand, I said, “Goodbye, love,” knowing we would meet again.

She died because her soul chose to. Sara decided to go when she was still glamorous and beautiful. The way she went, so peacefully and quickly, was right for her.

Of course, I grieved for Sara and Annie. But I tried not to grieve for too long. I just send them love. I know they’re in a beautiful, happy place, free of pain.

  • Life and Soul, by William Roache and published by Hay House UK, is on sale from next Tuesday.

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