The extraordinary life of Ken Barlow

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We want to wish William Roache a very happy birthday as he turns 80 (doesn’t he look unbelievable?). In tribute we take a look back at his finest creation – the ‘Coronation Street’ character Ken Barlow.

The early years...
In an almost freakish way, the very first episode of 'Coronation Street' laid down Ken's future for the next half century. Soap characters go through such a lot of personality changes (take someone of equivalent age in the show nowadays, David Platt – he's gone from mean to evil to good in the space of about three months). By contrast look at Ken, back on that fateful day - 9 December 1960. He is a student, who spends the episode arguing with his dad Frank about whether he wants to show his new girlfriend, Susan Cunningham, the delights of Weatherfield or splash money taking her to The Imperial Hotel, where his mum Ida works in the kitchen.

Right there, in that kick off episode, you have Ken's lothario side, his love-hate relationship with Weatherfield, his modish Guardian-reading side and the ever-present issue in his life, family.  All these factors remain constant. But that doesn't mean Ken's life has ever been boring...

Twenty-one girlfriends on from Susan Cunningham, we now know that Ken likes the ladies. Obviously not as much as actor Bill Roache himself, who recently revealed he earned himself an unusual and rather rude nickname thanks to his way with women. Given Bill's success with girls ‘Coronation Street’ fansite's's statement that “slightly improbably,  Ken has become the Street's lothario” seems a tad harsh.

Ken's love life has never been simple. Three wives – but one of them twice, doesn't come close to measuring the intricacies of his affairs. There was a librarian before he met Valerie Tatlock, who'd moved to the Street with her Uncle Albert and became the first Mrs Barlow. After twins Peter and Susan were born in 1965, he had an affair with exotic dancer Pip Mistral. While Terry Duckworth's lapdancing club may cause a stir, it had nothing on Ken and Pip. There were headlines about society's loose morals demonstrated on screen. Soon after, following another affair, Ken was due to leave to take up a teaching post in Jamaica (again that love-hate Weatherfield thing) before Valerie perished after electrocuting herself. Another wife Janet, overdosed in 1977. And then Deirdre arrived...

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While you could go into detail about Ken's offspring (sometimes played by Bill Roache's own), the main factor in his life for the past 30 years has been Deirdre. They're the Burton and Taylor of soap. The ups and downs and in and outs are legendary. But in fact, soap's greatest romance is also one of its least romantic relationships. It was in 1980, eight years after Deirdre joined the soap that they finally got together. While 24 million tuned in to watch the nuptials, it's their various dalliances which brought them most fame - Deirdre's affair with Mike Baldwin being the most famous. Credit for the infamous three-way dramatic showdown, incidentally, must go to William Roache – producers initially wanted him to stand meekly by and watch, but he insisted on becoming furious – and his reaction to Deirdre was so extreme it genuinely left Anne Kirkbride in tears.

It was Ken's affair with Wendy Crozier which brought the marriage to a close on New Year's Eve 1990 – but they were remarried in 2005. Their ceremony was watched by 13 million. The day after Charles and Camilla's ceremony was watched by 9 million. Who's the real royalty?

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Ken himself
There's no doubt that you could teach a university course on Ken's impact on the nation over the years (though as an intellectual snob, Ken would indubitably hate it). How many soap characters have been mentioned in an editorial in The Guardian let alone described as “part of the left-liberal intelligentsia against whom Margaret Thatcher launched her long Kulturkampf”. How may soap characters have been the subject of bizarre and hypnotic songs released by Harry Hill? How many soap characters have been mentioned in parliament (Ken was suggested as a new role for John Major in 1992)?

There are plenty more examples of the socio-cultural phenomenon that is Ken but actually, they're merely background. What's most important is the entertainment he's given to us. It's easy to dismiss soaps as unimportant fluff (check out some of the comments on recent soap previews, if you don't believe me) but the reason they're popular is because they entertain. And they entertain a lot of people.

In fact, if you think about the millions of people who have gained pleasure from watching Ken Barlow every week since that day in 1960, in terms of the sheer number of hours, you could say William Roache is the greatest entertainer in British history. Happy Birthday Bill!