Remembering Deirdre: Anne Kirkbride’s four decades on Coronation Street

She was one of Coronation Street’s most unlikely sex symbols, but behind those trademark specs and pinny Deirdre Barlow sizzled.

She was twice divorced, had a tempestuous affair with Street Casanova Mike Baldwin and later a passionate fling with handyman Dave Barton. Those outsized glasses had their steamy moments.

But actress Anne Kirkbride was nowhere near as racy as her TV character and was happily married to actor David Beckett.

William Roache, who played Ken Barlow with Anne Kirkbride, Dierdre

William Roache, and Anne Kirkbride (Anna Gowthorpe/PA)

Where fantasy and reality overlapped, however, was in her romance with Beckett – for she met him on the Weatherfield set of the famous ITV soap.

He made an exciting entrance into her life in 1991 when he saved Deirdre’s daughter Tracy from a chip pan fire that threatened to engulf their home.

He stayed to do odd jobs about the house – and mend her broken heart after being ditched by two-timing husband Ken.

The Coronation Street set

(Jon Super/AP/PA)

Their romance ended after six months on screen, but it gave Deirdre the confidence boost she needed after being abandoned by Ken. Beckett once remarked it felt as though 20 million viewers were cheering him on during their clinches.

Off screen, however, the couple were also falling in love and the actor moved into her four-bedroomed Edwardian home in Withington, Manchester. A quiet family wedding followed.

Deirdre had been a major character in a succession of important plots since joining the series in 1972.

Anne Kirkbride

Anne Kirkbride, in 1983 (PA)

She worked for plumber Ray Langton and was briefly married to him, but he ran off with a waitress and left her literally holding the baby in 1977 – now troublesome teenage daughter Tracy.

She became Ken Barlow’s third wife in 1981, but two years later had an affair with Mike Baldwin (Johnny Briggs). He begged her to set up home with him and the nation held its breath as Deirdre debated leaving boring Ken (William Roache) for glamorous businessman Mike.

The love triangle suspense was accentuated when an electricians’ dispute deprived viewers of an episode. Members of the public threw themselves into the romance – some even wrote in advising her how to behave.

One viewer told Anne she was organising a petition to get her out of The Street. Others wrote “we thought you ought to know” letters to Ken.

Anne Kirkbride with on screen husband William Roache and Johnny Briggs

The trio in the love triangle, Deirdre was married to Ken Barlow, William Roache, left, and having an affair with Mike Baldwin, Johnny Briggs

But the affair was tame by today’s standards – there were no explicit sex scenes, just meaningful glances, lots of hand-holding and the odd lingering kiss.

Eventually Deirdre rejected Mike’s pleas to dump Ken and she ended their relationship. Ironically Ken later had an affair and left her for another woman.

After her screen love troubles with Ken and Mike she was voted TV Personality Of The Year in 1983.

The Coronation Street sign

(Peter Byrne/PA)

The Ken or Mike dilemma coincided with Anne’s own love life hitting the rocks, as her five-year romance with boyfriend Mark Bell ended around the same time.

They met on the set when he was a camera technician and set up home together, but the relationship foundered just as she was waving goodbye to Mike.

Anne was a private person who hated the limelight: “I’m not very good at being a star, I don’t handle it very well. I’m really a quiet, private person,” she said once.

“The trouble with being in Coronation Street is that you feel you are under a microscope.”

Anne Kirkbride

(Peter Byrne/PA)

She circumvented the problem by wearing contact lenses off screen which made her virtually unrecognisable. Her character’s specs had clear glass in them and came from the props department.

Born in Oldham, Greater Manchester on June 21, 1954, the daughter of cartoonist Jack Kirkbride, she joined the Street in 1972 after a stint in Oldham Rep. She joined the theatre staight from Counthill Grammar School, Oldham.

Anne got her part in the Street by accident when she was being interviewed for another show. It was a small role, but she made such a good impression she was soon back.

She joined Coronation Street properly as Deirdre Hunt, engaged to Billy Walker, the feckless son of Rovers Return doyenne Annie Walker. But they were never destined to wed, although Billy always had a gleam in his eye for her.

Anne kirkbride, Doris Speed and Bill Roache, with Ken Farrington and Alan Rothwell

Anne kirkbride, Doris Speed and William Roache, with Ken Farrington and Alan Rothwell (Malcolm Croft/PA)

Often looking miserable on screen because of her storylines, she had a happy-go-lucky streak when the cameras stopped rolling.

On the day after Langton left her the cast walked into the studios to find her in a pinny dusting the furniture in the foyer. “It was a great gag. I told them, ‘Well I need the money now. My husband has gone and I’m left with the child’.”

Anne was a heavy smoker, like many Coronation Street regulars including Liz Dawn (Vera Duckworth). Pat Phoenix, who played Elsie Tanner, was a lifelong heavy smoker who died of lung cancer in 1986 aged 62.

The Rovers Return Inn on the Corrie set

(Peter Byrne/PA) Anne’s throat cancer was revealed in December 1993 – it was diagnosed after two growths developed on her neck.

She was told she had contracted non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a tumour of the lymph gland.

She had an operation in December 1993 to remove the lumps from her throat at the private Alexandra Hospital in Cheadle, Cheshire and her character bowed out of the soap for three months during chemotherapy treatment. Her mother also died of cancer, aged 66 in 1993.

In 1998 a campaign to free her character from prison gained massive coverage, with even the prime minister promising to intervene.

She was jailed after being duped into a mortgage fraud by fiance Jon Lindsay.

Tony Blair gave his support to the “Free The Weatherfield One” movement and insisted it was clear to anyone “with eyes in their head” that Deirdre was innocent.

Anne formed an entertaining double act with her sharp-tongued on-screen mother Blanche Hunt, played by actress Maggie Jones, who died in 2009.

A tearful Anne gave a reading at Hunt’s memorial service, which was attended by about 500 cast, crew and fans at Salford Cathedral.

In November 2012 ITV1 aired a special one-off programme – Deirdre and Me: 40 Years on Coronation Street – which showcased some of the heroine’s highlights on the show as well as Anne’s off-screen story.

 Anne Kirkbride, who played Deirdre Barlow, hugging her on screen husband William Roache

Anne Kirkbride and William Roache (Dave Thompson/PA)

Last year Anne defended Roache at his sex assault trial by taking to the witness box at Preston Crown Court to praise the character of her co-star.

She told the jury that Roache was “always a perfect gentleman” around her, and when asked what one word she would use to describe him, she replied: “Lovely”.

After Roache was cleared of rape and indecent assault, his character Ken returned to Coronation Street to whisk Deirdre off on a caravan holiday in North Wales.

Ken and Deirdre Barlow (played by Bill Roache and Anne Kirkbride.

(Eamonn and James Clarke/Eamonn and James Clarke/EMPICS Entertainment)

In September Anne was granted an extended break from the soap by producers. She was expected to be absent from the show for three months.

William  Roache and Kate Ford

William Roache and Kate Ford filiming as Ken and Tracy Barlow (Eamonn & James Clarke/Eamonn and James Clarke/EMPICS Entertainment)

Anne was often advised to go to London and try for other acting roles, but she never wanted to move far from home.

She said once: “I love my family and I love my roots. In any case, could you see me playing Ophelia at the National Theatre?”