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Coronation Street

Happy Birthday Bill!

To celebrate the 90th Birthday of William Roach OBE, ITV have commissioned a new documentary about the man behind Ken Barlow.

With unprecedented access to William’s private life with his family and friends, the programme is an affectionate look at the legendary Coronation Street actor’s life away from the cobbles and explores his childhood and what brought him to our screens over 60 years ago.

In this interview William talks about how much he enjoyed taking a trip down memory lane to make the hour long programme. He speaks about his pleasure at returning to the army barracks where he did his basic training and meeting up with a 90 year old former soldier who served with him.

William also reveals how he keeps fit, as he is shown in the documentary attending his weekly funfit exercise class at a local community centre, his delight at being reunited with Ken’s first wife Valerie, played by actress Anne Reid and his shock at her admitting to having a huge crush on him back in the 60s.

Could you ever have imagined when you started out your acting career that you would still be doing the job that you love at 90?

Never, we were told it was only going to run for six weeks and that's all we expected. So no, I had absolutely no idea. And I'm just thrilled to bits. I'm so lucky to have been aboard a ship like Coronation Street which has steered me into the Guinness Book of Records and all sorts of things. It's such a wonderful programme and to have spent two thirds of my life working on it is a blessing.

In the programme there is a rare clip of your first television appearance in 1958 in Behind the Mask as a very well spoken junior doctor. What led from that to the very working class, northern Coronation Street

Ken was a university graduate from within the liberal backstreet. So he was always going to be the odd man out. I remember I was doing a play called Marking Time. Tony Warren told me himself, many many years later, that he took the casting director down to watch and pointed to me and said ‘he's the one I want for Coronation Street’ and I didn't know that at all at the time. Definitely a case of the right place at the right time.

You also speak about how you got into acting at boarding school and maybe not for the right reasons?

Yes at boarding school you had to have a hobby or interest which you could do between 4 and 6pm. My friend Anthony Tuckey and myself, were looking for something that wasn't too demanding. The hobbies available were things like debating, the Music Society, all sorts of things like that. And then we saw this group of idle boys sitting in the back of the hall, and we thought we would join them. It turned out to be the school dramatics society. That boy, and myself became the highlights of the school dramatic society, he ended up becoming an actor and very good director. Also, my mother was a keen amateur. She directed plays for the Townswomen's Guild in Houston. She used to go to school plays, I used to get notes from her. She never gave praise, just notes, but I think that also helped me.

What do you think is the secret to your success to still be working at 90 and the ability to learn lines and still be on top of it all? 

I suppose I always feel like I'm learning. You know, people ask me if  the younger ones ask me for advice and I say no, they're all so good and confident that I feel I should ask them. I always feel I'm still growing up. I never feel  grown up in life anyway. And then I've always got things to learn. Working with people like Chris Gascoyne and so many other members of the cast is so good. It's such a privilege. And of course then for someone like Ian McKellan to come into the street, that was a wonderful opportunity to learn from him. I'm learning all the time and growing and developing myself. I suppose that keeps you young if I became complacent or say all ‘I've done 60 years I know it all now’ that would not be the right thing to do. I still feel I'm not quite getting it as good as it could be. And that I could do better, it keeps you on your toes and that keeps it fresh and enjoyable.

Another thing that is very evident on the programme is your fitness and zest for life and the revelation that for the past ten years you have been going to weekly funfit classes at a local community centre. That will surprise some people. What is it you like about going there?

Well, it's such a lovely group of people of all ages from 5 to me at 90. It's not like going to the gym and doing a heavy serious workout. It's called funfit for a reason. We play games like tag zombies. It's like a form of school game, you're chasing around. We're doing things that we enjoy all the time. It's good to be together. It hasn't got that seriousness about working out and that sort of thing. I've always liked to keep fit. I was lucky at school. I was good at sport and I enjoyed it. I've always been very active and it's nice being with people who know you and don't treat you any differently. We are all just one big gang. Everyone can do all the exercises at their own pace, rope skipping, star jumps, it’s just great fun. 

How did you feel when you were approached about the documentary? You have done previous documentaries about Ken's life but how did you feel about letting the cameras follow your day to day life and give people a little bit of an idea of what makes you tick rather than Ken? 

I was delighted that ITV wanted to mark my birthday in this way. We didn’t know what to expect having cameras following us around but it was a wonderful experience and as a family once we started looking at old photos and talking about things we forgot  the cameras were there.

Another big part of your life was your Army career in the 1950s and in the documentary they take you back to your first training barracks, what was that like?

Walking in took me back to the first day when I walked through those gates past the guard room as not much more than a schoolboy at 3.55pm one afternoon and walked out six weeks later as a soldier. It was very nostalgic going back, I was that schoolboy again for a moment. We were 42 men from all walks of life and it was a wonderful experience. I then trained as an officer and was lucky to be stationed in Kingston, Jamaica and I played a lot of cricket! 

You are reunited with Alan Freeth who served under you. What was that like?

It was wonderful, there is something about the men that you train with and serve with that bonds you forever. I was actually a bit embarrassed when I returned as an officer and I had to act a little differently and do inspections and be tough with these men. Meeting Alan again those years later was very nostalgic and the whole experience at the barracks was a real highlight of the programme for me.

What are the other stand out moments of filming this programme for you?

Without a doubt meeting up with Anne Reid again after all those years. She played my wife in Coronation Street for eight years and I was very sad when she chose to leave. When Valerie died she was due to meet Ken at the Rovers so when she walked through the doors finally 52 years later it was a lovely moment, we both just started laughing. It was beautiful to see her again, to me she looks no different.

Were you surprised when she confessed to having a crush on you all those years ago?

I was surprised. She told me that she used to dream about me and I laughed and said don’t you mean nightmares? And then she told me that she had a crush on me, but she never told me at the time! She had also given me a silver cup when she left that she had engraved with “We must do it again some time” so it was nice that we finally got that chance.

Another thing that comes across in the documentary is how close you are with your family. And it's lovely to see those unguarded moments of you with the family and just seeing that fun side of you, you seem as a family to have a huge amount of fun. Is that how it is?

Yes, that's absolutely right, we are incredibly close and we have some wonderful times together with lots of laughter. I am a very different sort of dad to Ken who is the serious intellectual who doesn’t connect with his family in the same way. I do have fun scenes as Ken, but we don’t see him as a fun relaxed parent.

What does ageing mean to you?

The thing about the ageing process is that it is just experiencing things as you go along. Doesn't necessarily mean deterioration. That's the sad thing, the collective consciousness of humanity says you live to 70  and start to deteriorate towards the end. If you genuinely believe that you're deteriorating then you will deteriorate. But you don't have to buy into that belief. People say ‘Oh, I'm a bit old for that’. Nonsense if you want to do something, it shouldn’t matter what age you are. Value your time as you get older.  Enjoyment is the key. If you enjoy doing something, keep doing it.

You've often said that you want to be the first centenarian in a soap opera, but does anyone ever suggest to you that you should slow down a bit?

Oh yes they do! People will say when are you retiring? Are you going to take a break? But then what happens? Whilst I can do it, and whilst they will have me, I have no intention of retiring. I am so fortunate to work for an organisation that is happy to have me. 

What also comes across in the documentary is that everyone from Joanna Lumley, Paul O’Grady, Stephanie Beacham, your on and off screen families and everyone who knows you holds you in very high regard and has a lot of affection for you. Is that something that keeps you young, because you feel that affection from people when they see you and when they meet you?

Absolutely. I always say work is a happy place to go to because everybody seems to be wonderful and enjoying what they do. And it is lovely to know that people enjoy what you're doing on screen, entertaining them for all these years.

Sir Ian McKellan did the voiceover for the documentary and he sent you a lovely birthday video message afterwards. How did you feel about that?

I was thrilled that he agreed to do the voiceover, but to get the message was a lovely surprise. What he said actually brought tears to my eyes because he's such a kind man. He's such a warm and friendly man. And I was so touched by that message.

What does it mean to you to be 90, still working and doing what you love?

For me it's really just the same as ever. Getting on with it, steady as you go. Yes, of course I'm blessed that I'm in  the show. I'm blessed with my friends and people around me. I'm truly blessed in life and I love life. And I think that's it really, bring more joy, more love and forgiveness into your life, particularly for yourself. That will help things along the way.

Watch Happy Birthday Bill, Tuesday 19th April at 8pm, on ITV and ITV Hub.

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Coronation Street