ITV Coronation Street and Happy Birthday Bill: Real life of Ken Barlow star William Roache – actress ex, famous sons and tragic losses

He’s been on our screens longer than he’s been off it – and has a Guinness World Record to prove it. William Roache was one of Coronation Street’s first actors having made his debut in the soap’s very first episode in 1960 as Ken Barlow.

Fast forward six decades and the acting legend is still appearing in the ITV favorite as the Barlow patriarch. And Bill has a major milestone just around the corner.

He’ll be celebrating his 90th birthday next week, on April 25, and in honor of the special occasion a special documentary, Happy Birthday Bill, will air on ITV on Tuesday night (April 19). It features special appearances from past and present Corrie cast members, as well as his own family of him as they help him look back on the moments and the people who have helped shape both Bill himself and his character of him.

READMORE: ITV Coronation Street’s Ken Barlow star Bill Roache on whether he’ll retire from soap ahead of turning 90

Viewers will catch a rare glimpse of Bill’s life off set at home with his family, as well as his experiences behind the scenes on the Salford-based cobbles that he has called home since the soap began as well as in his real-life home in Cheshire.

But it got us thinking, what do we already know about the life and times of Bill Roache? Well, before landing his role on Corrie, he appeared in various stage productions, had uncredited roles in several films, and later small parts in television serials including Knight Errant Limited and Skyport.

He played the minor role of a space center operator in the Norman Wisdom film The Bulldog Breed and, before his soap debut, Bill shortly played the leading role in a Granada Television play called Marking Time which was transmitted on ITV. He landed the role of Ken shortly after as Tony Warren, who created Coronation Street, saw him in the play and thought he’d be right for the character he had created.

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And the rest, as they say, is history and Bill is currently the world’s longest-serving television actor in a continuous role and has only made other TV appearances on shows such as Celebrity Stars in Their Eyes and All Star Family Fortunes and programme’s for interviews .

Bill in Corrie more recently

The Nottingham-born actor, who now lives in Wilmslow, Cheshire, has been a part of British soap’s most iconic storylines – including his love triangle with Mike Baldwin and Deirdre Barlow that gripped the nation in 1982 and in 2017 was at the center of a “whodunit” after Ken was pushed down the stairs by an unknown assailant, later confirmed to be his son Daniel Osbourne.

Ken is known for his illustrious love life on-screen and Bill has experienced both love and loss in real life. He married TV actress, Anna Cropper, in 1961 when he was 29 years old. The couple share two children together, named Linus and Vanya, but the pair divorced in 1974.

The soap star has previously spoken out about his younger years, telling the Mirror: “Looking back, I didn’t know any better. But what I did find out is it does not bring you happiness and it is not the way to be. I had the opportunity, I indulged it and I can tell you this: it’s not worth it. The pain that it caused, and there’s all sorts of dangers.”

He added: “I had the opportunity, but that doesn’t mean I should do it. I had rehearsals up in Manchester from Monday to Friday. The opportunity was there. There were plenty of girls around. I shouldn’t have done it I didn’t have any control over my own sex drive. I didn’t have the strength to control it. It depressed me. I’m so sorry for the things that I did. The hurt was the children. I’ll always regret that. Every morning I woke up regretting and hurting.”

Actor William Roache and his wife Anna with their newborn son Linus.  February 12, 1964
Bill and his wife Anna with their newborn son Linus. February 12, 1964

Bill also once revealed that he had an affair with Corrie co-star, Pat Phoenix, who played Elsie Tanner on the much-loved soap. “It was just something that happened one night when we were together,” he previously said during an episode of Piers Morgan’s Life Stories. “She invited me round to her flat de ella and we had a few drinks, then one thing led to another.”

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However, the actor said it was just a fling and the two “weren’t right for each other.”

He married his second wife, Sara Mottram, in 1978 and the two had three children together named Verity, Edwina and James. However, the family was faced with a heartbreaking tragedy in 1984 when Edwina died aged 18 months old after contracting pneumonia.

William Roache (Coronation Street's Ken Barlow) with his wife Sarah and their daughter Verity at their home.  July 17, 1983
William Roache (Coronation Street’s Ken Barlow) with his wife Sarah and their daughter Verity at their home. July 17, 1983

Years later, Sara suddenly died aged 58 in 2008 – and his daughter, Vanya, died from a liver condition 10 years later in 2018 at the age of 50. In an unfortunate twist, Bill crashed his car in snow on the way to the hospital , which meant he was unable to say “goodbye” to Vanya.

He previously told the Mirror: “To not be able to say goodbye to Vanya was awful. But I take some comfort in now knowing she is in a better place and at peace. I like to think about the happier times we had. And when I say ‘I love you Vanya’ I know she hears it.”

Bill’s son’s Linus and James have gone on to follow on their dad’s footsteps. Linus first appeared on screen at just nine-years-old as his dad’s on-screen son Peter Barlow, a role later taken on by Chris Gascoyne. Despite not reprising the role of Peter, Linus did return to the cobbles in 2010 as Lawrence Cunningham.

Bill’s eldest son, however, is probably best known for playing Executive ADA Michael Cutter in the NBC dramas Law & Order and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. He’s also appeared on other hit shows such as Homeland and Vikings but he has also had success on the big screen, taking on a role Thomas Wayne in the 2005 Hollywood blockbuster, Batman Begins, and was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for playing Robert F. Kennedy in 2002 television film, RFK.

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James has also appeared on popular television shows such as Cold Blood and Four Seasons before going on to join the cast of Coronation Street as James Cunningham alongside his dad and older brother as part of a storyline surrounding Ken and his long-lost son, played by Linus. He then appeared in The Road to Coronation Street, a BBC Four dramatization of the creation of Corrie, as a younger version of his father.

Bill with his sons Linus and James when they joined Corrie

Back to Bill and ahead of his 90th birthday, the actor has revealed how he likes to keep fit. He says in the one-off documentary that he takes part in a weekly exercise class with school games like Tag Zombie and star jumps. “It’s such a lovely group of people of all ages from five to me at 90,” he said.

“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.”

Bill at one of his fitness classes

Viewers will also get a glimpse of Bill’s North West home, featuring a collection of royal memorabilia and family mementoes, which he was sharing with his “perfect” son and daughter. I’ve told OK! last year that he spent time in lockdown painting with his daughter Verity turning their dining room into an art room, enjoying cinema nights and meditating. The dining room is decorated with red and gold curtains, matching lamps and traditional dark wood furniture as well as plenty of family photos while the drawing room keeps with the classic theme with matching cream carpets, heavy embroidered curtains and ornaments scattered on every surface.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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