William Roache's life on screen

Making history: Coronation Street actor William Roache delves into his family tree in the BBC's Who Do You Think You Are?
Making history: Coronation Street actor William Roache delves into his family tree in the BBC's Who Do You Think You Are?

When William Roache phones to talk about the family discoveries he made in BBC genealogy series Who Do You Think You Are?, you half expect his stories to involve his postman father Frank, housewife mother Ida, long-suffering wife Deirdre, and wayward children Peter and Tracey.

For Roache's Coronation Street character Ken Barlow has been so ingrained in the fabric of popular culture, fans often believe Roache and Barlow are one and the same.

"They never really see beyond the character, do they?" Roache muses, on the phone from his home in Cheshire. "So I suppose it's quite interesting to see my background."

Roache was thrilled to be approached by Who Do You Think You Are? producers, but his initial excitement was soon tempered. "They said ‘We must warn you . . . if there's nothing interesting in your family then we don't do you'.

"I didn't hear anything for about two months, so I thought, that's it."

Eventually Roache received the call to say he would be featured on the show, but other details were kept a closely guarded secret.

"They don't tell you anything at all, so when the programme starts filming, each day they just reveal a little bit of information, which is a good way to do it, of course, because that information is new and they're filming you actually hearing what's going on. So I thoroughly enjoyed doing it."

During the course of the one-hour episode, Roache investigates his mother's side of the family, of which he says he already knew "a rough outline". But the information he learnt about his enterprising grandmother, Zillah, gave him a whole new understanding of his family dynamic.

"What a brilliant entrepreneur [she was] in an age where only men ran businesses. And she was a towering woman, apparently very dominant and much feared," Roache says. "I only remember her as a lovely granny who used to buy me icecream."

Being involved in Who Do You Think You Are? also afforded Roache a break from Coronation Street, the show he has appeared in since its inception in 1960, making him the longest-serving television actor in the world.

Born in 1932 in Derbyshire, as a young man Roache joined the army and served as lieutenant for six years until a mortar explosion damaged his hearing and he had to leave. He moved to London to pursue an acting career and after working in theatre and television plays, he was spotted by young writer Tony Warren who was creating a new series, Florizel Street. Roache landed the part of Ken Barlow, the series was renamed Coronation Street and the rest, as they say, is history. Fifty years on, Roache says he is still no closer to retirement.

"I love the show. It's a happy place to be, we all get on really, really well."

Now 80, he admits it's becoming harder, but he feels lucky to still be in work at his age. "I've given my life to it pretty much. I enjoy it. And every year I'll get two or three stories that'll be really brilliant, that I really enjoy. So I'm very lucky to have it."

Life off set has been full of drama, too, as Roache revealed in a headline-hitting interview with Piers Morgan in March last year. Appearing on the broadcaster's Life Stories show, Roache owned up to a life of drunken debauchery in the 1960s, admitting to infidelity and numerous one night stands. The British press went into overdrive, claiming the star had said he'd slept with more than 1000 women.

"That was all Piers," Roache says with a chuckle. "He put the numbers on things. All I ever said was ‘I don't know'. Then the media picked it up and said I'd boasted about having 1000 women. Well, I don't think it's a thing to boast about anyway, it's not a particularly good thing."

But, Roache points out, he also went on to have a 35-year happy marriage with late wife, Sara, who died in 2009.

"I've led the two lives and I can tell you if it was a choice between a loving wife or going out having different women every day, the happy loving marriage is the one. Not the other. It wasn't a particularly happy way of living."

Who Do You Think You Are?, Thursday, 7.30pm, BBC Knowledge

Coronation Street, Thursday & Friday, 7.30pm, TV One

William Roache is the narrator of COROnation Street on Stage, which tours New Zealand from March 28. See coroonstage.co.nz for information.

Sunday Star Times