William Roache

Every morning, as he steps out of the shower, William Roache reminds himself that he’s getting younger. And not just in a vague, metaphorical, you’re-as-old-as-you-feel sense (though he certainly believes that too); he’s talking about the physical act of bodily rejuvenation.

‘Your cells renew themselves all the time,’ says the genial actor – one of the most recognisable faces in Britain thanks to his many decades playing Coronation Street’s steadfast Ken Barlow. ’After seven years, you’re a completely different person. Therefore I’m getting younger, and healthier.’

If this highly literal spin on the science of cell renewal makes him sound like an eccentric cross between Doctor Who and Benjamin Button, Roache doesn’t mind. He’s used to people scoffing at his unorthodox beliefs – in angels, in reincarnation, in the power of ‘collective consciousness’. The only thing that does bother him, in fact, is the word ‘belief’.

‘Beliefs are fickle and changeable, and you should never build your life on them,’ he says firmly. ‘But when you hear a truth, it resonates in your heart. A truth can stand any criticism, and when you put it to the test of experience, it works. I have certain things that I know are truths and they will never let me down.’

Roache comes from a long line of what he calls ‘unconventional truth-seekers’: his paternal grandfather was a ‘surgeon, theosophist, spiritualist and hypnotist’ and his maternal great-grandfather was a ‘medical electrician’ who used to administer mild electric shocks to day trippers on Blackpool beach.

The actor is certainly a walking poster boy for his lifestyle choices: in the flesh, he looks a full two decades younger than his 86 years and, when we meet, is spending his three-week break from the Corrie cobbles on a jet-setting promotional tour for his new book that would exhaust a man half his age.

Life and Soul: How to Live a Long and Healthy Life is part memoir, part manifesto, part self-help guide, with tips on everything from meditation to the power of positive thinking. (Forget Ken Barlow – meet Zen Barlow). Central to Roache’s philosophy is his faith in what he calls Source – a divine creator, essentially: ‘the one energy from which everything is created, the energy of love’.

‘You make your own life,’ he tells Weekend. ‘Every human is a beautiful, loving, compassionate, forgiving being. That is what humanity is. But free will and ego take you away, drag you off until you begin to forget who you truly are.

‘All the stuff you’ve acquired in your limited experience of life is probably smothering your true, beautiful self that’s sitting there waiting to express itself. So just let it go.’ 

When he talks about this stuff – about angels and love energy; about curing cancer with the power of laughter, and how we could all live longer if just 4% of the world's population willed it to happen – don’t people go: ‘Bill, isn’t this a bit… nuts?’

‘What other people think and do is up to them,’ he shrugs in his measured, equanimous way. ‘I’m not saying everybody should be like me. My book is about what I know and what I do. To me, there are more angels on Earth than there are human beings – thank goodness.’

The shadow of death looms large throughout the book – but for Roache, it is not something to be feared or fought. In one chapter, he details the morning in 2009 when Sara, his wife of 31 years, died suddenly as they sat talking in bed, and reaches the striking conclusion that ‘Sara chose the moment of her passing… The truth is she died because her soul chose to.’ It’s quite a… provocative idea.

‘After the death of your physical body, you return to your heavenly home,’ says Roache. ‘I’ve spent years studying this. But if you’re going to get onto the subject of reincarnation, I’ll just say this: Yes, it happens. And I’m going to say no more about it, because I got pilloried in the press.’ [In 2013, he sparked an outcry after appearing to suggest that victims of paedophiles might be being punished for sins in a former life, for which he quickly apologised, insisting he’d been misunderstood.] If you do want to know my understanding of it, it’s very close to the Buddhist one.’

Roache has suffered the agony of losing two children: in 1984, his daughter Edwina died aged just 18 months, and his 50-year-old daughter Vanya died in March this year. Have such tragedies not tested his beliefs?

‘Not my beliefs,’ he corrects Weekend.

Sorry, your truth.

‘They’ve affirmed my truth,’ he says. ‘I know that my daughters and my wife have gone to a far more beautiful place than here. They’re getting on with what they’re meant to do, and that’s fine.

‘You do miss them, and you do grieve for a while. When Edwina died at 18 months, that was a terrible experience. You can’t help feeling guilt because, as a parent, you’re responsible for your children. They shouldn’t die when they’re in your charge. It took a while to get over that. But instead of grieving, I try to send loving thoughts. [In the book he writes of passing messages via a ‘gifted medium’, Peggy Kennard.] Because love is a connector, and they do receive them.’ 

Another absent friend who lives in his thoughts is Anne Kirkbride, aka Deirdre, his on-off screen wife for more than 30 years, who died suddenly of breast cancer in 2015.

‘We weren’t expecting it at all,’ he says. ‘She’d taken time out because she was getting a bit upset about things. We thought it was an emotional thing. I have talked about this and got pilloried for it [at the 2016 National Television Awards, Roache gave a frank tribute to his friend, touching on her depression and alcoholism], but Anne was so open, she didn’t hold anything back. That’s what was so refreshing about her.

‘I still feel the essence of her around, because she was a very vibrant person, full of humour, very caring, very loving. I was fortunate to have a working relationship like that. It was a joy.’

The pair remain one of the most iconic couples in British screen history. Whereas America has Ken and Barbie, we have Ken and Deirdre: in 1981, their wedding was watched by 24 million viewers – more than tuned in for Charles and Diana’s two days later.

Roache has been with Coronation Street since the very first episode in 1960, and is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s longest-serving television actor in a continuous role. He must be fond of the old boy, then?

‘Ken is well-meaning,’ he says. ‘As a young man, he had great ambitions – he wanted to write books and move in literary circles, like the Bloomsbury group. But when he had the chance to realise his dreams [by moving to London with the intellectual Martha, played by Stephanie Beacham], he didn’t take it. He’s actually happier in his little house in Coronation Street.’

The same could presumably said of Roache. Nottinghamshire born and Derbyshire raised, he turned to acting after a spell in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, and joined Coronation Street while still a relatively fresh face. Has he never felt the urge, in all these years, to inhabit new characters and new worlds?

‘I did in my 40s,’ he admits. ‘And originally I’d wanted to be in films. But every so often there is a scene in the Street that’s as good as any film or any play in the West End. I realisedI was getting job satisfaction, and having full employment. And I’m really glad I made that decision because now, people of my age bracket don’t get much work.Very well established actors find it difficult to get work.’

What’s his response to the charge that Coronation Street has become too violent, too far-fetched, too removed from the witty kitchen-sink drama that captivated generations of viewers?

‘Coronation Street is an organic process,’ he says. ‘If it had stayed as it was in episode one, we’d have been off the air 20 years ago.It’s a balancing act. It has to draw in the young and, in doing that, it will slightly offend the elderly group. It’s a sad fact of life, but that’s how it has to be. It isn’t always for the good, but then you could say society isn’t always changing for the good, and we are meant to reflect society.’

In 2013, Roache was arrested and charged with two counts of rape and five counts of indecent assault against four girls, aged 16 and under, in the 1960s and 70s. At the subsequent trial, one of the charges was dismissed, and it took the jury less than six hours to declare unanimous not guilty verdicts on the rest. Five years on, he shows no signs of anger or bitterness over his ordeal.

‘Everybody will have challenges in their life, some bigger than others,’ he says calmly. ‘That was a really big one. It challenged my job and everything in my life. When something like that hits you, it’s a shock, initially. But instead of going under and saying “Oh why me? This shouldn’t be happening” I thought: I’ll accept that this happened, I’ll face it, I’ll stand up to it, I’ll actually embrace it. I will be positive and optimistic and I will stand in my truth.’

He even came to look at it as something of ‘a blessing’ – a chance to spend more time with his sons Linus and James, who are both actors (the latter played his dad in the BBC biopic The Road to Coronation Street) and his daughter Verity. James and Verity even moved back to live with him.

‘I had a year with no work, but Granada were paying me - they were very good, they looked after me – and I had my family around me. I came through it, and if you can do that, you come through stronger and you come through wiser and you know more about yourself.’

It’s this positive outlook that shapes Roache’s entire worldview – one you suspect will sustain him for a long time yet. Would he still like to be playing Ken at 100 – to be the world’s first centenarian soap star?

‘Why not?’ he smiles. ‘Tell me why not!’

If anyone can do it, he can. And that’s the truth.

Published in Waitrose Weekend, July 19, 2018

(c) Waitrose Weekend