I HAVE measured out my life with Deirdre Barlow by my side. Now she has gone following the death of actress Anne Kirkbride at the age of 60. A nation might not quite be in mourning, as actress Michelle Keegan, just one of many of her sorrowful Coronation Street colleagues, tweeted. It is however in a slight state of shock and yes – perhaps surprise – that the death of a soap star has moved us so.
Why is this? For me, I grew up with Deirdre. As a child and as a teenager, she was as real to me as any one of my mother’s friends. As a woman myself, I could see her weaknesses laid bare.
Indeed, Coronation Street was as real to us as life in our own street. Watching it every week was like taking a walk around the corner. The characters were familiar, actually recognisable. We understood their foibles and failings, laughed at what they found funny, and felt sad for their troubles. It gave a kind of depth and comparison to our little lives, made us feel that we weren’t quite alone in our little house, in our little street. There were millions of others just like us, and there they were, on the little television set in the front room.
When was it that I began to understand this other dimension? Well, it was with Deirdre herself. It was when her screen daughter, Tracy, was born that I really started to become interested. And it marked a major turning point in my life – a later bedtime.
I’d be about nine or 10, and I loved babies. Any excuse to see a baby, and I was there. I distinctly remember overhearing my mother say to my “aunty” who lived next door that I was allowed to stay up later now that “t’bairn is on Coronation Street”. If you’re not a fan, it might sound weird that I remember this. That’s what Coronation Street does for you though. And that’s why Deirdre’s demise affects us fans so much. It’s almost as though we have lost a family member.
And her many adventures and misadventures have both entertained us and brought us anguish over 40-years on “the Street”. Of course, her several marriages, her stint in prison, her ill-fated time serving as a local councillor, might all be larger-than-life experiences we haven’t faced personally.
That doesn’t mean though that we couldn’t put ourselves in her place and ask ourselves what we might have done if a con-man had persuaded us to take the rap, or we’d fallen in love with two men at the same time. The Ken/Deirdre/Mike Baldwin love triangle made such an impact on the nation that the result of the televised tussle in 1983 was posted on the scoreboard at the Manchester United game: Ken 1 – Mike 0.
Deirdre and Ken. Ken and Deirdre. Even their names betray their very ordinariness. Who would set out to write an eternal romance with these two as characters? Yet, their trials and tribulations kept us hooked over the years better than any Hollywood blockbuster.
That she stood by William Roache, the actor who played her husband for so long, during his battle to clear his name against claims of sex abuse says a lot about Anne Kirkbride herself. Clearly, she was a good friend to many. And she had faced her own real-life demons; her battle with depression was well-documented.
However, we shouldn’t just see her in terms of an on-screen wife. Coronation Street characters come and go. What made Deirdre especially interesting was the richness and complexity of all her relationships. Her battleaxe mother, Blanche. Her wayward daughter, who grew from that cute baby of the 1970s into a murderess. Her touching friendship with former Rovers Return landlady Liz McDonald. When you saw those two on screen, it always struck me that they weren’t actually acting. They just looked like two women sat round the table trying to put a messy world to rights.
All those things Deirdre experienced. All those tears. All that drama, the ups and downs. Yet what was her parting shot? Throwing a trifle at the wall during a family argument, in her final episode before she went on leave to fight the cancer which killed her.
Show me a woman who hasn’t felt like throwing a trifle, and I’ll show you a plaster saint.
She lived through what we live through, and brought it all home to us every week. Deirdre was an Everywoman. That is why so many women will miss her.