Coronation Street star William Roache said there were “no winners” after he was cleared of historic sex offences against five women.
Roache, 81, who plays Ken Barlow in the ITV soap, was found not guilty by a jury of two counts of rape and four counts of indecent assault following a four-week trial at Preston Crown Court.
Speaking on the steps of the court, he said: “I have just got one thing to say, in these situations there are no winners and I think we should all be much kinder to ourselves. Now if you will excuse me I would like to get back to work.”
Several members of the jury that had taken just short of six hours to clear him of the allegations watched as Roache read out a statement to the media.
He thanked his employers, ITV Granada, his legal team, family, friends and colleagues for their support - as well as those people he did not know who had wished him well.
Roache did not respond when asked if the trial had been “a witch-hunt”.
In her closing speech to the jury, prosecutor Anne Whyte said that if Roache was telling the truth and the complainants were all liars then he could be seen as a victim of “a huge, distorted, perverse witch-hunt”.
Roache, wearing a blue suit and the same blue-and-white patterned tie he had worn for every day of the trial, showed no reaction as the foreman of the jury of eight women and four men read out the not guilty verdicts.
When the last verdict was delivered, the months of strain overcame his family on the front row of the public gallery as younger son James dissolved into tears with a hand over his face, elder son Linus wiped away tears and younger daughter Verity was hugged by her boyfriend before she also began to weep.
One of Roache’s minders sprang to his feet and shouted “Yes!” and began to clap before the judge told him to be quiet.
Roache then left the dock and walked to the door of the courtroom where he was embraced in a bear-hug by his minder and for the first time he smiled broadly.
He then went into a nearby side room which he and his legal team have used during the four-week trial. Shortly after, Roache’s family left court and each entered the room to hugs and smiles from their father, including hugs shared with his legal team.
The Coronation Street veteran was alleged by the Crown to have used his fame and popularity to exploit the “starstruck” girls, aged 16 and under, between the mid-60s and early-70s.
The women told jurors they were sexually abused by the defendant either at Granada Studios in Manchester, in his car or at properties he owned.
He was said to have raped one complainant at his then bungalow in Lancashire when she was a 15-year-old virgin and she said he raped her again in an adjoining cottage he owned.
Three of the indecent assaults were alleged to have taken place inside Granada Studios - in the gents toilets, ladies toilets and a dressing room - while the fourth was said to have happened in his Rolls-Royce when he gave a lift home to a complainant.
But Roache told the jury he had no knowledge of any of the women and the alleged abuse simply did not happen.
Roache said he was “astounded” and “horrified” at his arrest on suspicion of rape at his home in Wilmslow, Cheshire, on May 1 last year. ITV announced he would not appear in the programme until legal proceedings were concluded.
After the verdicts were announced today, a spokesman for ITV said: “We look forward to talking to Bill soon about his return to work.”
The widespread publicity of the arrest led to four other women coming forward to allege they too had been victims in the same era.
Roache was arrested again last June and then charged with five counts of indecent assault. But the world’s longest-serving soap actor - who has appeared in Coronation Street since its 1960 launch - told the jury sexual abuse was not in his “nature” and he had no interest in under-age girls.
Louise Blackwell QC, defending, said the case against her client was “nonsense”, with the trial haunted by the “spectre” of Jimmy Savile.
Criticism of police and prosecutors over Savile’s impunity despite years of suspicions of sex abuse meant accusations against other celebrities had to end in a trial, it was suggested.
“In the post-Jimmy Savile era, once someone makes an allegation, it’s got to go to court, no sense will prevail, it has to go to court,” Miss Blackwell said.
Glowing testimonies about Roache’s “caring” and “lovely” nature were given in evidence by three of his Coronation Street co-stars including Anne Kirkbride, who plays his on-screen wife Deirdre.
It was not credible, the jury was told, that the “perfect gentleman” and “father figure” they described had been a “sexual predator”.
And the “inconsistencies and contradictions” of each complainant’s “story” was picked apart under cross-examination.
During the trial the prosecution offered no evidence on one of two counts of indecent assault, relating to one complainant, as she had “no actual memory of the episode”. The involvement of the press was also highlighted.
The husband of one complainant, whose sister was also allegedly abused, contacted the papers before the police - which “coloured” their allegations, Miss Blackwell said.
After Roache’s initial arrest for rape was “all over the press”, she asked the jury whether any of the other women who came forward later could be regarded as “truly independent”.