Anne Reid played the role of Valerie Barlow, first wife of Ken Barlow, from 1961 to 1971. She asked to leave the programme and her character was killed off when she was electrocuted by a hairdryer with a faulty plug. Since leaving the Street she has appeared in a wide range of programmes as well as acting on stage and in film. She was nominated for a BAFTA in 2013 for her performance in the BBC comedy drama ‘Last Tango in Halifax’.
This interview was conducted in 1999.
I had been doing some bits of television before Coronation Street. I didn’t have a television set. I had a friend called Angela Crow who was playing Doreen Lostock and she and I were friends. We actually shared a flat and she went off to be in this thing that I’d never heard of. I really had no idea what it was. I just heard that they were looking for somebody and I went up for an interview and went into it. When I arrived on the first day I really didn’t have a clue and I didn’t have a clue how popular it was until, I don’t remember how long I’d been there, about three or four weeks, and Frank Pemberton who played Frank Barlow said would you like to come on a PA and I didn’t know what he was talking about. We went to Blackpool and on the train he said to me ‘Have you got your speech ready?’ And I just laughed, I didn’t know what he was talking about. When we got there it was actually a personal appearance and I was absolutely stunned, I’d never been to anything like that. I think it was the same year that they turned the lights on and I realised how popular it was. I’d never seen it because I didn’t have a television set.
In a while I was recognised all the time. To begin with I thought it was great fun but I got a bit fed-up with it in the end as you do.
They tried me out for three weeks to start with. Dick Everitt directed the first one I did and Howard Baker the second. I think it was at the end of the second week that they said they were going to keep me on. But they said it was a try out and was just brought in as Albert Tatlock’s niece who was visiting from Glasgow. I think they’d brought this character in with the intention of being destined for Ken but it wasn’t until they could Bill and I together and in actual fact we’d been to brother and sister schools in Colwyn Bay, North Wales which was a strange coincidence and Jack Howarth’s son had been to the same school so we had a common bond.
We came in and there was the Equity strike and I had to leave so I went back to London and I didn’t know whether they would ever bring the character back again. I think it was the following July when they asked if I would come back. They had a nucleus of people who’d signed the contract before they were notified by Equity that they wanted more money. Anybody who came in after that date had a clause in their contract saying if there is no more money then we are going on strike but the people who’d signed before that like Bill and Philip Lowrie and Pat Phoenix and Doreen and Ivan and the three old ladies and Jack and Annie Walker, maybe all the Tanner family, I think that was more or less it, could stay. Of course they went through a very difficult time because I think it went on for three months and they couldn’t bring any new actors in so they used things like chimpanzees. I was fed up because it was such a good job and suddenly I was having to leave it. So I was very, very glad when they asked me back the following July and Bill and I got married, I think, August 1st. I think the wedding has been shown on television a few times. It’s very popular. All I see now when I see it, I can’t believe my waist was ever as small as that.
We had both programmes done by Friday night because then we used to go out and have a meal and go to the Everest restaurant, John Finch and Jim Allen and a lot of us. Then start again on Monday morning. It used to go out, to begin with, on Monday and Wednesday of the following week. But then as time went on they did four in one week and got ahead of themselves so they had a gap then. Well I liked it better then because there was more rehearsal. I used to drive back from London on Monday morning and I think the read-through was about 10 or 11 and then we would block it in the afternoon. Tuesday morning we would rehearse episode one, Tuesday afternoon we would rehearse episode two, Wednesday morning we’d do both of them and then Wednesday afternoon, two o’clock after lunch we had a technical rehearsal when the producer and everybody else came and then we’d do bits and pieces and then on Thursday we’d go into the studio.
It was okay then but of course nowadays I don’t think they get any rehearsal at all. It was alright to start with but when you go on year after year, playing the same character, I just got bored quite honestly. I didn’t care what happened to her. I never got a laugh, that was the thing and comedy is the thing that I’ve always liked to do. But it was fun and Bill and I got on very, very well together. I hope he will say the same thing because we had a very, very happy eight and half, nine years together. I don’t think we ever had an argument about anything. It sounds boring but I think we were very similar in many ways, fairly laid back about it. I used to get much more nervous than he did because I’m like that and he used to pat me on the head and say ‘Calm down’. There was once I dried and we had to go again. At that stage I think we did a quarter of an episode and if you dried you had to go back to the beginning of the episode but I didn’t use to dry because you’re young and you remember it. As the machinery and the cameras and the editing equipment became more sophisticated it could be done in shorter and shorter bits and it was much easier on the actors when you could do re-takes. I just remember 1968 we went into colour and that was fun because suddenly some of us don’t look so hot in black and white. Some of the girls with the beautiful bone structures and the black hair look wonderful in black and white but the blondes amongst look better in colour.
After about four years I was having doubts about staying but it was a good job. I didn’t know whether they would write Bill out and he had a wife and family and I was footloose and fancy-free. We used to sign three year contracts and the next one I signed after that the minute I’d signed it, I knew it was mistake and I thought I’m not doing this any more. But it’s a big decision because as a young actress it’s a very good job. June Howson was producing it and she said ‘Are you absolutely certain that you won’t want to come back because we want to decide how you’re going to go’ and I said ‘Absolutely.’ And she said ‘You really don’t mind being killed off?’ and I said ‘No, I’d rather you did that because there’s no way I’d want to come back.’ June said ‘Would you mind being murdered?’ and I said ‘No, not at all’ and I think they had some plan that one of the American airforcemen was going to bump me off. Anyway that was very quickly dropped, I never heard any more about that but then I heard that I was going to run into the flames. I wasn’t officially told but I heard. They said ‘Have you any strong views about it?’ and I said ‘No, I haven’t’. In a way now I wish I’d taken a little more notice but I really just wanted to go and I didn’t care. I think it would have been much nicer if I’d run in to rescue my children, I would rather have done something heroic.
I got to know the writers very, very well because there was pub called the New Theatre Inn, which was a famous theatre pub, and just round the corner from Granada. There were a couple of people from the Street who used to go and drink there but mostly there weren’t pub people. I come from a family of journalists and Christine Hargreaves, who played Christine Hardman, and I were sharing a flat by this time and we were giddy girls having a good time and we used to go over to the pub and all the people like Mike Parkinson and Bill Grundy would come over. So I got to know the people from Current Affairs and the writers like John Finch and Jim Allen and Harry Kershaw and it was simply the way we spent our leisure time. So I got to know them very, very well and that’s how I met my husband. I don’t recall us talking shop, I don’t ever remember us talking like that.
My husband (Peter Eckersley) produced Coronation Street in about 1964. He was a journalist and then he sent in a script to Derek Granger who was producing it who wrote him a lovely letter back saying ‘You’ve just won our first prize of a second-class rail return to Stalybridge’ or something like that. He started to write scripts for it and then eventually they asked Jack Rosenthal to become a producer and various other people who’d written for it and they asked Peter to produce it. I knew him before that and then after the Street he moved on to other things. When I left he became Head of Drama after we were married. Peter was Head of Drama through the seventies, things like Brideshead and Jewel in the Crown came at the end just before he died. He did a lot of wonderful drama because he found so many wonderful writers and was a great champion of single plays.
I still get people recognising me from the Street, even after all these years. When I was killed off, the newspapers were full of it. It was a job. I was in the Studio and we had to get it done quickly because we were running into overtime. I wanted to go so badly and I had a party planned for that night. I’d thought about it for a very, very, very long time. I’m not a person who rushes into things and I said to Peter ‘What do you think I should do?’ and he said ‘I want no part of it, you must make the decision yourself.’ And I went and gave my notice in and we had a bottle of champagne because he thought it was the right thing to do but you don’t know what’s going to happen. I wish I’d had the courage to leave earlier but I learnt a tremendous amount. You’ve only got to watch soaps to watch people improving in them. I’d better not name people but you can look at them and seem how people just get better and better, you do get used to working in front of the camera. It’s a wonderful school and working with so many different directors. Derek Bennett stands out as a director, I only worked with him once and I thought he was wonderful and he was a really talented man. But you worked for lots of different ones, there were so many over the years. The writers were amazing.
I think Tony Warren came in with a brand-new fresh voice and a way of writing Northern comedy. The Street was a comedy show, it had moments of drama but basically people watched it then because it had wonderful salty old characters in it and it was very funny. Now it absolutely unrecognisable to me, nothing’s the same thing at all but then I suppose it wouldn’t. But when you think how brilliant Jack and Annie Walker were, what a wonderful duo they were and those old biddies in the pub, they were just wonderful characters. His dialogue and his way of talking, I do think that the others picked it up. I’m not saying they copied it but he set the flavour of the thing. It might have been done before, I couldn’t tell you because I didn’t have a television set but it always seemed to me that he’d started something off that was absolutely wonderful. Just the way they chatted to each other and then somebody would reply to something half a page later, a question that had been asked six lines earlier that everybody had ignored and then somebody else would come in and answer it. It was wonderful writer; he was a really good writer, Tony.