Anne Kirkbride.... Corrie's Queen of the cobbles
Ben Lawrence pays tribute to 'Corrie' icon Anne Kirkbride, whose oversized glasses, husky voice and love of chain belts precedes her character, Deirdre
The word icon is overused, particularly when it comes to characters in soap opera. But Anne Kirkbride, who died at the age of 60 after a short illness this week, had every right to lay claim to that term. As Deirdre Hunt (later Langton, Rachid and Barlow), she became one of Coronation Street's most enduring figures and her husky voice, monstrous glasses and ill-advised penchant for low-cut tops were both mocked and adored.
Perhaps it was Deirdre's essential ordinariness that made viewers warm to her, and this was in no small part due to Kirkbride's performance. A generous actor, she was able to let some of the soap's more larger-than-life characters take centre stage, while still managing to steal the scene with a disgruntled look or an acerbic put-down.
But Kirkbride could do high drama, too, and over the years Coronation Street's scriptwriters certainly gave her a fair share of air time. Among her many memorable storylines, perhaps the most compelling was the love triangle between Deirdre, husband Ken Barlow and boss Mike Baldwin which unfurled over the course of 1983. Kirkbride, very believably, showed the anguish of a woman torn between her decent, liberal-minded and rather dull husband and the flash, abrasive, wealthy factory owner.
Viewers were hooked, including Britain's then Poet Laureate John Betjeman who solemnly declared: "Ken's a nice man. He deserves better." When Ken and Deirdre were eventually reconciled, the news was announced on the scoreboard at Old Trafford during a game between Manchester United and Arsenal. It read: "Ken and Deirdre reunited. Ken - 1, Mike - 0."
Other meaty storylines followed including, during the late '90s, a doomed romance with bogus airline pilot Jon Lindsay. His implication of Deirdre in various financial scams led to her eventual imprisonment and a national campaign to "free the Weatherfield One".
Kirkbride's measured performance (introspection punctuated by well-controlled moments of despair) gave the rather outlandish plot an integrity it didn't quite deserve.
But it was Deirdre's relationship with Ken which proved to be a backbone to the long-running soap and for which Kirkbride will be best remembered. When the couple married for the first time in 1981, 24 million viewers tuned in, almost as many as watched the wedding of Charles and Diana on ITV in the same year.
Their second marriage in 2005 again coincided with Prince's Charles's wedding, this time to Camilla Parker Bowles. Although Ken and Deirdre's lives were as fuelled by tragedy and catastrophe as any other soap couple's, the longevity of their relationship added a weight and believability, all too rare in a format where storylines and characters are constantly discarded or recycled.
Kirkbride only had one other credited acting role on TV, a cameo part in Jack Rosenthal's ribald 1972 drama Another Sunday and Sweet FA about a Sunday league football team. It's a piquant little performance, touching and funny, and leaves you wondering what might have happened to her career had she not auditioned for the role of Deirdre Hunt the following year.
Yet it's unlikely that any other role would have created such an indelible mark on television as that of the kind, querulous and constantly besieged Deirdre.