Joanna Lumley had everything I like in a woman – but was she one of my 1,000 lovers I'll be a gentleman, says Bill Roache
21:00 GMT, 4 May 2012
21:01 GMT, 4 May 2012
Coronation Street's unlikely lothario reveals how his insatiable sex drive led to some VERY colourful escapades – but wrecked his family…
To millions of fans, including his friend Chancellor George Osborne, who calls him ‘Britain’s biggest TV star’, Bill Roache is the urbane Ken Barlow, a floppy-fringed charmer with a twinkle in his eye.
But today he reveals an episode — one of many sexual adventures he has come to regret — that offers a rather different perspective.
It concerns a late-night scene in the Sixties, a young woman… and her boyfriend, who disturbed her and Bill in the throes of passion.
Naked and terrified, Bill ran for his life, finally eluding the irate pursuer. Even now, he recalls the fear and self-disgust prompted by the encounter, saying: ‘You see these kinds of scenes in films but it’s not funny in real life.
The most tantalising actress to have crossed Bill Roache's path in Coronation Street is Joanna Lumley – as his on-screen girlfriend in 1973 – but he refuses to discuss whether their TV romance spilled over into real life
‘He was a big guy and absolutely incensed. He could have killed me and I knew the girl was going to be in deep trouble. It made me think about the other side of my rampant promiscuity, about the hurt, deceit and how wrong it was.’
Of course many people will be shocked to hear of Bill, 80, getting into such a lurid scrape. But this was the reality of his life when he was galloping through what — as he recently admitted — was a tally of more than 1,000 lovers.
This week, DJ Tony Blackburn, 69, admitted his own roster of women reached half that total, but somehow hearing the elder statesman of Coronation Street discussing his relentlessly priapic youth is more shocking.
It seems especially odd because for so long Bill was a standard-bearer for married fidelity, enjoying 35 years of happiness with his second wife Sara until her untimely death from a heart condition in 2009 at the age of 58.
And for the past two years, Bill has found love with TV and weather presenter Emma Jesson, a leggy blonde of 43. ‘We’re very easy-going with each other,’ he says. ‘I can’t stand disharmony or arguments. Our relationship is genuine but we have our own homes and live in the here and now.’
Joanna Lumley seen here in 1971. Bill said: 'I'm not saying whether I did or didn't have anything with Joanna, but interestingly she has since become Mrs Barlow [she is married to musician Stephen Barlow]'
Then he laughs: ‘I know that younger people think that when you’re older you can’t have a full sexual relationship, but it goes on.’
Now, in his only newspaper interview about the time his sex drive overwhelmed his self-worth, and the desire to preserve his first marriage, Bill spells out the pain he caused his family and the terrible price he paid.
He was 29 when he married rising actress Anna Cropper, 23, in 1961. They had a son, Linus, now 48 — who recently starred in ITV1’s Titanic and has awards for his work in the U.S. — and a daughter, Vanya, 45.
It remains a source of deep sorrow to Bill that his contact with the children was intermittent after the marriage broke down due to his endless womanising.
It tailed off altogether after Bill married Sara in 1978, and although he later resumed his relationship with Linus, he was estranged from Vanya until three years ago.
‘[Joanna] was beautiful, sensitive, humorous, clever. She had everything. I found her very attractive. She elevated things'
Speaking publicly for the first time about the severed contact, he says: ‘I hurt every day over that. It must be awful for a child to know the reason their father has gone off.
‘My first wife Anna had lost all trust in me. I knew I was leading a wrong and sordid life — but the strength of my sex drive was greater than the increasing distaste I felt after each sexual encounter.’
The figure of 1,000 lovers came up in an ITV interview with Piers Morgan, who suggested larger and larger numbers when Bill couldn’t remember. He says: ‘It would’ve been strange to have kept count. I certainly wasn’t boasting about it. My life in the 1960s was full of indecision, turmoil and playing one person off against another.’
At the beginning of that decade, Coronation Street became a huge success, with its wit and kitchen-sink grittiness. And Bill was a natural pin-up as the lean-faced, snake-hipped, cut-above-it-all student Ken. Women were throwing themselves at him.
He muses: ‘If I’d had a different career, I wouldn’t have had the opportunities — but everything was there for me to indulge my weakness. Often I slept with several women in one day. It was all to do with availability.’
During the week, Bill would live in Manchester for filming then join his family in London at weekends, which made the logistics of womanising easy. His lothario ways continued for more than a decade, so it is possible the figure of 1,000 is actually rather modest.
Most of the lovers’ names and faces have long since faded from memory, but some are well-known, and Bill still protects their identity.
The most tantalising actress to have crossed his path in Coronation Street is Joanna Lumley — as his on-screen girlfriend — but he refuses to discuss whether their TV romance spilled over into real life.
Latest love: Emma Jesson, 43, with Roache, 80
All he will say is: ‘She was beautiful, sensitive, humorous, clever. She had everything. I found her very attractive. She elevated things.
‘I’m not saying whether I did or didn’t have anything with Joanna, but interestingly she has since become Mrs Barlow [she is married to musician Stephen Barlow].
‘I’ve bumped into her over the years, including at Windsor Castle when they did it up after the fire and certain people were invited to mingle with the Royal Family.’
He adds: ‘There is mainly one name I am protecting but there are a couple of others as well. It’s up to them if they want to reveal all. I wouldn’t mind. I like to think I’m being a gentleman.’
A Corrie star with whom Bill did have a (very) fleeting affair was the late Pat Phoenix, who played siren Elsie Tanner. He recalls: ‘We both had reputations and Pat felt we should meet up one night, so I went round for a drink.
‘It was almost a joke. We weren’t right for each other and our one-night stand was actually very dull.
She was a lovely person but not my type. I didn’t go for older ladies. I liked them slender, young, delicate and feminine.’
We are at Bill’s home in Wilmslow, Cheshire, where he has lived for 30 years and which is exactly the same as when I last visited, just weeks after Sara’s death.
Bill was recently described as a ‘gentle, animal-loving babe magnet’, and he is affable and hospitable — offering me toast (which he loves) and reminding himself to pick up two of his three dogs from the vet’s. But the ‘babe magnet’ tag
He laughs: ‘It was Michelle Keegan who plays Tina in the Street — and has just been voted sexiest female in the Soap Awards for the fourth year running — who said that.
‘She’s a lovely girl, really together. Way back, she would have been in trouble with me around . . .’
As a youngster, Bill lived in Ilkeston, Derbyshire, the son and grandson of doctors also called William.
He admits: ‘I had a blessed life and, as the doctor’s son, was always something a little special.
‘I went from being institutionalised at a fee-paying boarding school and in the Army, where I became a captain, to becoming an actor and having all these “goodies’ offered to me.
'I lost my virginity later than most: in my early 20s. Then I made up for lost time'
‘As a young man, I was shy and didn’t think women were attracted to me. I lost my virginity later than most: in my early 20s. Then I made up for lost time.
‘Working in repertory theatre, which is where I met Anna, I began having sex with different actresses.
But it was when I was signed up for Coronation Street, when it started in December 1960, that I really ratcheted up the numbers of girls.’
His character Ken has had 25 lovers and three wives — but most were in the early years. Bill says:
‘The show’s creator, Tony Warren, said Ken was led around by his libido.
‘Likewise, there was a lot of activity in my dressing room, and it became well known. The writers are very good at picking up on things like that.’
Though it sounds unlikely, Bill says he remained shy with women and only pursued those he was assured success with. ‘I didn’t have the confidence to try with anyone who was resistant.
‘I became a master at recognising when a woman was interested in me — you would lock eyes and she wouldn’t look away — and I would follow where they led.
It seems shocking for Bill to discuss his priapic youth because for so long he was a standard-bearer for married fidelity, enjoying 35 years of happiness with his second wife Sara until her untimely death from a heart condition in 2009 at the age of 58 (both pictured)
‘Then I grew more selective. A girl might like me but I might not like her. That didn’t matter because there were women around me the whole time, in the street, in a bar, at a party. The way I used to talk to them was pretty blunt and to the point. I was very quickly down to: “Are we going to or not”
‘There was no question of relationships or love, yet I was a bit like Simenon, the promiscuous Belgian writer who said he loved every woman he was with. They weren’t chattels to me — I was really appreciative and caring while I was with them. And I didn’t like violent or brutal sex.’
But aside from the guilt he felt at cheating on his wife, Bill also knew there was something callous about the affairs’ fleeting nature. ‘These were one-offs and I got quite good at letting the women know this,’ he says.
‘I was lucky that I got away without creating any unwanted pregnancies but there was also the worry about disease . . . and the girls’ boyfriends.
‘One got pretty nasty when he arrived as I was chatting up his girlfriend. Then there was the one who caught me in bed with his girlfriend at four in the morning. That was horrible.
'I was lucky that I got away without creating any unwanted pregnancies but there was also the worry about disease… and the girls' boyfriends'
‘He tried to fight me and eventually I managed to grab a few of my clothes — I don’t think I got them all — and I broke away and ran to my flat, which was in the same block. Luckily, he hadn’t been able to see my face properly, as I would have been easily recognised, and he didn’t see which flat I went into. He waited for me by the entrance in the morning but I managed to creep out.’
With Anna’s theatre and TV career based in the South, the family home remained in London, especially after the children went to school.
Bill says: ‘I found myself lying to Anna every evening when I rang home. I’m not a natural deceiver and I had to be careful about what I said I’d been doing the evening before — and it ate into me. The guilt drove a wedge between us.
‘It was a relief when they all came to visit me in Manchester and I could be a family man for a while.
‘Although what went on was common knowledge at work, I was only concerned that Anna and the children didn’t get upset or hurt.
‘But you can’t get past a woman’s intuition. They know. I would see that look in her eyes. Finally the marriage was beyond repair and I left. In 1974, we were divorced on the grounds of my behaviour.’
Although Bill was granted joint custody of the children, and he organised their schooling, he began to see less of them.
Joanna Lumley as she is today, seen here launching the Marks & Spencer 'Shwop Drop' initiative at the Old Trueman Brewery in April
By the time he met Sara that year, he was nauseated by his ‘sordid life’. ‘I was ready for someone to put a cap on it,’ he says. ‘Sara wouldn’t have stood for infidelity — but it wasn’t what I wanted by then.’
They had three children, Verity, 30, an interior designer, Will, 26, who is known as James in his acting career (which has included a stint as Ken’s grandson, with Linus as his father, in Coronation Street), and baby Edwina, who died at 18 months of bronchial pneumonia in 1984.
That tragedy brought Bill closer to Sara but he still found it impossible to integrate his two families.
He says: ‘Sara was protective of her children, as Anna was with hers. It created a barrier and I wasn’t strong enough to overcome it. For some years I didn’t see a lot of Linus, though that was gradually resolved, but the estrangement with Vanya continued until Sara’s death. It hurt, hurt, hurt. I’d paid the price for my behaviour, but so had my children.
‘When I finally rang Vanya and we began talking, it was lovely. And to hug her again was wonderful.’
Bill reflects that life is a series of lessons from which you must learn. He is deeply spiritual and believes Sara, Edwina and Anna, who died in 2007 aged 68, ‘have gone home’.
He says: ‘A medium told me Sara cannot believe how well we have handled things and that, in a light-hearted way, she is almost disappointed. I’ve even learned to cook for myself! Last night, I grilled tomatoes and veggie sausages, made some toast and poured half a tin of baked beans over it all. That was my dinner and I loved it!
‘I don’t get morbid or depressed, on my own, and I tell the dogs about my day. I don’t need someone to wake up next to, although it’s very nice when I do with Emma. I didn’t need or want a new relationship, so it was unexpected but seamless.’
Bill says his children remain his greatest source of happiness. After losing their mothers, they formed a tight, supportive unit. When he turned 80 on April 25, they surprised him by appearing at a secret party with the Coronation Street crew and cast.
Afterwards they turned his home into a candlelit fairy grotto for the family celebrations.
But despite the milestone birthday, Bill wants to play Ken until he drops. ‘I have at least 20 years on Coronation Street ahead of me,’ he says. ‘And I’m happy for Ken to have more romantic adventures, as long as it is right for the character.’
Bill has learned that in real life, though, love must be nurtured and respected.
Of all his 80th birthday presents, he most treasures a young apple tree, now heavy with blossom, that he has planted in his lawn.
‘It was from all four of the children, and as I drive through the gates of my home every night, it reminds me of my beautiful, loving family,’ he says. ‘In every way, I have never been happier.’