Letter to my younger self

William Roache, 78 - Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

Hero image

What would you say to your 16-year-old self if you could go back in time? We asked the longest-serving star in the world’s longest running drama serial

At 16 I was at an all-boys boarding school, Rydal, in Colwyn Bay, North Wales. I was very shy. I played the trumpet – very, very badly. I desperately wanted to be in the school band. And I nearly joined the Salvation Army but my father said that’s not the right motive. I was also in the school dramatics society. Because it was an all-boys school, I tended to get all the girls’ parts. My sister went to Penrhos all-girls school – as did Anne Reid, who played Ken Barlow’s first wife on Coronation Street, although she was a few years behind me at school.

I would give my teenage self a good talking-to about the female sex.

We used to do concerts together with the two schools, and we’d get all excited as that was our only way of meeting with females. And there were maids at school, so we used to lust after them. I was terribly naïve. Nowadays at 16 you are mixing with girls, but I didn’t meet any until I was 19 or 20. I would tell teenage William that women aren’t some strange animals that are very hard to understand, or difficult to get hold of.

My family were all doctors and they thought my destiny was to go into medicine but I wasn’t very bright at chemistry and science – I was good at arts, English and history. I wanted to be an actor but I always felt I was going to be a failure, the black sheep. I thought I was too shy to be an actor, I wouldn’t get a job in it. So it would be wonderful to be able to tell myself to relax, you’re going to be OK.

When National Service came along, I joined the Army as a commissioned officer and spent six years [in the Welsh Fusiliers] reaching the rank of captain. I would tell William he’ll be so glad he did it. I had a year in Jamaica, in the West Indies. Went to British Guyana when there was an attempted coup d’etat, then volunteered to serve in what is now the Gulf for two years, keeping the peace between seven warring sheikhdoms in the desert. I was in charge of 125 Arab soldiers, who were simple Bedouins. It went on to become the United Arab Emirates but I was there when they were just warring tribes – they hadn’t struck oil at that time. It was very primitive – we lived like the Bedouin. It was fascinating.

From a young age I felt I wanted to do something great. I didn’t want to be famous – I wanted to do something to help society, to make an impact and do something. I sort of felt I had a destiny and thought it might be to do with healing or helping. I always wanted to help people. I haven’t fulfilled that destiny yet. I still have things to do.

I thought all actors were “Hellooo dahling!” extroverts. What thrilled me beyond measure when I did get into acting was when I found the majority of actors are quiet, sensitive, insecure people, which makes them able to portray characters.

If someone had just said there’s a drama serial – I hate the word “soap”, it’s a derogatory term – and you’ll be on it for 50 years I would have said I didn’t want to do that. Unless they also said it’s going to be a very special, state-of-the-art drama, at a time when drama was sweeping through theatre, showing ordinary people struggling through adversity. That it would be enjoyed by the public and become a national treasure. But the decision wasn’t made there at the beginning. We were only contracted for one year at a time, or occasionally three at most. It’s only now, looking back, that you realise you’ve done it. I have no regrets whatsoever. I’ve had some great storylines.

One dream I had since I was young was to be in a big Western film. I’ve always done a bit of horse-riding, and when I was a young officer I was supposed to play polo. And I have just got to realise that ambition, thanks to filming for Harry Hill!

One big thing I would say to young Will is you’ve got a spiritual journey to go on. My autobiography, Soul on the Street, is about that – understanding that we are spiritual beings, we are immortal, we carry on and this is only a temporary phase to get to the level of your worth. I would have told him a few things about that.

I used to argue a lot with the vicar and chaplain at school. I had a great fear of death at school and a great fear of infinity. We can’t explain it or understand infinity. You have to go on your own journey, move towards your spiritual self. Love, kindness, tolerance, peace – the more you allow those things to come out the nearer you get to your spiritual self. I have always tried to be candid and say what I believe.

I think 16-year-old William would think that 78-year-old William is OK. I think he’d say “well done”. I have no regrets at all. There is a curiosity about what would have happened if I hadn’t got the Street. But I’m too old for my career in Westerns now, which is why I had to rely on Harry Hill to fulfil that dream!

Interview: Vicky Davidson

Coronation Street: 50 Years, 50 Moments, 7&9 Dec, ITV1, 9pm; Coronation Street: The Big 50, ITV1, 10 Dec, 9pm; a live episode of Coronation Street will be broadcast on 9 Dec, 8pm.

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to Letter to my younger self

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.