What a sad start to the week it was when we learned of the shocking news that Anne Kirkbride had passed away. The intervening days have been filled with well deserved and fitting tributes and outpourings of respect, admiration and love for the actress who, for over 40 years, touched so many lives both as Anne, and in the form of Deirdre Barlow.
Much has already been beautifully articulated by others who lament her passing, but I would like to add my own humble contribution to remembering her. I didn’t know Anne, but I knew Deirdre Barlow well.
As viewers and media alike looked back on her character this week, recurring highlights have included Deirdre’s relationship with Blanche, her marriages to Ray Langton, Ken Barlow and Samir Rachid, her affair with Mike Baldwin, her incarceration at the hands of Jon Lindsay and the public campaign to “Free the Weatherfield One”. All are examples of great Coronation Street storylines in which she performed her central role brilliantly, and while I have enjoyed watching them all, I think that her performance over the past year is how I would like to remember Deirdre best.
Deirdre began 2014 in the absence of Ken, and having her house deliberately trashed by Tracy and Rob to make her fear living alone, and agree to Rob moving in. She was canny enough to realise who the culprits were straight away, and despite being furious, allowed Rob to move in anyway, but on her terms. This act would set the tone for a year which saw her put those she loved before herself while at the same time taking action and making decisions as she saw fit.
Deirdre Barlow took centre stage last year, and to my mind embodied the best qualities of the Coronation Street matriarch. She was selfless yet strong, humorous yet solemn, made tough decisions and defended them to the last, and did all in her power to keep things going and hold her family together as everything around them fell apart in the aftermath of Tina’s murder. She stood by Peter and believed in him when nobody else did, suffered for her efforts to spare Ken any pain, and agreed to go on a caravan holiday she was dreading, despite her dreams of sun and sand, all for her love of Ken.
What made Deirdre the everywoman who was so easy to identify with was the normalcy she maintained against the soapland backdrop of murder, deception and false imprisonment. She was an ordinary woman reacting ordinarily in extraordinary circumstances, and this is where the realism in any good soap must be found.
Alongside her sacrifices and hardships, her grounded nature and representation permitted the motherliness at her core to shine through like a beacon. Allowing Rob to get some ‘posh crisps’ from the cupboard after recovering Uncle Albert’s medal, and preparing a parcel for rehab-bound Peter containing his Easter egg and a threaded needle are small but beautiful and very important details which brought her to life, conveyed who she was and were central to why so many could relate to her, loved her, and felt they knew her, as she was representative of many beloved women in our own lives who we know would do the very same.
To these lovely details we can add her marrow, her belts, her sneaky ciggies, her pottery, her glasses and her special trifle, for after all, no matter what happens to us, these are the details that make up who we are, that constitute a life. Across her 42 years on Coronation Street, that life played out alongside ours, and this is a remarkable and very special thing.
Deirdre’s visits to Liz in The Rovers were another endless source of joy for me. I can see her with a glass of red in front of her at the side of the bar, pondering how wine is not quite the same without pork scratchings, and confiding, sharing, laughing and chatting about life with her best friend. This was one of Deirdre’s pleasures, and consequently ours.
It’s hard to imagine Coronation Street without Deirdre Barlow, but she leaves a very special legacy in that it is not just made up of memories, but the sense of what it was to know her. For a fictional character to leave not just recollections but feelings is a testament to Anne, and we have her to thank for the gift of Deirdre, a woman who illuminated both our televisions and our lives.
May she rest in peace.