Bill Tarmey, who played Jack Duckworth on Coronation Street for more than 30 years, died on Friday, age 71. Writer Stephen Jewell talked to the actor as his health was failing and found him looking back fondly on his decades playing a pigeon-fancying, loveable rogue on the world’s oldest soap.
When I call Bill Tarmey at his Manchester home, I almost ask for Jack, the beloved Coronation Street character the 71-year-old played for more than three decades. But, as he writes in his autobiography Jack Duckworth and Me, I'm not the only one to confuse the actor with his fictional alter ego. Fans frequently confront the actor over how appallingly he treated his on-screen wife Vera.
"They think you are your character," he laughs. "People would come up to me and say things like 'how do you like your pigeons?' and I say 'boiled' as I can't actually abide them. Or they say 'how's your Vera?' 'Still dead'."
To any well-wishers enquiring after Jack's health in the past 12 months, Tarmey has responded that "he looks good for a ghost" after he bowed out of the long-running soap last November. In a poignant tribute to Vera's death, the ghost of his late wife apparently visited Jack before he quietly slipped away in the very same chair in which she breathed her last eight years ago.
"The director, Tony Prescott, was very brave to do it that way because that left what happened up to the imagination of the viewer. You can think of three or four scenarios: Maybe he was in limbo and she came and took him up to heaven, or perhaps he was just dreaming at that point."
Born William Piddington in Ardwick, Manchester, Tarmey sang jazz in nightclubs and worked as a compere before appearing in the background of TV shows. "I played Jack for 30-odd years but I was an extra on Coronation Street for six or eight years before that, which is about 40 years in total." He made his debut as sewing machinist Vera Duckworth's incorrigible husband at Gail Potter's first wedding in 1979, becoming a regular on the show in 1982. Not having been to drama school, he initially felt out of his depth.
"I spent the first two years being a sponge, taking everything in and saying very little. They were very kind to me because they knew that I'd come from variety shows, big bands and session working; I hadn't come from acting."
Moving from a womanising thief to a loveable rogue, Tarmey gradually discovered Jack's softer side.
"I was very lucky because he changed his character three or four times." Despite their often-volatile relationship, Jack was totally dedicated to Vera.
"There was always big arguments between them but underneath you could see that they loved each other, they just found it hard to say," says Tarmey, who has been married to Ali for nearly 50 years.
Tarmey and his wife are still close to Elizabeth Dawn, who played Vera from 1974 until ill health forced her to resign in 2007.
"We've gone on holidays with Liz and her husband Brian on the QE2 and done theatre stuff," he says.
Having suffered a heart attack in 1976 before he even joined the Street, Tarmey decided to quit after his son Carl was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2008.
"That aged me 10 years and my health just deteriorated," he admits. "I miss Jack and all my colleagues but I don't miss the work, which could be really hard. You could work five- to six-day weeks and 12- to 16-hour days and if you have a storyline that could go on for five or six weeks."
Tarmey fondly remembers Betty Driver, who played barmaid Betty Williams from 1969 until her death at age 91 last month. "She was in it even longer than I was," he says. "We had her funeral on a Saturday. Betty arranged everything: all the music, the flowers, the church.
"She was like everybody's mum; she was delightful. With some of the scenes we did, we never stopped laughing but that was in the old days when you had time to rehearse. You don't get that now so there's little time for laughing."
* Jack Duckworth & Me is in bookshops now (Simon & Schuster; RRP $26). Coronation Street plays TV One, Thursdays and Fridays at 7.30pm.