To Coronation Street – via an oasis

The army life of Bill Roache, Coronation Street’s Ken Barlow

TVTimes masthead
From the TVTimes for week commencing 1 April 1962

BULLETS were whining across the oasis. Bombs were being lobbed over battlements. The British were advancing remorselessly.

And the Arabs were dodging from palm tree to palm tree, making a desperate last stand.

There were all the ingredients, in fact, of a rattling good television script. Which was what made the whole thing all the more ironic. Because one of the four officers leading that real-life desert sortie was a handsome, red-haired young man destined to find fame on the television screen.

The name was Bill Roache — who plays Ken Barlow in Granada’s Coronation Street.

But Bill had no ambitions to go into television at that time.

He was serving as a captain with the Royal Welch Fusiliers in a remote sector of Oman, on the Persian Gulf — and intended making the Army his career.

“Our job was keeping down tribal warfare in the area,” explained Bill. “And on this occasion we were called in to move a band of marauders who had taken the Buraimi Oasis from Sheik Zaid. We had four British officers and about 200 Arabs.

“Rather unsportingly, we decided to attack in the morning — while the enemy were still saying their prayers.”

Bill grinned at the memory.

“It was the most confused action I’ve ever seen. You didn’t know which Arabs were friends and which were enemies.

“Men would surrender — and then suddenly produce guns and start taking pot-shots at you. Things got so confused at one stage that I thought we were going to be overcome.

“But luckily the enemy surrendered, so everything worked out fine.”

William Roache smoking a pipe
Bill Roache as Ken Barlow on the Coronation Street set

Bill, who is in his late 20’s, was with the Regular Army for five years, and saw service in Jamaica, Arabia, Germany and British Guiana.

“We moved into Guiana when there was a threat of a Communist coup,” he said.

“We arrived with loaded guns expecting anything, but the minute we turned up they pulled down all the Communist flags and ran up Union Jacks instead, so we went shooting crocodiles instead of rebels!”

While serving abroad with the Army, Bill made up his mind to try acting as a career.

After leaving the Army, he spent eight months trudging around repertory companies, looking for work. He realised that desperate measures were called for.

“So I went to an agent, lied like a trooper, and told him I had just finished two years with a leading seaside repertory company,” he said. “I got a job.”

Repertory, film and television work led him eventually to Coronation Street.

Married now, and living in a cottage in Rawtenstall, Lancashire, Bill is still looking eagerly to the future.

His ambitions of the moment?

“I want to raise a herd of Highland cattle,” said Bill. “And write a novel — just like Ken Barlow is doing.”

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