Sunday, 22 August 2010

Summer Wine & Corrie Connections

This is an article I wrote in 2006 - an interview with Kathy Staff and Roy Barraclough.  Since then Kathy has passed away but as the very last episode of Last of the Summer Wine is screened next Sunday in the UK, I thought I might dust off the feature which appeared in Lancashire Life, Cheshire Life and Fourmost magazines:


TV stars Kathy Staff and Roy Barraclough talk exclusively about their long friendship with Mark Llewellin.

If we believe the tabloid press then showbiz marriages, friendships and partnerships seem to hit the rocks with alarming regularity. So it’s refreshing to meet two actors who share a strong bond – Kathy Staff (TV’s Nora Batty) and Roy Barraclough (best known for his years with Les Dawson and behind the Rovers Return bar) fall into that category – as Kathy herself put it: ‘Pals for over thirty-five years!’

Kathy was born in Dukinfield, Cheshire whereas Roy is a Lancastrian, born in Preston. Their birthdays are the same though – both came into the world on July 12th. They think that is why they get on so well, Kathy points to a number of shared likes and dislikes. As jobbing actors their paths must have crossed – both did television extra work in the early days and also played small roles in many of the fledgling Granada TV’s output.

Kathy has early memories of watching Roy as a leading man at Oldham’s Coliseum Theatre. In those days, the mid 60s, he was a member of the repertory company alongside Barbara Knox (Corrie’s Rita Sullivan) and Jean Fergusson (Last of the Summer Wine’s Marina). Kathy and her family were members of the repertory theatre and tried to see as many productions there as possible.

However, it wasn’t until 1969 that they met – both being sent to audition in London for Yorkshire TV’s first soap opera, Castle Haven. At Manchester’s Piccadilly Station Kathy recalls spotting Alec Guinness as she ran for the train: ‘He was one of my idols and I thought seeing him like that must be a good omen.’ In London the pair joined a room full of hopefuls and they discovered that they were being auditioned for the roles of husband and wife Harry and Lorna Everett. Kathy told me: ‘Roy said, “You’re not taller than me. You stand with me and we’ll go in together” because the producers were seeing actors in pairs.’ After a long wait they discovered that they had been cast to work together. ‘I think we celebrated in the buffet car on the train back home!’ Roy laughs.

Castle Haven was the creation of former actor Kevin Laffan. Set in a large Whitby house which had been converted into flats, the weekly show revolved around the lives of the tenants and the local pub. Roy said: ‘We never got so far as Whitby, it was all filmed in the studios at Leeds.’ The Everetts were a struggling young couple with two children. ‘You never saw us at first, we were voices heard through the wall of one of the flats – there was a lot of arguing and shouting really!’ Kathy says. Despite a good cast – Jill Summers who later played blue-rinsed Phyllis Pearce in Coronation Street was the local landlady and the Everett’s son’s best friend was played by a young Colin Firth, it was destined to run for just a year.

Roy explained why: ‘Firstly, Granada wouldn’t air it as they felt it was competition for Coronation Street and ATV wouldn’t air it because they had their own show and so on. We just went out around the British coastline I think. Then, just months after we went on air, the Emley Moor Transmitter fell down and most of the Yorkshire TV area was blacked out. They had to beam down signals from an air-ship!’ Kathy chips in: ‘That’s right – until then tea in the studio canteen had been free but when they had to pay for a new transmitter we had to pay two pence a cup!’

Roy was commuting from his then home in Oldham, and Kathy from Dukinfield, so the pair met at Stalybridge Station and travelled on the train together every day. ‘They were great times and that’s when we became pals,’ said Kathy. The pair had also become recognisable TV faces. ‘Jess Yates did his Junior Showtime programme from Leeds and the girl who played our daughter wanted to be a singer so Jess invited her on and he asked us if we’d sit in the audience. He wanted to introduce her in her character’s name and we would dress up as the Everetts and play our parts too. Well, when we found that out Roy asked him what we would be paid – he went quite pale!’ laughs Kathy. ‘He had no intention of paying – he was quite taken aback and he said, “Well! I was going to give you a jelly tea!”’

In 1970 Castle Haven came to an end and creator Kevin Laffan invented the idea of a Yorkshire farm run by the Sugden family - Emmerdale. Kathy joined the Oldham Coliseum company for three plays whilst Roy teamed up with Yorkshire’s new comedy signing – Les Dawson. Roy told me: ‘I was sitting in the canteen when this producer came up and begged me to help them out. Les hadn’t done much TV before and this was his first series. The actor they’d employed to do the sketches with him had walked out and they needed someone to take over quickly. I did – and the rest is history.’

Kathy was to join the pair later on and she too became a regular on Les’ Yorkshire shows. ‘There was a running sketch called the Desponds, who appeared every week - a miserable family who were interviewed by Julian Orchard as the man from the BBC. They were my favourites.’ she says. During their years with Dawson the pair were also in demand for comedy roles in other shows – in 1972 Kathy was cast as Nora Batty in a Comedy Playhouse one-off which soon landed a series commission and she was cast in the recurring role of Doris Luke in Crossroads whilst Roy appeared in classics such as Rising Damp and George and Mildred.

Eventually Roy moved from Oldham to Stalybridge and the friends would meet socially and often travel to London together for work. ‘Roy was always known by my two girls as 'Daddy Number Two' and in fact, Katherine even became one of his neighbours for a time,’ says Kathy. In 1972 Roy made his first appearance as Alec Gilroy in Coronation Street, a role he would resume on a full-time basis over a decade later. ‘It was just a one-off, as were all the roles I’d had in the show since my first appearance as a tour guide in 1964,’ he said. A year later Kathy was cast as the show’s Vera Hopkins and made several cameo appearances before the whole Hopkins family were introduced as owners of the Corner Shop in 1974 but they lasted just a year. ‘I owned the shop at one end of the Street and Roy later owned the pub at the other!’ Kathy laughs.

‘Our paths kept crossing really,’ explains Roy. ‘But, although we were friends, we never met on stage or screen for quite a while.’ In 1984 Kathy was the subject of the programme This Is Your Life and Roy flew in from Germany to make a guest appearance on the show. She later suffered from shingles. Three years later and Roy was the subject of the tribute with Kathy and her daughters, the guests. Kathy says: ‘I reminded Roy of what had happened to me but it was no good – he got shingles too.’ Roy says: ‘It was very traumatic, I hated every minute of that show and it made me very ill.’

Keith Clifford & Roy Barraclough
filming Summer Wine
Amongst the many personal and career parallels the pair share is one which will perhaps come as a surprise to all of their fans – they have both danced in ballets. Kathy says: ‘As a child I always wanted to be a ballerina and in 1990 I was asked to appear on a show where celebrities were given the opportunity of doing something they’d always wanted to do – and so I asked to appear in a ballet. For one night only I danced in The Simple Man at Leeds Grand with the Northern Ballet. When you are asked to do these things, people often want you to be in character, Nora in a tutu. But I wanted to do it properly.’

Roy’s dancing skills were put to good use with the Birmingham Royal Ballet in 1999. ‘Every year, at the Birmingham Hippodrome, they do a charity performance of the Nutcracker with a few surprise guests and I was asked to appear in drag at one point, coming out of a magic box, and also in the Arab Dance,’ he says. ‘What I hadn’t realised was that the Arab Dance was to be done straight with no comedy so I too had to rehearse properly with the corps de ballet – it was wonderful though!’

The pair were over-joyed when, in 1995, they were cast to appear on stage together. Kathy says: ‘We were offered the parts of dad and granny to Jason Donovan who was to play the lead in a West End production of the musical Billy. We did all the publicity together and then for no apparent reason it was pulled – we never did get to work with each other.’ Roy adds: ‘We did a photo-call in Blackpool and a palm reader came out of her booth to predict the show would be a hit. I’ve never gone back to her again!’

Bill Owen & Kathy Staff in LOTSW
These days the friends still live near by. ‘We meet up all the time, at charity events – we’re both heavily involved with the wonderful Willow Wood Hospice in Ashton-Under-Lyne for example – and of course, we pop round to each other’s houses for tea and to catch up on all the news, but we just never got to work together,’ says Roy. ‘For years I said to Alan Bell, who directs Last of the Summer Wine, that Roy should join us in the show – he’s so right for it - but it never seemed to happen!,’ explained Kathy.

That is until the casting of the 2005 series of the ever-popular show. ‘Yes, I played a man called Crowcroft, who is a bit of a hit with the ladies,’ Roy tells me with a wink. ‘He’s given his biggest challenge to date – woo Nora Batty!’ Kathy says: ‘So we finally got back together at long last – after thirty-six years of friendship.’ Roy laughs, ‘Yes, and only because we were the same height!’

Kathy, ironically, passed away at Willow Wood Hospice in 2008.

Text copyright of the author.

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