Thursday, 9 September 2010

Meet the Vicar!

This article appeared in the Coronation St magazine produced for the British Isles Show this year.  It's by my former writing partner Peter Riley, who is no longer with us:


Jim Whelan is a face known to millions of Coronation Street fans throughout the world, and his character has been vital to some of the most controversial storylines in recent years, yet he can still pass largely unnoticed in the street.


For Jim, who has been a professional actor and entertainer for more than 40 years, has been the Vicar of Weatherfield for several years now, and his most recent appearances saw him officiating at the cremation of Vera Duckworth, following the exit of Liz Dawn from the show, and prior to that as the man who finally married Jason Grimshaw and Sarah Platt, played by Ryan Thomas and Tina O’Brien.

His character, Vicar Mike, was also responsible for the wedding of Steve and Karen McDonald, after first attempting to referee the fisticuffs between the bride (Suranne Jones) and her rival Tracy Barlow (Kate Ford) who were trying to tear each other apart under the watchful eye of the church congregation.

“It has become a way of life playing the Corrie vicar and I love it!” Jim said as we chatted at his home in Bury, just a few miles from the famous cobbles. “I am semi-retired now but if I get the call from the Coronation Street office to preside over a wedding or funeral then I am more than happy to do it. I have played the vicar for several years now and I think I should be the ‘official’ Vicar of Weatherfield, with my own vicarage! Seriously, though, I have enjoyed playing the part, though many people don’t realize that I have been in the Street before. In fact I have played six different characters in all but over the past few years the vicar role has been quite frequent and goes back a way.

The church used for Vicar Mike's parish
“Some viewers may remember the plot years ago when Terry Duckworth, (the wayward son of Jack and Vera) married his girlfriend Lisa while he was handcuffed to prison guards. Well when Lisa was eventually killed by being run over by a car I was the vicar who officiated at her funeral.”

For Jim acting has been a long process which started when he was a teenager and he knew he wanted to be in the profession. In 1971 he made his first Street appearance when he was a customer in the corner shop. In 1973 he appeared in the lunchtime drama series Crown Court as a jury foreman and in the same year appeared in the comedy series Last of the Summer Wine, in which he has now appeared four times. Other well known TV shows in which he has also appeared include Heartbeat, and long running rural soap Emmerdale in which he has appeared as many different characters.

But it is undoubtedly Coronation Street which has given him worldwide coverage, and from his first role as shop customer through to being a postman delivering the good news to Jack and Vera Duckworth that they had inherited £30,000 following the death of Jack’s brother Cliff, to his skill as the Street vicar the attraction of the famous cobbles are never far away.

It has also given him, for example, the chance to meet up with old friends whom he first met well before they were famous faces, including Bill Tarmey who plays Jack Duckworth, Barbara Knox, (Rita) and Anne Kirkbride (Deirdre).

An alternative church location - this is where
Betty married and where Joe is buried.
Jim said: “I first met Bill Tarmey many years ago. I had been fixing a table lamp at home when I was electrocuted because it was faulty. I ended up going to hospital and I came out with my hand and arm bandaged. In order to make a living I was singing in clubs in those days, between acting jobs, and one night I was at a club waiting to go on and sing, whether I had a bandaged arm or not, when I hears this gruff voice asking ‘what have you done to your arm then?’ I turned around and saw this chap standing there smoking a cigarette. It was Bill Tarmey.

“Bill had turned up to sing too, because he wasn’t famous then, he also had to make a living and he told me he’d had a heart attack not long before. So like two invalids we started talking and became friendly, so it has been nice to be able to meet him now and then whenever we have both appeared in Corrie at the same time, and it was particularly poignant when we met up to film Vera’s cremation service at Manchester Crematorium.

“It was the same with Barbara, as we worked together more than 30 years ago. And Anne and I go way back to when we both appeared at Oldham Coliseum acting in repertory. That is the nice thing about working on Coronation Street, as it allows old friends to come together again.

“I enjoy appearing in Coronation Street and I get to see some interesting places. For example, when we were filming the wedding of Mike and Linda Baldwin a few years ago we were on location at beautiful Arley Hall in Cheshire which was a treat. Of course there are also some less interesting locations such as Manchester's Crematorium where we filmed the funeral of Vera. But you can’t have glamour all the time!” he laughed.

During periods when he wasn’t acting Jim spent his days helping out by driving children to and from school for a local firm. But Jim, now 66, has now called it a day from full time work, unless he gets offered a full time role as Corrie’s vicar, of course.

“They have a full time vicar in Emmerdale, so what’s wrong with having one in Corrie?” Jim laughed.

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