William TARMEY (1941-2012)
After several years working in the construction industry, Bill's first foray into show business came in 1968 when he started working as a nightclub singer and entertainer in clubs in and around the Manchester area.
To supplement his income he took work as an extra at Granada Studios on such television shows as Coronation Street, in which he first appeared as the character of Jack Duckworth in November 1979. Jack became a regular character from 1983 and Bill became a household name as the loveable rogue with a love of pigeons.
"He's gone a funny colour!"
Bill recalls his experience of This Is Your Life in his autobiography Jack Duckworth and me...
For those readers as old as me, you may remember the early days of This Is Your Life when Eamonn Andrews used to ambush people live in the street and stick a microphone under their noses. He’d be disguised as Father Christmas or a policeman and the audience would get a live performance from his ‘victim’. After a couple of early disasters, they changed the format so that the ambush was filmed live and then spliced to a filmed gathering of friends and families with tales to tell. It was screened later with any embarrassing expletives edited out.
By 1992 Michael Aspel had replaced Eamonn as the man with the big red book. I’d seen him in action a few times when he’d surprised cast colleagues like Roy Barraclough, Annie Kirkbride and my screen wife, Liz Dawn.
In the earliest days, it wasn’t just celebrities who were the subjects of the programme; sometimes it was a tireless charity worker or an unsung ambulance driver. But, sad to say, over the years the TV company discovered viewers were switching channels if the star of the show was unknown. People would watch the first two minutes, see it was a firefighter they’d never heard of who’d rescued seventeen people from a blazing building, and turn over. Life shouldn’t be like that but it is. By the 1990s, the only people to feature in This Is Your Life were celebrities. Soap stars seemed to be top of the pops.
I’d long thought the victims must be really stupid not to realise they were being set up. How on earth could you swear an entire family to secrecy? Even if you managed that, how would you avoid somebody making a mistake? Wouldn’t all the people close to you start behaving suspiciously?
We’d been watching the show one night and I was having dinner later with Ali and our friends Mike and Doreen Yates. I said they’d never catch me like that. It must have been all Ali could do to stop choking on her food, because she knew what I didn’t: I’d already been selected as a victim and she was in on the conspiracy. When I look back now, I can see the signs. Hindsight’s a wonderful thing.
It seems the plot was hatched three or four months beforehand. Sue Green, one of the programme’s researchers, had discreetly approached Ali. She wanted to know whether the closest members of my family were prepared to assist the programme-makers in total secrecy. I’d told Ali in the past that I never wanted to be the subject of the programme. I said it would be highly embarrassing. I’m pleased she had the good sense to ignore me because it was a great honour to be chosen and it became one of the highlights of my life.
Ali was allowed to confide in my son Carl and daughter Sara but no one else at that stage. Sara has never been able to keep a secret in her life, so how she bit her tongue I’ll never know. As the day approached for the confrontation by Michael Aspel, it seems I was being followed round by a team of sleuths who were monitoring my movements to make sure I didn’t twig what was happening.
Ali had collapsed with a viral infection and hurt her back in the fall, so she was recovering in Tameside General Hospital, Ashton. I was visiting her whenever I could. But she also had an extra visitor I knew nothing about: Sue Green, who was obtaining a list of friends from my distant past. The sleuths made sure that Sue was disappearing out of one door as I was entering by another.
The penny should have dropped one day when Sara said she had to take our pet dog, Cindy, to the vet. There was nothing wrong with Cindy but I was too concerned about Ali to pay proper attention. In fact, Sara was going to one of their secret meetings and invented the vet story as a cover.
On the day it happened, I was supposed to be filming a scene as Jack with Peter Baldwin as Derek at the Rovers. I was pulling him a pint when Vera came in with some news about something that was happening in Canada. She had to use the name of the city Saskatchewan, but she mispronounced it. Liz apologised and they went for a second take.
Unknown to me, they were creating an opportunity for the Corrie camera crew to be replaced by the This Is Your Life team. Liz stumbled over the pronunciation again and I went to sit down at the back while she got ready for a third take. Meanwhile, the director had said, ‘Checking that.’ Instead of staying where I was, I started walking off the set in the direction of Michael Aspel. He was hiding just out of sight, but Julie Goodyear spotted the danger and headed me off.
The tech team said they were ready to go for another take. As Liz came into shot again, I saw this bloke coming on set out of the corner of my eye. I thought he was going to ruin the scene. Then I recognised Michael Aspel with his big red book. My first thought was to wonder who he was after and why I wasn’t in on the secret.
When he said, ‘Bill Tarmey, this is your life,’ I nearly fell through the floor. Julie was laughing like a drain. I turned and said, ‘You sod.’
Liz had given up trying to keep a straight face and now she was laughing too. I turned to Liz and said, ‘And as for you …’
I was in a state of shock. I said to Julie, ‘What’s this all about?’
She said, ‘You deserve it. Enjoy it, Tarmey.’
Then, still shaking with the shock of it all, the filming stopped and I was led to a dressing room in the bowels of the Granada TV studios. There I found a smart set of clothes which Ali had arranged to be delivered. There were sandwiches and drinks, including my favourite – Guinness.
I peeped out of the dressing-room door and there was nobody around. I wondered if I was going to be the first subject of This Is Your Life to have nobody bother to turn up. Eventually, my favourite dresser, Roy, came in to make sure I was OK. I offered him a Guinness, but I didn’t have one. It might have calmed my nerves but I wanted to stay sober. Then the make-up lady came in to put a touch-up on my forehead to stop the studio lights bouncing back into the cameras.
For ten minutes after that I was left on my own, thinking how this had happened to me. It was totally surreal. I looked back on my life from that two-up and two-down terraced street, from being hopeless at school and learning to be an asphalt spreader – now this.
Eventually an assistant came and led me towards Studio 12, which is like a small theatre with a stage surround by seats. As I waited outside the door, I heard the This Is Your Life theme and I was told to go in. There I was met by Michael Aspel and led to the stage as the audience applauded. I remember going over to Ali and kissing her. They’d brought her from her sickbed and asked if she wanted to sit in the wheelchair. But she wasn’t having any of that.
Although I thoroughly enjoyed the show, I was still in a daze. I can remember it only in flashes. Some of my old school pals, such as Billy Taylor, Ian Ball and Tom Jones, were there, mates from the Church Lads’ Brigade and asphalters, like Tucker Cloran and Andy Cunningham. They told the story of my pretty cup and the individually wrapped sandwiches.
Dave Livesey, the neighbour who’d saved my life after the heart attack, told Michael what had happened and his race against time to get me to the hospital. Henri Moussalli, who performed my heart bypass operation, made a fine speech. He said he’d had my heart in his hands and it was a heart of gold – a poet as well as a heart surgeon. Gordon Banks, the fabulous England goalkeeper, was there to talk about my charity work.
Friends from the world of music, such as Mike Timoney, George Walker and Paul Atherton came along. Faith Brown, the impressionist with a magnificent voice and matching bosom, described how I’d been her compere at the Condron Club. She was worried because she had a sore throat and I’d told her, ‘Don’t worry. When they see that chest they’ll forgive you anything.’ She recalled how I’d played the bongos and tambourine at the back while she was performing.
Most of the Corrie cast were there. I remember Bill Roache said I was a good lad. Julie Goodyear was there in a stunning dress with a plunging neckline which showed off Newton and Ridley to spectacular effect. She let the dress do the talking for her.
Last but not least was my lovely family. I remember my dad said something and he tried so hard to sound posh. My brother Alan and I couldn’t stop giggling.
Finally, Michael asked me if I’d sing my special song, ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’, for Ali. By great good fortune, Mike Timoney and the lads had brought their instruments along and set up on stage. They’d gone up a note too high for me, but I tried to concentrate and give it my best shot. I had to look away when I saw tears rolling down Ali’s cheeks. Then I saw Liz and Julie crying too. Surely it wasn’t that bad!
At the end of the song, Michael gave me the book and I got a standing ovation. I was still feeling numb. The book contains the script for the night. A week later another book arrived at my home with photos taken during the night and a video of the programme.
Straight after the show they held a party for everyone, with loads of free food and drink. Some of my old mates who hadn’t got up to say anything were there too. If I have one regret from a brilliant night, it’s that I didn’t get the chance to speak to all the friends who’d come along. Some got little more than a wave and a smile, and I apologise to them. It just wasn’t possible to get round to talk to everyone, and I hope the ones who missed out weren’t offended.
Ali was looking very tired. It must have been quite an ordeal for her coming there from her sickbed so I took her home while the party was still in full swing. When we got home, I was tired but the adrenalin kept me awake.
It may sound ridiculous, but I’ve always had trouble recognising the fact that I’m famous. In my heart I know I’m a fraud. I’m just a pillock who comes into a studio to say some words that some other clever person has written. For years I’d managed to get away with it but I’d always been waiting for the bubble to burst. After This Is Your Life, I thought that if it all ends tomorrow, at least I was famous once.
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