Entertainment & Arts

Betty Driver of Coronation Street recalls loveless childhood

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Media captionDriver (right) joined the ITV soap in 1969 as barmaid Betty Turpin - Coronation Street footage courtesy of ITV Productions

Coronation Street veteran Betty Driver has spoken about the miserable childhood that propelled her to a stellar career on screen.

The 90-year-old actress, who for 40 years has been known to generations of Corrie fans as Rovers Return barmaid and hotpot cook Betty Williams, said her early years were deprived of parental affection.

Her mother's bullying caused her to suffer a nervous breakdown in her 20s, she says in an emotional interview for BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs.

"We never got a kiss. We never got a present, nothing. My mother was so strong that my dad just gave up. He was a sweet person but he just gave up," she said, speaking to presenter Kirsty Young.

"She was so domineering there was nothing you could do about it. It was a very, very sad little life, me and my sister, you know."

Even at Christmas, there was very little family support and love, Driver recalls.

"Freda and I used to put our little presents all around which we'd bought during the year for them, but there was never one from my mam, or my dad, ever.

"Never. From the age of, I think, seven was the last time we ever had a present.

"And we never got a kiss - only on New Year's Eve. The bells would go for New Year's Eve and my dad would say 'happy new year'. A kiss on the cheek and me mam would grudgingly say happy new year. That's it - that was the love for the year."

Driver was born in Leicester to Frederick, who later became a police officer, and pianist Nell. The family moved to Manchester when Driver was two.

Her mother pushed her on to the stage as a child to sing and act, and after a winning a succession of talent contests, she began performing professionally when aged eight.

"I think she always wanted to be on the stage and never really achieved anything. And that was the nearest thing - bunging me on, a little girl."

By 16, she had her first film role and had performed in London's West End. But in her 20s, the actress suffered a nervous breakdown which developed into agoraphobia.

"I just couldn't cope any more. I'd just pass out on the stage while I was singing. I just blacked out and of course they drew the curtains over me.

"My mother threw a cup of water all over me and said: 'Get up you damned fool, stop play-acting'."

Image caption Driver was already a familiar face before Corrie

She can trace her recovery back to one night, when her friend Henry Hall took her to see a show at the Nottingham Empire and introduced her to the audience.

"We started to sing this little song and I sang it and finished the song and from that day to this I've never been off since."

Her agoraphobia never returned, she says, because it was linked to being bullied.

When Driver was in her 30s, her mother died, and she said she could never forgive her.

"Oh no, no, no, no, no. No, I was the meal ticket for the entire family," she said. "My mother, my father, my grandma, my grandad, my aunts, everyone. They all had a nice little share of my money."

Driver had a seven-year marriage to singer Wally Peterson, which ended in her late 30s.

In 1964, she auditioned for the part of Coronation Street's Hilda Ogden but lost out to Jean Alexander. But five years later, as she was thinking about winding down her performing career, she landed a role in the soap which by then had only been on screen, twice a week, for nine years.

The part of Betty Turpin, as she was known then, revitalised her career and brought her talents to a TV audience.

Many fans of the soap, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last month, will not be able to recall a time when Betty - the barmaid who never retires - was not offering her opinions from behind the counter of the Rovers Return.

But viewers may be surprised to learn that the most famous trademark of her character, cooking hotpot, is a skill beyond the actress herself.

"No, I'm dreadful - I'm a terrible cook. I'm rubbish in the kitchen."

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