A young Barbara Knox looks like a stunning 70s Carry On girl in her bikini, but she didn’t have an easy start to her acting career

Richard Bevan
Richard Bevan
5 Min Read

Stepping onto the cobbles of Coronation Street, young Barbara Knox felt a whirlwind of emotions. Despite her iconic role as Rita Sullivan, Barbara recalls her early jitters. After turning 90 last month, the star reminisces about her Weatherfield beginnings and shares treasured memories with fans.

In her prime, many wondered why the ‘Carry on’ films didn’t pick Barbara for her beauty and charm. Consequently, one can easily imagine Sid James delivering one of his signature hearty chuckles in her direction. But the big screen’s loss was TV’s gain. ITV celebrated the actress by unveiling the special tribute show, “Barbara Knox At 90”. Subsequently, diving into a poignant walk down memory lane, Barbara joyfully reunites with her cherished Corrie family.

Danny Coronation Street played by Bradley Walsh with iconic actress Barbara Knox
Bradley Walsh (Danny in Corrie, nephew of Mike Baldwin) with Barbara

Remembering her first days in 1972, she admits, “I was so terrified. Bill Roache was there as Ken Barlow and he’s stood there saying whatever he’s saying and I’m shaking. I lost my voice. Nerves.”

But like a true professional, the marvellous Pat Phoenix, playing Elsie Tanner, reassured her. “She said, ‘It’s just nerves, you’ll be fine tomorrow when we’re in the studio’ — and I was. It was so magical and they were wonderful to me, made me very welcome and looked after me,” said Barbara.

Barbara with Pat Phoenix
Barbara with Pat Phoenix (Elsie Tanner) on Coronation Street

She initially signed on for just a handful of episodes. However, by good fortune, the bosses decided she was too good to let go. Barbara recalls, “I was very fortunate — I only had a short contract, three or four more episodes, but thank God somebody said after all that, ‘We’ll keep her in it’.”

However, Bill Roache remained blissfully unaware of Barbara’s early-day anxieties. Offering insights in the documentary, he reflects, “If she was nervous, you wouldn’t have known it. She looked so relaxed. Impeccable comes to mind.”

Barbara and Bill Roache
Barbara and Bill Roache (known for playing Ken Barlow in the soap opera)

Bradley Walsh played Danny, now famous as the charismatic host of “The Chase”, takes on the role of presenter for this tribute. He and Barbara revisit her debut as dancer Rita Littlewood. Over the years, her character evolved, winning viewers’ hearts.

Barbara Knox in 2018
Barbara Knox in 2018, dressed up for the National Television Awards

The TV special also features beloved co-stars like Malcolm Hebden (Norris Cole) and Thelma Barlow (Mavis Wilton). For Barbara, known for her discretion off-screen, this is a golden chance to share her cherished memories. Gracie Fields’ family’s Rochdale chippy surprisingly influenced Barbara’s career. This and trips to the cinema in her youth, along with magical holidays in Blackpool, nudged her towards the glitz and glamour of showbiz.

Barbara and Thelma Barlow
Barbara and Thelma Barlow (Mavis Wilton), who portrayed Rita’s co-worker in the newsagents

It was during her days in amateur theatre while working at the Post Office that Barbara Knox caught the eye of Corrie producer, Carl Paulsen. Barbara remembers: “I didn’t attempt to join anything professional at all, but Carl came along from Oldham Rep and asked me to play a part in The Boyfriend. I was about 20 or 21. Then I never left.”

Carl was the catalyst for her first brief appearance in Corrie in 1964. Her return to the show, despite other commitments, cemented her legacy. What a legacy it is! From drawing in a record-breaking 27 million viewers for an episode in 1989 to being the second longest-serving cast member, Barbara’s impact is undeniable.

“But if they’re listening, I don’t want to retire.”

Barbara as Rita in Corrie in the 70s

Reflecting on her journey, she humbly remarks, “I can understand they would be interested in the Street, but not in me. It’s unbelievable, really — I’ve been on the Street for almost 60 years. I’ve almost lost track of the years, I don’t know where they’ve gone, and now suddenly, I’m looking at 90.

A true icon of the Street, Barbara’s dedication and talent have, beyond a shadow of a doubt, made her an irreplaceable jewel in the crown of British television. Here’s raising a glass to many more years of Barbara Knox on our screens.

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