One of the most recognisable faces on British TV is that of long-serving “Coronation Street” actress Helen Worth, who celebrates her 68th birthday today.
Having joined the popular ITV soap opera as teenager Gail Potter in the summer of 1974, she has gone on to become one of the soap’s central characters and it third longest serving, behind Ken Barlow (played by Bill Roache) and Rita Tanner (Barbara Knox).
Initially intended as a minor character, Gail’s life on ‘the street’ has been a torrid one, including being married six times, once to a serial killer who tried to kill her, and going on trial herself for the alleged murder of another of her husbands! She has come through it all and remains a fixture of Coronation Street, with no plans to quit.
Born on January 7th, 1951, in the West Yorkshire market town of Ossett, Cathryn Helen Wigglesworth was the only daughter of parents Alfred and Gladys. Raised in a relatively well-off family, she attended private school and the family later moved to the Lancashire coastal resort of Morecambe.
Her interest in performing came from visiting her grandmother, who ran a boarding house for music hall performers in Bradford. She met many of the performers lodging with her grandmother and began taking dancing lessons from the age of three, later appearing in a string of school theatrical productions.
They got her noticed and at the age of 10 she was chosen to read stories on Granada Television’s regional current affairs magazine show “Scene at 6-30”. She made her first acting appearance on TV at the age of 12 in a 1963 episode of popular drama “Z Cars”. That same year she played one of the von Trapp children in a stage production of “The Sound of Music” at London’s Palace Theatre, which kept her in the capital for nine months.
After finishing her education in Morecambe, she returned to London to attend the Corona Theatre School. There was also tragedy in her life around this time, when her mother was killed in a hit-and-run road accident.
After graduating from drama school, the young actress honed her skills working in repertory theatre, including a year with the BBC Radio repertory company. She also had a string of small roles on TV and in films, including as one of the urchins in the 1968 hit movie musical “Oliver!”. The following year she had a TV role in “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” and in 1970 appeared in four episodes of “The Doctors”, a TV series centred on a London GPs’ surgery.
In 1971 she played Mary Ashe, one of the main character in the six-episode Doctor Who story “Colony in Space”, playing opposite Jon Pertwee as the Doctor. It raised her profile and, after a number of other small TV roles, she was cast in ITV’s “Coronation Street” in 1974. Although she was 23 by then, her young looks helped win her the part of 16-year-old Gail Potter, a schoolfriend of established character Tricia Hopkins.
By then she had also adopted the stage name of Helen Worth, a shortened version of her full name. Her role on Coronation Street was only meant to be a minor supporting one, but her talents caught the eye of the producers and when the Hopkins family were written out, Gail stayed on, becoming fast friends with Suzie Birchall, the two of them lodging with Elsie Tanner at number 11.
In the 44 years since, Gail’s character has gone from carefree and headstrong teenager to careworn and often bitter grandmother, featuring in many of the soap’s most controversial and high-profile storylines. With six marriages behind her (including twice to first husband Brian Tilsley), she has been divorced twice and widowed four times.
Her third husband, Richard Hillman, turned out to be a serial killer who tried to murder Gail and her children, while her fourth husband, Joe McIntyre, accidentally drowned while trying to fake his own death for the insurance money.
That saw Gail wrongly charged with his murder and banged up in prison awaiting trial, at which she was eventually acquitted. Her character’s current surname is Rodwell, from her fifth husband who first burgled her home, then fell in love with her before taking up with her nemesis on the street, Eileen Grimshaw, and eventually dying of a heart attack!
In real life, Helen Worth has been married just twice, first to fellow actor Michael Angelis and, since 2013, to music teacher Trevor Dawson. Unlike her Corrie character, she has no children but is very close to her acting colleagues, especially those who have played her on-screen children over many years. She is also a patron of the Born Free Foundation, founded by fellow actors Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna.