It’s been 25-years since one of the most controversial TV soap plots of all time caused outrage on a national level. Now considered one of the greatest storylines ever, it sparked a national campaign and even saw Prime Minister Tony Blair step in.
For Corrie fans too young to remember, we’re referring to the 1998 plotline that saw soap favourite, Dierdre Barlow, jailed for a crime she did not commit. A stalwart of the cobbles, Deirdre had been played by Anne Kirkbride, who died in 2015, since 1972.
Originally Deirdre Hunt, the character first appeared as a one-off character in a 1972 episode of Corrie. But producers and writers were convinced that the then 17-year-old had some longevity and Deirdre was brought back as a regular in 1973.
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Deirdre became synonymous with her overly large, plastic frame specs, which became something of a trademark. She was a hopeless romantic who was always looking for love but never finding it in the right places.
Deirdre was a Coronation Street regular for more than 30 years, with Kirkbride bowing out of the soap in 2014, and in that time she was betrayed by a myriad of partners. Her first main storyline, in 1974, saw the young Deirdre engaged to Billy Walker – who called off the wedding and left to run a wine bar in Jersey.
She later married Ray Langton, a relationship which ended in divorce, before moving onto Ken Barlow. In 1981, more than 24m viewers watched Deirdre and Ken tie the knot, with the fictional nuptials generating higher ratings for ITV than the wedding of the Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer.
Their marriage ultimately ended in divorce – after Ken had an affair – before Deirdre lost her third husband, Samir Rachid, who was attacked in the street.
Keeping the name Rachid, Deirdre then fell in love with ‘pilot’ Jon Lindsay in 1997. It was this liaison that led to the infamous Deirdre Rachid storyline that rocked the nation.
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Deirdre gave Jon, played by actor Owen Aaronovitch, money towards a mortgage, unaware that this was part of one of his financial scams. She split up with the pilot, who actually worked in a tie shop, and tried to retrieve the money she gave him, only to be charged with criminal activities.
In the subsequent trial, Jon painted Deirdre as the brains behind the crime and poor, innocent Deirdre was found guilty of fraud and sentenced to 18 months in jail while Jon walked free. It was following this the real life drama began, blurring the lines between fact and fiction.
The episode, which aired on March 29, 1998, was watched by 19m horrified viewers, with more than a few of them taking Deirdre’s imprisonment a little too personally. Granada was swamped by complaints from angry viewers and before long the vitriol had sparked a public campaign led by several tabloid newspapers, including The Sun and The Mirror, who touted the slogan: Free the Weatherfield One!
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The case was so infamous that papers even compared Deirdre’s story to real life fraud cases. Christine Pradeep was duped out of thousands of pounds in 1998 while living in Belfast, and when she sold her story to the Sunday Life magazine they called it a “Coronation Street-style” scam, claiming that Pradeep had been “stitched up just like Deirdre.”
Car stickers, t-shirts, and even mugs adorned with Deirdre’s face were all the rage, but the campaign to free the Weatherfield woman went even further. One fan reportedly donated £5,000 to a fictional campaign to have Deirdre released.
Protestors also stood outside Risley Prison, Warrington, calling for Deirdre’s release, in the days after the episode was aired, making more newspaper headlines. At the time, the prison spokesperson, Les Mason, said: “In real life, it is possible that a woman from Manchester may be sent to Risley, but I can assure you that Deirdre Rachid isn’t here! I’ve even been upstairs to check!”
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Despite the fictional nature of the story, it grew to such proportions that even politicians got involved. Fraser Kemp, the then Houghton and Washington East MP, called the event an “appalling miscarriage of justice” and promised to lobby then Home Secretary Jack Straw about the issue.
This led to Prime Minister Tony Blair sharing his two pence as well, the Labour leader rather jokingly (we hope) mentioned talking to his home secretary, Jack Straw, about Deirdre’s sentence. Tory party leader William Hague, followed suit, claiming that he was concerned by Deirdre’s treatment.
He said at the time: “The whole nation is deeply concerned about Deirdre, Conservatives as much as everyone else.” The story was so popular, and provoked so much anger, that The Mirror released this spoiler just to calm people down
Whether through political or popular pressure Deirdre was eventually freed. The Mirror were so keen to get ahead of the story they did an entire feature on her impending release in a March, 1998, edition.
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A plot twist saw one of Jon Lindsay’s ex-wives come forward who said enough to exonerate Deirdre from any blame, she was eventually released. After a couple of months, she walked free and was soon reunited with her true love, Ken Barlow, at a Valentine’s Day disco.
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