Doris Speed MBE (3rd February, 1899 - 16th November, 1994) was a British actress, best known for her role as snooty Rovers Return Inn landlady Annie Walker, a role she played from the debut episode of Coronation Street in December 1960 till 1983. By her own admission, Doris didn't have a childhood. Her parents, George and Ada Speed were music hall (vaudeville) artists, appearing in a different venue every week. Doris made her debut at four, singing a song about a gollywog. From then on she was hooked, and wanted nothing more than to be an actress. In one version of the story, when she auditioned for the part of Annie Walker in 1960, she had almost left acting to work for the Guinness brewery in Manchester and was on the point of retiring when she landed a small part in the 1960 film Hell Is A City before being cast in the first episode of Coronation Street. However in 1983, the Daily Mirror printed a story that she had joined the brewery in May 1920 as a clerk and worked her way upwards to be personal secretary to a regional manager. Whatever the truth of the story, professional parts credited to Ms Speed prior to 1960 are elusive.
Unbeknown to her, Tony Warren had written the part specially for her. He had seen her playing Judith Bliss in Noël Coward's Hay Fever (to this day he still considers her the finest actress to have ever played that part) and had made a mental note of her - "One day, I'll write a wonderful part for you!" he said. "She wore a purple dress with a silver stripe, and when Judith Bliss was supposed to be indignant, the silver sash would quiver...now it takes real talent to be able to do that....or a certain type of physique!"
Arthur Leslie, who played husband Jack Walker tragically died on 30th June 1970, bringing to and end a celebrated on-screen partnership; beautifully written scenes between the two of them were played with equally superb comic timing. Doris, who had played opposite Arthur for almost ten years was devastated by his death, yet was to continue in the show for another thirteen years. In the storyline, Jack died suddenly while visiting his daughter Joan Davies in Derby. Out of respect for Mr Leslie's family, all scenes of mourning took place "off stage", and Annie returned to take control of the Rovers as sole licensee. In reality, Doris said at the time that she had seriously contemplated quitting at this time, but "...Arthur always said the show must go on...and so it will."
For the remainder of her time in the programme, a series of wonderful storylines, most of them comedic, where devised for her, as Annie ruled her "little kingdom" as she referred to it with a rod of iron, her staff of Bet Lynch, Betty Turpin and Fred Gee looking resentfully on. This was a "golden era" for the programme, and the viewing public adored the sparring of Bet, Betty and Fred, while Annie looked on balefully, her withering gaze (which Doris based on her Aunt Bessie!) never far from the surface. In 1974, a storyline was devised in which the residents staged a production of "The Importance of Being Earnest", Annie played Lady Bracknell, and Doris's comic timing and superb delivery showed off her acting talents perfectly, proving her versatility.
Doris would always arrive early at Granada Quay Street studios in Manchester. She always wanted to do The Times cryptic crossword before the commencement of work, and Jean Alexander once remarked that she usually completed it in twenty minutes. When Jean told her how much she admired that skill, Doris replied, "Well dear, the words are not necessarily right, but at least they fit in the boxes!" All whoever worked with her said what a joy she was to be around, often breaking the tension of a long, and stressful studio day with a merry quip or even a comedic song. She was famous for, for many years, adjusting her stocking tops in a very coquettish way as the elderly Jack Howarth, who played Albert Tatlock, entered the room. Howarth, a noted wit himself, would then mutter: "If she does that one more time, I'll tell her where babies come from!"
Another memorable incident occurred when Roger Brierley, an immensely tall actor, during camera rehearsal for his scenes as Lanky Potts in 1976, was constantly bobbing from side to side. After the rehearsal had finished, Doris asked, "What on earth were you DOING, dear?" Brierley replied that, being so much taller than the diminutive Doris, the cameras were having trouble getting them in the same shot. "You see, I don't want to cast a shadow on your face, Miss Speed." Drawing herself up to her full height, Doris replied, in her steeliest "Annie Walker" voice, "Young man! The dole queues of Manchester are full of actors who dared to cast a shadow on the face of the great Doris Speed!" It was only when he saw the unmistakable twinkle in her eye that he dared to laugh.
Doris never married, living with her elderly mother who was her closest companion. However, their relationship was not all plain-sailing. In 1967, the programme featured one of its most dramatic storylines, when the viaduct (train bridge) to the south of the street collapsed, covering the street in rubble and trapping several of its residents. Jack Walker was thought to be buried under the rubble, but later turned up safe and well. The usually reserved Annie was delighted to see him and sobbed uncontrollably in his arms. As the credits rolled, Doris, feeling justifiably proud of her (excellent) performance, asked her mother what she thought. After an ominously long pause, her mother replied, "Was that your apron, dear, or did the wardrobe department give it to you?" Doris refused to speak to her for a fortnight.
After the death of her mother, Doris became somewhat vague and forgetful. Her health became a source of worry for the bosses at Granada and they were forced to write her out of the storyline for long periods of time, making excuse that she was staying with her daughter Joan in Derby. She had trouble remembering her lines; Betty Driver said that Doris asked her one day in the studio, "Are you going to sit like that all the way through the scene?" Betty replied she was. "You're not going to turn to camera?" "Well, no..." "Oh, good dear!" was the reply and Doris proceeded to write her script on Betty's arm so she could read off it! (It has often been said - but fiercely denied by her colleagues - that when Doris was in the prime of her performance, her famous 'stare into the mid-distance', implying that she was a 'cut above' the people around her was in fact a cover for the fact that she was reading her script off studios monitors; Julie Goodyear once fiercely told a reporter, "Acting geniuses like Doris don't need 'idiot boards'.") Props had always frustrated her, but when she became older and more and more infirm, even the simplest of tasks, such as emptying the pub ashtrays or putting out bar mats led to her fluffing, or even forgetting her lines, something which frustrated her greatly, being such a perfectionist who prided herself on a job well done. When one colleague, who had worked with her for half a lifetime saw her reduced to tears of anger and frustration on the studio floor after "ruining" three takes, they said it was heartbreaking to watch.
Throughout her twenty-three years on the programme, she reportedly received more fan mail than any other Street actor. Her darkest hour came on 7th October 1983 after the Daily Mirror broke the story in its diary column that she was not sixty-nine as she claimed but eighty-four (despite her various health problems, Doris always looked marvellous for her age). Contrary to popular belief, her birth certificate was not printed to accompany the piece.This callous action from the newspaper was roundly condemned from all quarters, particularly from members of the acting profession. The general consensus from public and media alike was what was the point of victimising an elderly lady who had always acted with the utmost decorum, had never before given any cause for scandal to be raked up about her, was so loved by the British public? Doris was devastated. She returned briefly to the programme, but the Mirror 's story caused her to have a relapse, and she collapsed while filming a scene behind the famous bar of the Rovers Return, much to the horror of the studio staff. Worse was yet to come; her home in Chorlton, Manchester was broken into by two young thugs. Doris locked herself in her bedroom, called the police, and had to listen, heartbroken, as the thugs either stole or destroyed everything she held dear, precious memories of her beloved mum Ada gone forever. It was the final blow, and she was never to return to the Street after appearing in 1746 episodes. She lived the rest of her days in a nursing home in Bury, appearing only four more times on television, firstly on Minnie Caldwell Remembered - A Tribute to Margot Bryant a tribute programme to the actress that was screened on 4th February 1988, then a few months later on a charity telethon on 30th May 1988, once on the 30th anniversary special Happy Birthday Coronation Street on 9th December 1990, and finally on Classic Coronation Street on 3rd January 1993 in an interview with her on-screen son Kenneth Farrington.
Julie Goodyear insisted that a picture of Annie be placed in a frame of the fireplace of the pub that Bet Gilroy was to take over - she was to remark that Doris was an original, and that she couldn't hope to fill her shoes, "merely to place mine next to hers." She jokingly - and with more than obvious affection - remarked that when the Queen visited the set on 5th May 1982 that, "...I'm not sure whether Doris had finally met her equal, or that it was all rather beneath her!"
The admiration and the esteem that the cast held for her was obvious when they gave her a standing ovation in the aforementioned 30th anniversary special; Julie Goodyear burst into tears and mouthed "I love you" to her; Doris responsed by rakishly blowing her a kiss. Doris made several public appearances off-set too; at the 25th anniversary party of the Street in 1985, opening the Coronation Street set to the public as part of the Granada Studios Tours in July 1988 and even book launches for both Tony Warren and Daran Little.
Doris retired to a nursing home, where she died in 1994, aged 95. She had been smoking a cigarette and reading a copy of the novel "To Sir With Love" when she died peacefully in her sleep.
She was awarded the MBE on 29th November, 1977, for her services to drama in the role of Annie, and, in 1979, she was delighted to be awarded a PYE Television Award for outstanding contribution to British TV.