Deirdre Barlow star Kirkbride dies
Tributes have poured in for TV star Anne Kirkbride - Coronation Street's Deirdre Barlow - following her death from cancer.
The 60-year-old actress, who starred in the ITV soap for 44 years, had recently been off screen, after taking a break from Weatherfield since September.
But with the full reasons for her absence unexplained, fans were shocked when the broadcaster announced that Kirkbride - famous for her oversized spectacle-wearing, gravel-voiced alter-ego - had died last night in a Manchester hospital.
Kirkbride leaves behind husband David Beckett, whom she married in 1992.
The couple met when he played Deirdre's handyman boyfriend Dave Barton in the soap.
In contrast, Kirkbride's Coronation Street character had an extremely colourful love life, with several husbands over the years.
William Roache, who played her screen husband Ken Barlow - their nuptials attracted more than 24 million viewers in 1981 - said the soap had lost one of its "iconic" characters.
"I feel Anne's loss so personally having worked closely with her for over 40 years," he said.
"She was such a loving and vibrant person. You always knew she was there because her laugh was never far away.
"She was an impeccable performer with superb comedy timing and an immense gift for really heightened drama. We had some rows over the years as Ken and Deirdre and it was wonderful to play those scenes opposite her.
"Coronation Street has lost one of its iconic characters and Anne will be greatly missed."
A statement on the ITV website last night said that Kirkbride's husband and the programme's cast and crew were "heartbroken and deeply saddened".
Executive producer Kieran Roberts said: "There are no words to describe the sense of grief we feel at Anne's passing.
"We know only too acutely how much Anne meant to the millions of people who watched her create the legendary character of Deirdre Barlow.
"She will be greatly missed by the Coronation Street team, who share happy memories of working with her. We feel blessed and honoured to have known her. Our thoughts are with David and their family."
Kirkbride's most memorable soap moments included Deirdre being jailed after being duped into a mortgage fraud by fiance Jon Lindsay.
The storyline even led then prime minister Tony Blair to give his support to the "Free The Weatherfield One" movement to get her released.
The actress previously took a break from the soap after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 1993.
After having chemotherapy treatment she returned to Coronation Street, but told afterwards how it had left her with depression.
"Life became unbearable, absolutely intolerable," she said. "I wanted to die, I just wanted to die because you just don't want to go on living feeling like that.
"But you're frightened that if you die you might still feel like that on the other side. There's no escape."
Among those to pay tribute was Kate Ford, who plays Deirdre's daughter, Tracy Barlow, in the soap.
The actress tweeted: "Heartbroken at the loss of my friend and beautiful on screen mummy. The most crazy funny 100 per cent human. My life was enriched by her."
Fellow Corrie veteran Beverley Callard, known for playing Rovers Return barmaid Liz McDonald, wrote: "My beautiful darling friend, Anne Kirkbride, passed away in a room filled with love. God Bless, my Darling Girl! Peace and rest!"
Michelle Keegan, whose character Tina McIntyre made a dramatic exit last year, said: "The nation is now in mourning..."
Kym Marsh, who plays barmaid Michelle Connor, said: "Cannot describe how devastated we all are. Sleep tight gorgeous lady we will miss you ridiculous amounts RIP Annie x"
Ian Puleston-Davies, who plays Owen Armstrong in the soap, said he felt "numb" on hearing the news of her death.
He told Phil Williams on BBC's 5 Live: "She was such a colourful character on and off set - very different but very alike in so many ways.
"To meet her in person she shone brighter than even Deirdre did."
He recalled his first days on the show, saying the veteran actress had spotted he was nervous and thrown her arms around him with the reassuring words: "It's all right, kid, we'll look after you." Puleston-Davies added: "It could've been a scene in the Rovers, she oozed Coronation Street."
Ken Farrington, who played Billy Walker - Deirdre's first fiance in the soap - recalled her theatre performances in Manchester.
He said: "She had an incredible variety of abilities and I kept trying to persuade her to, I shouldn't say this, but to leave the Street because I thought she could go on and do really big things like Sarah Lancashire and Anne Reid (two former Coronation Street actresses)."
He said Kirkbride had become "quite angry" at the suggestion and said she was happy where she was.
"She was a bloody good performer," he added.
Coronation Street's creator Tony Warren said: "Anne was very easy to love. Her talent over the years made a massive contribution to Coronation Street."
ITV director of television Peter Fincham said Kirkbride had "created a unique and unforgettable character" and said she had been "a truly loyal servant to Coronation Street since joining the programme in the early 1970s".
Kirkbride is survived by her husband David, her brother John, and his family.