Bill Tarmey was born William Piddington on 4 April, 1941, in Ardwick, Manchester. After he left school at 15, he became an apprentice asphalt spreader for his step father, until the age of 26. In later interviews, Bill would blame this early career for his later breathing difficulties – which would later form a major part of his decision to leave the street – although, he was also a lifelong smoker.
In 1968, Bill quit his job in construction to work as a nightclub singer. His first love was singing, but he had to take additional work as an extra in shows like Corrie and other ITV dramas.
His stage name, Bill Tarmey, was created by staff putting on a charity event at the Stockport Bus Club. Bill Piddington was too long for the chalkboard, so they renamed him Tarmey – a misappropriation of the surname of American crooner Mel Tormé. As the response to his act that night was so good, Bill stuck with it ever since!
In his autobiography, Jack Duckworth and Me, he discusses being offered a permanent contract for the role of Jack. “I was concerned I might make a fool of myself and be an embarrassment to my family…” he said. He was terrified of letting people down. “They’d put a lot of faith in me, but I was no actor. I didn’t have any formal training; I’d picked it up as I went along. What had I let myself in for?”
His health problems dogged him even before he began his role as Jack Duckworth, as he had a serious heart attack in 1976, and a stroke in 1977.
Luckily for Bill, and the viewing public, he soon became a firm fixture on the Street, and a beloved cast member, playing off of Liz Dawn as the married couple who love to hate one another.
His real-life wife was Alma, whom he had met in the local youth club in 1955. In 1959, when Bill was 18, they had been dating for three years and were discussing marriage. Bill did things the old fashioned way, and asked Ali’s father for her hand in marriage. He bought Ali a diamond ring from a gift catalogue, and paid the £17 in weekly instalments.
Alma often found herself swept to one side by Bill’s fans, who had no idea who she was, and often spoke to Bill as though he were really Jack Duckworth. Liz Dawn had similar experiences with her husband, Don Ibbetson, and it only got worse when the four of them were at an event together, as the spouses would be swept to one side to make way for the onscreen couple!
In 1992, Bill was featured on This Is Your Life, the biography show hosted by Michael Aspel. “I’d told Ali in the past that I never wanted to be the subject of the programme. I said it would be hugely embarrassing. I’m pleased she had the good sense to ignore me, because it was the greatest honour to be chosen and it became one of the highlights of my life.” For the climax of the show, Bill sang Wind Beneath My Wings for Ali.
Bill credits this performance as the starting point for his success in the recording business, which kicked off in 1993. The father of an executive at EMI had seen the show, and suggested he sign Bill up – when he received the letter in the post from composer, arranger and conductor Derek Wadsworth, suggesting they make an album together, he thought it was a hoax. A Gift of Love, his first album for EMI, sold 180,000 copies. Four months following, his second album, Time for Love, sold the same amount, earning him two gold discs. Of his third album, After Hours, in 1996, Bill isn’t so positive, stating: “I don’t want to get involved in any mud-slinging here: let’s just say things didn’t work out.” But, he says, “I’m sorry it ended on a sour note, but I’ll always be grateful I had my moment in the sun.”
In his last years on the street, Bill found his breathing difficulties, along with sleep apnea and heart problems, prevented him from taking part in the simplest of scenes – and much like Liz Dawn, he was very often restricted in his movement when filming. Although his fellow actors attempted to help modify scenes to accommodate Bill’s ill health, he eventually decided to quit the show – although was convinced by his wife Ali, and the show’s producers, to remain on the Street until the 50th anniversary of the show.
On the morning of 9 November 2012, almost exactly two years after his onscreen counterpart died, Bill passed away whilst on holiday in Tenerife, aged 71. His family released a statement: 'The family of Bill Tarmey have confirmed that he sadly passed away this morning in Tenerife. They have respectfully asked the media for privacy as they grieve for a wonderful husband, father and brother.'