Is Ken Barlow boring, smug and self-satisfied? The English courts will decide Libel suits abound in litigious London

October 31, 1991|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau of The Sun

LONDON -- The photographers fidgeted in the rain outside the Royal Courts of Justice yesterday, while inside the trial continued which will determine if Ken Barlow is, or is not, boring.

On Tuesday's opening of the trial, some of Mr. Barlow's friends trooped up to the stand and had the question put to them: Is Ken boring?

"He is the least most-boring person I ever met in my life," said Betty Driver.

"In no way whatsoever," said Johnny Briggs.

"He is a gentleman," affirmed Bill Waddington.

The photographers jammed closer to each other protectively. They watched like predatory birds poised to swoop as the black taxis swished by and sped down The Strand. One of them, at some point, might stop and disgorge the defamed Mr. Barlow. Or better still, his defamer, who is being sued for libel by Mr. Barlow.

So, who is Ken Barlow? And just who is saying all these nasty things about him?

Ken Barlow, in real life, is Bill Roache, an actor in Britain's longest-running televised soap opera, "Coronation Street." And for as long as there has been a "Coronation Street," there has been a Ken Barlow played by Bill Roache. He is the only member left of the original cast, formed 31 years ago.

Ken Irwin is a reporter for the London Sun. In an article on Nov. 1, 1990, he described Mr. Barlow/Roache as boring, smug and self-satisfied, both on and off camera.

The Sun is not exactly like other newspapers. It specializes in publishing pictures of women without clothes wedged between stories without facts.

Mr. Irwin also wrote that Mr. Barlow/Roache wasn't popular with his fellow Thespians.

Among the Thespians in question are those quoted above who bore witness to Mr. Barlow/Roache's endearing qualities, while Mr. Barlow/Roache, a soft-looking man with hair the color of oatmeal, looked on -- well, smugly.

When he read Mr. Irwin's article, Mr. Barlow/Roache said he was "devastated." His wife was devastated. So were his children. So, too, was his 91-year-old mother. He hauled Mr. Irwin into court.

With no hint of the defense team's strategy, one can only assume that Mr. Irwin's lawyers will parade people before the jury who will testify to his smugness, complacency and boringness.

In Britain people are always hauling other people into court. Which is not to say the British are as litigious as Americans.

But the libel laws here are skewed to favor people who take offense about what is said about them in print or in public places. Here public figures sue more readily than in the United States, because they often win.

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