A random trawl through the index of Julie Goodyear's autobiography tells you all you need to know about what's inside. Yes, there are mentions for fellow Coronation Street veterans alive and dead: Pat Phoenix (who we learn once had her own timber wolf. "It was nice actually, " Goodyear will tell me. "It was given to her by someone from Chester Zoo."); Peter Adamson (one of Goodyear's alter ego Bet Lynch's many on-screen amours); and Doris Speed (who went from the Street straight into a nursing home).

And yes, there are mentions of everyone from the Queen (a Corrie fan, it seems) to Tina Turner (who admired Goodyear's legs) and Dennis Thatcher (who once pawed her breasts, or as Coronation Street's production staff christened them, Newton and Ridley, at a Downing Street reception. He got a slap for his troubles).

But for a true taste of the contents consider the fourth column of the index. It reads, more or less, "anorexia, cancer, court case, death, divorce, financial problems, funeral, Julie's birth, Julie's breakdown, Julie's cancer". I'm slightly cherrypicking here, but really only slightly. Whatever its faults as literature, Just Julie - a book Goodyear is quick to tell me is all her own work ("We did try with a ghost writer but it didn't work out") - is not bland.

"I've read bland autobiographies, " Goodyear says when we sit down to talk, "and I found them boring and I felt short-changed and I didn't want to deliver anything like that."

Given the book begins with Goodyear face down on a "grimy dog-stained pavement" with grit in her mouth and blood on her hands and legs, not knowing where she is or even who she is, and given that it also sees her open up about her much-rumoured same-sex relationships and reveals the messy details of not one, not two, but three failed marriages, besides talking about being diagnosed with cervical cancer then being told she had a year to live (this was now some years ago) and being charged with fraud (for the financial dealings of a charity she set up after recovering from the cancer; she was found not guilty), bland was never really a danger.

Rather like her Coronation Street character, Bet Lynch, who ruled the roost down Weatherfield for the best part of 25 years between 1970 and 1995, Julie Goodyear has lived a bit.

Actually a bit more, she reckons. Bet Lynch, who metamorphosed from brassy blonde barmaid to brassy blonde queen bee in that quarter of a century may, like the actress who played her, have been unlucky in love, a teenage mother and solidly Lancastrian (how much of a problem the latter may have been I leave to the reader's prejudice). But all in all, Goodyear reckons, her character had the better of it. "She had the easier time, " she says when I ask her to compare her life with that of her most famous role. "I've got a feeling that she's somewhere in Brighton now, or Tenerife [she pronounces it "Tenerifey"] having a ball.

Not that I'm not happy now. I am. I'm in a really, really good place in my life."

Although her life has now been squeezed between leopardskin-patterned endpapers that would meet with Bet Lynch's approval, Goodyear has always insisted she's a different animal to her small-screen alter ego. Quite what animal that might be I'm not sure at first sight. We meet on a crisp autumn afternoon in Manchester in the no doubt expensive yet rather bland expanse of a suite in the upmarket Lowry Hotel beside the River Irwell. If there's none of the brass and bolshiness of Bet Lynch evident, Goodyear still stands out, a skewwhiff vision of ghetto fabulous. She is decked out in a blue top, satiny combat trousers, rings and bling, most notably a J-letter necklace that wouldn't look out of place on a gangster rapper. As ever, there's a Silk Cut on the go in her silver cigarette holder, and as soon as I appear she's up and looking for a kiss on the cheek. "Can I have two?" she asks. How can I not oblige?

She asks me if I've read the book. I have, I tell her. "Did you have a stiff drink while you were reading it?" she asks. It's surprising that she has taken so long to get round to her autobiography. She has been asked to write it before, she admits, but she never really had the time before. Or the right frame of mind. "I feel emotionally strong enough, " is how she puts it now.

Yet the prospect of sitting down to write it was scary, she says. "Teddy, I s- myself. I was terrified. It wasn't pleasant to go back over the things I've experienced and I was aware that it wouldn't be." What did she learn about herself in the process? "I'm a nice person. I don't bear grudges. I don't do bitterness. What's gone is gone. And I've got a damn good sense of humour. I've needed it."

Well indeed. Over and above the painful, sometimes tragic circumstances of her life she's been the subject of any number of tabloid exposes and tall tales over the years. The late Justin Fashanu, still the only British footballer to come out as gay, claimed he had an affair with her. Not so, it seems. Goodyear thinks he just needed the money. Then there were the erroneous tales of three-in-a-bed romps, allegations of orgies, accusations of egomania. As a result, she is, I think it's fair to say, not keen on members of my profession on the whole.

What, I ask near the end of our conversation, did we get wrong about Julie Goodyear? "I don't think the public got anything wrong, " she says. "The media? Well, where shall we start, Teddy? What is, what was the media's perception of Julie Goodyear? Demanding, diva . . .

What else . . . sex maniac, cross dresser . . ." I take it you're ticking none of those boxes, I say.

"Sorry, " she says, not looking sorry at all.

Certainly Goodyear is showing few diva-esque signs this afternoon. And anyway, what some call demanding she calls perfectionism. Reading between the lines, though, I suspect there's a strong controlling tendency in her. In the book, she reveals a habit of appointing the female partners she has had to act as her personal assistant, which hardly sounds like a good foundation for an equal relationship.

Goodyear, though, just sees it as a handy solution to get round prurient media interest. As for the suggestions she's a sex maniac, apart from a few choice stories she will later tell the photographer, she seems much more starry-eyed over the idea of love than sex. What's her definition of love, I ask. "Now? At the age of 64? It consists of so many things really and having met you I can see that you know. Some people never [do]. It's so many different things: friendship, companionship, trust, loyalty, caring, compromise, give and take, building each other up, putting each other first. So many different things. Laughing together, playing together, all of that."

She certainly doesn't seem to have chosen her husbands on the basis of their sexual magnetism. She first walked down the aisle when she was just 17, two months pregnant, a shotgun wedding. She knew her options - "a shotgun wedding, adoption or . . ." She doesn't say the words "backstreet abortion" but it hangs in the air. Why choose the option she did? "I think, really, it was chosen for me, by family. I didn't have that much say."

She says her mum had to tell her she was expecting. She sounds a naive 17-year-old.

"Even a bit thick it would appear when I read it back, " Goodyear says. "Naive is such a nice word." Soon she had a son, Gary, who remains a source of pride, and a husband, Ray, who was rather a disappointment. "He would taunt me by saying he never really believed it was his son anyway, " she says. Was he just saying that to get at you? "He could have been, he could have been. We were too immature, really; innocents locked together in a two-up, two-down and really didn't want to be there, neither of us." Eventually Ray opted to go to Australia. He didn't ask her to go with him.

"But, again, in fairness to him, I wouldn't have gone, you know? I would never have left my parents and the town where I was born. I wouldn't go now."

Husband three, Richard Skrob, was an American businessman Goodyear met while flying to the US. She seems to have just felt sorry for him. She didn't love husband number two, Tony Rudman, either.

"No, no. I was very fond of him. And I grew very fond of him, " she says. But Rudman was principally seen as a source of security. "My son at that stage was saving up for a dad, " she points out.

"And then, of course, there's me mum constantly on at me: 'You must have met somebody nice, you must have, surely? They can't be all married at Granada. They can't. Come on. You must have done summat wrong.'" Her marriage to Rudman is easily the most perplexing event in Goodyear's autobiography and, presumably, life. Their wedding in 1973, a gala event attended by fans, friends and even soldiers in Saracen tanks (because Bet Lynch was something of a forces sweetheart), barely lasted the ceremony. Rudman disappeared before the reception. She didn't see him again for weeks and by then she had, as a result, suffered a breakdown; been found, as previously noted, face down in the street, confused and bloodied, taken into hospital for treatment and even undergone electroconvulsive therapy. She was lost for a while and the idea of losing her sanity, she says now, was terrifying. And it was a real possibility

When she next saw Rudman he was telling her psychologist what went wrong. He sat there telling lies about her, accusing her of drinking and of not being a good wife. How would he know? "Exactly." The psychologist, thankfully for the sake of Goodyear's sanity, didn't believe him. And maybe it's just as well she never loved Rudman. "If I'd have been in love with him I don't think I'd still be here to tell the tale, I really don't."

Even so, the way she describes her breakdown is gruelling enough. "The worst aspect was the pain in my head, " she writes. "That was absolutely excruciating, and there are no words to describe it or do it justice. The nearest I can come to it is a constant high-pitched screeching sound, like a fingernail being dragged along a blackboard."

Was that the lowest point of her life? "I think you should let the readers decide, don't you?" she says. Well, no Julie. I think you're probably in the best position to judge.

She thinks about this for a minute. "That was bad, of course. It was because I didn't even know who I was.

"But then you're comparing it with being given a year to live, or being charged with fraud for God's sake and possibly facing seven years in prison for something I didn't do."

Looking back now, does she understand why Rudman did what he did, I ask her? "No."

Was it a case of him just wanting money from her perhaps (she had changed her bank account to a joint one)? "No, no, I don't but it's one of those things that there aren't any answers to. You've got to learn to live with it, but you can only imagine what it's like to be left on the first day." And she tells me she would have made a good wife. "I would never have been unfaithful. I would have kept to all my marriage vows. It was very painful."

Has she just chosen the wrong men, I ask her, or is it that as a gender we men are all pretty hopeless? "I think they chose me, " she says. "I think people come into your life for a reason and hopefully we learn. I don't seem to have learnt very quickly, do I? I always meet people at face value. I never think people have a hidden agenda. I'm very trusting, which is probably why I do get hurt and I've made wrong judgments in my life. But then again if I didn't treat people like that I wouldn't be me and I'd be a hermit probably and very bitter, and that's not something I would ever want to live with."

What is clear from reading her book is that the women in her life seem to have left her with a greater legacy of affection than most of the men - save for her current partner Scott and an unnamed businessman who was her first love but who left her under pressure from his aggrieved father. She met the first of them, another of the people she doesn't name, after recovering from that disastrous second marriage. "My next relationship after Tony, " she writes, "was with a woman. I thought it was worth a try."

"It came as a great surprise, " she tells me now, "a great surprise. Because I'd never thought of myself as anything other than completely heterosexual. That's all I'd ever been. But then when I met her I thought, 'Well, this must have been what was wrong. It must have been me. It must have been something in my make-up that was at fault.'" Of her four female partners, three are coming to her book launch - with their present partners. She's proud of that.

Home for Julie Goodyear has always been Heywood, a few miles north of Manchester. As a child she lived in a two-up, two down and later over her parents' pub. These days she's got a farm and the best part of 30 acres but she still goes shopping in Morrisons. She was born in 1942 during the blackout with bombs exploding all over the place. Story of her life, you could say. Her biological father George Kemp had little to do with that story, all told. There's a telling anecdote in the book in which, at the age of five, she goes to him and asks for a shiny penny. He tells her to bring him a penny and he'll shine it. Eventually she does and when he's polished it up she tells him to come with her into the street, where she drops it down a drain before telling him to "p- off".

"It was one of those wartime marriages, " she says of her parents. "My mum's first marriage. And I was only seven when she remarried to William Goodyear, who I always knew as my dad."

Thinking back, she reckons she must have been a lot to take on for Goodyear. "I think that must have been a tall order, you know, because he was 40 when he got married to my mum and a confirmed bachelor, really. So, not only had he taken my mum on - which was understandable because she was absolutely gorgeous - but he had taken this seven-year-old child on as well who really only wanted to be with her family. That must have been hard."

Goodyear was from working-class stock and her parents worked full time, so she was raised by her grandmother Elizabeth - "I've got fabulous memories of her" - until her death by drowning when Goodyear was just 13. "The pain of that went deep. I wasn't aware at the time, but I didn't cry and it was many years after that before I was able."

Elizabeth's death didn't affect only her granddaughter. Alice, Elizabeth's daughter and Julie's "mam", stopped eating as a result.

Describe your mother? "She was very tiny, a little tiny thing. I'm 5ft 4in, but my mum was smaller and by the very virtue of the fact she stopped eating when my grandmother drowned, she was never very big anyway."

"I used to try to tempt her with food, " says Goodyear, "but she preferred flowers. She quickly clarifies this in case I take it the wrong way. "I don't mean to eat." I suspect she wouldn't want anyone to think ill of Alice.

Despite her illness, Alice, Goodyear says, was optimistic and great fun. "She had a great sense of humour. She was also a very good listener. Generous to a fault." How does her daughter take after her? "Well not the anorexia, " she says, indicating the swell of her belly. "I love food, I enjoy food as you can see.

I'm a good listener. The sense of humour."

Does she think she disappointed her parents? "The only thing I never managed to give them was the fact that all you really want to see for your kids is to see them happily married and settled down. And that I didn't achieve, and they really wanted that."

What she did achieve though - apart from raising Gary, who is now married with children of his own - was fame as the nation's favourite barmaid. She had wanted to be in Coronation Street ever since she saw the first episode in 1960. She'd spent her late teens and early twenties as a model for the most part ("Don't forget going around on the knock and selling washers and vacs, " she corrects me).

Besides being Miss Britvic, Miss Astral and Miss Aeronautical Society she carved out her own niche thanks to her tiny hands and little feet. "They didn't bother about the bits in between, but because all the other models were very tall and had big feet and big hands it meant there was a gap in the market and I jumped at it."

Acting was always the goal, though. "From very, very young I wanted to be an actress. I couldn't tell you why. I don't know. It's not just showing off. Maybe a part of it is being somebody else and attracting attention and needing the feeling of being loved." But you had that, Julie. "I did, yes, yes. But you know most little girls like dressing up and maybe some little girls never grow up. I'm probably about 10 really." In your head? "Yeah, yeah. I think I'm more than happy to stay at that."

Certainly acting has been one of the more consistent areas of her life, given that she played the same role for 25 years. That said, she's been out of Coronation Street for more than 10 years now. There have been panto appearances, unsuccessful (even unseen) chat shows and the odd cameo in soap-operacome-latelies such as Hollyoaks. But she remains, to most of us, Bet Lynch. The problem is television executives can be a little unimaginative. "As actors we are trained to do different accents and look different. We are blank canvases. We could be anybody, " she says. Well maybe, but who else could be Julie Goodyear?

At the back of her book, just before the index, she includes a list of awards she's been given down the years. You could, I suppose, read this as egomania. But recording the fact that you won the TV Times Top 10 Awards, Editor's Special Award or the Radio Times 75th Anniversary Hall of Fame is, if anything, a sign of insecurity. (Admittedly there's an MBE in there as well, but hopefully you get my point. ) As already noted, however, Goodyear is in a good place thanks to Scott ("He plays a huge part in my life. We have tremendous fun"). A good place to look back on bad times then.

And leopardskin is so in right now.

Just Julie by Julie Goodyear is published by Pan Macmillan