I remember the thrill of finding out what Richard Hillman would be up to next, says ex-Coronation Street star Brian Capron
PUBLISHED: 19:30 15 June 2017 | UPDATED: 16:36 04 August 2017
East Anglian raised actor Brian Capron, best know as Coronation Street serial killer Richard Hillman, usually goes out of his way to avoid thrillers. So what’s different about Strictly Murder? Entertainment writer Wayne Savage investigated.
Everybody expects Brian to do thrillers, that’s why he doesn’t. Strictly Murder, penned by screenwriter and TV producer Brian Clemens, is only his second foray into the genre.
“I’ve kind of gone out of my way to [avoid them, after playing Hillman], I worked at The National, did Guys and Dolls, lots of completely different stuff,” says the actor, who was born in Eye and raised in Woodbridge.
“The last time I was in Lowestoft I was doing Educating Rita so I don’t like doing thrillers... But this is different. It’s written by Brian Clemens, who’s known for The Professionals and The Avengers. It’s one of the last plays he wrote. A tribute to the thriller genre and I think it’s his best. My part, Ross, is such a showy part. It’s so beautifully written I couldn’t really resist.
“His son Samuel, who’s directed films, is directing. He’s very proud of this work and wanted it to be best version ever done and he’s had music specially written by prestigious composer Edward White.”
Set in Provence, 1939, English couple Peter and Suzy live in idyllic isolation far, it seems from the rumblings of the oncoming war. Their peace is suddenly shattered by a stranger from Peter’s past. Rave reviews have seen its original 10 or so date run extended to 32.
Joining him in Talking Scarlet’s production of Strictly Murder are Corrinne Wicks from Doctors and Enmerdale, Gary Turner from Hollyoaks and Emmerdale, Lara Lemon from Off-Piste and Andrew Fettes from London’s Burning and Auton. It just visited Lowestoft’s Marina Theatre and stops by Westcliff’s Palace Theatre July 24-25.
“Brian realised you can’t write modern thrillers; Agatha Christies wouldn’t work now, none of those old thrillers would because of the communications and forensics we have now, so he purposely set it back in time which gives the play a lovely whodunnit atmosphere.
“It’s, dare I say, quite a decent quality for the touring stuff that goes round; generally speaking they don’t have this amount spent on it and we had a very good rehearsal period which has really helped with fleshing out the characters.”
Full of so many twists and turns - “no-one ever guesses [the end] until the final climactic scene where everything is revealed,” boasts Brian - it’s hard to say any more about the play or his character, whose arrival changes everything, without giving the game away.
“I come in and from then on it’s a bit of a rollercoaster because then the audience are privy to all sorts of things the characters on stage aren’t. I really can’t say more than that,” he laughs.
There’s a lot of detail, Brian does tell me; with one or two fairly shocking edge of the seat moments.
“We thought very hard about how these things are done. When you have, let’s say, vital murders on stage... Because everyone sees such stuff on television and it looks so natural and real, it’s very difficult on stage to do that sort of thing without guffaws from the audience.
“We had a fight arranger come in and thought about how we do certain moments so we’ve got a suspenseful feeling throughout the whole show. I’ve never been in a play where audiences are so quiet, you rarely hear a cough. We noticed it quite early on because they don’t want to miss a word,” says Brian, who I grew up watching as Grange Hill’s firm but fair teacher Mr Hopwood.
Moving straight on to play Ozias Harding in ITV series Where The Heart Is - hardly a loving family man Brian laughs but not as bad as Hillman - the show’s shock cancellation completely changed his career.
“I was doing three weeks [as The Narrator] on The Rocky Horror Show and I was going to swan back to my lovely series,” he laughs. “Suddenly my agent said ‘you won’t believe this, I’ve had the casting director in tears on the phone they’re chopping Where the Heart is’. I said ‘oh my God what am I going to do.”
He ended up joining Rocky in the West End for the rest of the tour, where he was visited by the producer in the middle of the show.
“Which is not done in the theatre; you should never come and see an actor backstage during the show. I was a bit peeved because it kind of ruins your concentration a bit sometimes. That’s just me being very actorish,” he laughs.
Asked if was enjoying himself, the producer said would he fancy doing Guys and Dolls?
“I said I’m not a singer or dancer and he said ‘oh we think you can do Nathan Detroit, you’ll have to audition for the director, I hadn’t done an audition in 20 odd years but I got the part. That took me in a completely different direction, purely through serendipity.
“It kind of [let me] unwind the Richard Hillman thing but at the same time it gives me the cache to be on the posters because people like to go to the theatre and have some kind of connection, however vague, with someone on stage.”
Brian was thrilled and surprised to get the part of the cold-blooded Hillman. Thrilled because it was a six-month contract and surprised because he’s not northern.
Nobody knew at the beginning what a fantastic storyline it would turn out to be. He remembers the thrill of reading every new script to find out what Hillman would be up to next. It was very exciting but also very pressurised.
“I did more than 200 episodes in less than two years and spent most days learning and learning those lines, restricting myself to the odd single glass of red wine and 10 minutes of TV.
“I’d been a bit of a TV face for a number of years, but nothing prepares you for the high recognition factor that occurs if you have a big storyline in something like Corrie. I just tried to carry on as normal but I found it very difficult going anywhere for quite a time.
“On a train for instance, if someone recognised you there’d suddenly be 15 people staring at you and you couldn’t move anywhere. But most people are very nice and come up to you quietly and say how much they enjoyed the Hillman storyline. Despite the odd negative side of ‘fame’ I’ve had so many fabulous things from it and feel enormously lucky and privileged.
“I have so many memories of Corrie, mostly good. I lived for a year with Jimmi Harkishin because we were old acting buddies,that’s a book worth of memories right there. I remember the warmth of the people there, so supportive, like a big family.”
Brian says if he had any plan it was to get known on television, which he did, in order to get bums on seats in the theatre, which he has.
“It’s kind of worked out in an illogical profession. I’ve been doing some lovely plays and my agent wants me to stop so I can get back to television but I love doing this and I think at my age I’m just so lucky people want me to do it.”
Latitude loving Brian’s a bit disappointed when talk turns to this year’s festival, taking over Henham Park, near Southwold, July 13-16.
“My wife and I go in our motorhome every year. Unfortunately I can only do about two days this year, my wife’s going with some friends but I have to go off and do this play,” he laughs.
The actor is no stranger to East Anglia. Born in Eye he was immediately brought to his grandparents’ house in Woodbridge.
“I have a really weird background. My mother married a French Algerian who was in the Free French Air Force in the war. They met over here while she was in the WAAF. Sadly something went terribly wrong; I don’t know what, but she left him while pregnant with me. Sadly he was killed when I was about 18-months-old and he never saw me.
“She’s come back to this country to see her mother in Woodbridge. We stayed with my grandmother for a few months then my mother became a housekeeper for an old man who lived on his own in the town.
“I say housekeeper, it wasn’t that posh. It was only a little terrace house but I think he knew of my mother’s blight so we lived with him; it was a bit of a strange time really... outside toilet, all that kind of thing... the warmest place to go to was my nan’s which was down the road.”
They stayed there until his stepfather came along when Brian was five or six, ending up on an estate near Heathrow airport.
“So I don’t have a Suffolk accent but I can do it very well,” he laughs before showing how well. “How are ya boh, how’s that ole actin’ goin’.”
His mother was one of seven children. Apart from one sister who became a GI bride, all her siblings lived in and around Woodbridge; settling in places such as Bredfield and Kirton.
“I’ve got great memories of Suffolk. I went back two or three times every year because that’s where my nan and my uncles were. My mum was the oldest so I was the first grandson, no-one else came along for eight years so I was the favourite and spoilt rotten.
“I got ribbed with that kind of Suffolk humour that goes around; for instance, my uncle would always offer around sweets and miss me out,” laughs Brian, who still has uncles alive, including one still in Woodbridge; plus lots of cousins.
“I remember the days of getting the steam train that went direct from Liverpool Street to Woodbridge. My mum and I would get off and walk right through the town to where my nan lived.
“My strongest memories are of running to the shop in Grundisburgh Road for my nan which was owned by a Mr Dunnett. And, of course, the beautiful River Deben. My uncles used to take me there and sometimes we’d go to the putting green and have tea in the cafe. My aunt’s husband used to build boats there as well.
“My nan was also a fabulous cook and she used to love me brushing her hair. I also remember going to The Blue School in Woodbridge where my first teacher was called Miss Bloxham. Woodbridge is such an atmospheric place, It’s steeped with all those memories and is a beautiful place. I love the parkland and the coast.
“My grandad helped build the Woodbridge bypass and helped run the first electric cable out to Bawdsey using horses. A few years ago I took him on a nostalgic trip there, he remembered every pub on the way. Another good thing about Suffolk, great pubs and places to eat.”
Brian’s been fortunate to work at Colchester quite a bit over the years. Whenever he does, his uncle comes over from Gloucester and they visit Woodbridge for a cup of tea or pint in a pub.
“We always go to the graveyard where my mum is. She’s buried with my nan and grandad and two siblings in the beautiful churchyard overlooking the Deben, so I try to get there a couple of times a year to lay flowers.”
He says his love for Suffolk sounds sentimental, romantic even, but he can’t help it; it’s in his blood.
“Your heart’s with it. I feel Suffolk is my roots - it never leaves you,the sights, the smells, the warmth of the people. Woodbridge in particular has a very special feel to it. I love the gentle nature of the countryside and I’m aware that forebears have lived here for many years.”
Brian’s lot is, generally, a happy one. Although he does get annoyed that plays set in East Anglia never get the accent right.
“The only other thing I would say is that sometimes I’ve detected, even among my own family, a certain amount of perhaps small-mindedness that’s all I can say,” he laughs as we discuss Brexit.
“Generally speaking in East Anglia and I understand why, they were very strong on Brexit. I can’t say I dislike it, that’s just something I wish we could all sit around and talk about perhaps.”