Corrie’s Suffolk-born killer
Steven Russell looks at one of the Street’s most notorious villains, Richard Hillman – played by Suffolk-born actor Brian Capron
FEW soap psychopaths have spooked the nation more than Richard Hillman, whose time on Coronation Street was all the more chilling because he morphed from a nice-guy family man (OK, and a financial con artist, too) into a calculating killer.
More than 19.4 million viewers – an astonishing 62% share of the TV audience – watched on a spring evening in 2003 as his reign of terror ended with him driving his wife and step-children into a canal. They lived; he perished.
Hillman was played by Brian Capron, who spent his early childhood in Woodbridge. Already a successful actor – his CV included shows such as Grange Hill, Peak Practice, The Bill, Casualty, Minder, The Sweeney, Blake’s 7 and Dixon of Dock Green – he admits the role took things to another plane.
The storyline sparked a tabloid frenzy and earned Brian a stack of honours: the titles of Best Actor, Best Exit and Villain of the Year in the 2003 British Soap Awards.
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“Goodness, it’s given me this massive profile,” he told the EADT about a year after his exit, during a visit back to Suffolk. “At my age, where could I go? I could have done a fabulous eight-part drama and nobody would have known about it!”
Instead, the TV brouhaha propelled him into the spotlight in his mid-50s.
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There were rather nice treats, such as being flown business class to New Zealand, the hotel fridge packed with wine and food, so he could appear on a one-night chat show.
Celebrity had its downside, though, with red-top newspapers clamouring to ride the Corrie wave.
“I’ve practically suffered everything that could be done. It’s often stringer reporters who are trying to impress a newspaper. They found out where my girlfriend from school years was living in Australia and got her to send a photo of my kissing her in a booth so that they could run a storyline of ‘Richard Hillman, Ladykiller’.”
He didn’t complain too much about the hoo-hah and hype, however, “because if you sign on to do a soap opera, you know that’s what you’re going to get. If you don’t want it, don’t do it”.
Fans of the show first learned of the depth of Hillman’s callousness when business partner Duggie Ferguson fell as a banister gave way and suffered critical injuries. Hillman left him to die.
He later killed ex-wife Patricia during a row about money. The murderer smashed her with a spade after she fell into a building trench. Her body was later covered by concrete.
With his finances under strain, Hillman convinced mother-in-law Audrey Roberts, and her family, that she was growing senile. He unsuccessfully tried to kill her in a house blaze, with the aim of getting his hands on her fortune.
Next in his sights was long-time Street resident Emily Bishop. He’d bought her house under a rent-back arrangement and wanted to sell it. Hillman attacked Emily with a crowbar but was surprised by Maxine Peacock, whom he beat to death. Emily survived.
More than 15 million people watched the murder of Maxine in the middle of January, 2003 – causing a surge in demand for power at the end of the episode as they turned on lights and switched on kettles.
Later rumbled, Hillman then tried to drown himself, wife Gail Platt and her children.
No-one had really known how the character would develop when he first appeared in Weatherfield in the summer of 2001.
“Coronation Street was in a lot of trouble,” Brian told the EADT in 2004. “After eight months, a new regime came in – a new executive producer and producer – who brought back the old writers, who were very good but disheartened about what was going on there; because in essence it had tried to be a bit like EastEnders: issue-led, rather than character-led. My character, I felt, was a bit cheesy.”
Then Mr Hyde began to emerge.
“I made two critical decisions, I think. When I was with [on-screen second wife] Gail, people were thinking ‘What’s this guy doing with Gail? He’s a bit of a conman.’ Let’s confound that; let’s say that I really loved her.
“That meant we had him loving the family, and eventually we had a genuine family man.
“And I fought against a couple of decisions: they wanted him to threaten to hit the child at one time and I said ‘No, no.’ They realised and said ‘Yes, you’re right.’
“And then, when I went to the dark side, the first time I threatened someone it was written with exclamation marks. I thought ‘That’s going to be really boring.’ I thought ‘I’m going to do it like a film – just use my eyes. Very cold.’ The ‘don’t mess with me’ look.
“The writing started to be fantastic and suddenly the audiences were getting bigger.
“The pressure was on me because you normally have a storyline for six or seven weeks and then it dies away. Mine was relentless.”
More than seven years after the demise of his most famous character, he’s still very much associated in the public’s mind with the persona of Tricky Dicky. Strangers still “clock” him as the Corrie killer.
“A lot of people do call me Brian now – which is nice! – I suppose because my face has been on television doing different things. I’ve done Midsomer Murders, and I did Where The Heart Is for three years. But the Richard thing will always be there,” says the actor whose mother’s family was centred in Woodbridge when he was little.
He lived in the town as a youngster and still has relatives in Suffolk. His mother is buried in Woodbridge.
After staying away from anything to do with Richard Hillman for seven and a half years – and taking his showbusiness career in other directions – Brian told the EADT it would have been rather churlish not to have got involved with the 50th anniversary events.
He’s in a one-off DVD. A Knight’s Tale brings back the characters of Curly Watts and Reg Holdsworth. In their pomp, the pair were respectively assistant manager (trainee) and manager of the local Bettabuys supermarket. “Curley’s now the boss and Reg is the underling. It’s hilarious,” said Brian of the story.
He plays a boatman – one who, funnily enough, is the spitting image of Richard Hillman. “It’s just a cameo part but it’s very funny. That’s why I did it: because it’s a kind of spoof. Brilliantly written. We just fell about at the read-through.
“I’m playing Dicky, his cousin. He gives Norris a nasty shock!” That’s Norris Cole, who had harboured suspicions about Hillman and was proved right.
Just out is an album called Coronation Street Rogues, Angels, Heroes and Fools. It’s billed as “an epic musical journey through fifty years of Corrie history“.
Brian sings on it. “It’s a fabulous six-minute Richard Hillman song. It’s called Norman Bates with the Briefcase and it’s a kind of a confessional. It’s a brilliant song and beautiful – not that I sing it well!”
Coronation Street and arch rival EastEnders have been going through one of their regular soap wars, with the Queen Vic pub recently reduced to charcoal and Corrie about to mark its half-century with a viaduct collapse that will send a tram careering off the bridge and wiping out some much-loved characters.
Brian has appeared in both dramas. Does he wince when shows are over-hyped? Are set-piece disasters simply sticking-plasters, masking the need for better stories and personalities?
“Well, it’s not their fault. It’s television. Big channels are stuck with a big problem, trying to hang on to viewers, so they’ve made the soaps four or five episodes a week. That means you’ve got to use up storylines and characters much quicker. You just cannot give the quality you could before. It’s amazing what they do achieve: it’s a massive operation doing five episodes a week.
“Both channels have to do it, because that’s the way they prop up the evening schedule. What it does is lead to ruthless producers. It’s nobody’s fault – they’re doing their best with what they can – and obviously the publicity machine is as big as it can be, to get the war going between the two soaps.
“It’s the same as when I went in. EastEnders was winning everything. The Richard Hillman storyline was responsible – not because of me but because of the writing – for getting people back to Corrie.”
He says The Street is important because much of life is London-centric “and what Corrie does is represent something important for the north – a big soap based outside London that everyone admires for the quality and humour”.