Why soaps go to war, by Corrie baddie

BRIAN Capron was in the West End production of the Rocky Horror Show and he’s thrilled to have a guest spot when “the biggest and baddest rock ‘n’ roll musical ever” time-warps into Suffolk – complete with stockings, basques and high heels. And that’s just the audience. “It’s like a community and everyone has such a laugh,” he says of the legions of Rocky Horror devotees. “Everyone dresses up. When one of my poor uncles came to see it, he said he was standing in the toilets with all these men in corsets at the urinals!”

The actor, who achieved prime-time fame as Coronation Street financial conman-turned-murderer Richard Hill-man, will be a guest narrator at the Ipswich Regent – and is ready for the smart-alec comments that fly from the stalls during the show.

“Rocky has obviously been going for years, but what happened was it got to be a bit of a pantomime,” he admits. “The audience took over the show. So they brought in a fabulous director called Chris Luscombe. He’s tightened it up and given it more verve, and so it’s led from the front, if you like.

“The job of the narrator, really, is to take all the shout-outs. The audience are guided not to interrupt the show as much as they have in the past. Otherwise it just comes to a standstill and becomes a bit turgid. The whole thing is now fast and furious. I’m here to draw the shouts, and give back as good as I get. Hopefully! It’s funny, because they recognise me (as Corrie serial killer Tricky Dicky) and all start to boo as soon as I walk on, which is fabulous.

“I’m very disappointed if I don’t get shout-outs, because I’ve got very good answers for most of them! It makes the show.”

So tell us some of your best putdowns. “There’s a line where you say ‘It was over’, and they often go ‘Just like your career!’ I just look around and say ‘Do you know, you may have a point . . . but Ipswich is not such a bad place.’”

Would I be right in remembering a picture of Michael Aspel playing the narrator while wearing fishnet stockings? Probably, says Brian. At one time the part did call for fishnets, but the narrator is now in a smart suit – to set him apart from the characters in the macap story.

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“Funnily enough, Michael Aspel is doing a one-off as guest narrator in Brighton this week.” Brian lives at nearby Hove.

“I got a fabulous line from him once, because I watched his show and he was late on. He got out of it brilliantly. I was late on once, and used his quip. He’d just wandered on and said ‘Oh, sorry, I was just outside having a fag . . .’ It was brilliant, because it just dissolves the tension.”

The five-show run at the Regent will give the busy actor some family time in Suffolk. “What I will do is go to see my mother’s grave in Woodbridge, which I very rarely get a chance to do. I have an uncle, my uncle Raymond, so I might pop in and see him. And one of my uncles – the youngest one, only eight years older than me – he’s going to come and see me in Ipswich.”

Brian spent six or so formative years in Woodbridge. His mum, Viv, fell in love with Claude, a flight sergeant in the Free French Air Force. He was reasonably well off – owned a vineyard, it appears – and took his lady to Algeria.

It must have been quite difficult for his mum, says the actor, for she was essentially a country girl who didn’t speak French. No-one knows exactly what happened, but their fairy-tale romance didn’t last and Viv returned to Woodbridge – pregnant with Brian.

She’d hoped to move in with mum, but there was a full house at Grundisburgh Road. After giving birth to her son in Eye hospital, during the freezing winter of 1947, Viv got a job as a resident housekeeper in Edwin Avenue, Woodbridge – working for an elderly gentleman Brian remembers as rather austere.

The actor went back to Edwin Avenue in 2004 to film an episode of the ITV series Going Home Celebrity, in which well-known faces return to their roots and reminisce. (And kindly talked to us there, too.)

“It was strange, because I hadn’t been sure which house to go for. The warm, colourful house of my childhood was really my nana’s house in Grundisburgh Road, with lovely meals and the warm fire, and uncles and aunts always in and out.

“We looked at both houses and I fully expected the one you came to (Edwin Avenue) to be the rather cold, austere house I remembered. But what happened was I went back to my grandmother’s house and it was awful – smaller than I remember and with no atmosphere whatsoever. And then, going back to the house I remember as austere, the feeling there was actually one of warmth! In a sense it was nice to go back and break those memories.”

What’s he been up to recently?

“I’ve never had such a busy week in my life! On Sunday, for instance, I was recording a song for the album of the musical of Coronation Street. On Monday I had to go to Manchester for a publicity event for a show I’m doing up there in October. I did that on Tuesday, and came back Tuesday night, and then I’ve been doing a rehearsed reading with the Royal Shakespeare Company on Wednesday and Thursday; and today I’ve just had the guys round, doing a recce of the place, because I might be doing . . .” – and here he mentions a well-known TV show but asks us not to blab, as nothing is yet signed and sealed.

Brian’s recently finished touring with Stepping Out, which was about a group of amateurs learning to tap-dance. “I was the only man among eight girls, so that was tough!” he says, wryly. “I learned to tap-dance, so that was fantastic, and at the end of the show we did Puttin’ on the Ritz, so that was wonderful. It was gruelling, but I loved it.”

Meanwhile, with Coronation Street’s 50th birthday looming just before Christmas, there’s lots of Corrie stuff in the mix.

“The album I mentioned will come out in December. 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!” There’s a spin-off DVD of Coronation Street, too, that has brought back Curly Watts (played by Kevin Kennedy) and Reg Holdsworth (Ken Morley). In their heyday, 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.”

Brian is a boatman – with Hillman DNA. “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 – played by Malcolm Hebden – who had long harboured suspicions about Richard Hillman and was proved right by events.

“He’s the boatman who takes people over to this castle,” explains Brian of his character. “It’s a kind of medieval weekend that people are going to, with Rosie Webster for the youngsters and Norris for the oldsters.

“I’ve stayed away from anything to do with Richard Hillman for seven and a half years and kind of reinvented myself within the business, but it would have been rather churlish with the 50th anniversary to have said ‘No’, so I’ve gone back and loved it.” Do people still clock him as Richard Hillman? “Oh god, yeah! 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.”

His earlier stint with the Rocky Horror Show got Brian into what he calls the “twirly world” of singing and dancing. He played Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls. “I’ve now been doing a lot of that type of theatre, like the tap-dancing . . . after being ejected from Strictly Come Dancing after one week!”

I wasn’t gong to mention that 2007 “highlight”.

“Everybody normally does!”

He was partnered by Karen Hardy and, after finishing in last place on the first show, faced a sudden-death dance-off against Kenny Logan. The judges plumped for the rugby player.

“I was slightly unfortunate,” Brian chuckles. “I wasn’t terribly well, to be honest. I had terrible ’flu. I managed to get through the first number, but then I had the dance-off, which is only an hour later, and I didn’t even get back to my dressing room to lie down. I just lost the middle of the dance. But it wasn’t too bad, I enjoyed it, and you get paid for three months!” Home is still Hove, next to Brighton. Brian’s lived in the area since the mid 1970s. He’s married to actress Jacqueline Bucknell and son Louis is now 14. Louis wants to write – novels and films – but doesn’t seem pulled towards acting. Brian’s not unhappy, recognising it can be “such a heartbreaking profession”.

“To even scratch a living is hard, because there’s not much television work and if you get it it’s not that well paid. The best kind of work, funnily enough, is theatre: if you’ve got profile. That is the best-paid work around for someone like me.

“It’s only the ‘profile people’ who are getting any money. In the West End, all these people who turn out singing and dancing, they only earn about �400-500 a week, and for a girl the drop-out rate is 28 and they’re finished. It’s terrible, really. The only people making money out of singers and dancers are the drama schools.

“It’s tricky, particularly if you’ve been brought up in a creative family, to know what to do, because you’ve got the buzz of it – seeing the insecurity of life like I’ve gone through, but survived, and having a nice life and doing well out of it. It’s hard for people like that to do a straight job, I think.”

Brian has two girls from his previous marriage – Lucy, 36. and Ellie, 32 – and has a couple of grandchildren, aged four and two.

He and Jacqueline ran an events firm called The Brilliant Company: among other things organising a press launch for new rides at Alton Towers, creating a gameshow extravaganza for a McDonald’s staff incentive project, and devising and producing an Indiana Jones-style adventure in Morocco.

Fun stuff; but they’ve scaled things back significantly. “It got too much of a headache, and I’m away a lot. We just do one or two things now.

“I used to do the News of the World think-tank weekends. I actually took Andy Coulson and their top editors out to Spain.”

(Coulson resigned in 2007 after a rumpus about phone-hacking. One of the paper’s correspondents was jailed for four months. The editor insisted he knew nothing about the phone-hacking. Three years ago he became the Conservative Party’s director of communications.)

“Funnily enough, they’ve just asked me to do a murder-mystery for the new editor. That’s how I first met Andy Coulson: we ‘murdered’ him, in one of our mysteries! They loved it!”

n The Rocky Horror Show is at Ipswich Regent from Wednesday, September 29 to Saturday, October 2. Box office 01473 433100.

Why the soaps go to war

CORONATION Street and EastEnders are going through one of their occasional soap wars, with the Queen Vic reduced to charcoal and Corrie likely to mark its half-century with a viaduct collapse that sends a tram careering off the bridge and killing some much-loved characters.

Brian Capron’s appeared in both dramas. Does he wince when the shows are over-hyped? Are 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 of something 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”.