Coronation Street legend Roy Cropper supposed to be much more sinister character
Having spent 25 years playing lovable eccentric Roy Cropper on Weatherfield’s cobbles, it is fair to say veteran actor David Neilson has become something of a Coronation Street icon.
But the 71-year-old reveals he was considering returning to his old job as a plumber had he not landed the role at audition, after spending two decades getting occasional parts here and there.
So instead of charming audiences with Roy’s peculiar ways every week, David could be out fixing leaky radiators.
He recalls: “The role of Roy was only for six episodes and I was on the point of going in another direction. I was working, but it wasn’t enough, so I was thinking of packing acting up.
“I was a plumber for six years, but when I was out of acting work I’d go back to the tool bag to keep us going, certainly when my son was born. I had to keep the wolf from the door.”
David is one of Corrie’s most acclaimed and best-loved actors.
So much so that he is one of only four cast members to feature in a new spin-off series Coronation Street Icons, alongside William Roache (Ken Barlow), Beverley Callard (Liz McDonald) and Sally Dynevor (Sally Metcalfe).
Home is a leafy suburb of London but David and wife Jane also have a flat in Barcelona.
It is a far cry from his humble roots, in Loughborough, Leicestershire, where his mum worked in an old people’s home, covering nights so she could raise him and his two brothers.
David adds: “When I left school at 15 a particular sort of life was laid out for me, which I didn’t like.
“My mother was a widow and I had to go to work. One of the big reasons I’m an actor is not so much that I wanted to act, it was about what I didn’t want to be.
“It was about escaping. I used to go to the movies and see films such as A Taste of Honey and Billy Liar. They were set in the North and were about escape and they spoke to me.”
At 21 David applied to drama college.
He says: “But I didn’t tell anybody I wanted to be an actor, I daren’t let anyone in on my dream.
“I told one guy I was working with and he said: ‘You know your trouble, you raise your horizons too high.’”
After small roles in shows including Z Cars, Casualty and Heartbeat, in 1995, aged 46, David was invited to audition at Coronation Street.
Being broke he didn’t have a car, so arrived in a hired van.
He says: “It was a bit like Del Boy. In the car park there were all these Mercedes and Jags. I walked in and saw all these faces I recognised, it was like walking into Madame Tussauds.”
Now, 2,200 episodes later, he is one of those faces, but it took a certain amount of cunning on his part to turn his six episodes into a regular role.
David adds: “When I read the script I thought: ‘This guy’s great, I wouldn’t mind five years of this.’ I wanted comfort and stability, so I thought strategically.
“There was a lot of intrigue about Roy. He was a bit of a stalker and a drinker and stood too close to people, but those sort of characters don’t stay that long.”
It was Jane, a special needs teacher, who suggested he make Roy socially awkward, rather than menacing.
David explains: “She said he might have Asperger’s syndrome and just not get it. I thought that was interesting, rather than him be the latest weirdo and sex pest.
“There was something about him that was kind of endearing, so it was a case of emphasising that he was daft, rather than dangerous.”
It has never been mentioned that Roy might have any condition and David prefers it that way.
He adds: “It’s just a label isn’t it? My eldest brother would have been called special needs nowadays. It’s very handy to put somebody in a box, but it doesn’t do anything for that person.”
When Roy was paired with transsexual Hayley (Julie Hesmondhalgh) in the ITV soap and the couple married, David’s profile grew.
But the fame was not something he found easy, so he bought a flat in Barcelona and commuted to Manchester.
He says: “It was a way of escaping from being Roy. I thought, ‘It’s either I go and live in a cave or get a flat in Barcelona.’ A flat in Barcelona was easier.
“I found it disturbing to be looked at. I used to love going to football, but now it’s too much hassle.
“There are people who’ve drunk too much and talk about Hayley being a transsexual and make derogatory comments, so I knocked that on the head.”
One of David’s biggest scenes was when Roy wed Tracy Barlow (Kate Ford) so he could adopt her child, which she claimed was his after they spent the night together.
The marriage was annulled after Tracy admitted the tot was not Roy’s and he and Hayley later tied the knot.
Hayley took her own life in a 2014 right-to-die plot after suffering cancer.
David and Jane live close to his son Daniel and granddaughters, aged four and two.
He says he found it hard not seeing the girls in lockdown, adding: “Although after Dominic Cummings started to rewrite the rules I was tempted to drive over to have my eyes tested.”
Due to ITV’s policy of protecting older cast, Roy has not been seen for some time.
David returned on August 14, but refuses to assume it’s a job for life.
He says: “I’d just like to be on the planet in 10 years’ time. If they want to get rid of you they get rid of you.
“It would be a great story for the 60th anniversary in December for Roy to fall down a manhole in the middle of the street.”