CHRISTOPHER Harper, best known for playing child groomer Nathan Curtis in Coronation Street, tells EDWIN GILSON about his role in psychological thriller Strangers On A Train and the devastating effects of sex abuse

THAT Christopher Harper draws a line between his character in Strangers on a Train and his Coronation Street villain speaks volumes about the darkness of Patricia Highsmith’s classic story.

Harper has become a familiar name in the soap world for his portrayal of Nathan Curtis, the perpetrator of a sex ring who manipulates helpless 16-year-old victim Bethany Platt. In the course of research for the controversial storyline, Harper and the show’s producers met a girl from Brighton who had suffered sexual abuse (more on that later).

The actor’s latest theatre show sees him take on another deeply unsavoury character in Strangers On A Train’s Charles Bruno. The play is adapted from the 1950 novel by Highsmith. Its status as a seminal thriller was cemented a year later when Alfred Hitchcock directed a film version. Unsurprisingly, the story revolves around a chance meeting between two well-off men on a train travelling across America in the 1950s.

Charles – who has inherited family wealth – and successful businessman Guy Haines (played by Call The Midwife’s Jack Ashton) get on like a house on fire and grow increasingly drunk in each other’s company. Before long, though, they have hatched a murderous plot between them.

“The role I’m playing now and the abuse storyline [in Coronation Street] are not completely unlinked,” says Harper. “We never really find out what’s wrong with Charles, or why he is like he is, but certain things I’ve come across have pointed me in certain directions.”

The actor is deliberately vague for fear of giving too much away, but his revelation certainly whets the appetite for the play’s arrival in Brighton. Harper is earning quite a reputation as a bad boy on stage and screen. In person, he’s charming and engaging – not least when he discusses the art of playing a villain.

“If you play a bad guy and all you do is sneak around and twirl your moustache, nobody believes it,” he says. “You have to let the audience do as much of the work as possible. In this case you have to make the audience think, ‘I’ve met a guy on a train and been a bit more drunk than I should have been’. You have to connect it with a world you know. I don’t think anybody is a complete saint.”

That last statement is relevant to the psychology behind his roles in Coronation Street and Strangers On A Train. The latter, Harper says, is far from a standard crime caper. Highsmith – and, of course Hitchcock – wanted to investigate the human condition in all its complexity.

“Right from the word go, the play suggests that there is a white horse and a black horse inside everyone, a God and a devil. The sense is that these two characters are really the same guy; it’s just that life is playing them differently.”

As for the original novel, Harper says that Highsmith was “interested in what happens to people once they’ve done something evil”. Some reviewers have speculated as to the possible sexual connection between Charles and Guy, but Harper thinks the attraction is much more complicated than that.

“It’s a massive attraction but it’s above just being sexual,” says Harper. “They feel removed from people but they can’t work out why. It does involve love, and probably sex, but it’s not as simple as catching each other’s eye and thinking, ‘I like him’”.

Harper has never acted in a play in Brighton before, although he directed the sociallyaware comedy Invincible that came to Theatre Royal earlier this year. He has family members here, too, and he frequently visits on weekends. Although he may be best known for his TV work, the actor started his career on stage and has a passion for “these historic old theatres around the country.”

On the small screen, Harper has been in Life on Mars and the BAFTA-winning ITV movie Housewife as the son of the late Victoria Wood’s character Nella Last. It was on Coronation Street, however, that he found his big break on television. He wasn’t involved in the thorough discussions held by the show’s producers about the child exploitation storyline, only later being introduced to the sub-plot.

The obvious – and slightly awkward – question is: why was Harper thought to be a good pick for such a malevolent character? He laughs before delivering a considered answer.

“It’s really important that people know that sexual crimes aren’t just carried out by either a particular community of a particular race, or a small group of weird old men. The majority are carried out by people you know. It could be someone you know, someone you fancy.”

In the series, 16 year-old Bethany Platt becomes obsessed with Nathan as the pair grow closer. Eventually, after a period of grooming, he forces her to sleep with other men.

“For a spiky character like Bethany, you needed someone she could look up to for the story to work,” says Harper, referring to his character. “You need someone who takes care of his hair and drives a snazzy car. She’s more likely to be attracted to someone like him. I always feel weird saying I’m good looking, but I’m not a gap-toothed guy with a combover. It’s more realistic this way. If you were a teenager, you wouldn’t think Nathan is not to be trusted.”

The abuse victim from Brighton was one of many “survivors” that Harper has talked to before and after the storyline hit screens. He’s become a patron of the sexual abuse charity Voicing CSA and is producing a series of video animations drawing attention to the independent abuse enquiry The Truth Project.

The first video, which you can watch online, is called The Mouse. “Even a few minutes of suffering as a child can screw up your whole life,” says Harper. “It’s a lifetime sentence from just a few minutes of cruelty. It’s heartbreaking.”

It’s to Harper’s great credit that he is able to play such psychologically disturbing roles with sensitivity. No matter how grizzly Strangers On A Train gets, it will surely be a pleasure to witness him in action when the play pulls into Brighton next month.

Strangers On A Train, Theatre Royal Brighton, January 5 to 13. 7.45pm (2.30pm matinee on Thurs and Sat). For tickets and more information call 08448 717650