Open Eye: Degree was a real hope opera

It took `Coronation Street' actor David Neilson seven years ...
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The Independent Online
Actor and Open University graduate David Neilson, who plays eccentric cafe-owner Roy Cropper in Coronation Street, will have no concerns over divided loyalties when the OU goes head-to-head with the soap this month.

The OU will be showcasing its programming on BBC2 at the same time as the long-running series is shown on ITV.

"I have a video at home," laughs David, who graduated from the Open University with a BA in Humanities, "so there won't be any problem about which I watch."

Neilson, 49, who lives in Bristol with his wife Jane, a special needs teacher, and 16-year-old son Daniel, had little formal education, which was one of the reasons why he decided to try for an OU degree.

"Having failed the 11-plus and left school at 15, I felt I had gaps to fill. I toyed with the idea for 15 years before I plucked up the courage to do it," he says.

"In the end, I found it essential to do. I think I've got out of it what I thought I was going to, which is confidence and a realisation that there is a lot to learn. It's just been great, and I love the idea that it is never too late."

His education - at a "secondary modern, and quite a poor one" - is not something that has stuck in his mind. "I do remember quite a lot of discipline, smoking and bunking off, but not any education.

"A lot of the teachers were people who had come back from the war and done quick courses to be teachers. There were new ones coming in, young teachers who probably have been much criticised but were quite inspiring, but I missed out on that. I got the leather elbow patches and the chalk dust and all that."

The youngest of three boys, he lost his father - a farm manager-turned- lorry driver - when he was 10. His mother, a domestic servant when she met his father, "did all sorts of stuff after that".

"Everybody left school at 15. There was full employment, so everyone went to work in a factory or whatever. There was no sixth form." He worked for six years as a gas fitter before winning a place at drama school.

Three years later, his first job, in The Tempest at the Palace Theatre, Watford, saw him alongside John Savident, Ken Morley and Glyn Grain, who have all appeared in Coronation Street.

He has played everything from Shakespeare to Pinter, made four films, written and directed plays and taught at Rada. His television credits include Boys from the Blackstuff, Bergerac, Heartbeat, and even a brief appearance in the Street's soap rival EastEnders.

So deciding on a course in Humanities was an easy choice. "I could relate it directly to my work. I'm thinking of doing another one - social sciences or a science course.

"I did a Shakespeare course, for example. I've worked on Shakespeare as an actor so it was great actually to do the academic approach."

His seven-year course was split into five full credits and two halves because of work.

"The halves were more like three-quarters; they're fuller courses. I enjoyed them more in that I was able to get into it in a deeper fashion because there's so much stuff.

"The OU has always had to prove itself as being a proper university, so I think the workload is heavier than in an ordinary university; otherwise it would look like they were just giving away degrees.

"It's not easy, and you get a lot of help, but you do need a lot of perseverance, a lot of self-motivation."

Fitting in his studies with his work was not a great problem for David. "The OU has been doing it for years so they are very good at tailoring it for that.. If I were travelling I could actually be doing something.

"As an actor you obviously get to be unemployed. At one point my agent rang and asked if I wanted to go for an interview - I live in Bristol and I would have had to go to London - and I said: `Well, actually I'm more interested in the OU.' Lots of actors do the OU."

Summer was the one time David found himself struggling with course work.

"Summer was always difficult. You're right into the meat of the course and you've done so many assignments that there's a sort of weariness. If you are working and have to come home to write 4,000 words, it's quite hard when you'd rather sit and read the paper, have a drink or talk to your friends.

"Each year at a certain point I'd think: `Why am I doing this?' Every year I took books on holiday with me, and it was great last summer not doing that.

"The good thing about the OU is that a unit is self-contained so you don't actually have to go through and do a degree if you feel: `Well, I've got what I want out of it'. I wanted a piece of paper, but I know a lot of people dip in and out."

Having spent seven years getting his degree, what has he learned about himself?

"That I really should have had a better education earlier. I learned that I've got the determination to see something through and that I actually don't know what I thought I did.

"Before the OU I was quite certain in my beliefs. The more you're dealing in philosophy and different forms of thought the more you ... well I now see fewer answers, more questions. It's humbling, but good. I also realise that you don't have to have answers.

"I think there's a thing about feeling if you don't have an opinion, you're going to appear ignorant, whereas once you have had the education, I think it's OK. It's made me more wary of knee-jerk reaction."

Did he think that Roy Cropper, the off-the-wall Coronation Street character he plays with his anorak and never-ending fund of bizarre information, could be an OU student?

"Well, I don't think he's got a telly," says David. "He'd be listening to the World Service. It's probably too formal for him. He'd have to have a course designed for him, to take in all sorts of things such as cosmology, the Titanic, everything ... and maths, he's got a particular obsession with maths.

"I could just see him sitting in the library on his own, reading an index and finding another book, and, you know, he'd pursue his own journey."