If the sinister flattery of Coronation Street’s Nathan is currently sending a chill down your spine, then you’re definitely not alone. Even those who work on the ITV soap have been left unsettled by the newcomer’s interest in teenager Bethany.
“There was a scene in Roy’s Rolls where Nathan told Bethany that she looked hot and it made the whole camera crew squirm,” admits Christopher Harper. “In every scene, he’s giving her compliments, but they’re always a little too warm. The guy’s charming, but I’m hoping that you can see something reptilian in his eyes.”
Despite only being on screen since Christmas Day, it’s already implicit that Nathan’s plans for Bethany aren’t exactly benign. So far we’ve witnessed him giving her attention, building trust and using insincere praise to find favour. And Corrie fans can certainly expect the plotline to take some worrying twists over the coming months:
“This is a story about someone who is making a teenage girl fall in love with him. It’s not about online grooming – he’s doing it face to face. It’s not some weird, ugly bloke on the other side of a computer,” adds the actor, “this is a tale of somebody who is not behaving as he should be doing and a girl who can’t read the signals in the way that someone who’s a bit older would be able to.”
Harper, 39, has come to Corrie by way of training at Bristol’s Old Vic and a number of theatre and TV roles, the most high profile of which – playing Victoria Wood’s screen son in Housewife, 49 and Cecil Beaton in the revival of Upstairs Downstairs – being a world away from conniving Nathan. So how much did he know about the character when he signed up?
“I knew at the audition that he wasn’t a nice guy. I could see that he was very manipulative and was homing in on the vulnerability of Bethany, who has had a hell of a time recently.
“But I was really attracted by the opportunity to play this duplicity. He’s not your normal alpha male and even his sexuality is fairly unclear – is he gay, is he straight, is he into anything at all? I love how slippery he is, certainly at the beginning.
“What you’re seeing is Nathan building this relationship with Bethany using what appears to be kindness, friendship and generosity. But already, it should be making your toes curl.”
For Harper, it was also important that those at risk of exploitation got to see that not every abuser fitted the eccentric Jimmy Savile mould: “I think that’s vital. When I was growing up, these guys were all described as having comb-overs, bad teeth, dodgy fingernails and be living at home with their grandmas. And that’s simply not the case.
“A report from the National Crime Association in 2014 was quick to point out that this image of sexual exploitation coming from just one age group, race or class of man is completely untrue. It happens throughout our society and is rearing its head more and more.”
And, of course, tanning salon-owner Nathan’s choice of victim is no coincidence –16-year-old Bethany being outwardly confident and mature, but plagued by doubt and insecurities beneath the surface. Having recently taken an overdose following the exposure of her crush on mum Sarah’s boyfriend Gary, it seems that the troubled teen is unfortunately susceptible to Nathan’s malign influence.
“The pattern is to pick on somebody who’s alone for whatever reason,” agrees Harper. “Bethany appears smart and mature – and, yes, she has experienced an awful lot. But she’s also a little bit of a loner. And it’s important to show that it’s not just naïve people who fall for guys like Nathan. What you see is the skill and manipulation that a vindictive adult male can use to control a younger female.”
At the moment, Nathan’s real mission remains hidden in the shadows, his focus currently being to ingratiate himself upon Bethany through what appear to be acts of benevolence. But is Harper braced for brickbats from fans once his true intentions become clear?
“There is such a thing as a ‘good’ bad guy. Connor McIntyre has recently found out that builders now refer to someone giving bad service as ‘doing a Phelan’. But I really don’t think that kind of thing is going to happen with me. Nathan is going to take Bethany to some dark places, so I’m very definitely holding my breath. have no idea whether I’m going to get pelted with eggs.
“All I hope is that the storyline raises awareness that it’s not just younger children being targeted. Intelligent, educated, informed 16- and 17-year-olds are also vulnerable. For me, it’s a joyous part to play, but it’s also an important message to spread.”
You can watch a 60-second rundown of next week’s episodes of Coronation Street below