Neil Grainger played porter Phil in Crossroads’ 2001-02 spin-off series, and despite being one of the most popular characters from the first revival, he wasn’t asked back for the third series much to viewer annoyance.
While producer Yvon Grace declared ‘Who cares if Phil Berry is rotting in jail?’ The loyal Crossroads fans did care thanks to the previous two years of dramatic stories with Phil including being accused of murdering Jill Chance and saving a teenage boy from an inferno.
When you first arrived at Crossroads your character was very unpopular with the management and staff at the hotel as they had him down as a “bad boy”. What was that like?
It was great! It’s not my normal character; I’d never be typecast as that kind of role. I’m usually the nice, innocent young man, it’s probably because I looked like a schoolboy until I was about 18, so it was so nice to be able to play that role. To come in on a motorbike and to go out the way I did and to have so many fights and arguments it was great for me. I don’t think characters like that will come along very often, I’m not a hard nut and I don’t look like a hard nut. So yes, it was great to be able to play it!
Probably your best-remembered storyline was your romance with Nicola Russell. Did you enjoy that storyline and what was it like acting with Julia Burchell?
I did enjoy it yeah, Julia’s fantastic, I spoke to her about 3 weeks ago now and she’s just a wonderful girl. Her character worked so well and she’s one of the nicest people you could meet. It could have been one of the worst things in the world coming up and meeting someone you are going to spend the next year and a half kissing but she was just really easy to work with.
If there was any storyline I had a problem with actually, it was when he was cheating on her with Chloe, after all, that he’d been through I felt it was out of character. He’d come in and he’d fancied Nicola from the beginning and he wasn’t interested in Chloe so I didn’t feel it made any sense. I never understood that and I think it was probably just one of those things they bring in to fill the gaps!
During your time on Crossroads you very soon acquired heart-throb status among the programme’s fans – how did you feel about the attention?
Strange! I still find it quite funny to be honest, if you ask any of my friends they think it’s hilarious. Since Crossroads I’ve lost about two and a half stone and I look at myself on screen and think who would have found that attractive? But to this day I still bump into people who comment. I’d rather meet people who say you were a good actor than the one’s who say you were fit.
Do people still recognise you a lot, I suppose they must do?
Yes they do, but people usually don’t know who I am, they tend to call me Phil! Funnily enough, someone came up to me last week and said: “Can I have your autograph Neil?” and that doesn’t happen very often, they normally recognise me but they usually don’t know my name or they call me by the character’s name. So it’s not really fame!
What were your fellow actors like and what was the atmosphere like on set? Were there any particular jokers among the cast? Did the younger cast members and the older cast members mix much?
There were a few people from the older cast who were a bit patronising, but very few and all of them were really nice. The young cast members all went out with each other which was great. But on the whole, the older cast was great – Sherrie Hewson, Roger Sloman, Jane Gurnett I had worked with before, Neil McCaul… we were so disappointed when he left.
I think talking to a few people who have just finished filming the new one, they said things had changed dramatically, there were a few egos there apparently.
Were you ever called upon to do anything you weren’t entirely happy with?
When we first started there were a lot of things I was unhappy with but being my first TV job I couldn’t say much. We were a mixture of very experienced actors like Jane Gurnett and Sherrie Hewson and people like me who hadn’t done much TV. At first, I just learned the lines and later on I got to know the character better than the scriptwriters and the number of times I went to the scriptwriters and said: “This just isn’t right!” because they’d make him do something or even say something that I knew Phil wouldn’t say.
At first, I was brought in to be a Geordie although I’m from Middlesborough and later on they were making me say things like “geezer”! Some of the scriptwriters, later on, I don’t think they really knew the character at all. And even when I said this was rubbish I was just given a solution that was even worse!
Did you ever watch the old series yourself as a child and were you aware of its critic reputation? Is it true that your mother was a bit of a fan?
She was yes, she became a much bigger fan when I went into the new one! I never really saw it, I might have been in the room once or twice when it was on but I didn’t really see it. The thing about the original Crossroads is that it was filmed as live. Corrie did it once and everyone says “Wow!” but Crossroads used to do it every day!
Crossroads was a television institution. How did you and the other cast members feel about taking on the challenge of reviving such an institution?
We were delighted, the money and the effort and the people they brought in – Roger Sloman, a fantastic comic actor, Gilly Gilcrist and the others and the only reason these people came in was because they were promised it would get more resources.
As a matter of fact, the theme tune and the name didn’t really help much in terms of ratings because really the people around to watch it at 5.30 were young people. I don’t think they had actually conducted much market research.
Do you blame Carlton for not giving it more resources?
Yes, I do! And the programme wasn’t really given enough time to work. All soaps take time to develop – EastEnders, Brookside, they took years. The BBC does that well, giving a programme time. The ratings we were getting were as high as you could expect for a daytime show, Night and Day didn’t get anywhere near the ratings we got.
And it was actually working, that’s what frustrated people, that we weren’t given time. If Carlton had shown even half of the commitment in ours to keep going, that they showed to the new version, then I believe Crossroads would still be on air.
Crossroads faced criticism from the critics but also from some older fans who wanted to see more elements of the original. Were you and other cast members aware much of the criticism or did you tend to shrug it off?
We were aware of it but I think you have to shrug it off. Once Jane Gurnett actually got a death threat saying “You’re nothing like Meg Richardson!” Some of us used to visit the websites and read people’s comments and occasionally people were upset by what they read. I’ve never had people saying to me that our version wasn’t as good as the original but lots of people have said to me that the latest  version wasn’t as good as ours!
What sort of fan mail did you get?
It was young girls mainly, and people asking for my autograph. I noticed that they’re selling my autograph for £4 on eBay which made me laugh. Nobody’s bought it yet, but it’s on sale! If they wrote to me I’d happily let them have it for £2! (for free if you write to Neil’s agent!)
Crossroads Mark II was eventually taken off for a few months when Yvon Grace was brought in to revamp it. What was that period like and how did you feel about the decision not to bring your character back when the programme returned?
It was weird because they just sort of dropped it on us at Christmas time and it was like “We’ll let you know” and for months we were waiting for a decision, even at the soap awards we didn’t even know then. Also, I never imagined they would bring it back and revamp it so dramatically.
When we first heard that I wasn’t coming back Roger phoned me and said: “I just can’t believe it!” I hold my hands up and admit that I’d got a bit complacent and assumed that I would be coming back, I’d just been nominated for two soap awards. I was actually wondering in the end if I wanted to come back, and I thought the only way I would come back would be if they just made the character become completely evil.
And the decision to get rid of the gay couple was an awful one. They’d done market research and decided it needed to appeal to older people and I think they decided that they wouldn’t like the gay couple so they got rid of them.
Did you see any of the revamped Crossroads and did you regret not being in it?
I didn’t regret not being in the new one when I saw what they’d done to it. I think they made it too tacky and they killed it by making it comical. You can’t make a programme good by making it bad. And you can’t turn Birmingham or Nottingham into Dallas! I’m not gay but I have gay friends and they thought that the attempt to make it appeal to gay people was patronising. And they got rid of all the younger characters but the revamped series had very similar characters but older versions.
So they had a new handyman, Sam, who was similar to Phil, he rode in on a motorbike and had an affair with the manager’s daughter. So my character wouldn’t have fitted into it but I wouldn’t have wanted to go back even if they’d asked me. A number of people have said to me that if you look at Jane Gurnett in the last few weeks you can see that she wasn’t really happy, I don’t know how true that is but that’s how it seemed.
How did you feel about the fact that your dramatic storyline with Nicola was left unresolved at the end?
I’m glad they left it that way, I think that the whole series should just have just ended with that. It was a really good storyline and you couldn’t really ask more than that and I was happy to leave it unresolved. I think the mistake was bringing it back in the revamped format.
Are you still in touch with any of the other cast members?
I am still in touch with a number of them but it’s hard to keep in touch when you’ve all moved on.
Can you tell us a little about what you’re up to now?
I was in an ABC Fox movie for America about and called “Prince William” last year. I have just arrived back from the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, in a play called “Making Waves“. Since the interview, there have been many other theatre and television appearances with telly roles in shows such as The Bill, Hebburn and Judge John Deed.
Interview conducted by Daniel Landsberger for the Crossroads Fan Club, 2003.