Robert Powell
Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Agatha Christie, Moustaches & me

Poirot’s taking to the stage – and Robert Powell is wearing the waxed moustache. Here, he tells Melonie Clarke about following in David Suchet’s footsteps, giving the sleuth a sense of humour and why he’s best known as Jesus

Written by Melonie Clarke
Even for Agatha Christie obsessives, her first play, Black Coffee, may not be all that familiar. Completed in 1929, it was the first to feature the diminutive Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, a work that she described at the time as ‘not at all bad’ – her literary agents thought otherwise and advised her to forget it and move on to another project.

Nonetheless, in 1930 it went on tour with Francis L Sullivan in the lead role. Sullivan and Christie became firm friends, despite the fact that she apparently thought he was far too tall for the part – he stood 6ft 2in, whereas in his very first appearance in the thriller, The Mysterious Affair At Styles, Poirot is described as ‘hardly more than five feet four inches’. Black Coffee had a few short runs and was never seen again. Until now.

Best known for his role as Jesus in Jesus Of Nazareth, Robert Powell (who turns 70 in June), is no stranger to the world of detection. Originally aspiring to become a lawyer, Powell took up acting during his time in training and got his first big break in the 1970s BB C science fiction series, Doomwatch. His character exited the series with a bang, quite literally (‘I had him blown up when he was defusing a bomb’). He then went on to star alongside Jasper Carrott as a slightly incompetent detective in the series, The Detectives. Powell also donned a tweed cape and played Sherlock in Sherlock Holmes: The Musical. But now he is wearing the world’s most famous waxed moustache and playing Poirot in a new touring production of Black Coffee.

Despite starring as the Belgian detective on stage, Powell will doubtless be compared with those who have mastered the part on screen, from Peter Ustinov to David Suchet – although he admits he has only ever seen one of Suchet’s performances as Poirot, the first actor to film every one of Agatha Christie’s Poirot books.

So is he daunted? ‘It’s just another role to be honest. Any stuff that surrounds it is completely irrelevant when you’re an actor. If you were ever daunted by the iconic parts, then you’d never play anything… you’d never play Hamlet because Olivier played it. It’s just another part.’

Albeit the first time an actor has played him on stage in 80 years. Which gives him something of an edge. ‘Instead of saying, “What is it like to follow David Suchet?’’, they will be saying “What does it feel like to follow Robert Powell?”

It is a nice feeling, but parts are there for everybody and you can never get precious about them.’

Besides, Powell has every intention of delivering a completely different Poirot. ‘The nice thing about this play is that the Poirot that people have grown used to for the last 20 years was David Suchet’s Poirot. But David’s Poirot was very, very serious and tight. In this play, he is a little bit lighter. Poirot is really quite funny, sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally. So far, the audience seems to enjoy that.’

And that includes Mathew Prichard, Christie’s grandson, who was in the audience for the first performance. ‘He came to the first night and he was thrilled. Also, the whole of the Christie Trust, who are very protective; on a first night they tend to gather in their hundreds. We managed to get their seal of approval, so obviously we’re doing something right.’

But he is the first to admit that he is no expert on Christie’s books. ‘I hadn’t read any. It never crossed my path when I was young; I was much more into John Steinbeck and writers like that. So I was unaware of the books. An odd thing, but not deliberate. There are lots of writers whose books I haven’t read. When this came up, my daughter [he has two children with his wife, the former Pan’s People dancer, Babs Lord] said I should read The Mysterious Affair At Styles, which is the introduction to Poirot. I was impressed by Christie’s writing.’

robert-powell-590-2

But as he is appearing in a play, and not a book written by Christie, Powell felt that one book would be enough. ‘I haven’t read any of the other books. You’re playing the play, not the book, you get everything from the play you’re actually doing so you tend to ignore any other background.’

Although it is thought he was not based on a particular person, in The Mysterious Affair At Styles we find out that like so many of his countrymen, Poirot is a refugee, which is no coincidence given that there were a number of Belgian refugees living in the English countryside, with Agatha Christie’s home town of Torquay being no exception. Poirot went on to appear in 33 novels, more than 50 short stories and of course the play, Black Coffee. So why does the little Belgian tick all of the boxes?

‘Because he is a detective and everybody loves a detective,’ says Powell. ‘But also it’s because he is arrogant, self-centred, rude, and impossible really. But he gets away with it because he is Belgian… there is a recurring theme in Christie’s plays: we forgive foreigners quite a lot because they don’t know any better because they are not English. It’s just an attitude that still exists to an extent. So we are kind of condescending, I think, towards Poirot, and therefore he is forgiven quite a lot.’

So after taking on the role of Poirot, has he learned anything about cracking a real-life crime? ‘No,’ he laughs. ‘I leave all that to the fictional characters.’

While Jesus of Nazareth was the role that Powell is best remembered for, it is one that he was never meant to play. He was originally cast as Judas Iscariot – and it was only when he emerged in full costume, looking so much like our imagined vision of Christ, that his role was changed.

So what’s it like being thought of as Jesus? ‘It’s very nice to be remembered for anything. You talk about Humphrey Bogart and you think of Casablanca; you talk about Clark Gable and you think Gone With The Wind. They did 40, 50, 60 other films but there’s always one that people remember. That’s fine by me.’

‘It was 38 years ago, so it’s quite something,’ he tells me. ‘I’m very flattered and I know that, in God knows how many years, when my obituary is published, it will say the man who played Jesus is dead. Even after all that time.’ ■

Robert Powell stars as Hercule Poirot in Black Coffee, on tour in the UK until 19 July: 020-7446 6200, www.kenwright.com

The Many Moustaches of Hercule Poirot

  • Agatha Christie described Poirot’s moustache in 12 different ways, including the compliment that it was the ‘finest moustache in England’.
  • David Suchet said of it: ‘I was determined to serve my writer, and I certainly wasn’t going to allow my Poirot not to have the finest moustache in England.’
  • Peter Ustinov was the first Poirot to have a fair moustache.
  • Anatoliy Ravikovich sported a handlebar moustache as the sleuth in 1989.
  • Robert Powell wore a fake moustache in Black Coffee: ‘It’s difficult to get your own moustache to look quite that artificial.’
  • Captain Hastings on Poirot’s moustache in The Mysterious Affair At Styles: ‘His moustache was very stiff and military.’


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