O Captain, my Captain! Hugh Fraser interviewed

❉ I say, it’s Captain Hastings! Hugh Fraser on Poirot, Rainbow, Edge of Darkness, Malice and more.

“I remember the very first scene we did, when we were in Poirot’s apartment. We were just about to shoot and David said, “Just a second, just a second.” And he went over to this bookcase and started fiddling about with stuff, and I went over and looked over his shoulder and he was arranging all these books at exactly ninety degrees, exactly the same space between each two. It all looked neat but by the time David finished with it, it was absolutely perfect.”

Best known for playing the debonair Captain Hastings in Agatha Christie’s Poirot opposite David Suchet in the title role from 1989 to 2013, Hugh Fraser’s acting career began in the 1960s after studying acting at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.

Hugh’s first major role was playing Anthony Eden in in Edward & Mrs Simpson (1978), but it’s a little-known fact that he was a member of the much loved and fondly remembered children’s series Rainbow’s original music troupe Telltale –  before Rod, Jane and Freddie. In fact, here’s a great bit of pub quiz trivia to warm the hearts of generation X cult TV fans: Hugh co-wrote the Rainbow theme tune!

Hugh has also appeared in Troy Kennedy Martin’s cult 1985 BBC drama Edge of Darkness, the long-running military romp Sharpe as the Duke of Wellington, and a number of films including Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract and Patriot Games.

Since Poirot and friends took their last curtain in 2013, as well as continuing to be in demand for vocal roles in audio drama and video games, Hugh is also a novelist. Malice, book 3 in Hugh’s critically well-received Rina Walker series, following Harm and Threat, will be published by Urbane Publishing on 15 June 2017.

We Are Cult chatted with Hugh about his novel series, Poirot, Rainbow, Edge of Darkness and much more besides…

Photo: https://twitter.com/realhughfraser

Your new novel, Malice, is due out next week. It’s part of a series, can you tell our readers a little bit about this series?

It’s three books so far, a series, they all follow the exploits of a female contract killer called Rina Walker.

The first book is set on Mexico where she’s on an assignment, when she’s in her early thirties, and then we flashback to her childhood in the slums of Notting Hill in 1956, where she’s fifteen and struggling to survive and she gets drawn into a web of criminality and violence as a result of protecting her sister from a sexual predator.

Books two and three, Threat and Malice, we catch up with her in 1961 and 1964 respectively, where she’s pursuing her career as a contract killer.

Who is publishing this series?

Urbane Publications, Matthew Smith. Matthew read the first one and liked it, and we took it from there.

Is writing a new creative outlet for you, or is this something you’ve always been interested in?

The novels are recent, I started about four years ago, but prior to that I’d written two or three plays and a couple of radio things, some of which got very close to being produced, but not quite – which is often the fate of plays! I have been writing for quite a long time, but the actual books are relatively new, I started them about four years ago.

Is Rina’s story a closed-off trilogy, or are there more stories to tell?

There’s more to tell – there’ll certainly be a fourth book, and I’ll see how the ideas spring up after that.

Can you tell us a little about how your acting career began?

It was very conventional, actually. Having failed academically at school, having failed four O Levels, I’d always been very active in school plays, and so I auditioned for drama school and went to Webber Douglas when I was 18, and then when I qualified from there. I was an acting ASM which meant you played the waiter or, you know, the tiny parts, and did stage management; did a couple of seasons doing that and then television, films, came gradually after that. A very conventional approach, basically.

One of your earliest TV credits is as part of the original musical troupe Telltale for the first series of  Rainbow in 1972, with Tim Thomas and Hugh Portnow. Is that right?

That’s right! I had a kind of double life as a musician as well, always have had in fact, and at that time I was playing in a band in a theatre company in Edinburgh, and another theatre company arrived with someone I knew who also had a band. To cut a long story short, we amalgamated as we were gigging around the place, and the singer, Thomas, had worked in Granada Television and knew one of the researchers who was working on the inception of the Rainbow series – she asked us if we’d like to tender a theme tune, and we co-wrote it between the three of us, myself, the singer and guitarist. I came up with the tune, the guitarist arranged it, and the singer put the words to it, basically. We did a vague demo on a cassette machine, we sent it in, and they liked it. We went in and recorded it.

Then they asked us if we’d like to write songs for the series, and also play and sing them, and we said we’d be delighted. By that time, we were a six piece band, so we took it in turns to appear in the show, singing the songs and also writing the scripts between the six of us.

We Are Cult readers of a certain age will have very fond memories of Rainbow. What was it like to work on?

It was a great time! It was a very successful show. The people working on it were lovely, it was a great show to be part of: Geoffrey Hayes, and Roy Skelton doing the voices. Roy was  a lovely man.

Not too many people are aware that Telltale cut a full length version of the Rainbow theme song for the Music For Pleasure record label, which is a really interesting version as it features a very proggy, little-heard middle-eight with weird chords!

That’s right! Yeah, absolutely! We recorded it subsequently, after the series had finished – I can’t remember, we might have still been working on it – we recorded a Rainbow album, and the theme of course was very short, so in order to lengthen it for the album we came up with this middle eight which, as you say, was quite, quite different from the basic theme! Moody and reflective and a little folky.

Obviously, you’re best known as Captain Hastings in the long-running Agatha Christie’s Poirot series. Did you ever expect it to still be going, all those years later?

Absolutely not! Like any job, any television series, you sign on the first year, you’re contracted for the first year with an option for future years, but you have no idea – it could have died a death in the very first series, very low ratings, thank you and goodnight. We were very, very surprised that quite early on, it played to large audiences, sold abroad and soforth. We had absolutely no idea when we started that it was going to be as successful as it was.

In the Poirot series, you have the core family of Poirot, Hastings, Japp and Miss Lemon. Working together over such a long period of time, did you become close?

We bonded very, very quickly actually. The thing about working on a programme like that is, the schedule is six days a week, we were doing twelve hour days, and quite honestly you have to bond. There’s no two ways about it. You have to get on with it. We always got on extremely well, and I think that showed in the relationships onscreen, the relationships between the characters. We always enjoyed working together very much, with the whole team indeed, and it was a very happy experience.

Interestingly, David Suchet is well known for his research, preparation, but he also set an incredibly high standard. He’s a producer’s gift, because he absolutely comes on to the set word perfect even with minimal rehearsal and he gets in the can, very very quickly. And that spread to everybody, that standard of professionalism. You really haven’t got time other than to just film it.

Do you have any memorable or amusing recollections from your time on the series?

I’m often asked that, actually! I wish I could remember apocryphal moments, but I can’t I’m afraid! I’ve just got memories of extremely pleasant times. Hard work, of course, those kind of schedules can be quite demanding, but I’m afraid I disappoint when it comes to anecdotes!

Poirot attracted a lot of quality guest actors, was that an enjoyable experience?

Absolutely! One of the lovely things about a series like that is, the guests come in and you either know them or you get to know them very quickly. An old friend you haven’t seen for five years comes walking into the read-through, and it’s great to meet people. You have plenty of time to chat, during meal times, and it was a great pleasure. I love the company of actors: You’ve got an immediate bond because you do the same thing for a living, and you’re aware of the same problems, the highs and lows and all the rest of it. So you’ve got an instant communication with an actor, and that was one of the great joys of doing Poirot with the guest actors.

Poirot involved a lot of location work utilising art deco settings such as De La Warr Pavilion and the Hoover Building, in order to recreate the period.

That was another lovely aspect of it, because I was always very keen on art deco, I’d always collected it in a small kind of way, and we went to these wonderful locations. You mentioned the De La Warr pavilion, that was one of the more impressive ones, but there would be houses somewhere in the Home Counties. You’d drive out somewhere, not knowing where we were going, and arrive at this immaculately maintained 1930s art deco house – every detail, the furniture, fixtures and fittings all authentic and perfectly maintained. It was a joy, and you’d meet the owner, who was obviously an art deco enthusiast, and to meet so many of these beautiful locations.

The one thing I’d say about the art deco period is, you walk into a living room or dining room, with the Le Courbosier furniture and the Bauhaus stuff: The only problem is, when you sit down, you realise it’s all slightly uncomfortable, rather hard-edged and metallic chrome, chairs that are dead on ninety degrees, so you can’t exactly loll in them!

You mentioned earlier that David Suchet was very precise about his research. Did this reflect much on how David portrayed the character’s fastidious, meticulous nature?

It’s very true that David was very careful to maintain… I mean, I remember the very first scene we did, when we were in Poirot’s apartment. We were just about to shoot and David said, “Just a second, just a second.” And he went over to this bookcase and started fiddling about with stuff, and I went over and looked over his shoulder and he was arranging all these books at exactly ninety degrees, exactly the same space between each two. It all looked neat but by the time David finished with it, it was absolutely perfect.

In the last brace of Poirot episodes, the passage of time is reflected by Suchet playing a more aged version of the character. I guess a lot of thought must have gone into that presentation?

Absolutely, particularly with the last one, Curtain. Poirot is very much enfeebled. We all are, it’s twenty, twenty-five years later, and Poirot of course is in a wheelchair and that was a big leap for David to accomplish, to go from the very active, busy character that he played before, to this enfeebled, weak man. Not mentally, but physically weak and drained, and he did it superbly well.

You were involved in the classic BBC drama Edge of Darkness by Troy Kennedy Martin, one of the key dramas of 80s. What are your recollections of that?

It’s interesting that you mention it, because the producer Michael Wearing recently passed away a few weeks ago, and I’m very, very sad about it – I was reminded of his amazing work on that series. He was so inclusive. We would be having a drink, or something, in the evening on location, and we would start discussing the script and the series and different things, the way it would go, because… When we began filming, it wasn’t finished. Troy had only written, I think, about half to two-thirds of it, so it was quite open ended. Troy was writing as we were going along. Michael included the cast very much in that process, and he was absolutely lovely to work with. There was no sense of them and us. He was absolutely a joy to work with. And of course, he had the confidence in Troy and the people around him – Bob Peck, Zoe Wannamaker, Joanne Whalley-Kilmer – to allow the organic nature of the series to feed into itself, to create what ended up as a classic.

That was so much down to Michael, and the way he worked, and the way he trusted the people around him. He’s a sad loss.

During your time on Poirot, you worked with some inspirational writers, producers and directors.

The initial producer for the Poirot series, Brian Eastman, was very much in the Michael Wearing mould, creating the world and getting the writers, setting up the writing team and soforth. One of the great tributes of Brian’s work is there were writers like Anthony Horovitz and Clive Exton, the original adapter, who brought so much colour to Hastings, to Japp, to Miss Lemon, that certainly isn’t there in the books. They’re not by any means as deep or enjoyable as characters in the books, quite honestly, as they were in the television series, and that was so much down to Brian’s choice of writers – Clive Exton, Anthony Horovitz and many more – who I think were probably encouraged by Brian to let their imagination run with the characters rather than feeling they have to stick exactly to what Agatha Christie wrote. Creating that rapport with the regulars was down to Clive.

Working on Sharpe must have been a change of pace from Poirot?

Sharpe was great fun. It was the very opposite of Poirot, which would often be in living rooms, dining rooms, sitting round tables, all that. Suddenly, to be in this big action production in the Ukraine or Turkey, riding on horses with hundreds of Russian extras and the French army. It was great!

As the Duke of Wellington in Sharpe, you replaced David Troughton.

David had a really bad bit of luck. He did the first film and he got  a terrible stomach illness, which really laid him low and it took a long time to get him over it. He really didn’t want to go back for the second series, so I was his replacement.

Your wife is also an actor – Belinda Lang (Dear John, 2 point 4 Children, Inspector Alleyn Mysteries). Have you ever worked together or do you keep business apart from pleasure?

We worked together once, on a series called The Bretts, in about 1987, which was about a theatrical family in the 1930s. it was not a big success, it only went to one series, in fact we got married in the series and got married in real life – life imitated art!

One of your first acting roles – albeit as an uncredited extra – was in the Doctor Who serial The Smugglers in 1966 (William Hartnell’s penultimate story as the first Doctor), and more recently you’ve provided voices for several Big Finish Doctor Who audio stories such as the audio adaptation of All-Consuming Fire, as Sherlock’s brother Sheringford Holmes.

The William Hartnell Dr Who was a tiny part that I did straight out of Drama School! Working with Big Finish is always a great pleasure. I was also in the Omega Factor and Blakes Seven for Big Finish.

So what else are you working on?

I was in a radio play of Pygmalion on Radio Four, and I was Batman’s butler in a video game, which was very enjoyable! I also played Dan Dare’s Uncle recently and I’m just about to do a film for Film Suffolk actually, which is a film cooperative, which I’ll enjoy very much. Audio roles mainly, but I’ve just done a film in Khuzestan last year. That was very interesting indeed.

Thank you for your time, Hugh, and good luck with the book!

My pleasure!

❉ Follow Hugh Fraser on Twitter.

❉ You can hear Hugh Fraser in Pygmalion here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08rpdgz

❉  You can find out more about Urbane Publications here: http://urbanepublications.com

❉  You can find Hugh Fraser’s Amazon author page here; https://www.amazon.co.uk/Hugh-Fraser/e/B010VF3DJ8/ref=dp_byline_cont_book_1  and you can pre-order Malice in the link below:

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