I was delighted when Hugh Fraser agreed to do the first interview for this site and talk to me about playing Captain Hastings in Agatha Christie’s Poirot, writing crime thrillers and co-writing the theme tune for the children’s TV series Rainbow!
How to did you come to be cast as Captain Hastings?
Well, it happened very much like any other job I’ve been for. The casting director suggested me to the producers and the directors and I went to meet them and we talked about the project, and then I went back for a second meeting and I read a couple of scenes with David Suchet, who’d already been cast as Poirot, and David and I seemed to get on quite well, and then they asked me to play the part.
Were you a fan of Agatha Christie before going for that part?
Yes, I was. I’d read the Christie books when I was quite young. When I was about 13-14 I read most of them I think. We didn’t have any television in our house at that time, so I was an avid reader and I remember just devouring them basically, one after the other.
Had you’d seen any of the other previous film adaptations of Poirot?
I had seen Peter Ustinov play him in a couple of films and indeed David had appeared as Inspector Japp in one of them.
How did you go about bringing the character of Hastings to life for the series?
Well I did re-read a couple of books in which Hastings appeared but to be honest the character really came from the scripts. Clive Exton’s original script adaptation, the character kind of leapt off the page, this well-meaning but not the sharpest tool in the box sort of character, English gent. It just came off the page essentially. As time went on, as Clive and Anthony Horowitz and William Humble and the other writers who did the adaptations, basically Clive Exton though, they seemed to develop Hastings into a rather richer character than the character in the books. Similarly for Inspector Japp and Miss Lemon as well, I think Clive’s development and take on the characters was wonderful and we benefited from that in terms of being able to play more rounded characters.
There was a regular contingent of cast, especially in the earlier series. David Suchet, Pauline Moran, Philip Jackson. Was it enjoyable working as part of that team?
Very much so, we always got on incredibly well. We’re still in touch now and we just sort of meshed together. You never know whether that’s going to happen when you join a company of actors on a project but on this occasion it really did. We got on really well personally and the work just seemed to work and relationships grew. We always enjoyed it very much.
As the series progressed, it covered books which Hastings, and Japp and Miss Lemon, don’t appear in. Was it ever suggested that they should be included in those episodes?
Well I think certainly with the short stories, which were the first ones we did, Hastings certainly, not sure about Japp and Miss Lemon, but Clive did add us to stories in which we didn’t appear. And then later on, after about 10 years I suppose, there was a change of producers and they decided to remain faithful to the characters that were in the original books, and hence I wasn’t in the series as often as I had been early on.
Captain Hastings was a man of action, driving fast cars, riding horses, chase villains. Was that fun to film?
Very much so, I loved the car chases in the Lagonda. In fact at one stage I drove a Formula One car in a chase sequence. It was great fun.
Did it present many challenges during filming?
No, not really. Action sequences are always difficult to film. You tend to do things in stages; it’s broken down into segments. The crew were great on Poirot, as was the man who supplied the Lagonda for example and other cars. He was a very nice bloke and very helpful about anything like an action sequence involving the cars. He would be on hand and ready with advice and tips about how to handle the vehicles, because they are rather different from modern cars. But once I got the hang of it, particularly with the Lagonda, I was fine.
You got to work in some great locations, from stately homes to stunning countryside. What was you favourite?
Well I must say that was one of the joys of doing the series, visiting these wonderful Art Deco houses, with furniture from the 30’s, kept in pristine condition, it was lovely. I remember Burgh Island where we did Evil Under the Sun, that was a particular favourite, we used to travel out every morning and back on a small boat ferry to work, and the weather was beautiful, we really were under the sun. Also we went to Tunisia for Murder in Mesopotamia which was very interesting and to Spain, I can’t remember the name of the one we did in Spain [it was The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb], but we worked in the area where Sam Peckinpah shot the spaghetti westerns, quite a barren part in the south, and that was very interesting to do as well.
Do you have a favourite episode and a favourite memory from the series?
Well I think probably Murder on the Links is my favourite one to remember because it’s the one in which Hastings got the girl, who he subsequently married. Having been frustrated so often, after developing a passion for some auburn haired beauty and then for one reason or another not been able to pursue or develop the relationship. So that’s a favourite. ABC Murders was also great fun, where I turned up back from Africa with my crocodile. So those are two that remain a nice memory.
There was an element of humour between the regular characters, Poirot and Hastings, Miss Lemon and Japp. Was that something that the writers added in for the series?
I think it probably was. I know Anthony Horowitz and Clive Exton were particularly keen on developing that side of it and I think it’s very good that they did because we certainly enjoyed playing it very much.
There’s a couple of new Poirot books been written recently by Sophie Hannah, with the blessing of the Christie Estate. Is there any suggestion that these might be made into new episodes of the series?
I really don’t know, I’ve no idea to be honest.
Was it appearing in Poirot that inspired you to become a crime thriller writer?
Well actually no! I’m afraid my books bear very little relation to the sophisticated world of Agatha Christie. My books feature a female contract killer who was born in the post-war London slums, so it’s altogether a darker proposition than Agatha Christie, although Agatha Christie has her very dark moments I have to say. So I wasn’t influenced by Agatha Christie, unfortunately!
What was the inspiration for the books you have written?
Well I’ve always enjoyed and very much admired the photographs of Roger Mayne and Bert Hardy who documented the inner city areas of the 1940’s and the 1950’s, the deprived areas of the inner cities. For example Notting Hill Gate where they took a lot of photographs of street children and teenagers and teddy boys and all of that sort of thing. And I suppose my character, Rina, who was born at that time, in the first book she’s 15 years old in the slums of Notting Hill and gets drawn into a web of crime through no fault of her own, that was the inspiration for her, Roger Mayne’s photographs.
You’ve published two so far. Are there more on the way?
Yes, there’s a third one coming out in June.
How long does it take from the initial idea for the plot to the finished item appearing?
I suppose about 9 months to a year.
Can you tell me a bit more about the books?
In the current book, Rina is 24 years old, still living in London, although not in the slums anymore, she’s living in Maida Vale, and she gets involved in gangland rivalries basically, people competing for control of night clubs and protection rackets and things like that. She gets involved in a web of corruption and deceit and has to try to work her way out of it and stay alive basically.
What decades are they set in?
The first book, Harm, begins in Mexico in 1974 and then we flash back to London in 1956 where she is 15 years old, and the book progresses alternating between Mexico and London. Then the second book, Threat, is set in 1961, when she’s 21 years old, and then this one, Malice, is 1964.
Would you like to see them televised?
I’d love to yes!
Any actors in mind to play the lead roles?
No I haven’t actually, I can’t think of anybody who would be right for Rena. I would be happy to leave that to the producers and the casting director.
Going forward do you see yourself doing more writing than performing, or would it be a mixture?
Writing is something I’ve always done, for the last 20 years or so, I’ve written plays and radio series and things like that. Not that they’ve been produced, they got very close, they got options but not produced. So I’ll just carry on writing as something I like to do and then any acting work that comes up that I want to do, I do. Last week I did a radio play, Pygmalion, for Radio 4 for example.
Tell me how did you come to co-write the theme tune to Rainbow?
Well I was in a band, I joined a band of musicians who were also actors, we’d met through various connections in rep. The singer Tim Thomas had a record deal and he wanted to form a band and go on the road and record and things like that. And we were just getting together to rehearse and he also knew a researcher from Thames Television who was working on developing the Rainbow series and she asked us to submit any ideas for a theme tune and asked if we’d be interested in writing songs for the show and appearing and playing them, and we said we would be interested. So we submitted what became the theme and they liked it and we went into the studio and recorded it. I played the flute part on it and the bass guitar part.
Do you still play in a band?
I do yes, I’m with a singer called Kimberley Moore, who’s based in Norwich, I’m part of her backing band. It’s a four piece band, so it’s nice and simple, playing bass guitar, and she’s a lovely singer, in the Joni Mitchell, Katie Tunstall vein.
I’d read that Pauline Moran, who played Miss Lemon, plays the bass guitar as well. So there are a number of you who were involved in Poirot who have musical talents?
Absolutely! Pauline used to play with The She Trinity, which was a successful girl band in the 60’s, 66-70 I think they were together. We were joking that Pauline and I ought to have a bass battle at some point!
Playing bass photo credit: John Haynes.
Further information on Hugh’s books is available on Urbane Publications website.
My thanks to Hugh for this interview, the first on this site, and for supply of the accompanying photographs.