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Feature - Robert Powell talks to the Observer

Malvern Editorial 9th Apr, 2014 Updated: 20th Oct, 2016

ROBERT Powell has stepped into the sandals of Jesus Christ and was once among the names linked with taking the controls of the TARDIS in Dr Who.

And in his latest role he plays an equally iconic role as Hercule Poirot in Black Coffee – Agatha Christie’s only stage production about the world-famous sleuth.

In doing so he joins a stellar list of names to star as the Belgian detective such as Albert Finney, Sir Peter Ustinov and most recently David Suchet, who played him on the small screen for 25 years.

The Observer’s Chris Smith spoke to him during its five-night run at The Festival Theatre in Malvern this week.

“I was not remotely reluctant or nervous about taking on the role of Poirot, if actors felt like that they would never take any job,” multi award-winning Powell told me.

“This is a very different Poirot to the one played by David Suchet. People can expect me and no-one else. I look different and I sound different, and the character that has been written is, I think, a lot funnier than the TV version.”

Comedy was a young Robert Powell’s first love so despite a string of serious roles in his early career it was not the surprise it seemed when in 1993 he teamed up with his old friend Jasper Carrot to star in sitcom The Detectives.

He had previously been cast in small roles in Brit flicks The Italian Job and Tommy, the latter after making his name as scientist Toby Wren in the BBC’s science fiction series Doomwatch in 1970.

But it was for his role in 1977 television miniseries dramatising the birth, life, ministry, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus that he will always be remembered. And it is a role he recalls with mixed feelings.

“Playing Jesus was hard work, it was very tough.

“When you’re playing a character, principally you don’t really ever stray too far from a bit of humour, it adds another bit of colour. King Lear and Hamlet both have an essence of comedy despite being very serious roles. But as you would expect the problem with playing Jesus is it does not lend itself to anything like that.

“That makes it hard to enjoy, but I have no regrets at all. Infact I’m still amazed that 38 years later people are still bringing it up although it does mean I got something right and that is very flattering.

“It’s nice as an actor to be remembered for anything rather than nothing at all.

“When you think of Humphrey Bogart you think Casablanca, Clarke Gabel you think Gone With The Wind; every actor has a film or series that people can associate them with.

“I’ve done a huge amount of other stuff, but to be remembered for anything is terrific.”

Salford-born Robert recalled how he turned down the lead role in Whose Life Is It Anyway?

It was a groundbreaking piece of work written in 1972 by English playwright Brian Clark exploring the theme of assisted suicide, and launched the career of Tom Conti who took it to Broadway. A television film starred Ian McShane and a Hollywood version starred Oscar-winning actor Richard Dreyfuss.

Another iconic role Robert told me might have come his way was The Doctor following the rebirth of the incredibly popular Dr Who.

“A few years back there was an internet flurry, as there is these days, about Dr Who, but I’m not aware there was ever anything in it from the writers and producers. People were saying I’d make a good doctor and that would have been fun.

“It’s a character that’s very open, you can bring something completely different to it than the person previous and so far every has played it very differently which has been part of its success over the years.

“I have to admit I’m not really a fan now. There’s too much CGI involved, and they they’re getting carried away a bit with the special effects.”

Back to his current role, and while enjoying his part in Christie’s one and only play about Poirot, with the end of a five month tour of the UK in sight, Robert – who is just a few weeks short of his 70th birthday – admits life on the road had been tough and not something he ever looked forward to.

In the past year he has appeared in Singing In The Rain at The Palace Theatre in London and toured with comedy Doctor in The House, and scoffed at my suggestion he might like to retire.

“I do get offered a lot of stuff, and I turn a fair bit of it down for various reasons. Getting older is not that helpful as parts are fewer, they’re there but not as many as when I was 45 when there was lots I could do.

“But you don’t retire. No not at all, because I enjoy what I’m doing. Will I ever stop? No, but there things I will certainly avoid.”

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