Never meet your heroes, so the saying goes, lest they be found to have feet of clay. While I can’t comment on his feet, I am delighted that said warning does not extend to one of my own personal heroes: actor, musician and author Hugh Fraser.
Growing up back in the eighties and nineties, TV detectives seemed to be everywhere, and I lapped them up greedily, my enjoyment of the shows often influencing my burgeoning love of books. Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham and Arthur Conan-Doyle all found a new reader in me as a result of their characters’ televisual escapades, as portrayed by such giants of the screen as Jeremy Brett, Peter Davison and David Suchet, and the superb casts around them, not least their closest on-screen associates. Brett’s Holmes enjoyed the company of David Burke and Edward Hardwicke, who both renewed the character of Watson, so brilliantly, Albert Campion had the steadfast support of Brian Glover’s Magersfontein Lugg, and Poirot’s little grey cells were aided by his friendship with one Captain Arthur Hastings, portrayed from 1989 onwards by Mr Hugh Fraser.
For me as a viewer, Hastings was a supremely important part of what made ‘Poirot’ work, being essentially the viewer’s way inside the mind of the Belgian detective. Although not blessed with Poirot’s skills, Hastings was not in any way a stupid or unintelligent man, but someone who would ask the questions that we in the audience were pondering, and who therefore allowed his friend the space to demonstrate to us his deductive brilliance. Poirot was an enigma, Hastings was human. I recently chatted with the man himself and asked what he had known of the character before signing on?
“Only what I had gathered from the Agatha Christie novels I had read when I was a teenager. It was only when I was offered the role that I looked at the books again to get an idea of the character. In fact, the scripts, adapted originally by Clive Exton and Anthony Horowitz gave Hastings more character traits than I had found in the books.”
They were traits that Hugh relished tackling in his performance.
“The initial reviews were very good,” Hugh remembers as he looks back on that time, “and as soon as the audience figures began to grow through the transmission of the first series, we knew the show had become popular.”
Indeed it had. By the time the series’ last instalment aired (2013’s ‘Curtain’), the show had received twenty Bafta nominations and been seen by an estimated 700 Million people. Looking back, Hugh attributes much of that success to the chemistry of the ensemble.
“David, Philip (Jackson), Pauline (Moran) and I got on very well from the start and the atmosphere on the set was always very pleasant and friendly.”
It was a camaraderie that must have made for quite an emotional cocktail when Hastings returned for his friend’s swansong in Curtain.
“Indeed it did. David is well known for maintaining his character as Poirot after the camera stops turning and to be working with a Poirot who was ill and near to his death was a sobering and salutary experience and created a sense of darkness that had never prevailed on the set before.”
The show secured Hugh’s place in the hearts of a TV generation, but not content with embodying just one iconic role, the versatile actor became a hero to a whole new audience when he followed the wonderful David Troughton into the role of Wellington, opposite Sean Bean in ‘Sharpe’, another dramatisation of a hugely successful novel series, and a role he enjoyed researching.
“David Troughton is a fine actor and I approached following in his footsteps with some trepidation,” says Hugh. “I hadn’t read any of the Sharpe novels but once I was cast, I devoured them… (Wellington) was called the Iron Duke for good reason. Not only did he command his army with great skill and fortitude, he was known to ride among his troops during battle, at some personal risk, to observe his strategies from close quarters and be able to adjust them according to the ever-changing flow of events.”
Hugh’s first appearance as the Iron Duke, was 1994’s ‘Sharpe’s Company’ and he would go on to appear in eight more of the swashbuckling rifleman’s adventures. It was, Fraser feels, probably his most challenging role to date.
“So much is known about the man and has been written about him, you don’t want to get him wrong,” he explains. “I read a couple of biographies and went to Apsley House at Hyde Park Corner, Wellington’s London home, where they have the Lawrence portrait and various others.”
While Hugh will always be known for Hastings and Wellington, the roles followed a lengthy acting career stretching back to the sixties, which included many stand out and acclaimed performances.
Fraser’s role as Anthony Eden in 1978’s Edward & Mrs Simpson is often cited as a break out performance (“I was able to see a cut of some footage of the man speaking in the Commons and walking around the House, which was very useful in terms of his voice and movement” he remembers), but Hugh himself differs, pointing to his performance in the David Hare TV play, Licking Hitler, also produced in 1978.
“Actually, I think that if there was a ‘break-out’ role it was Will Langley, the tight-lipped commanding officer in David Hare’s TV play Licking Hitler. After being in Teeth’n’Smiles for David, playing a drugged-out wreck of a rock musician, I had a severe haircut, shaved my moustache, brushed up my RP and it was that role which led to my being cast in Edward and Mrs Simpson.”
Teeth’n’Smiles is a topic that brings an obvious cheer to Hugh, and he immediately points to it as his most enjoyable role.
“Peyote in Teeth’n’Smiles was the most enjoyable to play as it involved singing, backing the wonderful Helen Mirren as she bashed out a raw rock number and being thoroughly obnoxious the rest of the time. Great fun…but not a big stretch.”
Those used to Hugh’s performances as aristocratic, establishment figures may raise an eyebrow at the sight of him rocking the stage with long hair and flared pants, but acting isn’t his only avenue of creativity, with musician, director, play-write and author also featuring on his CV. Had we always wanted to pursue these different strands?
“I wouldn’t describe it as an ambition. I started playing along with the Everly Brothers after my mother bought me a guitar when I was about twelve and after that I began to put plays and sketches together at school with my friend Chris Wood who went on to join Traffic. When I failed four A levels and university wasn’t an option, I decided that I’d try to make a living doing what I enjoyed and auditioned for drama school.”
It turned out to be a good move. After studying drama, Hugh progressed through what he calls a ‘conventional journey’ into acting, starting as an Assistant Stage Manager and picking up TV work as his career grew. He never, though, lost sight of his musical interests.
“I often played music in the shows I was in in rep and later I played the bass player in Teeth’n’Smiles by David Hare at the Royal Court and Wyndham’s Theatre. I also did gigs on the side… I went to the all-nighters at the Flamingo and saw the artists like Chris Farlow and Zoot Money. A great memory is of Eric Clapton playing with John Mayall’s Blues Breakers. My taste was pretty mainstream around that time – Beatles, Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin. I also loved Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane and a bit of Southern rock from Lynrd Skynyrd and ZZ Top.”
Though a blues/rock flavour ran through his tastes, it was a folk driven sound with the band Telltale that would lead Hugh to musical success.
“I was working as an actor in Max Stafford Clark’s company at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh and playing in the company band Bread Love and Dreams, when Nancy Meckler’s Freehold company came by on tour. I jammed a bit with the guitarist Hugh Portnow and months later when I was back in London, I got a call from Hugh saying that Tim Thomas, also from the Freehold, was forming a band and was I interested. I met with Tim, liked his songs and we did some gigs in London as a trio and then the three of us went to Lancaster to do some plays at the Dukes Playhouse. While we were there a friend of Tim’s who was a researcher at Thames TV called him to say that they were looking for musicians to write and perform songs for a new children’s TV series and was he interested in being considered. Tim said he was and the three of us went to London, came up with the theme, recorded a demo and we were offered the job. Soon after that the singer Felicity Joinson came on board and also Ted Richards on drums and Chris Ashley on violin and that’s when we became Telltale.”
That led to what’s becoming everyone’s favourite pub quiz question, when Telltale got the gig as the first House Band on kid’s TV series, Rainbow, in 1972, a time Hugh remembers fondly.
“The atmosphere created by the show’s producer, the late lamented Pamela Lonsdale, was really friendly and easy going and we all got on well and had a good time. We would be told what the theme of the next show would be, and we worked together to write a song that fitted and performed it in the studio.”
The Rainbow theme tune was whistled by children for decades afterwards, and Hugh never gets tired of the feeling it brings to look back on those days and smile that it’s a tune he and the band created.
“I’m amazed it has had such enduring appeal. I can’t believe it is forty-seven years since we wrote it (and of course I don’t look any older). We thought at the time that the show might run for a few seasons and blow me if it didn’t go on for twenty five years and recently featured in a Pizza Hut commercial!”
The famous tune was later recorded in the studio and included quite a psychedelic middle section. An interesting day?
“It was. I believe the middle section was added to make the track long enough for a single release. It was some years after the original recording of the theme and Ted Chris and Felicity had not joined the band at that time, so it took a while to get the right feel.”
Fraser’s love of music, and the venues it was played in would later feed into his acclaimed series of best-selling thrillers, featuring the lethal Rina Walker. Just how much of Rina’s world is drawn from Hugh’s own experiences?
“I played in the house band in a few Soho hostess clubs of the type that Rina frequents. She actually buys a club in the fourth book, Stealth, and gives it to Lizzie to manage. While I was at drama school in the sixties, I shared a room in Notting Hill, near where the young Rina lived when we first meet her as a fifteen year old in Harm. Notting Hill was very different then from the posh and expensive area it is today. It was home to criminality and racial tension in those days and I was familiar with the sometimes rather scary pubs and clubs that Rina is often summoned to for meetings with her governor George Preston and members of his firm.”
Rina Walker was first introduced to the world in 2015’s Harm, and boy did she land with a bang. For someone so synonymous with the traditional crime fiction genre of Agatha Christie, some would ask if there was a mischievous element within Fraser, who enjoyed taking people by surprise with the dark, violent and sexual nature of Rina’s world.
“You might say that, but I couldn’t possibly comment,” says Hugh with a grin.
Having written plays and short stories before turning his hand to the world of crime fiction, the writing process itself is something that Fraser doesn’t feel has evolved much for him personally.
“I seem to use the same approach each time. I might have an initial idea at the beginning, for example Rina meeting a villain in a Soho pub, as in Stealth, and then once I’ve begun writing the scene it takes on a life of its own and develops under its own steam.”
Just as Hugh’s musical interests have never deserted him, his dramatic skills continue to keep him in demand since taking up the pen, for example lending his voice to the character of Alfred Pennyworth – another cult role – in the comic book game Batman: Arkham VR.
“Alfred Pennyworth also involved Motion Capture filming which is a whole other technique that I was not familiar with. Fortunately, the team at Rock Steady were very patient teachers.”
And as a stalwart of the phenomenally popular Big Finish audios, Hugh’s voice has been heard on many of their productions, right across their range.
“I love doing voice work, particularly with Big Finish who are a great company to work for.” It is a collaboration Hugh sincerely hopes will continue, a desire shared by his eager following which seems to grow with each project.
When I first started writing, one of my proudest moments was learning that I shared a publisher with someone whose work I had grown up with and enjoyed for so many years; a feeling that has never diminished and helped no end by the kind support he has shown to me and many others. Hugh Fraser’s star looks set to shine for a long time to come, and his popularity among the cult circuit grows ever stronger. I ask him as we finish up, whether he’s happy to be lauded for a couple of roles in his long career, or if he would rather his versatility be appreciated in full.
“I’m just extremely grateful to be known as an actor,” he tells me, with typical understated charm,
“whether it’s for one or a number of roles.”
Hugh Fraser, you are and will always be, a gentleman.