An Inspector Calls: Interview with Hercule Poirot's Philip Jackson

By , Contributor

Actor Philip Jackson

Last week, Acorn Media gave fans of the Agatha Christie’s iconic Belgian detective Hercule Poirot the opportunity to once again exercise their “little grey cells” when it released Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Early Cases Collection on Blu-ray (13 discs) and DVD (18 discs). This set, which has been newly remastered and the episodes restored to their original UK broadcast order, includes all 45 mysteries from the first six seasons of the long-running British series starring David Suchet plays the title role of the mustachioed, fastidious super sleuth.

Co-starring alongside Suchet are Hugh Fraser as Captain Hastings, Pauline Moran as Miss Lemon and Philip Jackson as Chief Inspector Japp, the Scotland Yard police officer who often finds himself one step behind Poirot when it comes to solving the crime.

"I became involved in Poirot thanks to a director by the name of Edward Bennett who was starting off the series for London Weekend Television," says Jackson.  "He knew my work and called me in to talk to him and the producer about it.

"I'd been around for some years working in all sorts of different things, often rather good parts in slightly alternative television films.  While I think offbeat projects like this are great, they usually aren't suitable for the commercial market.  At the time when Poirot came along it suited me to go into something slightly more commercial that would allow me to become  more known to the public, not so much to people in England's acting profession, but, certainly, to the general public."

 

Born in the small English market town of Retford in 1948, Jackson dabbled at acting both at school and with a youth group attached to the local church. He did not seriously entertain the idea of pursuing it as a career until he got to college. "My parents are not connected to the theater or the arts in any way," he explains. "Perhaps some sort of artistic thing came through my grandfather, who had been a theater manager and also a painter. There was a lady in my hometown who helped encourage me towards acting. She thought I had a propensity for it.

"When I started at Bristol University in the sixties I was sufficiently interested in acting to want to study drama as well as German. I acted in quite a lot of plays, not necessarily to do with the courses I was taking, and I thought, 'OK, maybe this will be a way of earning my living.'  In those days a lot of people of my generation were looking for interesting jobs that weren't necessarily like the ones their parents had. They didn't particularly want to get up every morning, put on a suit and tie and go to an office for the rest of their working lives.

"In a nutshell, I suppose you could say that people hoped that they wouldn't have to get a proper job, and I'm sure there was that aspect to it. So, while I didn't have a burning desire to be an actor as such, I did see it as a creative way of spending one's time and in this sense avoiding the issue. I never had a kind of precious attitude towards it [acting]."

Jackson spent his time at Bristol studying obscure seventeenth century playwrights along with a few modern writers.  Eventually, he had enough of being a student, "so, I wrote a lot of letters and eventually got a job at the Liverpool Playhouse, which at that time was quite an old- fashioned repertory theater.

 

"When I got there they put me in charge of cleaning out the basement of dead rats," laughs the actor.  "After that, I played small parts and eventually got to do larger roles. I was in Liverpool for eighteen months and found the theater work to be a very good foundation for me.  Many of the productions I worked on were the rather old-fashioned and traditional kind of repertory company fare. The interesting stuff was going on up at the Everyman Theatre, but it was a bit later that I realized that that was where I wanted to be. I allied myself much more with the somewhat more politically left, obscurer, experimental, subversive type of theater rather than with the, 'Isn't this a nice play,' sort of stuff, which might surprise you considering Poirot that is very old-fashioned and traditional material."

Jackson's first job is one he would rather forget. He was twenty-one and earning eleven pounds [around eighteen 2012 dollars] a week touring the valleys and little community centers of Wales playing Banquo in Macbeth. "Appalling," he recalls. "The director had an unusual way of presenting the production that included showing films of American soldiers fighting while we were up on the stage acting. The three witches were blobs of shaving cream on a flat surface and that supposedly changed slightly in shape as you looked at them. It was dreadful."

Over the years the actor has worked in theaters around England and London's West End in productions as varied as Rooted, Live Like Pigs, Sergeant Musgrave’s Dance, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, King Lear and Waiting for Godot. His film work includes Scum, Give My Regards to Broad Street and The Fourth Protocol.

No stranger to television viewers on both sides of the Atlantic, Jackson has appeared in numerous programs such as Pennies From Heaven, Robin of Sherwood, The Consultant, New Tricks, Foyle’s War, Pete Versus Life and most recently Cuckoo, but it is his role of Chief Inspector Japp in Poirot that has made him a familiar face - or has it?

 

"An American came up to me at a party once and said, 'Hey, you're the guy who plays Chief Inspector Japp.'  I said, 'Yes, I am,' and then his wife came along and he said, 'Honey, look who's here.'  She looked at me and really didn't recognize me at all and said, 'Are you Kevin Whately [from Inspector Morse and Lewis]?'  To be honest, I don't look like Japp in my daily life. I don't wear a moustache, I don't comb my hair that way and I think I look rather older in the role, which is very much a character part as far as I'm concerned.

"I didn't do any research when I took on the role. I don't believe that reading Agatha Christie's books is particularly useful for doing the series.  While she was good on plot and ideas, Christie wasn't that good on fleshing out her characters. The only thing I remember reading about Inspector Japp is that his hobby is botany. He has an amazing knowledge of plants and collects specimens and sticks them in books. I didn't find this at all useful to the way I wanted to play the part, so, consequently, it does not figure into my performance."

It may be a surprise to some that Poirot star David Suchet actually played Inspector Japp four years before Jackson did. The actor appeared opposite Peter Ustinov's rendition of the Belgian detective in the made-for-television film Thirteen at Dinner. "He [Suchet] doesn't count it amongst his great successes," says Jackson, "He played Japp as a compulsive eater. Every room he went into he aimed straight for the food."

"The Adventure of the Clapham Cook" is the first mystery in which Jackson shares the screen with Suchet and his other two costars Hugh Fraser and Pauline Moran. Poirot is asked to find a missing domestic, but the Belgian detective dismisses the request as one better suited for the local police. When he finally is persuaded to take on the case, Poirot joins forces with Inspector Japp and not only solves a murder but also foils a robbery attempt involving several hundred thousand pounds' worth of negotiable securities.

 

"The thing about the relationship between Japp and Poirot is that we realized it would have been ridiculous to have the inspector be a stupid person and Poirot a clever one," explains the actor. "There should be some degree of mutual respect. Although he's not particularly competent, Japp certainly has a moral vision, a strength of will and a purpose in the way that he operates. All these traits contrast with the character of Poirot, but, in a sense, they are also something that the Belgian admires.

"All right, Japp doesn't get it right, usually, but his methods, his doggedness, his seriousness about his work are what makes it amusing. In other words, when somebody who's so concerned about being right gets it wrong it's funny.  If I were to play the part as an inept person, then there's no surprise.

"Strangely enough, David and I get on very well on the set. Our different styles seem to work well together and we mutually respect the other's method of dealing with them.  I've done a lot of work that David would consider, I wouldn't say beneath him, but would certainly think it wasn't his kind of stuff, like the slightly improvised films of Mike Leigh and also Les Blair, who made Bad Behavior. This sort of work is somewhat haphazard for an actor and has a bit of an unknown quantity when you go into it, but I find such things exciting, and, frankly, more creative.

"I think we all work slightly differently, Suchet, Fraser, Pauline Moran and myself.  David is a very meticulous actor; he works everything down to the last detail. This is his strong point as an actor which, of course, is perfect for the part of Poirot. He is able to use this characteristic to an infinitesimally fine degree to show how Poirot is. I, on the other hand, am rather sloppy as an actor. I tend not to plan ahead too much.  I always know my lines, but, I don't like to plan a performance too carefully because I enjoy responding to what's going on around me on the day of filming.

 

"This is exactly what actors like Michael Caine say you shouldn't do. Many actors feel that you should selfishly prepare everything so that you know exactly what you're going to do. I find this a rather stale way of doing the job because it means you're not open to react to whatever is happening on a particular day."

Turning to his fellow Poirot stars, Jackson sees his character's relationships with both Captain Hastings and Miss Lemon as different from the one Japp shares with Poirot. "Although Hugh Fraser and I get on very well socially and spend a lot of time together offset, we tend not to have an on-screen relationship between his character and mine. It's not really there. The same is true of Pauline's character of Miss Lemon. It's very much a businesslike arrangement. I feel that Japp is somewhat blunt and short with Miss Lemon and she probably just disapproves of his scruffiness.

"In the 1930s, the job of Scotland Yard detective was seen as being of a quite low status.  Today we tend to glamorize television detectives because they earn enormous salaries, drive around in flashy cars and have a rather elevated status in society. In those days [the thirties] it was very much a tough life investigating crimes of a rather distasteful nature. It was considered not a very good way to spend one's time, but Japp is a man with a purpose and you can sense his disapproval of the more privileged members of society. He always gets very sniffy [disapproving] of people who seem to earn a lot of money with very little effort."

Throughout his long association with Poirot, Japp has helped the detective track down missing domestics, bankers and scientists and brought to justice robbers, extortionists and his fair share of murderers. Is there any one Poirot adventure on which the actor particularly enjoyed working?  "I enjoyed the Parisian episode - 'Death in the Clouds' - in which Poirot is on an airplane when a murder is committed.

 

"In Christie's novel Japp does not, I believe, make it to Paris. He might not even be in it.  In our version, Japp is called to Croydon Airport when the plane lands, and, consequently, becomes involved in the case and has to go to Paris to make further inquiries.

"It was very interesting to take Japp and put him in a foreign location. I don't think racism was a key amongst such people as Japp in those days,  but there certainly was distrust of the foreigner.  We had a wonderful scene in which Japp and Poirot are sitting in a cafe eating a meal, and, without being offensive, we were able to have some fun with Japp and what he thought about the French."

An accomplished and versatile actor, Jackson prides himself on having successfully played a number of unconventional roles throughout his career.  Surprisingly, it is the more classical role of the Earl of Kent in Shakespeare's King Lear which presented him with difficulties.  "That role was challenging because I've hardly done any Shakespeare.  He doesn't come easily to me. Unlike Shakespeare aficionados, who probably know these lines backwards and forwards, I have to use a kind of logic to make the words mean something to me. That is quite hard.

"I also liked playing the title role in a television film of a book by David Storry called Pasmore which dealt with the disintegration of a marriage. I found that very hard but it was one of those things that was very good. Another project I also enjoyed was a stage adaptation of a comic strip cartoon called The Far Side Saga. The show, in which I played up to 18 different characters, relied on very quick changes and characterizations."

As he looks to the future and the direction of his career, the actor says, "I like to keep my options open. I don't like people to think that I'm capable of playing only things like Chief Inspector Japp. Although I'm grateful that it made me more well-known to people, I don't consider it to be the main thing in my career by any means."

Please note, all Poirot photos copyright of London Weekend Television/ITV.

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A native of Massachusetts, Steve Eramo has been a Sci-Fi fan since childhood, having been brought up on such TV shows as Star Trek and Space: 1999. He is also an Anglophile and lover of British TV. A writer for 35 years – 17 of those as a fulltime freelancer – Steve has had over 2,500 feature-length…

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