Sorted Issue 74
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Sorted Issue 74

In the new exciting edition we chat to Hollywood A-Listers, Sporting Superstars, Action-man Bear Grylls plus the greatest team of columnists ever assembled

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The Big Five-O

The Big Five-O
By Peter Wallace

For 50 years, David Suchet has been a staple of stage and screen, not least in his role as Agatha Christie’s most celebrated detective, Hercule Poirot. Now, he looks back on his half-century as a professional actor, and invites fans to take a glimpse at the man behind the characters…

When David Suchet – Royal Shakespeare Company alumnus and classically trained stage actor – was approached for the role of Agatha Christie’s pedantic detective, his first call for advice was to his author and newsreader brother, John.

‘He famously said to me,’ laughs the younger Suchet, in a voice honey-steeped in the finest elocutionary traditions of the stage, ‘“You’ve been asked to play Poirot?” And I said, “Yes, what do you think?”, and he said “Don’t touch it with a barge-pole...”’

Had Suchet gone on to heed his brother’s advice, it’s nearly impossible to speculate on how his acting career might have panned out, such is the impact that the role of Poirot has had on him over the 25 years since he first wore the famous waxed moustache. ‘The moral of the story,’ he adds, ‘is: “Don’t listen to your siblings!”’

Suchet’s quarter-century as the fictional Belgian sleuth is an impressive feat, making up half of his professional acting life. The London-born thespian had of course appeared in Shakespeare and various other plays, and both the small and silver screen, before he alighted on ITV’s long-running adaptation of Christie’s crime stories. But it is the role of Poirot, unsurprisingly, that still stands tallest in his memories – especially his final farewell in Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case, which aired in 2013.

‘It was a very emotional time,’ he muses. ‘I had to play his death, which was the most difficult day’s filming of my whole career. I was saying goodbye to a very dear friend; you can’t play someone for 25 years and not feel attached to them in some way. He had been so instrumental in so many aspects of my life. He gave me a profile and people would then come to see me in the theatre; he gave me the profile so that people would want to make films with me, radio programmes, more theatre etcetera, so saying goodbye to him was very, very painful, and in fact I still miss him to this day.’

Unlike some actors, however, who may have seen other tempting roles pass by, in the time Suchet spent as Poirot, he never once had his head turned. As he says, ‘I’ve never been that sort of actor. I’ve always been an actor for hire, and just seen what has been on the table at the time.’

There is, however, one historical figure in particular f that Suchet has long found the thought of portraying incredibly compelling.

‘I’m drawn to complexity. And the more I read about Napoleon, the more I think he must have been a very complex personality. He had a great side of weakness, he had to have a tall horse because he was a short man, who I think suffered from an inferiority complex, and he was one of the greatest tacticians and infantrymen of history. I know of course that he was the enemy, but he built an empire. And I think he was a great personality, especially when you think he was not French – everyone thinks of the French when you talk about Napoleon! But he was from Corsica, so he would not even have sounded like a Frenchman. I’ve always been fascinated by playing him, and there is a George Bernard Shaw play about Napoleon, but that’s not the Napoleon I want – I want the more complex, deeper, personality. I think he is a really fascinating man, one that I would have loved to have explored.’
For many, his career is inextricably linked with his on-screen life as Poirot, and he was recently voted the nation’s favourite incumbent of the role, despite his rivals including both Albert Finney and Sir Kenneth Branagh.

It would be unfair, however, to see Suchet as nothing more than his most famous theatrical alter-ego, not least because of his chameleonic acting ability. Indeed, Suchet himself hopes that he does not share all the traits of Christie’s famously finicky private eye.

‘Inevitably there is a symbiosis that has occurred,’ he smiles. ‘But I hope I’m not as OCD as he was, because if you are that particular and will only eat two boiled eggs if they are the exact same size, you’ve got a problem!’

Behind the adopted European accent, the iconic moustache, and the veritable treasure trove of affectations that made his Poirot portrayal so enduring, and endearing, Suchet is rich in personal qualities. The descendent of Lithuanian Jews, who spent his formative years in England’s public-school system, Suchet admits that his childhood feelings of being an ‘outsider’ may well have contributed to his later, detail-orientated portrayals of figures like Poirot. Indeed, it was many years before he felt whole himself. For many years, he was in his own estimation subconsciously struggling with a ‘very materialistic’ worldview – but that changed in 1986 when he went through ‘the beginnings of a conversion’.

‘I didn’t have a Damascene experience like St Paul!’ he clarifies. ‘But I was filming in Seattle, and I was thinking about the man who was the greatest influence on my life, my late grandfather, and how I regarded him as a kind of spiritual guide. I’ve always chatted to him and wondered what he thought. But the other side of me was a complete agnostic; I didn’t really believe in the afterlife. So, lying in the bath one day, in the hotel room, I suddenly thought, “Why are you thinking about your late grandfather as your spiritual guide when you don’t believe in an afterlife?” That sort of dichotomy, or that sort of paradox if you like, led me to wanting to read more about the afterlife. And I remembered at school reading about Jesus and His resurrection, but I didn’t really believe it. But I did know that Paul in the New Testament wrote letters about all this, and I decided, because I love Rome, to pick up a Gideon’s Bible the next day and I read St Paul’s Letter to the Romans.’

The figure of St Paul would go on to become a central part of both Suchet’s personal and professional life, and he made a documentary on him in 2012, entitled In the Footsteps of St Paul.

‘I read it in a very particular way,’ he says of the impact the biblical book of Romans had on his life. ‘I read it in a way that I would read any classical play, where I was taught to as a Shakespearean actor, to read plays as if they were new plays and written for me. So, when I read St Paul’s letter to the Romans, in my head I was reading St Paul’s letter to me, and I made it very personal. By the time I came to the end of that letter, I had found a way of life for which I had been looking for many, many years, and that worldview really attracted me, and that then led to further investigations and I ended up... did I choose or not? I don’t know. But it ended up with me becoming Christian, and there was huge, huge strength given to me by me having, for the first time in my life, a worldview.’

Suchet’s faith has inspired several projects over the years besides his documentary on St Paul. There was the follow-up a year later, In the Footsteps of St Peter, as well as his 2014 recording of the complete NIV Bible on audiobook – a long-held ambition and ‘labour of love’ completed after his time as Poirot had come to an end. Nowadays he is Vice President of the British Bible Society, and behind the scenes, his idea of the benefit of personal faith, or a similar anchor, remains crucial to what he sees as a current failing in modern society.
‘I believe very, very strongly in something that I call “The three-legged stool”, which is how we are made up. It is about mind, body, and spirit. One of our legs of the stool is the mind which we make strong through education, and reading and learning, and then we have the other leg, our body, which is made strong by going to the gym and having a good diet, and knowing how to be healthy if you take the trouble. But that third leg, which I call the soul or the spiritual part, which includes faith, religion, the arts, the performing arts, the creative side of our life, is the weak leg in our society. That side of our life seems to always take second place to jobs and other things in our life, other than our creativity, and therefore I think we have a three-legged stool with two strong legs and one weaker leg. I would like people leaving school to have three strong legs. The discovery of my faith was filling up this third leg, filling it up with something that wasn’t there before, and making it stronger. Then filling it up with all the other things that make up that leg, which is more theatre, more music, more art, more performing arts, and just enjoying that side of life.’

And even though Suchet is best known for his immense talents as a character actor, his half-century celebration brings to the forefront another of his creative passions: photography.

‘I don’t consider myself a good photographer,’ he says with typical humility. ‘My photographs have to be judged by other people: it’s more like my acting. If you judge yourself, you will come a cropper. It’s the same with my photographs. If people judge them as worthy, and they want to remember me for that, then God bless them, but it’s not for me to say... What I do is try to use my camera as a paintbrush; I don’t just take a picture of what I see, I try to take photos of how I see things. For example, I was in an orchard in Kent recently, and I went in with my camera, and all of a sudden looking at these gnarled branches I saw these strange faces of all these weird animals. So, I would photograph that Bramley apple tree, not as a tree, but almost an animal. So, it’s how I react to things that I try to photograph, rather than just what I am looking at.’

Fans of his acting work, therefore, will no doubt be encouraged to hear that Suchet has recently released a photo-memoir, Behind the Lens, that charts the course of his impressive career through a collection of his photos.

‘It’s not an autobiography in the sense that I did this, then I did that; I was asked for many, many years to do my autobiography by many publishers, but the timing of this was quite nice because it is my 50th year as an actor. It’s about things that actually I think about or care about and react to in my life, as well as photographs that represent how I see the world, not just what I see. So, the book is an expression of who I am – the man behind the myriad of characters that I have played. You have never seen me – this is me. Get to know me by getting this book.’

As well as being an in-depth look at Suchet’s life behind the camera, Behind the Lens* will be supporting a cause close to its author’s heart: the Tuberous Sclerosis Association.

‘My grandson has it, and it’s a very little-known, inherited gene. In actual fact, it was completely in chance as neither my son or my daughter-in-law has this complex gene, and it is a complete freak of nature, but he has it very badly. It’s a very small charity, very few people have this tuberous sclerosis complex. And this book is in total support of this charity, it’s supporting that charity and it will not support me.’

It’s just another reminder that David Suchet is no less than a national treasure. His 25 years as Poirot will stand not only as a benchmark for any character actor, but also as a comforting reminder of a dedicated professional in an entertainment industry that all too often seems constantly in motion. And when it comes to Suchet’s own self-appraisal, it’s no less humble than expected.

‘I would like to be remembered as a person who would serve my writer first and foremost, who would always be regarded as truthful as possible in my representations, and as someone who would leave my ego at the door. Forget about stardom, forget about money. If you want to be in the arts – if you want to be in the performing arts, if you want to be an actor – do it because you want to serve your writer, not yourself.’

Manifesto

By Steve Chalke

Why men’s mental health is an issue for all men and whole communities.

‘Man up. Shape up. Step up. Keep up.’ That’s the message to men.
But what happens when, well… we just can’t?
Anxiety, depression and despair amongst men are at an all-time high. The latest UK statistics are frightening:
    
At any one time, it’s believed that one in eight men (that 12.5 per cent of us) are trying to cope with diagnosed mental health issues – and that’s just the disclosed cases. Many more are invisible.

78 per cent of suicides (almost four in every five) are by men.

For men under the age of 45 suicide is the biggest single cause of death. In other words, the thing that is most likely to kill a young man is himself!

In the last five years the suicide rate in males aged 45-59 has also increased significantly.
 
Thirteen men take their own lives every day.

We also know that 25 per cent of those men have visited their GP during the previous seven days. It was just too little, and too late.

It is a bleak picture. When it comes to male mental health and emotional well-being, we have a crisis.

The highly complex interwoven issues that sit behind these alarming statistics are ones that doctors and public health specialists continue to research and battle with.  But – just like many of the other multifaceted challenges our society faces – my experience has taught me that this doesn’t mean we can’t take action to make a difference right now.

A friend of mine grew up as part of a religious community that taught homosexuality was sinful. His father was one of its leaders. But as he reached puberty, he slowly came to what for him at the time was, as he describes it, ‘the very painful recognition’ that he was gay. Silently and secretly, he prayed every day for forgiveness for being who he was. He vowed to God as well as to himself that he would always resist temptation; that he would never give in to his desire, that he would live a celibate life. For most of the time – through sheer determination – this strategy worked. But every now and then, having to live in denial of who he was became so overwhelming that, after huge internal battles, he would cave into the desire to watch porn on his laptop, or to a sordid and secret one-night stand. He hated himself for this, but felt powerless to prevent it.

Like us all, he knew that good mental health and well-being is dependent on being able to open up about who we are and how we feel to those closest to us. But how could he do this, when he knew for certain that it would lead to his rejection, not only by his community but by his family. He was lonely, vulnerable and isolated; trapped in a world of ongoing deceit.  

So, finding a new job and using it as an excuse, he moved away from home. Still – in spite of his fight to deny who he was – his sexuality pulled at him irresistibly. And, as he dived deeper into the inevitable depression caused by this, he began to turn to drugs, simply in an attempt to blot out his feelings of guilt and shame.

By now, he hated himself. He told me that every day he would get up, walk to the bathroom of the flat he was renting, look at himself in the mirror and think,
‘I hope that this is the last day of your miserable life.’

Eventually – now dependent on the drugs that he also despised himself for taking – he decided to end his life. Very late, one cold winter’s night he stood on a lonely bridge across a river and prepared to throw himself into the dark, murky, freezing water. But, at that very moment, his phone rang in his pocket. A friend, who had never called him before, was checking to see how he was. They talked. The moment of absolute desperation passed. My friend’s mood lifted a little. He walked off the bridge and headed home.

If the macho message is ‘Man up’ and ‘Get over it’, a softer, more sensitive approach tells us to ‘Open up’ rather than ‘Close down’. This, we’re told, is a far more honest and healthy way to deal with life’s struggles. Emotional openness and vulnerability are not signs of personal weakness, but instead are probably the most accurate indicators of our inner sense of courage.

However, what happens when you just can’t find that courage?

Way back in the 1980s, one of the first-ever projects launched by Oasis, the charity I founded, was a safe house for vulnerable and homeless young adults. Our goal was to equip and empower them on their journey towards living independently. Before we opened, my wife and I kitted the whole building out with a great deal of care. We bought artwork for the bedrooms and hallways and we chose the furniture in order to create a relaxed and welcoming environment. For the shared lounge, we bought a huge TV.

We were so excited to open. I still remember the day. But there was a shock to come. I was expecting our residents to enjoy their new home, to be cheerful. To smile. To share. To readily express their thanks and appreciation. Instead they were silent. With some, it even proved impossible to make any eye contact. And within weeks of our first residents’ arrival, most of the artwork we had bought had been stolen and sold. The walls were bare. The unit on which the TV had been placed stood empty. The house had been stripped and I was frustrated and angry.

But slowly – all too slowly – I came to see that the problem was really mine. I am ashamed to admit it, but because the wounds these young people had suffered were psychological rather than physical, it was too easy to misread their responses and, as a result, to react rather than respond to them, and so to judge them negatively. If theirs had been a physical rather than an emotional disability, I would have been ready to compensate for them far more easily.

Thinking about the same thing in a different context, why is it OK to take time off work with a broken arm but somehow ‘emasculating’ to admit to depression? Why is an asthma attack viewed as just one of those things, but a panic attack seen as a sign of weakness?

When a person has been abused – physically, sexually or psychologically – or neglected (realities that are tragically all too common in our society) they are prone to suffer enduring negative and debilitating impacts. The anger, shame and despair they experience may be directed inwards to spawn symptoms such as withdrawal, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress and thoughts of suicide, or be channelled outwards through behaviour such as aggression, impulsiveness, delinquency, hyperactivity and substance abuse. It’s just that when we can’t see the wounds, it is far harder to understand the behaviour.

My friend Joe is a highly talented and professionally extremely successful individual. But he is a man haunted by childhood rejection which, 30 years later, still leaves him with a lack of confidence, crippling introversion and an inability to form close, trusting friendships. He lives alone as a semi-recluse, having never been able to form an intimate relationship, battling with an eating disorder that has destroyed his physical well-being and from time to time threatens his life.

I have learned from my own personal experience that the more anxious I become, the more short-sighted, restricted and hampered my view of things also becomes. But I’ve also learned that although the scars I carry tell the story of where I’ve been, they do not dictate either who I am or where I am headed.

So how do we break the stigma that surrounds the issue of poor male mental health? How do we defeat the narrative that asserts that masculinity is all about being tough?

I believe that it’s society’s misguided focus on the individual that does much of the damage:

Why do we see men’s mental health as something to be addressed at an individual level?  

By placing the focus on the individual, are we just placing more pressure on men who are already struggling?

If a man is to open up and talk about his feelings, who is he going to talk to?

It is good to encourage men to talk more, but should we also be teaching them to listen to each other more?

Although often portrayed as ‘a man’s issue’, men’s mental health is instead a ‘men’s’ issue. Indeed, it is an issue that the whole community needs to address: men, women, everybody.

Much of the advice out there for men provides them with ‘top tips’ for better mental health but mistakenly targets the individual. I want to address what we can do collectively, in our communities, as small groups; from joining a football team to volunteering at a youth club; from mentoring a young man at a local school to organising a regular ‘mates evening’ down at the pub.

After more than three decades of experience working within local communities across the UK and beyond, one thing I am convinced of is that small communities and strong relationships are the most powerful drivers of good mental and emotional health for all. Thriving local neighbourhoods create the strongest and best support networks. None of this is to downplay the critical role that the professionals working in mental health and the social services play. But prevention is far better than cure. It is only within our communities that we will discover the real solutions which will help avert crises, build resilience, and prevent those who are stressed and isolated from sliding further into mental ill health.

The research also tells us that in every class of thirty teenage boys, at least three will already be in trouble emotionally. Yet the children’s and adolescents’ mental health service (CAMHS) is saturated beyond the ability to cope.

I regularly hear from young men in schools who find it difficult to talk honestly and openly about themselves, for fear of how they will be perceived by their peers. One fourteen-year-old student, whose mum and dad had just split up, recently told me that he envied the girls in his school because they seemed to have the kind of friendships where they had someone they could tell everything to. ‘Boys don’t’, he added. Instead, he explained that he felt that he had to hide who he was and to try to keep a lid on his feelings. The problem was that meant they just festered. In fact, he told me that he had started skipping lessons and getting into fights. He said that it was just a way of coping.

But ironically, for him, he had found hope – simply because he had found a way at last of talking.

The key to good men’s mental and emotional health is to create natural opportunities for men – young and old – to talk together, which means:

Reducing the pressure on those who want to talk by establishing conversations they can easily join, rather than leaving them to initiate a conversation themselves

Placing as strong an emphasis on listening as on talking. As I discover time and time again, merely being present can be hugely beneficial to those struggling with mental health challenges.

As Henri Nouwen, the great pastoral writer, once put it: ‘The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.’  

Find out more about Oasis at www.oasisuk.org

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Sorted Issue 74

December 2019

In the new exciting edition we chat to Hollywood A-Listers, Sporting Superstars, Action-man Bear Grylls plus the greatest team of columnists ever assembled  Are you...

The Big Five-O

December 2019

The Big Five-O By Peter Wallace For 50 years, David Suchet has been a staple of stage and screen, not least in his role as Agatha...

Manifesto

December 2019

By Steve Chalke Why men’s mental health is an issue for all men and whole communities. ‘Man up. Shape up. Step up. Keep up.’ That’s the...

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