Beyond the Wand – Tom Felton

Published last month (October 2022), this is a really fun autobiography, even though I have to admit that I have never managed to get on with the Harry Potter books or the films. However I have heard Tom being interviewed a few times and his totally laid back and unpretentious style, so unlike the character of Draco Malfoy he plays in the films, drew me to this book pretty well as soon as it came out. I wasn’t to be disappointed. The foreword is by Emma Watson.

Tom is likewise eloquent about his friendship with Emma and several times states his admiration for her along with Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint especially over the very strange childhoods that these three child actors had. As the filming schedule of the Harry Potter was relentless all three existed in a bubble of private tutoring alongside their filming commitments. These were the only three to have this regime however, Tom along with all the other child actors went to a normal school but with random absences to be on set and he freely admits that he took advantage of this to bunk off school as it would be assumed he was working on Harry Potter. At thirteen when he started filming the series he was also significantly older than the three stars, Daniel and Rupert were eleven and Emma just nine years old and that age gap is important when you are so young, this all meant that whilst he wasn’t particularly close to the other three at least at the start of the movie series his friendship with them all has continued long after the films stopped.

Obviously most people reading this book will be looking for insights into the making of the Harry Potter films and yes that is covered with chapters talking about the various actors he worked with and what he learned from their vast experience. The cream of British acting talent were involved in the films over the years and even though at the start Tom had hardly heard of a lot of them he certainly learnt to respect their talent and almost used the films as an ultimate acting class. But, if like me, you haven’t seen the films then there is still a lot to be got out of this autobiography and Tom’s confusion when people treated him as the character he played, abusing him for what Draco had done is genuine and quite funny.

Tom also isn’t shy about writing about his failings, either a one off shoplifting offence done under peer pressure from the other lads at his school or during the time his elder brother Chris was his chaperone on set them disappearing all night to go carp fishing. Chris is a well known angler and Tom also loved nothing better than getting his equipment out and fishing through the night. Indeed when it came to filming the green screen quidditch sequences each actor had a photograph on a pole which marked where their eye line was supposed to be in each shot, somebody had Cameron Diaz, Tom had a particularly attractive carp. He also covers his time avoiding and then eventually spending time in rehab after his drinking and cannabis smoking got too much after the Harry Potter films had finished and he had moved to Hollywood. All in all this is a very honest book and well worth a read.

Poirot and Me – David Suchet

20200414 Poirot and Me

A fascinating description of the years David Suchet took to film almost all the Hercule Poirot novels and short stories written by Agatha Christie over thirteen series comprising of seventy episodes. The first day of filming was the 1st July 1988 and the final one was on the 28th June 2013, so almost exactly twenty five years from start to finish. Right at the end of the book he admits that one very short story never got adapted which was The Lemesurier Inheritance, apart from that everything was either specifically filmed as an individual story or merged into another short tale.

But I feel I must get one major failing of the book over and done with right at the beginning of this review. Suchet is completely obsessed with his reviews, after each story about a series or sometimes even an episode you get two or three, or maybe five or six, newspaper reviews saying how wonderful it was. It’s not just a quick one line either some of them are longer and it really get tedious. It is also completely unnecessary, if the reader didn’t think that his performance as Poirot and indeed the series itself was good it is highly unlikely that they will have picked up the book in the first place. He also comes over as a terrible ‘luvvie’ every actor he refers to has done a magnificent performance in such and such, or was fabulous in the role of whoever, everybody is announced with gushing compliments. Having said that, you can just skip the reviews and the overblown introductions and in there is a very enjoyable book.

Suchet covers the entire story of the series from his first being offered the part and getting to meet Christie’s daughter Rosalind Hicks who controlled the rights to her mothers works. She wanted to be sure that he understood what she expected from his portrayal. The book though starts at Pinewood Studios with the death of Poirot in the filming of ‘Curtain’ as part of the thirteenth, and final, series. From having explained his sorrow and what it means to him and those who have worked with him over the years to film these scenes he sets the tone before we jump back to his first being offered the part. His descriptions at the beginning of the book of his struggles to find the voice for Poirot whilst filming another TV series set on the Isles of Scilly before starting filming at Twickenham studios and only then suddenly realising after seeing the first test shots that he simply had no idea how he should walk are interesting insights into how an actor approaches a role. What was really surprising was that despite the massive hit that the Poirot series became this first series was the only time that any of the TV companies involved actually had an option on Suchet doing another series, after that he went for months or sometimes years without knowing if he would ever play the character again.

What does become very clear is Suchet’s devotion to the Belgian detective, before starting to play him he read all the stories and made a list of ninety three characteristics that made him who he was so that he could play him as a real person rather than the caricatures that he feels have been Poirot’s fate with previous portrayals.

He was a character that demanded to be taken seriously. He wasn’t a funny little man with a silly accent any more than Sherlock Holmes was a morphine addict with a taste for playing the violin.

He carried this ‘Dossier of Characteristics’ with him throughout the twenty five years of playing the part and gave a copy to each director so that they could understand what he was trying to do, I love some of the examples he gives in the book, some of which are emphatic like number one

Belgian, not French

Others are more idiosyncratic, like number eight

Regards his moustache as a thing of perfect beauty, uses scented pomade.

And one that had only partly registered with me in reading the books, number ten

A man of faith and morals, regards himself as ‘Un bon Catholique’, reads his bible every night before he goes to sleep.

This was a side of Poirot that hadn’t been seen in previous screen representations of Poirot but Suchet shows him with his rosary several times during the films revealing a side to the man which helps flesh out his need to see justice be done. This was particularly a feature in ‘Curtain’ and the death scenes in that where Poirot is seen preparing himself for the end that he recognises is soon to come. Just as Agatha Christie wrote ‘Curtain’ many years before it was published, filming this episode was not the last that Suchet did, instead it was filmed first in that final series several months before the other four episodes that concludes the story arc, so allowing him to finish his portrayal of the Great Detective on a high rather than a low point. Fittingly the last part of filming was at Greenway, Agatha Christie’s own home and added an extra poignancy to Suchet’s final day as Poirot.

The book appears to have been remaindered, judging by the sheer number of copies some secondhand book dealers have available even now. This does mean that it is easily available for very little money on either Biblio or Abebooks should you wish to obtain a copy.

My Name Escapes Me – Alec Guinness

20190528 My Name Escapes Me

Subtitled “The diary of a retiring actor” this book takes us from the 1st January 1995 to the 6th June 1996. 1995 is treated rather episodically with large gaps in the diary but there are much more frequent entries for 1996 at least as far as that year goes. The book is quite a gentle read, ideal for a quiet afternoon where you just want something to entertain rather than educate. Guinness is in his eighties by the time he wrote this and effectively has retired although he does do a couple of very small parts for films and a short voice-over during the 18 months of the diary.

There are the expected reminiscences scattered through, not just of stage and screen but also of his conversion to Roman Catholicism forty years earlier. Through most of the book his wife Merula is having problems getting about leading to hip surgery and a long slow recovery and he clearly dotes on her, with various changes of plan wrapped around her current health. He is an inveterate name dropper and chides himself several times in the diary for long convoluted stories he tells at dinner parties probably boring everyone else in the process, a habit Merula sometimes curtails by commenting, with the punchline that he is slowly working up to, during the story. People expect actors, especially ones of his seniority, to be able to talk in public but Guinness is quite clear several times that having him give a speech is doomed to failure from the start, it always has been and age has not improved his ability.

One running commentary relates to the Star Wars films and the fan mail, usually with photographs they want signing that he gets all the time.  As in this entry from 16th December 1995 which gives a good flavour of the style of the book.

Today I have felt querulous. Behaviour has been spiky; largely due, I think, to our affable postman dutiful pushing piles of junk mail through the letterbox daily. It gets worse near Christmas. The rubbish, the charity appeals (often in duplicate) and worst of all, the photographs from Star Wars demanding autographs. They mostly come from America and as often as not enclose a stamped addressed envelope – the stamps being US stamps are useless her. The English usually make their demand without photograph, envelope, stamp or money. The nation has got acclimatized to asking something for nothing. Bills in the post are welcome in comparison. It’s mean and hard of me but from 1 January 1996 I am resolved to throw it all in the waste bin unopened (bills excepted, of course); I no longer have the energy to assist teenagers in their idiotic, albeit lucrative, hobby.

He makes a good point here, that a lot of the signed pictures are probably destined for Ebay or some such autograph trading site, where they would make a significant profit for the person who sent them and that is the reason for the contact in the first place. This is something that Sir Terry Pratchett was also somewhat wary of, threatening to sign any book where no dedication was requested “To Ebay purchaser”. Terry does actually make a slight appearance in the book in the 13th June 1995 entry where Guinness praises the Jungle Quest episode from the previous night which featured Terry and his PA Rob in Borneo with Orang Utans.

The diary ends on the 56th birthday of their son Matthew (also an actor) soon after a much needed holiday at Lake Como, not just to mark his birthday but also the anniversary of the Normandy invasion in 1945. Guinness was in the opposite side of Europe, in Italy, at the time having taken part in the attacks on Sicily and Italy several days before, designed not only to take that area but also to divert German military forces away from Dunkirk.

It’s a good read, if a little light, and has an excellent index which reveals that Alan Bennett is mentioned twelve times, The National Theatre four times whilst the National Lottery gets five. Shakespeare or his plays are name checked forty five times whilst the second highest is his wife Merula at twenty nine (although much longer entries) and third comes dogs at twenty one times. I think this says a lot for his priorities. Sir Alec Guinness died in August 2000 and Merula only lived another couple of months afterwards.