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British actor David Suchet

David Suchet on going in search of St Peter — the man behind the scripture

E Jane Dickson // RadioTimes

David Suchet is a devil for detail. Preparing for his defining role as Hercule Poirot, he built a personal dossier on his character — every mannerism from the detective’s mincing walk to his Belgian accent (a shade more guttural than standard French) was rooted in Agatha Christie’s original text. “As an actor I’m fascinated by what makes an individual tick.”

This week, as presenter of the two-part documentary In the Footsteps of St Peter, the master-researcher turns his profiling skills on the fisherman-apostle who, according to Christian tradition, established the Church of Rome.

On a journey from the quiet shores of Galilee to the gilded splendour of the Vatican, Suchet presents a portrait of St Peter that’s far removed from the usual iconography. We are accustomed to Peter the patriarch, a figure of authority jangling the keys of heaven, but the saint who emerges from Suchet’s research is a vital, impul- sive and conflicted personality.

“I’m not in search of a religion, I’m in search of a character,” says Suchet. “I’m looking at what motivated him. I’m not looking at Peter from a Westernised, sanitised point of view. I’m looking at a big, rugged, impetuous Jewish fisherman, a man full of doubts and failings, but also full of the desire to do the right thing. So I was hugely excited to go back to the Middle East, where it all began, to walk on that earth and smell the smells that Peter knew.”

And as with Poirot, it all comes back to the text. “Peter is the person Jesus talks to more than any other person in the New Testament. He’s also the only character in the Bible, apart from Jesus, who walks on water — and then he gets bad press because he sinks! And then of course he denies Christ, he pretends to the authorities that he has nothing to do with the friend he loves, and that’s just heartbreaking. But the letters Peter wrote — or more probably dictated because it’s likely he was illiterate — to people struggling with their faith are intensely moving. I think he’s terrific!”

Suchet’s engagement with Scripture is deeply personal. He converted to Christianity at the age of 40 in 1986, and last year completed a 80-hour audio recording of the entire Bible — “It’s one hell of a good read!” he says, slapping his knee for emphasis. But he’s not of an evangelising bent. In the Footsteps of St Peter is as much an argument for religious tolerance as it is an exploration of Christianity.

In the teeming streets of Jerusalem, where, according to the Bible, St Peter attracted 3,000 converts in an afternoon, Suchet talks with scholars in an Orthodox Jewish yeshiva and an Islamic madrasa.

"I’m a great believer in bringing together the three monotheistic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — and the division we’re seeing now upsets me deeply. I’ve always said that the Bible is the biggest-selling, most under-read book in the world, but now that we live in a multi-faith society, I think it’s every Christian’s duty to read the whole of the Old Testament and the Koran. I think we owe it to our brothers and sisters in faith to have a better understanding of Jewish and Muslim doctrine, knowing that we all come from the same root.

"In my own case, I come from a very orthodox Jewish heritage [Suchet’s grandfather, Izidor Suchedowitz, was an émigré from Lithuania]. Although I never practised Judaism, I feel it very strongly. I feel very in touch with my Jewish roots within my Christian faith.

“I think it’s too often forgotten that Jesus was an orthodox Jew. As was Peter. That’s why it was so confusing to him when he had a dream where he was told to ignore dietary laws. I mean, suppose you had a Jewish man right here, right now, and he dreamed last night that he could eat any food he fancied, would that be enough for him to turn to his wife and say, ‘Right! We no longer have to keep a kosher kitchen!’ These were huge things going on in people’s daily lives, not just points of doctrine, and that’s what I want to get over in these films.”

It’s almost impossible not to share Suchet’s enthusiasm. Everything about him bespeaks a kind of delighted energy. Today he’s sporting a trim white beard (“it helps me to walk around a little bit, in crowds”) but his outfit — snugly tailored tweed waistcoat, conker-bright brogues — is exactly the kind of disguise Poirot might devise if he wished to pass as a successful thespian.

He’s looking forward immensely to the challenge of appearing as Lady Bracknell in a West End revival of The Importance of Being Earnest this summer — “The first time I’ll be putting on a rehearsal skirt!” — and his “actor’s hat” is never quite laid aside in his pursuit of St Peter. A highlight of the journey is Suchet’s spirited exegesis of Christ’s words: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” Standing before the Holy Land’s highest mountain, Mount Hermon (which is held by Biblical archeologists to be the most likely setting for the dialogue), he delivers a mini-masterclass in stagecraft and interpretation.

‘Did Jesus mean he would build a church on the mountain, or that Peter (the name is Greek for ‘stone’) is the rock he’s referring to? Without putting the words into their human context and drama, we don’t know where Jesus laid the emphasis, we don’t know what he was doing with his hands when he said it. We can never be sure of the meaning.

“The danger with any sacred text is lifting words and sentences out of context and just seeing them for what you think they mean. Then somebody else takes that interpretation as gospel and the next thing you know, an entire religious doctrine has been built around it.”

The documentary visits some of Christianity’s most sacred sites — the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the tomb of St Peter in Rome. Suchet is greatly taken by the preserved remains of a fishing boat similar to one Peter might have owned. “I think archaeology is a great help because it puts the world of the Bible into its territory, and gives veracity to that world.”

Respectful of tradition, Suchet’s documentary nonetheless explodes some of the best-known stories surrounding the life of the saint. There is, for example, no convincing evidence that Peter was crucified upside down by Roman soldiers. Nor do we know for sure that his ministry made it as far as Rome.

“Tradition is as strong as Scripture or reason. But there is no evidence. The tradition is that Peter went to Rome, but he was a huge celebrity by this time — if he’d been there, you’d think it would be documented. So maybe he didn’t. But the doctrine of the Roman Catholic church is that not only did he go there, he became the first pope of Rome, and his bones were buried beneath the Vatican.”

Nor does the pomp of St Peter’s Basilica accord with Suchet’s view of Peter as a man of the people. “I still find it difficult, as a Christian, to reconcile world poverty with great wealth in a church building. I know it’s to the glory of God, but I’ll always find it hard.”

Overwhelmingly, it’s Peter the man, rather than Peter the saint, who interests Suchet. “Of all the 12 apostles, he’s the one most like us. He’s a terrific guy!”

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