Hugh Fraser, best known for playing Captain Hastings in the Poirot TV series, explains how Notting Hill found its way into his first novel
A career in Poirot and now a thriller, Harm, what has you so drawn to the world of crime?
I really can’t imagine. Failure to pay a parking ticket is about the extent of
my ventures onto the dark side.
You’ve based much of the book in Post-War Notting Hill, what research did you do to get a feel for that period?
I suppose my research began when I lived in a room on Westbourne Park Road in 1964, upstairs from a café called El Rio, described by its owner Frank Crichlow as “a universtity for hustlers”. It is now Domino’s Pizza. I was a student at drama school, and this was before the tenements and the old terraces were demolished in the late 1960s and the council flats and Trellick Tower were built. My landlord was Polish and I think he could have been Peter Rachman, although I only ever met his rent collector, who was a man you wouldn’t want to argue with. It was only a few years after the Notting Hill race riots and there was still a fair amount of tension. The pubs in the area were much seedier and rougher than they are now, and you’d be aware of some quite dangerous- looking characters.
Why was it important to you to set the book in Notting Hill?
Apart from my own experience of the area, having lived here mostly since the 1960s, I have always collected the photographs of Roger Mayne and Bert Hardy, who both documented the street life of London in the 1940s and 1950s. Roger Mayne’s photographs of Notting Hill are so atmospheric and poignant that I found I could easily imagine life in those streets.
Are there moments where you miss Captain Hastings?
I enjoyed playing Hastings very much and have many good memories of making the films. The sight of a good tweed or a glimpse of a 1930s Lagonda gives me a twinge of nostalgia.
What do you think Poirot himself would have made of the book?
“Mille tonnerres! C’est horrible! Une femme comme ça, c’est scandaleux! Come Hastings!”
We’ve read that you were a devout Poirot fan from the age of 13, what was it like joining the set as Captain Hastings with all that background knowledge?
When I first read the first Poirot scripts, I felt that Clive Exton, who adapted the short stories and novels, actually gave Hastings more personality and idiosyncrasies than Agatha Christie did in the books. Although I re-read the books in which Hastings appeared before we started filming, I took the Hastings I played from Clive’s scripts as well as Agatha Christie’s character.
A little known fact is that you composed the music for the children’s TV show, Rainbow… How did that come about?
Tim Thomas, who had had some solo success with a song called Silver Morning wanted to form a band. I joined him on bass and Hugh Portnow played guitar. While we were gigging, a friend of Tim’s, who was involved in developing Rainbow, asked us to submit a tune for the theme. I also played flute at the time and so we put something together and the producer heard it and asked us to record it.
By the time the pilot for the show was recorded the band had grown to a six piece and we called ourselves Telltale; we took turns to appear in the show and sing songs. Zippy, Bungle and co were great fun to work with and we still keep in touch!
Harm, a thriller centred on the adventures of the beguiling contract killer, Rina Walker, raised in Post-War Notting Hill, is available as an e-book from Amazon, £4.48, published by Armstrong Nyman