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.