Philip Jackson: more than just Poirot’s sidekick
It was a chance meeting on a Sunday morning in the middle of Nottingham. A stranger casually started a conversation and I almost did a double-take as I realised I was talking to the man known to millions as the policeman who was always one step behind Hercule Poirot.
Retford-born actor Philip Jackson was smaller than I imagined – but I was used to seeing him as Chief Inspector Japp when he towered over David Suchet in the Agatha Christie whodunnits on ITV.
The series finished last year when the television company had filmed every novel and short story featuring the Belgian sleuth.
Detective Chief Inspector James Harold Japp was one of the regulars of the Poirot series alongside Captain Hastings, played by Hugh Fraser, and Miss Lemon (Pauline Moran).
So was Phil Jackson sad or glad to see the end of Poirot?
“Well, I saw the back of it in the year 2000. People watch it on ITV3 and think we’re still doing it. I did one episode last year, so that was strange rather than sad because it was over a long time ago.”
Phil says he enjoyed playing Japp and explains the image behind the character.
“The main thing was that we decided we shouldn’t make him a complete idiot but there should be some dignity about him, some moral fibre. He was trying to do his best even though he got it wrong sometimes.
“Detectives in the 1930s didn’t zoom around in flash cars – they went to work on the Tube. It wasn’t such a glamorous job as TV has made it.”
Phil was in Poirot for more than a decade, starting in 1989. He admits he took the conscious decision to go into the show because it would allow him to become better known.
“I’d never done a long-running thing before but I didn’t think it would go on as long as it did and I didn’t think people would still be watching episodes we recorded 25 years ago.
“Poirot came along just when my son was born. That was a good thing, a bit of continuity work-wise when the family were young. That was important.”
David Suchet is known for his meticulous research and totally immersed himself in the role as Poirot. Phil takes a much different approach and has not read any of the books or short stories.
“I just went from the scripts. It’s not great literature, Agatha Christie, but it’s the ideas, the intrigues of the plot.
“David Suchet walked around all day doing his Belgian accent even when he was talking to his agent on the phone. I understand why he did it but I don’t find the need to do that – it doesn’t help me.”
Philip Jackson was born in 1948 in north Nottinghamshire. He started acting while studying drama and German at Bristol University. He reveals he looked on acting as an alternative to a proper occupation.
“In the 1960s there was a big thing about avoiding a nine-to-five job where you had to go to the same office every day. People’s horizons widened.
“I didn’t necessarily want to be an actor. I did a lot of plays while I was at university and thought I might as well try to be an actor.”
His family were horrified at the prospect: “They couldn’t understand it. For a long time they thought it wasn’t going to work. But then my dad got quite proud when I did things on TV, although he thought some of the experimental theatre productions I did were a bit near the knuckle.”
After leaving university Phil got the best possible grounding at Liverpool Playhouse, working for 18 months in the theatre’s repertory company where he initially played small roles before working his way up to bigger parts.
Since then he has appeared in theatres all over the UK, become a regular on television in everything from Last of the Summer Wine to Midsomer Murders and has also taken on roles in some of the most well-known British films.
In 1998 he was nominated for a Screen Actors’ Guild award for his role as George in Little Voice, the movie which also featured Brenda Blethyn, Jane Horrocks, Michael Caine, Ewan McGregor and Jim Broadbent.
Despite that, he confesses to having periods of unemployment, like many actors. But he enjoys resting and says he is quite good at filling his time.
“Even at my ripe old age I’m still surprised at some of the things which come up that haven’t happened before. Things come along that get your juices flowing.
“I don’t ever want to go into a long-running thing like Coronation Street because I know I’d get bored very soon. It’s the idea of not knowing what you’re doing in three or four months’ time that’s exciting.”
So what does he feel is the pinnacle of his career: appearing in the music video of A-ha’s Take On Me?
He laughs before discounting the idea: “The guy who directed that, Steve Barron, was amazingly successful at doing pop videos. We used to play five-a-side football and he thought I was the man to chase Morten Harket (of A-ha).
“I was very proud to be involved in Brassed Off (a film about the troubles faced by a colliery brass band after the closure of their pit) because of what it’s about. There’s a lot of heart in it.
“I did Death of a Salesman at West Yorkshire Playhouse a couple of years ago and enjoyed that. That’s one of the parts that you’re privileged to do. I liked playing Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – that’s a nice part.
“I used to do quite a lot of new plays at the Royal Court and Bush Theatre in London. That’s always interesting, creating it for the first time. That was exciting and you don’t really know how it’s going to go down. But I’ve not been a big one for the classics, let’s put it like that.”
As for the future, Phil can be seen in three films which will be released shortly. He plays an English detective in an Irish production, Patrick’s Day; rubs shoulders with Brian Cox, Toby Stephens and Anne Reid in Theatre of Dreams, a fictional tale about former Manchester United manager Matt Busby; and pops up in The Best Offer, an Italian production whose cast also includes Geoffrey Rush and Donald Sutherland.
Return to Retford
Phil mixes with superstars but there are no airs and graces about him. He is proud of his family: wife Sally Baxter, an actress, and children George who is in Vienna learning to be a classical music conductor and Amy who is beginning to forge a career in musical theatre.
Phil still has friends in Retford and hopes to return there soon. It will be his first visit to the town in about 20 years.
“There was a big charity do one Easter Bank Holiday Monday. They asked me and I readily agreed to go back as Chief Inspector Japp. I managed to get the costume and we did a detective trail through the town.
“It was great. I really enjoyed it. I just kept running into people from my youth. I’ve got a big desire to go back. So watch out Retford!”
* This article appeared in the March 2014 issue of Country Images magazine