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Veteran of the spoken Word

by
25 April 2014

The actor David Suchet has made an audio recording of the entire Bible. He tells Olly Grant about this fulfilment of a long-term ambition

FOR David Suchet, 2013 was a busy year. On television, the distinguished actor reached the end of a journey as he made his final appearance as Agatha Christie's Belgian detective Hercule Poirot - a journey that had lasted for 24 years, and 70 episodes, and had a global following of 600 million.

Off-camera, he was doing something less conspicuous, but no less demanding: committing 80 hours of voice recordings to tape for a new spoken-word version of the Bible.

In the NIV Audio Bible, just released by Hodder & Stoughton, the actor applies his famously sonorous voice to the Bible in its entirety - all 750,000-plus words of it. Hodder describes it as "the very first full-length audio version of the NIV Bible spoken by a single British actor."

For Suchet, who spent 200 hours in a recording studio for the project, it is the fulfilment of a long-held ambition. He first read St John's Gospel for a multi-actor Hodder audio Bible in 1989 (coincidentally, the year when filming began on Poirot), but always wanted to do more.

"As a performer, I wanted to use my voice," he says in the Bible's accompanying notes. "I wanted to record all the varied writings in the Bible in the hope that others might hear them."

Brought up in a mainly non-observant Jewish household, he converted to Christianity in 1986 after reading St Paul's Letter to the Romans in a hotel Bible. "I read it as a letter that had just been sent to me through the post," he said recently. "By the time I got to the end, I found a world-view that I had been looking for all my life."

And yet his journey to faith has echoes of C. S. Lewis's famous quip about being "the most reluctant convert in all England". Suchet once described his own conversion as being "dragged, kicking and screaming", into the Kingdom.

 

MORE recently, the 67-year-old has turned documentary-maker for the BBC1 series In the Footsteps of St Paul, while his hand was evident in the subtle but persistent references to Poirot's Roman Catholicism in the ITV series. In 2012, he was appointed a vice-president of the British Bible Society.

There is a further correlation between Poirot and the audio Bible, in that both are cover-to-cover renderings of extensive works. Suchet was always vocal about his desire to film every single Christie novel and short story in the series before hanging up his moustache.

This makes me wonder if he has a predilection for canons - a collector's urge towards completion (he is also a keen collector, incidentally, of fountain pens). Oddly, this notion has never occurred to him. "I hadn't thought of that before, but maybe I have," he says, sending a volley of laughter down the phone line when we discuss the audio project. "Maybe I do have a bit of a collector's mind. Maybe."

So why the New International Version, in particular? It was both a practical and a personal choice, he says. "Biblica [the Bible translation and publishing organisation, which holds the NIV copyright] sponsored the whole thing; so it's what they wanted. But it's also a wonderful translation. It's accessible. It's accurate.

"Being a Shakespearean, I originally would have liked to do the King James. But today I think we have to go where the language is accessible, without losing any of the gloriousness of the KJV. And the NIV is the biggest-selling Bible in the world; so it has the biggest outreach. But it also reads very well out loud. It's a very good version."

In fact, reading aloud was one of the chief reasons why Suchet was so keen to take on the project. The Bible often speaks of "hearing the word of the Lord", he says, and he wanted to know "what it would feel like to listen to it as a whole - continuously, from beginning to end, in as many consecutive days as I was able".

Reading the entire work also reflects his sense of the text as a single, coherent narrative. "It's a whole story that begins in Genesis, and ends in Revelation."
 

SUCHET tackled the text, book by book, reading commentaries to explore the historical context before preparing his voice recordings. "I suppose it was like a huge Bible study. I would study at home for hours and hours - I would say three to four hours on every book, before actually speaking it, so that I knew that I had, underneath me, a great confidence about it."

One of the surprises in speaking the text aloud, he says, was the variation in pitch and tone which emerged naturally as he prepared each reading. "I was very surprised at how emotionally one could read the Psalms. Each one has a high emotional pitch of its own, whether it be anger, or praise, poetry, imagery. They are full of emotion, and I read them like that."

One of the passages he most enjoyed reading was "Jesus's talk in John after the Last Supper, where he talks about himself being 'the vine, and you the branches'. That was very lovely to read, because I did it in a very soft, conversational style, very intimate, which is how I believe it would have been done. I loved that."

Other sections, inevitably, were more challenging. "You really need a jug of ice-cold water next to you while you're reading Chronicles - to pour over your head rather than to drink, because it's the most difficult thing. Name after name after name. . ." The key to understanding such books, he eventually discovered, was to put himself in the shoes of the chronicled individuals. "I realised that every single name was a life, a human being . . . and that made it easier."

 

WHAT did he make of the more theologically difficult passages - the smiting of the Amalekites in 1 Samuel, say? He thinks for a moment. "The bits of the Old Testament where you read about being God being seemingly so cruel, the very bloodthirsty passages, were very challenging.

"But that's all part of the great pattern of God's working with human beings. And the way he works? I can't justify that. I wouldn't even try to. It's not for us to do. 'His ways are not our ways.' You just have to read them because that's what happened."

And yet Suchet does not believe that the Bible is without error. "I see the Bible, I hope, with a rational mind. I do not believe it's totally inerrant. I do not believe that. I believe it was written by human beings inspired by God. What it gives me is a lens through which I can view the world."

This marks something of a change from the early days of his conversion, he admits. "I've become more orthodox as I've become . . . less Evangelical. I'm not an Evangelical Christian. I've become far more orthodox and rooted in the historical Church. The more I read, the more fascinated I am by early church history, by the roots of Christianity.

"And I think it's very important that I'm not just swinging with fashion. . . So my prayers now are rooted in the historical Church, and that's where I'm most comfortable, because I'm touching the faith, the belief, the words, of those who began it."

Suchet remains an Anglican. He currently worships at the Chapel Royal in the Tower of London, a short walk from his home. Given his stated orthodoxy, I wondered where he stood on the current arguments over gay marriage and women bishops. But on these issues - in public, at least - he will not be drawn.

"Especially in the press, I will not get into debate about that," he says. Why? "Because I don't place myself in that position."

What he will say is that he finds the Church's current disunity distressing. "What saddens me is that what's happening in the Church is causing division. That's what saddens me more than anything else - that whatever rules are made in the Anglican faith have actually not helped unity with the other main branches of Christianity, Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

"One used to say the Anglican was the other side of the coin to the Roman Catholic, but that's now becoming more and more separated by choices that have been made."

He pauses. "The more I read, the more I realise that those in leadership in the Church of England are going through a very, very difficult time. I think the Anglican faith is at a major crossroads. But it will find its way."

For the present, though, Suchet has other things on his mind. His two forthcoming projects both revolve around church history. The first is a world tour of The Last Confession, a play about the 33-day papacy of Pope John Paul I, in which he plays Cardinal Giovanni Benelli. The second is a new BBC documentary about the Early Church, In the Footsteps of St Peter.

"I've just come back from Israel, Turkey, and Rome," he says. He hopes that the series - to be screened later this year - will be a corrective to popular images of the Apostle.

"Everyone talks about Peter as a bit of a bumbling man, a bit of a failure. You know, he walks on water, then sinks. He takes Jesus aside, and says he can't be crucified, and Jesus says, 'Get thee behind me, Satan.' But he's actually a glorious personality. A very mystical man, yet a humble fisherman.

"I met a man that I'd not met before - an extraordinary human being, who was the leader of the disciples, and possibly the greatest friend of Jesus."

He also hopes to reap the personal benefits of his recent immersion in scripture for the NIV project. "I like to read the Bible every day. I try to touch base with it on a daily basis, though I don't always manage to do that - I fail more often than not.

"But what's lovely now is that, having read it all, the Bible feels like an old friend. I find myself thinking, 'Oh, I know this bit!', because I've actually read it out loud. And that's just a lovely, lovely feeling."
 

The NIV Audio Bible read by David Suchet from Hodder & Stoughton is available on six MP3 CDs at £39.99 (Church Times Bookshop £35.99).

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