The Way We Live Now: Who's Who

Augustus Melmotte Augustus Melmotte
David Suchet

Assets: a house in London's Grosvenor Square, a dangerous manipulative charm, an heiress daughter, Marie, and enough nerve to host a state banquet for the Emperor of China.

Prospects: the fulfillment of a dream of world commerce and to be accepted as an English gentleman with a country "seat"... and another in Parliament.

David Suchet could not escape the idea that Anthony Trollope's 19th-century rogue Augustus Melmotte had much in common with the 20th-century's Sir Robert Maxwell.

The multi-award-winning actor managed to get hold of radio recordings and interviews of Maxwell from the BBC. He also read five biographies, including A Mind of my Own by Maxwell's widow, Elizabeth.

"It's extraordinary," says Suchet, "how the lives of these two men are similar, but I do not try to portray Maxwell. I play Melmotte with a greater understanding because of my gained knowledge about Maxwell."

He is quick to point out that the similarity between Melmotte and Maxwell was not just his idea. "In many literary journals Maxwell and Melmotte are often tied together," he says. "But what audiences will see, if they know Maxwell's background, is that he mirrors the life of Melmotte and it is ironic that we use the word 'mirror' here."

Suchet agrees Melmotte is a monster. "He's vile to his family, including his downtrodden wife, he beats his daughter Marie, he's a crook, a charlatan, a pig and he's violent... yet he has a vision of free trade and free movement of money which in his mind could lead to a new and better world.

"There is something about playing the character that I totally adored. He scowls and looms over the whole story and he is one of the great literary monsters, yet there is something about this man that is totally compelling, just as there was a sort of compelling charm about Maxwell. They are larger than life, these men, and there are very few of them around at any one time."

Screenwriter Andrew Davies adds: "Melmotte is a monster of a character, well up there with Francis Urquhart from House of Cards. You're appalled by him, yet fascinated in a strange way."

Melmotte, a newcomer to Britain, is also an outsider who wants to be accepted as an Englishman. And that's the sort of role Suchet has always loved playing. "Melmotte is the ultimate outsider and I'm given to playing outsiders," says the man whose roles have included some wonderful examples: Poirot, filmmaker Louis B. Mayer, Freud, Salieri (Amadeus) and Shakespeare's Iago and Shylock.

Suchet was last seen on BBC Television as Baron Stockmar in Victoria and Albert and as the teacher in Murder in Mind. He is currently filming a series of NCS (National Crime Squad) for BBC One, following its debut as a one-off special earlier this year.

Suchet had never done a Trollope before, and he says it has been one of the most demanding, yet happiest, jobs of his career. "David Yates is one of the greatest screen directors I've worked with. He gives the actors the courage to dare to fail. That is so rare."