The master of Tussauds TV, David Suchet, attempted to bring back to life the 6ft 3, 22 stone-plus, Robert Maxwell in BBC2's Maxwell last night. This was quite a challenge given that Suchet is only 5ft 8 and 12 stone-plus. Instead, what he did was to deliver a dim, bonsai tableau vivant of the man mountain who defrauded Mirror Group pensioners of about half a billion pounds, sterling.
There was the basso profundo, cured in the finest cigar smoke and costliest fizz - with the acquired drawl, mistaken for upper class. There were the polka dotty bow-ties in their primaries. And let us not forget the dyed jet hair, stuck back with some sort of glossy grease. But this was a Maxwell mounted in a glass cage (or behind a TV screen) for exhibition. At no point did one think that here was a re-animation by the spirit of an empathetic actor. This Maxwell was an under-sized effigy, a mannequin built on a thousand studied mannerisms, sartorial details, behavioural tics. Madame Tussauds would have been proud.
Suchet has form as a Tussauds thesp. His Hercule Poirot is, too, a model of face paint, hair dye, fidgety quirks and mannered mummery. Except that for Agatha Christie it works. Once you take away the absurd murder plots, the still-life drawing-room chit-chats and the determination of everyone to engage with the amateur 'tec, stylisation is the redeemer. Without Suchet's absurd mincing about, as the sissy Belgian brother of Batman's Penguin, Christie's appalling fiction would implode in a matter of seconds. So let us not be too critical of Tussauds TV: it has its place on the small screen.
But it didn't work for Maxwell. Cap'n Bob is too recent a passing. His memory is still as fresh as his breath was stale. His physicality was an essential component of the image: the gross body aided and abetted the sadistic arch-bully. In Maxwell, one might think for a moment that Suchet had captured the original's presence in solo shots. But then Patricia Hodge - as wife Betty - would come into frame and suddenly the giant ogre was just another Napoleon. The sets also betrayed the reality of Suchet's failure of proportion. Desks looked a little too big. Champagne flutes appeared insufficiently small in the huge peasant hands of the template beast. Bigness was absent. This was not a Maxwell who once murdered Nazis (when he made himself useful). Suchet's Maxwell would have thrown grass darts in WW2. Where was the visceral courage that in later years soured into boardroom, suited hubris and criminality? Tussauds Maxwell invited our sympathy as he stole from Peter to con Paul, when growing rage at pre-meditated fraud would have been entirely deserved.
Suchet told the Radio Times he only accepted the part when assured widow Betty would not be offended. What a shameful admission. No surprise then that Hodge's Betty played the part of Reproach and Conscience as he tried to trade her in for his secretary. It would have been better had this piece of dramatic laundering been preceded by a failed injunction application by the Maxwell clan. Instead, we were granted a guided tour of a waxwork. The result was a meltdown of the truth.