David Soul

No anecdotes, no filming, as the 1970s TV star recites classic works by Pablo Neruda

Erstwhile Starsky & Hutch action hero David Soul could be playing a villain in a Steven Seagal movie, or making a straight-to-DVD sequel to Salem’s Lot. Instead, he’s here, in Belfast, gracing the Out to Lunch Festival with a rare live performance.

But the one-time Kenneth 'Hutch' Hutchinson isn’t trawling through his not-inconsiderable back catalogue of easy listening hits (‘Don’t Give Up on Us’ was number one in the UK and the US in 1978, lest we forget).

The 67-year-old former heartthrob is in town to read the work of Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, accompanied by the guitarist from Wham! and supported by his singing-songwriting daughter. Talk about niche.

China Soul is up first. With a strange, strained voice, a plaid shirt and a floppy fringe, it’s like watching an emo kid do Amy Winehouse at karaoke. The young chanteuse is amiable enough, but none of the material really connects, and the sold-out lunchtime crowd continue to tuck into their curries.

Dad looks proud, though, watching from the back of the venue, as people push past him to get to the toilets. (It’s a long way from Hollywood, indeed.)

As the main man takes the stage, several ladies who should know better are 17 again. Dressed in black, sporting a goatee and with his trademark blonde locks still just about intact, Soul perches himself at a podium and ploughs straight into Neruda’s ‘Body of a Woman’ (‘My thirst, my desire without end, my wavering road’).

Hugh Burns, an accomplished journeyman musician who as well as George Michael’s mob has worked with Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson and Gerry Rafferty, supplies lilting guitar.

After a bit of banter about his previous Belfast gig, at the King’s Hall in the late 1970s (‘The good old days’), Soul reclines in an armchair centre-stage, lamps either side, candles flickering and with a bottle of red wine – Chilean, naturally – to hand. By now, I’m beginning to wonder if this is all a particularly surreal dream.

But no. Soul continues, reading from Neruda’s ode to male self-loathing, ‘Walking Around’: ‘It so happens I am sick of being a man / And it happens that I walk into tailor shops and movie houses / Dried up, waterproof, like a swan made of felt / Steering my way in a water of wombs and ashes.’

The classic poetry is, of course, beautiful, and Soul’s passion for it inspiring. The star’s curmudgeonly nature surfaces only once, when he scolds a fan for filming the show. ‘Is there a camera over there?’ growls Hutch. ‘Please don’t shoot.’

As much as this writer would have loved, say, a screening of Magnum Force and a Q&A, Soul should be applauded for trying something different (and Out to Lunch for booking him). He must be the only actor on Earth who would rather extol the virtues of a deceased South American poet than prattle on and on about himself.

Sure, it might have been nice to hear a few anecdotes about working with Clint Eastwood or James Mason, but Soul saves his rugged charisma for talking about Neruda. The poet lives on as ‘a diplomat, a politician, a lover of life’, gushes the 70s legend. ‘He is “The Man”.’