David Suchet has played Hercule Poirot on the small screen for almost a quarter of a century. The actor talks to Chris Bond about saying au revoir to the defining role of his career.
DAVID Suchet admits that filming the final episode of the long-running Poirot TV series was the hardest job of his career.
The 67-year-old actor has played Agatha Christie’s famous detective on the small screen for the past quarter of a century during which time he has filmed every case she ever wrote for him, culminating in Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case, screened on ITV earlier this week. “I have to say that last day of shooting was the hardest of my career because I had to say goodbye to my best friend,” says Suchet.
Set during the Second World War, the story has a very different mood and appearance to the glamorous Art Deco extravagance of classics like Death On The Nile and Murder On The Orient Express. Poirot is now very old and ill, residing in a remote and gloomy country house, but his “little grey cells” are still as sharp as ever.
Suchet, who usually has to be padded out to play the gourmand with a weakness for chocolate, had to lose two stone this time round. “It was extraordinary preparing for the end,” he says. “Not a pleasant thing to do. And that’s not me being theatrical, I’ve lived with this man for 25 years.”
Having peeled off the famous moustache and put aside the gold watch and silver-topped cane, Suchet reveals what it’s been like to play the “little Belgian man” in a new book, Poirot and me, co-written with Geoffrey Wansell. Next month Suchet is in Harrogate – where Christie herself reappeared after mysteriously disappearing for 11 days in 1926 – as part of the Harrogate International Festivals season where he will be talking to Wansell about playing the famous sleuth.
“I’ve been asked so many times over the years by fans asking when was I going to write a book. I have no interest in talking about myself but I was interested in talking about 25 years of Poirot and me and hopefully fans of the series will enjoy it.”
Poirot was first introduced by Christie in The Mysterious Affair at Styles and went on to appear in 33 novels, one play and more than 50 short stories published between 1920 and 1975. Over the years many notable actors, including Peter Ustinov and Albert Finney, have portrayed the detective and in the future others will take on the part, but it’s Suchet’s performances that are the benchmark by which they will be measured.
Poirot has become a career-defining role for Suchet, who first signed up for the part in 1998, although he says this was down to happenstance rather than design.
“Originally I was only contracted to do 10 short stories and then each year I had to wait for the phone call asking if I would do another series, and gradually I did more and more. But it was never a given, so every series was special.”
Each time it meant Suchet becoming absorbed in the character. “I’d go back to my study and do my research and watch hour upon hour of my previous performances. After 25 years in any relationship, you become very close,” he says.
When he first took on the role he was unfazed following in such famous footsteps. “I came to Poirot in 1998 and by that time I’d been acting for more than 20 years, I’d played Iago and Shylock and roles famous actors had played so I didn’t worry about that.”
However, when he started reading the stories he discovered something new. “Albert Finney chose to play a character unlike Poirot in the books and Peter Ustinov, who once said he could never truly be Poirot because he didn’t look like him, chose a more comedic route.
“Poirot was amusing but he was never just a comic character and suddenly as I was reading the books I saw this character I’d never seen on TV.”
Suchet takes his work seriously and his raison d’etre, as he puts it, is to serve the writer.
“I decided to play Poirot the way she [Christie] wrote him and only that way and it’s my good fortuity that this went to people’s hearts,” he says.
“The first time I had any idea that she would have been pleased – and I was very nervous because she hated her characters being shown on television – was when the late Rosalind Hicks, her daughter, said to me, ‘I think my mother would have been delighted’. That, coming from her, was quite something.”
Having inhabited the character for so long he understands Poirot’s appeal. “People have said when they see him or spend time with him everything feels all right with the world.
“They feel safe with him, plus he always has right on his side. He’s very self-contained and I think people wish they could be a little bit more like him.”
He says it takes him time to re-inhabit the character but after portraying him for so long he feels he understands him. “I can see the world through his eyes. I can walk down the street and I know what he would do and what he would think, that’s how well I know him.”
Suchet is in the classic mould of the great British character actor, he’s performed with the RSC and starred in TV dramas such as The Way We Live Now and Maxwell, in which he played the fallen press baron Robert Maxwell.
But with Poirot he’s become synonymous with a single, albeit famous, character – something most actors try and avoid like the plague. “I’ve played many different characters and I’m grateful that I haven’t been typecast. But I’m well aware that my obituary will have a big photo of Poirot and a small one of me, and that’s fine.”
For all his method acting thoroughness Suchet says he can separate himself from Poirot, although he admits they do share some traits. “We’re both perfectionists. I’ve always said this about myself that I’ve never really been satisfied totally with anything. I’m the most difficult person to live with and Poirot’s like that,” he says.
“I do share his love of order and I like symmetry, so if I see a crooked picture in my flat I will always straighten it, like he does. But he takes it to another degree, he would be OCD in today’s terms.”
There are other dis-similarities besides Poirot’s obsessive fastidiousness. “I don’t have his brain, but what he has taught me is to be a better listener. When he’s talking to someone he locks on to their eyes and says ‘I listen to what you’re saying, but I hear what you mean.’ It’s a wonderful expression and he gives them his total attention.”
It’s been claimed that Christie grew to dislike her own literary creation but refused to kill him off because of his popularity with readers. “I think a lot of authors end up being irritated by their characters, especially the more popular they become because they have to write more. There were the odd moments when Poirot used to irritate me and I found him an annoying little man, but at the same time you can’t help loving him.”
It was recently revealed that crime novelist Sophie Hannah has been commissioned to write a new Poirot novel. But despite his attachment to the role, Suchet is not keen to reprise it for the new adventure. “I don’t see how I can revive myself for a story that is not Agatha Christie,” he says. “However, I’d love to do a remake of one of the stories for movie. I would love to do The ABC Murders, which is my favourite. There’s nothing to stop me reprising the story for cinema.”
In saying farewell to Poirot, Suchet has freed up time to spend on other projects and next year he goes on a world tour with Last Confession, a play about the mysterious 33-day papacy of John Paul I.
But as with the legion of Poirot fans around the world, the detective will always hold a special place in his heart. “I feel blessed to have been able to play that sort of man from such wonderful stories. He will, and they will, remain memories for the rest of my life. I just have to close my eyes and revisit them.”
Poirot and Me: An Evening with David Suchet, December 10, at the Royal Hall, Harrogate. Suchet will be in conversation with Geoffrey Wansell. The event, sponsored by Theakstons, will be followed by a book signing. Tickets are priced £18. For more information call the box office on 01423 562 303, or visit www.harrogateinternationalfestivals.com
Poirot and me, published by Headline, is out now priced £20.