David Suchet on family, religion, acting and life without Poirot

David Suchet by Robin Sinha Photography
David Suchet by Robin Sinha Photography
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He is best known for his portrayal of Agatha Christie’s detective Hercule Poirot, but in his long awaited autobiography with a difference, David Suchet shows us his life from behind his camera lens. Catherine Scott reports.

It is six years since Hercule Poirot was killed off by ITV and David Suchet. And the actor who played the pernickety Belgium Detective for 25 years says he is still grieving. “I still miss him. He was a part of my life for more than a quarter of a century. He was my best friend, I knew everything about him and I grieve for him in a different way than I grieve for other characters I have played. He was too much a part of my life.”

The 73-year-old actor talks about his relationship with Poirot in his autobiography published last week. But David Suchet’s Behind the Lens: My Life isn’t like a traditional autobiography, something Suchet has resisted writing for a long time.

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A keen photographer, his book combines his many photos and memoirs to give us an insight into his life on and off screen, his views on religion, his family, canal boats, music and - of course - that Belgian detective.

What also makes Suchet’s autobiography different is that he recorded it all from memory. “I wanted it to be like I was sitting with someone having a chat over a cup of coffee and telling someone anecdotes about my life and my thoughts,” says Suchet. “I am lucky that I have a good memory for faces and places so it wasn’t a problem.”

The result is a fascinating insight into Suchet’s life, with chapters focussing on things that interest and move him, rather than in any chronological order.

His interest in photography came from his beloved grandfather James Jarche, the celebrated Fleet Street press photographer, who told him never to be without a camera – a lesson Suchet has heeded from that day.

“The difference between us is that my grandfather was a great photographer, and I am not sure I am even a good photographer.”

Those who read his autobiography may beg to differ. But it is not just full of family snaps, although there are plenty of those. Suchet says he takes photographs of things that move him emotionally and that by looking at his pictures, we will learn more about him as a man.

Among the photos of places and people that mean something to the actor are portraits he has taken of many of the people he has worked with over the years from Emma Thompson to Peter Cipaldi (Suchet appeared in an episode of Dr Who).

“I am not like some photographers who go up to people and shove a camera in their face. I am very respectful and I explain to people that photography is my hobby and my passion and would they mind if I took their picture – I am pleased to say that not one actor has ever said ‘no’”.

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Although he talks a lot about his family in the book, especially his grandfather and his wife of 43 years, Sheila, their privacy is still very much protected. There are family photos, but no names.

“Family will always come first for me.” he says.

Suchet grew up in London, the middle son of a surgeon and an actress. His elder brother John is a news reader and younger brother Peter is in advertising. He was close to his mother and grandfather but recalls having a more distant relationship with his father, which was not helped by being sent to boarding school at the age of eight which he hated and which has left him with ‘a nagging sense of insecurity’.

But it was at Wellington School that Suchet started on a course that would shape his career and life to come. “It was at Wellington that I took my first real steps into acting, literally on stage in the Great Hall there, in Shakespeare’s Macbeth,” he says.

It was the English master at Wellington, Joe Storr, who recognised Suchet’s talent and suggested that he apply for the National Youth Theatre, which he successfully did. At 18 he decided that he wanted to be a professional actor and was offered a place at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA). He says his father ‘was horrified’ and never came to see him perform until he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company. But his mother made up for it as she was ‘proud enough for both of them.’

Suchet believes he has been very lucky throughout his life. That’s not to say he hasn’t had periods like many actors where no work was coming in. He even recalls nearly taking a full time job in Moss Bros, but again luck saved him and he was asked to audition for The Professionals.

“I do believe in luck, although what you choose to do with that luck is another matter. I was the understudy and the lead actor became ill and I went on instead and within two years I was the lead actor at the RSC. From there my entire career took off. One thing always leads to another.”

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Suchet is of the method school of acting, although he says he is still learning despite being 50 years in the industry. But above all his main driver is to be true to the words of the writer, which underpinned his portrayal of Poirot. He researches his characters to the point of obsession – not their motivation but why the writer included them in the script or book.

“My purpose as an actor is to serve my writer, not to serve me. And that’s how I approach all my roles.” Validation for his approach came when Agatha Christie’s daughter told him she thought her mother would have been very pleased with his Poirot. “It meant a great deal to hear her say that.”

Despite becoming a household name through television first through his portrayal of Blott, in Tom Sharpe’s Blott on the Landscape and then as Poirot in the eponymous ITV series, he says he is at heart a theatre actor. Even while playing Poirot for 25 years, he kept returning to the stage when not filming. Suchet says he has always felt something of an outsider and has at times found fame and celebrity difficult to come to terms with. “I don’t like the celebrity culture that encompasses my job as an actor. I’m very happy to be ordinary. I’d like to be remembered as an ordinary person. Not as a remote star, but someone who can talk to anybody.”

Although he keeps his work and private lives separate, he has broken his self-imposed rules when it comes to his grandson Todd, five, who was born with the rare genetic condition Tuberous Sclerosis Complex.

“The condition he has is very serious and very rare and the charity funding research is small so it means not much money is invested in it and any drugs there are are difficult to get,” says Suchet.

All profits from Life Behind the Lens: My Life will go to the Tuberous Sclerosis Association.

David Suchet will be at the University of Sheffield on Wednesday (for details visit www.offtheshelf.org.uk) and the Ilkley Literature Festival on Thursday (for details visit www.ilkleyliteraturefestival.org.uk)