After 20 years as Hercule Poirot, David Suchet has no intention of retiring. James Walton meets him
Interviewees don’t come much easier than David Suchet. Discussing their 58th television appearance as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, lesser men might be tempted to give the occasional question something less than their full attention. Suchet, though, greets me with a warm shake of the hand, admires my digital Dictaphone, and answers everything I ask with a mixture of thoughtfulness and geniality.
Admittedly, he does know his subject. Now 62, Suchet initially established himself as a classical stage actor (a self-description he still favours), before getting his first experience of Christie playing Inspector Japp in the 1985 film Thirteen at Dinner, with Peter Ustinov as Poirot. “It was probably the worst performance I have ever given,” he claims – but, if so, the Christie family, who have the final say in all her adaptations, don’t seem to have held it against him. Instead, after seeing him as the eponymous foreigner in the TV series, Blott on the Landscape, they suggested him for the part of Poirot himself in a forthcoming – and at that stage, one-off – ITV series in 1989. After consulting his brother John the newsreader (“who told me not to touch it with a bargepole”) Suchet accepted immediately. He then got down to the business of reading all 39 Poirot novels and the four collections of short stories, watching all the screen adaptations he could find, and making a legendary bundle of notes that he carries round to this day.
POIROT: David Suchet has starred in 57 episodes as Agatha Christie's detective
What he found both surprised and reassured him. “I won’t deny that if I can plagiarise other people’s performances, I will,” he says. Yet, the more he studied his predecessors in action – from Ustinov to Albert Finney’s Oscar-nominated turn in Murder on the Orient Express – the more he felt “what was missing was anything more than one and half dimensions. I still hadn’t seen the Poirot that Christie created.” So it was that Suchet came up with the revolutionary idea of not hamming up Poirot in the traditional way, but rather “lifting what I believe Christie wrote up onto the screen”.
Out went the moustache-nets and other comedy props. Back came Christie’s steely detective, full of moral indignation and often quite merciless. “I never try to play Poirot likeable,” says Suchet firmly.
In fact, when you think about it, perhaps one of the greatest Poirot mysteries is why, even when played perfectly straight, the man himself has proved so enduringly popular (with Suchet’s own national-treasure status in Britain also reflected in him being the subject of next week’s Who Do You Think You Are?). Self-righteous, humourless and spectacularly uptight, Poirot is certainly not the sort of bloke you’d chose for an evening down the pub. Even his creator didn’t always like him much. “There have been moments,” Christie wrote in 1938, less than 20 years after the first Poirot novel (and nearly 40 years before the last), “when I felt, why why why did I ever invent this detestable, bombastic, tiresome little man?” So, almost two decades since he first donned the false moustaches, does Suchet ever know how Christie felt? “Oh yes,” he admits cheerfully. “Poirot irritates me as much as I love him. He is the most extraordinarily irritating little man.”
Suchet also admits how much he’d love to see Poirot let his hair down occasionally. Unfortunately, this seems unlikely. The programmes, like the books, might sometimes mock Poirot – but Suchet’s performance never does. Instead, he regards himself, with a combination of mock-pomposity and utter seriousness, as “the great protector of Agatha Christie”. Recent series of Marple may have gone for some embarrassingly ill-advised modernity by throwing in a few lesbians and suggesting that Miss Marple herself was once a bit of a goer. ITV’s other Christie flagship will clearly not be following suit. “That’s not going to happen in Poirot,” says Suchet, almost angrily. “No way. He will not become gay.”
Despite his many other stage and TV roles Suchet is reconciled to the fact that “my obituary will say, ‘David Suchet: TV’s Poirot’”. In the meantime, with four episodes already filmed, and four more commissioned, he’s now closing in on his dream of making a television version of every Poirot story that Christie ever wrote. (As a true purist, he won’t countenance the idea of making any that she didn’t.) When asked about his chances of getting there, he tries at first to appear relaxed about whether ITV will let him finish the job. But this is not a performance that even he can keep up for long. “Only six to do after that,” he says with unmistakable wistfulness. “If we’re that close, and I’m still alive…”
Agatha Christie’s Poirot is on ITV1 on Sunday, 14 September at 9.00pm
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