As the Poirot television series nears its finale, David Suchet tells Susan Griffiths what it’s been like playing the little Belgian detective for the last 25 years – and why he believes the character has such an enduring appeal
He has used his little grey cells on our screens for a quarter of a century, but this year marks the end of the television incarnation of Hercule Poirot, the brilliant Belgian detective created by the crime writer Agatha Christie and beautifully portrayed by David Suchet since the series began. Now, though, is not the time for tears, as fans of the moustached maverick have five final adaptations to enjoy over the course of this year.
For that reason, Suchet isn’t wallowing over the detective’s departure just yet. “I went to Cannes for a TV media event and ITV threw a wonderful dinner for 40 of their chief buyers to celebrate 25 years of Poirot,” says the 67-year-old actor. “It was a great celebration and Mathew Prichard, Agatha Christie’s grandson, was there, but so far no other celebrations are planned.” Besides, he’s yet to complete the final film. “So I’m not going to do anything until we finish,” he says.
The first of the new feature-length films is Elephants Can Remember, which was published in 1972 and is Christie’s final dalliance with the Belgian detective. The film, scripted by the Bafta-winning writer Nick Dear, begins with the death of a man and woman out on a cliff walk and then moves forward 25 years to Poirot being called upon to investigate the murder of an elderly psychiatrist.
Poirot’s old friend, the crime writer Ariadne Oliver, meanwhile, is pressed to uncover the truth behind the couple’s deaths. “Poirot becomes involved against his wishes until he realises that the case he’s working on is linked to what Ariadne Oliver is doing,” says London-born Suchet, who this month celebrates his 37th wedding anniversary with actress Sheila Ferris, with whom he has two children.
“He’s forced into it and has to turn round and say, ‘Madam, I think you are correct and now I’ve discovered that these two cases are connected’,” he says, adopting Poirot’s particular French- Belgian accent.
This marks the fifth occasion Zoe Wanamaker has appeared in Poirot as Oliver since her debut in 2005, but she and Suchet go way back. “Zoe and I started working together in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in 1978 and we’ve worked together on and off ever since,” says Suchet, whose interest in acting began at the National Youth Theatre before he embarked on three years of study at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts.
“We’ve been close as an actor partnership and have such a trust with each other that has developed over the years.”
The stellar ensemble also includes young actress Vanessa Kirby, with whom Suchet worked on Great Expectations (“She’s going to go a very, very long way”), Game Of Thrones’ Iain Glen (“a wonderful actor”) and Italian-Australian actress Greta Scacchi.
“I’ve never worked with Greta before but I was so thrilled she was involved with this film,” says Suchet, who’s acted as associate producer on Poirot since 2003 and as such, has a lot of input on each of the films.
“More so on the scripts before we start shooting,” he says. “One is always in a situation with the adaptation of books and I get letters from Poirot diehards saying, ‘Oh, it’s moved too far away from the book’. “But very often, the books themselves are not that filmable from a commercial point of view,” he says.
For instance, a lot of the novels are based in one setting, “but the audience loves us going out to other locations,” says Suchet.
It was 1988 when he agreed to take on the role of Poirot, and in the same year, he filmed the first Agatha Christie adaptation, The Adventure Of The Clapham Cook, which was broadcast on January 8, 1989.
It’s little surprise to hear he’s now considered something of an oracle on set. “Cast and crew come to me with a problem if our producer is not available,” he says. “I like it because I’m the only one who’s been there from the beginning, so I can be very useful and helpful.”
It’s been more than two years since the last Agatha Christie film, Murder On The Orient Express, was completed, and despite having depicted Poirot for so many years, Suchet admits it’s tough to get back into character. “It’s always more difficult than I ever imagine it will be; for two reasons,” he says. “I do so many things in between and play so many different characters, but also because Poirot is so particular and precise.”
In preparation, Suchet will watch at least ten hours of previous Poirot footage. “I have to come back to his voice, his walk and his mannerisms, so that I match exactly, apart from ageing and things like that,” he says.
Suchet also conducts a detailed script check “to make sure everything I say is valid, especially when I come to Poirot’s summing up. and the actor concedes the character’s distinctive traits have rubbed off on him. “He’s taught me to be a much better listener than I would have been had I never played him,” says Suchet. He recites one of Poirot’s expressions: “I listen to what people say, but I actually hear what they mean.”
While Suchet’s now quite ready to reflect on the impact Poirot has had on his own life and career, he has also been musing on the character’s enduring appeal.
“He’s very respectful and he’s very charming, but my son-in-law gave the best answer, which is that ‘Poirot is enduring because he’s a great moral compass and people would like to be him’. Whenever you watch him, as he sums up a case, you think the world is a better place.”
• Poirot: Elephants Can Remember is on STV on Sunday at 8pm.
• Elephants Can Remember is part of the 13th and final series, which includes The Big Four, Dead Man’s Folly, The Labours Of Hercules and Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case.
• Elephants Can Remember was filmed over 23 days in a number of locations, including National Trust house Greys Court in Oxfordshire, Shepperton Studios in Middlesex and The Park Lane Hotel, London.
• Poirot is shown by more than 200 broadcasters worldwide, including in America, Italy, and Russia.
• The most recent film was Murder On The Orient Express, which attracted 5.7 million viewers in 2011.
• A keen photographer, David Suchet has been capturing moments on set but recently lost three films when he sent them off to get developed.
David Suchet: an actor’s life
• Born in London in 1942 to an actress mother and a doctor father, David Suchet first ventured into acting in a school production of Macbeth, in which he landed the title role.
• He joined the National Youth Theatre, before studying at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts.
• He secured his first acting work at the Watermill Theatre, in Berkshire, before joining the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1973, playing Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet. He won a Society of West End Theatres Award for best actor for his turn as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice and began to win guest roles in TV shows like The Protectors, The Professionals and Tales of the Unexpected.
• As well as Poirot, the iconic part he first played in 1989, his other major TV roles have included Reilly – Ace of Spies, Blott on the Landscape, and The Life of Freud.
• Suchet’s first feature film role was in a 1978 made-for-TV version of Charles Dickens’ classic novel, A Tale of Two Cities.
• He appeared alongside Michael Palin and Maggie Smith in The Missionary in 1982 and with Margot Kidder and Robert Hays in The Trenchcoat the following year.
• His other big-screen appearances have included supporting turns in such films as The Little Drummer Girl, starring Diane Keaton; A World Apart, starring Barbara Hershey; Executive Decision, starring Kurt Russell; and A Perfect Murder, starring Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow.
• He also appeared as the domineering Hollywood studio head Louis B. Mayer in the film RKO 281, about the making of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.
• In 1999 Suchet made his Broadway debut playing Salieri in Amadeus and received a Tony nomination for his performance.
• In 2002, he was awarded an OBE.