‘I’m still grieving for Poirot,’ says David Suchet of the little Belgian detective with the fussy personal habits. After more than two decades of success, he no longer plays Agatha Christie’s famous creation and claims to feel bereaved. ‘That’s not just a luvvie statement. If you’ve become somebody for a long period of time, over 25 years and 70-odd films, you get to know that person in every dimension. Not just his habit of eating two boiled eggs of the same size. Not just the moustache. You get to know his inner life. I can still put on his glasses and assume his world view even now.’
‘I’m still grieving for Poirot,’ says David Suchet of the little Belgian detective with the fussy personal habits
Suchet appeared as the fastidious Poirot for a final time in 2013, breathing his last in the episode Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case after telling his faithful sidekick: ‘Ah Hastings, my dear friend, they were good days.’
‘There are repeats of Poirot, so do I watch them? No. He’s gone for me. He has to be gone for me. I lost my best friend.’
That’s a strange thing to say of a made-up character, but Suchet seems to mean it. ‘I lost the person I probably got to know as much as I know my best friend in real life. And towards the end I put into him slightly more loneliness than Agatha Christie put into him, because I was playing his interior life more. The crew on the day he died, they all cried. My wife cried. I cried. And if I do think of those moments now, I’m still grieving.’
There is, indeed, a faraway look in his eyes as we talk in his publisher’s office overlooking the Thames. Now aged 73, the veteran actor and keen photographer is publishing a book telling the stories of his life, called Behind The Lens. The moustache has gone, the specs are chunkier and he’s dressed more casually in chinos and a striped shirt, but when Suchet purses his lips like Poirot he can summon the man. So it must have been a challenge when Kenneth Branagh took over as the detective in a big-budget movie of Murder On The Orient Express.
David Suchet as Hercule Poirot, who he played for more than 25 years. ‘I lost the person I probably got to know as much as I know my best friend in real life’
‘My wife Sheila and I found out in a coffee bar, by reading it in the newspaper. I remember thinking, “Well! Why wasn’t I told?” Which was a bit egotistical.’
He chuckles at his own folly.
‘Then pictures started coming out, people were denigrating the moustache [Ken] was wearing and the look of his Poirot, and I began to feel, “Whoa! Suppose that was me? This is really hard for Ken. He has to follow me in a big-movie version which everybody has decided shouldn’t be me. That’s fine, that’s showbusiness. But to have all this negativity when the movie hasn’t even opened, that’s tough.”’
After that, Suchet decided to hold his tongue about other people’s versions. ‘It’s a decision I took jointly with Sheila, not to watch and not to comment. I said to her, “How ever that film may come out, success or failure, I’m going to be asked what I feel. Having played the character for 25 years, with huge success, and having died as Poirot, it’s not for me to judge another actor’s interpretation.” ’
So he also deliberately chose not to see John Malkovich play Poirot in a different, darker way in The ABC Murders. ‘I haven’t watched Ken and I haven’t watched John. I have no view. And that will be that until my dying day, or until there are enough Poirots that it doesn’t matter.’
If that day ever comes, will he watch all the different incarnations? ‘If I’m in my 90s, I’ll forget I ever played him!’
David Suchet playing Caliban in black-face in a 1978 production of The Tempest with the RSC
Suchet’s book covers his childhood, his terrible experiences of boarding school and his early days as an actor with the Royal Shakespeare Company before he came to stardom with the television series Blott On The Landscape. It comes up to date with his more recent appearances as the sinister Landlord in Doctor Who and a media baron in Press. And it contains some terrifically entertaining revelations, including a career-long refusal to make love on camera. It all goes back to a bad experience during filming of the John le Carré novel The Little Drummer Girl in 1984. Suchet told the director, George Roy Hill: ‘I’m not happy doing sex scenes. I get embarrassed.’
Hill said not to worry – Suchet would be in his underwear and the woman in question would be in a swimming costume. Suchet was playing a baddie and the camera just needed to see his naked back in the moment of passion before his throat was cut.
‘In walks the most gorgeous Russian model, who takes off her dressing gown; underneath she’s wearing a G-string and nothing else…’
Suchet winces at the memory and laughs, as his wife of 43 years is in the room with us. ‘Oh! That is the most embarrassing moment of my 50-year career. I can laugh at it now, but I’ll never forgot how I felt. And how small I was made to feel.’
For being embarrassed? ‘Yes. George is a wonderful director, but he had no idea of what I was going through. When this fantastic-looking woman took her things off and got into bed, I didn’t know where to put myself! It’s awful! I don’t find it easy. You’re up on your elbows [over her] and you say, “Hello, my name’s David Suchet.” Oh God!’
In the book he describes what happened when the cameras rolled and the time came to simulate sex: ‘Let me put it this way: she was going for an Oscar. I didn’t know what was going on but I was so mortified and uncomfortable that I just completely froze.’
Many male actors would have felt they were living the dream, so why did he feel so awkward about it? ‘Because I never see myself in that light. There are so many films today that I would have to say no to, because of sexually explicit scenes. It’s not my world. It’s not what I do. It’s not my training. I’m way out of my comfort zone. Therefore I couldn’t do it.’
Suchet is a man of deep faith, who has made documentaries about Christianity; he’s also a classically trained former RSC actor, both of which help to explain why he turned down the chance to sign with a major Hollywood studio during the Eighties.
‘I’d just played Shylock in The Merchant Of Venice with the RSC. John Schlesinger saw me and said he was making a movie called The Falcon And The Snowman. They loved the play in Hollywood. They liked me. That was enormously flattering.’
David Suchet and his wife Sheila celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary at The Savoy hotel, London, on July 31, 2016
Making the film turned out to be tricky, though. ‘There’s one very famous actor I worked with and we were playing this huge scene. He did his lines, then they moved the cameras and he was meant to stand by and do his lines off-camera while I responded to him on film. He wouldn’t do it. So his lines were read by the continuity girl.’
What does he think that was about?
‘Stardom. He said, “I don’t do that. My job is front of the camera.’’ ’
The disgust is evident on Suchet’s face. He won’t name the culprit, but the most famous actor he played opposite in The Falcon And The Snowman was Sean Penn. ‘I am not saying that all Hollywood actors are like that, but this was my experience of it.’
These days, Suchet is a judge for the Bafta awards. He says he has to watch many modern films with the subtitles turned on because so many performers mumble now. ‘The plot will drive the movie and the visuals will back that up. I miss a lot because the sound and the words are not of primary importance any more. The dialogue in scripts is getting thinner. I’m not saying it is better or worse but I do find movies harder to follow.’
Does he regret turning down the chance to relocate to Hollywood? ‘I don’t regret it. I thought very carefully about what type of actor I am. English actors were famous in America for playing baddies at that time. I thought: Maybe that’s all I’ll be asked to play? I don’t want that all my life.’
But he could have had the chance to earn millions.
‘Potentially, yes. That was on the table. Very attractive. So I came home with that offer in my head. My son would have been about three. My daughter would have been about one. I sat down with my wife and we talked about it. We asked ourselves: what do we want now?’
Suchet fell back on the values of his grandfather, Jimmy, a loving man who taught him photography as well as respect for his fellow humans and who the book reveals was a major influence in his life.
‘Money, fame, is not what life is about. You have a family. Your whole education, your whole life, is British. If I had gone, I would have lost the world I was brought up with, which I could share with my children. A continuity. A sense of belonging to a nation. I thought: If we go there, to a new place, who are we? No. Be true to who you are.’
Suchet (with co-star Ben Chaplin) as George Emmerson, CEO of a global news corporation, in BBC1’s 2018 drama, Press
Talking of truth, I was shocked to read in his book that he once put on prosthetics to play someone from China for the television series Reilly, Ace Of Spies. ‘I found that role very challenging, but I loved it. I had to learn how to speak English with a Chinese accent and wear what they call fish skins over my eyes to make me look like a Far Eastern person with that slanting of the eye,’ he writes. There would be uproar if he did that now. It might even be called racist at a time when some people are saying actors should only play characters with the same ethnic background, gender or sexuality as themselves.
‘You wouldn’t be allowed to now,’ he agrees, then smiles mischievously. ‘Well, when I played Caliban in the theatre, I blacked up.’ Suchet calls over to his PR: ‘Have you got a picture? You can show him.’ She looks nervous. Is this in the book? ‘No. You’re going to find this fascinating. You’re going to go, “You’re kidding!” ’
Suchet is right. I tell him that what I’m looking at is unbelievable to modern eyes.
‘Isn’t it? That’s 1978. In The Tempest.’
The photograph shows him in full blackface as an African-Caribbean. ‘With the voice and everything. Look at you,’ says Suchet, laughing at my shocked reaction. ‘That [role as Caliban] launched my theatre career.’
What does he think of it now? ‘The world has changed. It has to change. It’s not my world. I’m trying to catch up with it. But I think there are limits. How much do you change of a play – dialogue or character-wise – to suit political correctness?’
The image he’s showing me is the deliberate opposite of PC: casting Caliban as an African-Caribbean man, then choosing a white actor to play him in black-face. So does Suchet insist he should be allowed to play anyone he wants to as an actor?
‘I’m a character actor. I don’t want who I can play to become small because of political correctness. The pendulum can swing too much one way [as he’s admitting it did back in the Seventies], then too much the other way. Hopefully it will come to rest in the middle.’
There doesn’t seem to be much chance of that happening any time soon.
‘I read about an actor in Hollywood who had done a couple of weeks on a movie playing a Jewish character, but then they found out that he wasn’t Jewish and he got the sack. That upset me. Does that mean you have to be Jewish to play Shylock? How far does this go? I’m concerned. Will only a Belgian be allowed to play Poirot, eventually?’
Suchet began playing the detective in 1989 and found it helped heal a troubled relationship with his father, a prominent hospital doctor who had been distant or absent for much of his childhood, and who disapproved of his son’s acting career.
I don’t regret not going to Hollywood. Money, fame, is not what life is about
‘When Poirot was a success, he began to realise: maybe he’s all right. Maybe what he’s doing is more than I understand. I’ve got a photograph of my parents visiting me on the set of Poirot. [My father] is a very old man. I thought at the time: well, we’ve come some way. Yeah, we became close. He was proud.’
Did he actually say he was proud? ‘No! He always used to say, “I never understand your world.” He was not that sort of man. He would never go there in a conversation. But I knew.’
However, Suchet does say the success of Poirot was sometimes hard on his two children. ‘We wanted to try to have a normal existence but you can’t with that very high profile. You can’t walk down the street as if you are invisible, because you are not. The children got ribbed for it. So much so that I was concerned.’
They were young at the time. ‘Robert was eight or nine when I started doing Poirot; Katherine would have been seven. Very formative ages. I haven’t told anyone this before, but on Sunday mornings we used to play a game called On The Bed. While you’re on the bed you can say anything you like, no recrimination. That gave them a safety net and a lot of stuff would come out.’
‘Behind The Lens’ by David Suchet is published by Constable, priced £25. See below
What sort of stuff? ‘I was told, “I had a difficult time at school when you drove up in your car, Dad.” It was a second-hand Jaguar XJS, but it was a sports car. OK. Next time, we go to school in the little Nova and make it easy.’
The children still refer to that game now, as adults and parents in their own right. ‘My son is 39, and my daughter 37. To this day, we’re all so honest with each other. If they feel something, they say it. I take it. And sometimes I will say to my family, “I want to talk about a difficult subject. We’re On The Bed.” Then everybody knows exactly where we are.’
This is a level of intimacy we have not seen before, from a man who admits he has found it easier to hide behind the actor’s mask in the past. ‘Really, I’m a chameleon. I’m a character actor. Am I Poirot? No. So who am I?’
Behind The Lens sees the real David Suchet step forward at last. ‘This book is about my life. My family. There’s my photography. There’s what I feel about faith. Why the performing arts are important.’
All traces of Poirot have gone now.
‘This is who I am.’
‘Behind The Lens’ by David Suchet is published by Constable on Thursday, priced £25. Offer price £20 until October 29. To order, call 01603 648155 or go to mailshop.co.uk