The Big Five-O
The Big Five-O
By Peter Wallace
For 50 years, David Suchet has been a staple of stage and screen, not least in his role as Agatha Christie’s most celebrated detective, Hercule Poirot. Now, he looks back on his half-century as a professional actor, and invites fans to take a glimpse at the man behind the characters…
When David Suchet – Royal Shakespeare Company alumnus and classically trained stage actor – was approached for the role of Agatha Christie’s pedantic detective, his first call for advice was to his author and newsreader brother, John.
‘He famously said to me,’ laughs the younger Suchet, in a voice honey-steeped in the finest elocutionary traditions of the stage, ‘“You’ve been asked to play Poirot?” And I said, “Yes, what do you think?”, and he said “Don’t touch it with a barge-pole...”’
Had Suchet gone on to heed his brother’s advice, it’s nearly impossible to speculate on how his acting career might have panned out, such is the impact that the role of Poirot has had on him over the 25 years since he first wore the famous waxed moustache. ‘The moral of the story,’ he adds, ‘is: “Don’t listen to your siblings!”’
Suchet’s quarter-century as the fictional Belgian sleuth is an impressive feat, making up half of his professional acting life. The London-born thespian had of course appeared in Shakespeare and various other plays, and both the small and silver screen, before he alighted on ITV’s long-running adaptation of Christie’s crime stories. But it is the role of Poirot, unsurprisingly, that still stands tallest in his memories – especially his final farewell in Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case, which aired in 2013.
‘It was a very emotional time,’ he muses. ‘I had to play his death, which was the most difficult day’s filming of my whole career. I was saying goodbye to a very dear friend; you can’t play someone for 25 years and not feel attached to them in some way. He had been so instrumental in so many aspects of my life. He gave me a profile and people would then come to see me in the theatre; he gave me the profile so that people would want to make films with me, radio programmes, more theatre etcetera, so saying goodbye to him was very, very painful, and in fact I still miss him to this day.’
Unlike some actors, however, who may have seen other tempting roles pass by, in the time Suchet spent as Poirot, he never once had his head turned. As he says, ‘I’ve never been that sort of actor. I’ve always been an actor for hire, and just seen what has been on the table at the time.’
There is, however, one historical figure in particular f that Suchet has long found the thought of portraying incredibly compelling.
‘I’m drawn to complexity. And the more I read about Napoleon, the more I think he must have been a very complex personality. He had a great side of weakness, he had to have a tall horse because he was a short man, who I think suffered from an inferiority complex, and he was one of the greatest tacticians and infantrymen of history. I know of course that he was the enemy, but he built an empire. And I think he was a great personality, especially when you think he was not French – everyone thinks of the French when you talk about Napoleon! But he was from Corsica, so he would not even have sounded like a Frenchman. I’ve always been fascinated by playing him, and there is a George Bernard Shaw play about Napoleon, but that’s not the Napoleon I want – I want the more complex, deeper, personality. I think he is a really fascinating man, one that I would have loved to have explored.’
For many, his career is inextricably linked with his on-screen life as Poirot, and he was recently voted the nation’s favourite incumbent of the role, despite his rivals including both Albert Finney and Sir Kenneth Branagh.
It would be unfair, however, to see Suchet as nothing more than his most famous theatrical alter-ego, not least because of his chameleonic acting ability. Indeed, Suchet himself hopes that he does not share all the traits of Christie’s famously finicky private eye.
‘Inevitably there is a symbiosis that has occurred,’ he smiles. ‘But I hope I’m not as OCD as he was, because if you are that particular and will only eat two boiled eggs if they are the exact same size, you’ve got a problem!’
Behind the adopted European accent, the iconic moustache, and the veritable treasure trove of affectations that made his Poirot portrayal so enduring, and endearing, Suchet is rich in personal qualities. The descendent of Lithuanian Jews, who spent his formative years in England’s public-school system, Suchet admits that his childhood feelings of being an ‘outsider’ may well have contributed to his later, detail-orientated portrayals of figures like Poirot. Indeed, it was many years before he felt whole himself. For many years, he was in his own estimation subconsciously struggling with a ‘very materialistic’ worldview – but that changed in 1986 when he went through ‘the beginnings of a conversion’.
‘I didn’t have a Damascene experience like St Paul!’ he clarifies. ‘But I was filming in Seattle, and I was thinking about the man who was the greatest influence on my life, my late grandfather, and how I regarded him as a kind of spiritual guide. I’ve always chatted to him and wondered what he thought. But the other side of me was a complete agnostic; I didn’t really believe in the afterlife. So, lying in the bath one day, in the hotel room, I suddenly thought, “Why are you thinking about your late grandfather as your spiritual guide when you don’t believe in an afterlife?” That sort of dichotomy, or that sort of paradox if you like, led me to wanting to read more about the afterlife. And I remembered at school reading about Jesus and His resurrection, but I didn’t really believe it. But I did know that Paul in the New Testament wrote letters about all this, and I decided, because I love Rome, to pick up a Gideon’s Bible the next day and I read St Paul’s Letter to the Romans.’
The figure of St Paul would go on to become a central part of both Suchet’s personal and professional life, and he made a documentary on him in 2012, entitled In the Footsteps of St Paul.
‘I read it in a very particular way,’ he says of the impact the biblical book of Romans had on his life. ‘I read it in a way that I would read any classical play, where I was taught to as a Shakespearean actor, to read plays as if they were new plays and written for me. So, when I read St Paul’s letter to the Romans, in my head I was reading St Paul’s letter to me, and I made it very personal. By the time I came to the end of that letter, I had found a way of life for which I had been looking for many, many years, and that worldview really attracted me, and that then led to further investigations and I ended up... did I choose or not? I don’t know. But it ended up with me becoming Christian, and there was huge, huge strength given to me by me having, for the first time in my life, a worldview.’
Suchet’s faith has inspired several projects over the years besides his documentary on St Paul. There was the follow-up a year later, In the Footsteps of St Peter, as well as his 2014 recording of the complete NIV Bible on audiobook – a long-held ambition and ‘labour of love’ completed after his time as Poirot had come to an end. Nowadays he is Vice President of the British Bible Society, and behind the scenes, his idea of the benefit of personal faith, or a similar anchor, remains crucial to what he sees as a current failing in modern society.
‘I believe very, very strongly in something that I call “The three-legged stool”, which is how we are made up. It is about mind, body, and spirit. One of our legs of the stool is the mind which we make strong through education, and reading and learning, and then we have the other leg, our body, which is made strong by going to the gym and having a good diet, and knowing how to be healthy if you take the trouble. But that third leg, which I call the soul or the spiritual part, which includes faith, religion, the arts, the performing arts, the creative side of our life, is the weak leg in our society. That side of our life seems to always take second place to jobs and other things in our life, other than our creativity, and therefore I think we have a three-legged stool with two strong legs and one weaker leg. I would like people leaving school to have three strong legs. The discovery of my faith was filling up this third leg, filling it up with something that wasn’t there before, and making it stronger. Then filling it up with all the other things that make up that leg, which is more theatre, more music, more art, more performing arts, and just enjoying that side of life.’
And even though Suchet is best known for his immense talents as a character actor, his half-century celebration brings to the forefront another of his creative passions: photography.
‘I don’t consider myself a good photographer,’ he says with typical humility. ‘My photographs have to be judged by other people: it’s more like my acting. If you judge yourself, you will come a cropper. It’s the same with my photographs. If people judge them as worthy, and they want to remember me for that, then God bless them, but it’s not for me to say... What I do is try to use my camera as a paintbrush; I don’t just take a picture of what I see, I try to take photos of how I see things. For example, I was in an orchard in Kent recently, and I went in with my camera, and all of a sudden looking at these gnarled branches I saw these strange faces of all these weird animals. So, I would photograph that Bramley apple tree, not as a tree, but almost an animal. So, it’s how I react to things that I try to photograph, rather than just what I am looking at.’
Fans of his acting work, therefore, will no doubt be encouraged to hear that Suchet has recently released a photo-memoir, Behind the Lens, that charts the course of his impressive career through a collection of his photos.
‘It’s not an autobiography in the sense that I did this, then I did that; I was asked for many, many years to do my autobiography by many publishers, but the timing of this was quite nice because it is my 50th year as an actor. It’s about things that actually I think about or care about and react to in my life, as well as photographs that represent how I see the world, not just what I see. So, the book is an expression of who I am – the man behind the myriad of characters that I have played. You have never seen me – this is me. Get to know me by getting this book.’
As well as being an in-depth look at Suchet’s life behind the camera, Behind the Lens* will be supporting a cause close to its author’s heart: the Tuberous Sclerosis Association.
‘My grandson has it, and it’s a very little-known, inherited gene. In actual fact, it was completely in chance as neither my son or my daughter-in-law has this complex gene, and it is a complete freak of nature, but he has it very badly. It’s a very small charity, very few people have this tuberous sclerosis complex. And this book is in total support of this charity, it’s supporting that charity and it will not support me.’
It’s just another reminder that David Suchet is no less than a national treasure. His 25 years as Poirot will stand not only as a benchmark for any character actor, but also as a comforting reminder of a dedicated professional in an entertainment industry that all too often seems constantly in motion. And when it comes to Suchet’s own self-appraisal, it’s no less humble than expected.
‘I would like to be remembered as a person who would serve my writer first and foremost, who would always be regarded as truthful as possible in my representations, and as someone who would leave my ego at the door. Forget about stardom, forget about money. If you want to be in the arts – if you want to be in the performing arts, if you want to be an actor – do it because you want to serve your writer, not yourself.’