Ahead of his show at Salford’s The Lowry, actor David Suchet talks about his illustrious career on stage, television, film and radio, and his new show POIROT AND MORE
He’s played everyone from Shakespearean kings to Mozart’s nemesis Salieri, Sigmund Freud and Robert Maxwell – not to mention a certain internationally cherished, splendidly moustached little Belgian detective. Now audiences across England get their chance to meet the man behind all those brilliantly realised portrayals – David Suchet, an actor renowned for his attention to detail, with a career on stage, television, film and radio spanning more than 50 years. In POIROT AND MORE: A RETROSPECTIVE, Suchet, joined on stage by Geoffrey Wansell, co-author of his book POIROT AND ME, will look back over his life and work. He’ll also present an acting masterclass, performing extracts and revealing some of the techniques behind his craft and characters.
Not many actors, at the age of 75, would willingly contemplate the rigours of a 24-venue tour. But for Suchet, the idea was irresistible – especially as we emerge from the pandemic, and theatres begin to build towards recovery. “I wanted to bring my show to audiences around the country who haven’t had the chance to enjoy theatre for so long,” Suchet explains. “I’ve always believed in the importance of non-elitist theatre. I don’t believe that London is the centre of the universe, as far as anything is concerned – especially the arts. And we actors are rogues and vagabonds – historically we’ve always toured, going right back to the Elizabethans and before. It should be in our DNA – I think actors should put their money where their mouth is, and go out and tour.”
He’s very conscious that, due to Covid, some may have reservations about returning to a live event, and hopes the show will be a good way to ease audience anxieties. “We’re visiting a lot of theatres and regions that have meant something to me, in my career. Everything will be safe, there’s only me on the stage, with one of my very best friends. And I’m going to be talking about my early life, how I grew up in London, my school, my very first roles, right the way through to becoming a professional actor, then joining the Royal Shakespeare Company, getting into television and slowly moving into film.” Characters he’ll inhabit will include Oberon, Caliban, Macbeth and Shylock, as well, of course, as Hercule himself. “It’ll be a very eclectic evening. And I’ll talk about how I developed the role of Poirot – not only textually, from the script, but how I prepared for the role, the movement, the walk I developed, and how I found his voice – which, as you know,” he chuckles in his own distinctive, deep velvety timbre, “is nothing like mine!”
The global adoration of Suchet’s Poirot still staggers him. “It’s extraordinary. It’s now eight years since I stopped filming, and during Covid, my mail bag has doubled. Because people have been locked inside, and have been downloading and buying the box sets, and watching all 73 episodes, and they write to me saying it’s got them through the pandemic. I had no idea, in 1987 when I started filming, that this series would have the international impact that it has. I’m genuinely humbled by the fact that people still find it so rewarding, and I’m eternally grateful, I really mean it. I never, ever anticipated it.”
On the contrary, when he was first approached about the role, he had the gravest doubts about accepting, and even confessed to them in an interview before the series first aired. “I said, ‘I’m frightened it may be boring’,” he admits. “I got into terrible trouble with ITV for saying that!” Poirot had already been portrayed by Peter Ustinov and Albert Finney, and Suchet had even played Inspector Japp to Ustinov’s Hercule in Thirteen at Dinner, a 1986 TV film. Returning to Agatha Christie’s books, however, he soon set his little grey cells to work creating a version all his own, now regarded as definitive. “I never set out to be better than anyone else, or even different – it just happened,” he recalls. “I reread the stories and engaged with a little man that I hadn’t seen before, and it was that little man that I decided to become.”
Developing the character was a complex, meticulous business. “I’ve always believed an actor’s job is one of creative servitude – in other words, I’m allowed my own voice as a creative artist, but never beyond what I believe the writer intended or hoped for his or her creation.” For Poirot, this meant a scrupulous attention to detail. Between takes, he refused to sit for fear of creasing his immaculate suit, choosing instead to rest by using a “leaning board” – an upright contraption with a little ledge for the buttocks, pioneered in early Hollywood for actresses in tight, ornate gowns. Then there was the distinctive facial hair. Poirot’s whiskers were never Suchet’s own – such a moustache would have made him too conspicuous in public, “and I would never have been able to maintain it. Over a 13- or 14-hour shooting day, it had to be repeatedly taken off and redressed – so it had to be false. It did vary a little bit – I think Christie herself had about eight versions of the moustache in her books – but as near as dammit, we tried to match the one that she describes in Murder on the Orient Express. I had to have my dresser and my make-up artist with me constantly, and my dresser would stop a take halfway through – we all gave him permission because I was so particular – and if, say, the bowtie moved, he would come in and straighten it, and we’d have to start the scene again.” This wasn’t always easy for his colleagues. “It would drive the film crew and directors crazy,” says Suchet impishly.
He has firm views about the performer/director relationship – “If a director tells me how to act, then we don’t get on. A director should point you in the right direction, not tell you how to drive the car” – and he’s never been shy about insisting on the integrity of his characterisation. “There were more than one or two occasions when I had to dig my heels in, and there were many contretemps,” he cheerfully admits. “Christie never changed Hercule Poirot, throughout all the over 70 stories. He was given small differences – he tried a wristwatch at one point, and he tried changing the width of the stripe of his trousers. But as a person, he never changed. You’d be amazed over the years how many directors came in and said, I want to do something completely different with Poirot. And I had to say, look, I’m terribly sorry, but you can’t. He’s got to stay the same, because of my ethos of serving my writer. So I became his defender in a way. I have a lot of sympathy for all the directors that worked with me, I do! But it’s not me being difficult as an actor – it’s just me protecting the character.”
Suchet’s contract for Poirot was renewed on an annual basis, so each year he found himself once again unemployed – stressful periods that turned out to have a glittering silver lining. “It was difficult at the time. I’m a typical Taurean, I like things in their place. Like Poirot, I like order and method, and I’m not very good at uncertainty. I had to put faith in choice and the future, already in a very insecure profession. But actually, what a gift! I could fill that time with my theatre work, and other film work in America, and do tours, because I wasn’t contracted. So my theatre career grew, and thanks to Poirot I was ‘bums on seats’ – people wanted to see me.” It meant he could tackle meaty drama by the likes of Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill and Terence Rattigan – “not popular commercial stuff, but big, heavy character roles – major leads in the British theatre, at the same time as doing this mega TV series. Wasn’t I lucky? It couldn’t have worked out better.”
An actor with a very strong visual sense – he’s a highly accomplished amateur photographer, having learnt the craft from his grandfather, renowned Fleet Street snapper James Jarché – he vividly describes his richly varied life and career, with all its intricacy, good fortune and rewarding choices, as “a spider’s web. I am a spider, we all are. We spin our life, and we can’t see what we’re spinning. We don’t know what’s going to happen to us tomorrow. Every spider spins a different web. It’s a miracle of nature. The spider spins from behind, and it’s only at the end of each thread that he can turn around and see how his web is forming. That’s how I’ve lived my life. I have no idea what’s happening to me, and then when I look back at my web, I can see all the different patterns. And my goodness, how magnificent my web – my life – has been.”
There have been many highlights, among them playing Iago to Ben Kingsley’s Othello at the RSC, Miller’s Joe Keller, whose wife in All My Sons was portrayed by Zoe Wanamaker, and George in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in which he starred with Diana Rigg. By contrast, he also cherishes Mole, in Toad of Toad Hall – his face, voice and demeanour transformed as he reminisces, so that I suddenly almost see the sweet, snuffling little creature sitting beside me. Another hit, in 2015, was his take on that great theatrical gorgon Lady Bracknell, in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest – “huge fun, and a huge challenge to create a real person, and not to turn her into just a pantomime dame. I had to be very brave. It was demanding, every night, especially when I started getting big laughs, not to be tempted to over-elaborate, but to be disciplined and truthful.” He also, in 1993, seized the opportunity to work with Harold Pinter – “one of our greatest men of the theatre, of all time”; Pinter directed Suchet and Lia Williams in the Royal Court’s UK premiere of Oleanna, the controversial David Mamet play about campus gender politics. “Working with Harold, I discovered a complete and utter soul mate,” he recalls. “It felt as if he knew me – the person I was, the way I worked. We became very close.” Suchet also appeared in Pinter at the Pinter, the Jamie Lloyd Company’s 2018 retrospective season at the West End theatre now named after the playwright – an experience Suchet describes as “an enormous privilege. I dedicated my performance to Harold.”
Looking back at all the characters he’s embodied, he says he still thinks about many of them, and even misses them – Poirot, of course, above all, with the recollection of Curtain, that final, deathbed episode in 2013, still a wrench. “It was as if I had to kill my best friend,” he says softly. “He wasn’t just a character to me. He gave me my career. He changed my life.” So, with the benefit of hindsight, would he have done anything differently? “I wouldn’t change a single day. My only note to myself as a young actor would be – never be scared. Don’t try to get it right all the time. Have the courage to be wrong. You may do things that people won’t like, but you never fail. You never fail. So always dare.”
Donna is the Founder and Editor of Frankly, My Dear UK. By day, she works as a digital marketing specialist, by night she reviews film, theatre and music for a wide range of publications including WhatsonStage and The Reviews Hub. Loves Formula 1, prosecco and life.