How are we to bear it? For it is quite insupportable, is it not, to think that “the little grey cells” of Belgium’s best-loved detective will soon cease to fizz. Or to consider that the fastidious patting of his waxed moustache with the corner of a pristine white napkin at the dinner table will become a distant memory, only to be recalled in an ancient repeat. To never see again the softening of the brown gaze prompted by a damsel in distress… and, most of all, that idiosyncratic half-geisha, half-penguin step. For, oui, mon ami, Hercule Poirot, the lengthening shadows are soon to engulf him and he will be no more.
David Suchet, who has played, it could be said, almost been (he inhabits his character so snugly) this most distinctive detective for the past quarter of a century, also feels that The Walk is key.
“When I did a film test – before I even started the programme – the producer and I agreed I walked too much like David Suchet and I said to him, ‘I remember that somewhere Agatha Christie describes his walk.’
“I went home that night and I searched and I searched… How I came across it I will never know but I wrote it down and I have memorised it virtually word for word.” He leans forward and enuniciates with theatrical deliberation: “‘Poirot crossed the lawn in his usual, rapid, mincing gait, with his feet tightly and painfully enclosed within his patent leather boots.’ And that’s it!”
“I took that description and I practised and practised and practised. Laurence Olivier, when he was playing a fop in a Restoration play, wanted to mince like this [he demonstrates the walk for me] and famously he put a penny in the crack of his bottom and walked and wouldn’t let it drop. If you do that, you can’t walk fast, so I did the same thing.”
Did you have to keep a penny in your bottom for 24 years? “No, but what I made myself do when I wanted to walk like Poirot was to squeeze my bottom. That makes you walk with short strides and that’s all I do. If you think of Poirot and how he walks – that precise little thing is very much who he is. He is not a man of broad, relaxed gestures.”
Indeed, the actor says that today Poirot’s extreme punctiliousness would definitely lead to a diagnosis of obsessive compulsive disorder.
“Like him, I do like order but I’m not OCD as he would be considered now,” Suchet says. “I am a perfectionist and the thing that irritates me about him is also his perfectionism. It’s irritating because you can never say, ‘That’s enough – that’s good – that’s fine.’”
Suchet, of course, has played many other significant roles in his career. He was memorable as the professor accused of rape in David Mamet’s shocking two-hander, Oleanna, directed by Harold Pinter; he played opposite Diana Rigg in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; Salieri in Amadeus on Broadway; Sigmund Freud; Robert Maxwell; the acclaimed barrister George Carman; Shylock in the RSC’s The Merchant of Venice and many more. But to have aged as one character over 24 years is a first. Talk about intimations of mortality.
Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case is unnerving: to see a bedridden, twinkleless Poirot who at one point almost seems to loathe his old chum, Hastings, is very dark.
“The very nature of Poirot in his last story, is that he’s come to the end,” says Suchet. “Christie writes him as a man who has almost lost his charm and his twinkle. He’s riddled with pain. He’s got arthritis, he’s in a wheelchair and he knows this is going to be his last case.
Christie wrote the book in the early 1940s, party prompted by her fear that she might not survive the war: “There was always the danger that Poirot wouldn’t be finished in her mind,” says Suchet. Curtain was locked away in a vault for more than 30 years and was the last of her books to be published in her lifetime – in 1975.
Knowing about Suchet’s deep immersion – that he reputedly watches all the years of his Poirot’s before making a new series, so that he can memorise “all the little details” and presumably work on getting older not as himself but as Poirot would – I wonder if this last-ever episode felt like something almost more than acting, or at least different?
“I quite openly admit that doing Poirot’s final scene was the hardest day’s filming of my career,” he says. “Little did I know that when I became an actor in 1969 I’d be saying goodbye to a character that I’d played for 24 years. And it was hard because that is the end… for me. I know there’s going to be a new book [written by Sophie Hannah, with the support of the Christie family] so that’s going to be strange to see him resurrected – depending on where she places him. But that will probably be it for me.”
I try to imitate the way Poirot says ‘Astings to his friend – and it’s hopeless. Would he mind awfully saying it for me? “Well, it won’t be exactly the same because I’m not wearing the moustache,” Suchest says, and then – as I close my eyes and listen – it’s uncannily as if that dear man is right beside me. The actor’s speaking voice is deep and rather soothing, so what one notices is that as Poirot his register goes up. The way he says ’Astings is quasi-quizzical, playful, tender, like a verbal caress.
He says the one thing he will be pleased to say goodbye to is the padding.
“I’ve always called it my armadillo suit because it is made in layers and as I sit down all the layers fold into one another so it doesn’t bulge out at the top. It’s a complete half a body – it’s got man breasts that actually move when I stretch,” Suchet marvels.
It must get terribly uncomfortable even rather sweaty in the heat? The gentlemanly Suchet freezes. “You’ll never see him sweat. You’ll never see that on any frame. My make-up artist would have stopped the shoot. I’m sorry to challenge you on this…” a little giggle, “but I do it officially.” He breaks into a hackette-as-harpie arch simper: “’David Suchet suddenly got on his high horse…’ I can read it now!
“But you have never seen Poirot sweat or even, as he would say, perspire. Never. Can you even imagine him perspiring? He would dab himself with a handkerchief. You may have imagined it but you would never have seen it. He would have been aware of it before it even showed.”
I stand corrected since I had the temerity to suggest that I thought I had seen Poirot perspiring in the Egyptian-pyramid episode but perhaps that was another lesser Poirot (the little Belgian has been theatrical catnip for fine actors from Peter Ustinov to Ian Holm and Albert Finney).
He says a lot of people ask him if he’s ever felt resentful of Poirot and he is amazed at the question. His answer is always, “Never!” he says with some feeling. “No, I’m grateful. He raised my profile as an actor.
I wouldn’t have done Oleanna without him, and I’ve just done Long Day’s Journey into Night and I’m going round the world in Last Confession next year and then I may be going back to the RSC in 2016. Resentful? I’m on my knees with gratitude.”
We are sitting in an office of the television channel that is broadcasting Poirot’s finale. Suchet is 67 and – I’m glad to report – looking good on it, unlike his character. He is wearing jeans and a crisp blue shirt with cufflinks and is sipping a cappuccino. He has kind, dark eyes and a lovely way about him. You feel you’re in the presence of a thoroughly decent person.
One of the attractive things about him is that he hasn’t forgotten what it’s like to be poor. He is also engagingly unusual. In the Sixties, when his fellow students were wearing loons and reeking of patchouli and dope, he turned up to his first day of drama school in a suit. Were you eccentric, David, to be so out of your time?
“Well, I always say that a true eccentric never knows that they are eccentric. But I remember asking my children [Katherine and Robert], ‘Do you think I’m eccentric?’ and they both said, ‘Yes!’ I don’t think I’m eccentric, actually, but I do know that I’m very traditional and old- fashioned.”
Are you conservative? “Very conservative by nature, yes,” he says. “But I am not a political animal. I wish I was in a way. What I want is fairness for everybody and I want as much as possible for society to look after those people who find it hard to look after themselves – and whichever party does that best, I will go with.”
He and his wife, Sheila Ferris, met when they were working in rep at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry. (He became an actor in 1969, met Sheila in 1972 and joined the RSC the next year.)
“I used to call her the Queen of Coventry because she was most definitely the star,” he says. “She was wonderful and I thank God that she was in the profession – although she gave it up to look after the children.”
Was that a wrench for her?
“It was difficult,” he says. “We didn’t have the money to have any help. I’ve never forgotten what it’s like to be broke and it’s kept my feet on the ground and has made me very thankful every day that I don’t have to worry about being broke. “If you’ve got nothing, they say there’s nothing to worry about. But not in our society. If you’ve got nothing, there’s plenty to worry about. Those who haven’t anything are very aware they haven’t and it’s very, very hard for them and it was very hard for me and it was very hard for my wife when we first begun.” He remembers the days of unemployment and then getting casual work as a liftman in a block of flats – Hereford House – in Marble Arch in London.
Later, he worked for Moss Bros for seven months, “thinking that I would never work again as an actor. One morning, I went in to accept an offer of promotion from Moss Bros to become a junior manager and I would go to Manchester,” he says.
“I arrived that morning to accept the job and as I walked in I got a telephone call from my agent, and I was offered a very small role – I think it was in The Protectors, with Robert Vaughn – and I made the choice there and then to accept that job and not the other one, and if I hadn’t I’d be in Moss Bros now!”
Of all his roles, the professor in Oleanna was perhaps the most electrifying. I was fortunate enough to see him in it in the early Nineties and can vouch that the atmosphere in the theatre was supercharged.
“What a play! What Mamet does is never show you what the professor was supposed to be guilty of [a student falsely accuses him of rape]. But we had people leave the play, we had relationships break up over it and people yelled when I hit her, ‘Kill the bitch! Kick her! Hurt her!’”
Wasn’t that rather chilling?
“Yes. I’d never been in a play that was that manipulative. He’s a phenomenal playwright and Harold Pinter directing it – what a wonderful director! What a thing to get myself involved in,” he squeaks with pleasure and amazement at his good fortune. “And playing Poirot at the same time! I mean, could I have had a more interesting and varied life?”
Our conversation covers a lot of ground, from houseboats to his faith – he and his wife are passionate boatdwellers and mad about the water, and he is a committed Christian. Suchet says he is not romantic about religion, “My feet are very firmly on the ground.” Are they made of clay? “They are made of something far weaker than clay! I fail daily in what I would love to be like.”
There are still great roles that he hasn’t done; we’ve both seen the same notable performances of Willy Lomans from Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (Warren Mitchell, Dustin Hoffman, Brian Dennehey), and I’m one of many people who think that he would be perfect in the part. He has played the Fool in King Lear, but cannot quite imagine himself in the lead, certainly not naked (as Ian Holm and Ian McKellen did). “I don’t think I’d go there,” he says. “I think you’d miss quite a few wonderful bits of language by being naked.”
Finally, I ask him what he will miss most by saying farewell to Poirot?
“I’ll just miss him as my dear, dear friend,” he says. “You know, I really will.”
See Agatha Christie’s Poirot tonight at 8:00pm on ITV