Suchet at home, with his bookshelves fastidiously arranged by height.
Why did the world fall so deeply in love with Sir David Suchet as Hercule Poirot? After all, the famous Belgian detective with whom he has become synonymous is a fastidious, pernickety and, whisper it, sometimes rather irritating little man. “Yes, and Agatha Christie, I’ve been told, grew sick and tired of him,” the actor tells the Daily Express.
“He was pompous and he could be arrogant. But he had impeccable manners, always polite to everyone he encountered. When I first played him, I thought I might have made him a bit boring.
“But the letters I get from fans all over the world tell me they love being in his company. I think he makes people feel safe. There’s not one story in which evil wins. It’s comforting family entertainment in what is sometimes an uncertain world.”
We are sitting today in Suchet’s pied-a-terre, an immaculate 30s mansion flat in south-west London, a hop and a skip from the banks of the Thames, and he is in reflective mood – as well he might be.
We are talking, in part, about the reaction to his hit one-man show, Poirot and More – A Retrospective. After playing to packed houses across the UK and as far afield as Australia last year, he’s due to pick up the reins once more in 2024.
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Suchet in his world-famous incarnation as Hercule Poirot
“The whole journey has been quite an emotional one,” he admits.
“In performance, I’m constantly reminded that my 53-year career has involved the most incredible roles. To share all this with so many different audiences has also made me aware that there are so many who have not had my good fortune. This makes every performance poignant as well as, I hope, entertaining.”
While the show encompasses his entire award-winning career, audiences are inevitably drawn to his portrayal over 25 years of the little Belgian detective.
Fortunately, the 77-year-old says he never tired of playing (or talking about) his most famous character. “Not for one day’s filming,” he continues.
“I knew that man inside out. I knew what he’d do from the minute he woke up each day to the minute he went to bed: what he’d eat for lunch, where he’d buy his clothes, what newspapers he’d read.”
But if Poirot existed, would the pair be close friends?
“I’m not sure,” Suchet muses. “I don’t think I’d necessarily get on with him. We have a lot of similarities. I’m a naturally very tidy person: the books on my shelves are arranged in height order, for instance. That said, there are a great deal of differences as well. I like symmetry but I think it fair to say that Poirot would be diagnosed with OCD.”
Suchet laughs: “But I do love him.”
Sadly, fans have seen the last of him as the Belgian detective, apart from the repeats that regularly delight television audiences around the world. “I was asked if I’d consider playing him in stories not written by Agatha Christie, but I chose not to,” he reveals, having donned the famous moustache, bow tie and cane for the final time in 2013 after a quarter of a century.
“The title of the programme was Agatha Christie’s Poirot and I portrayed the great detective in over 70 of those stories – every one that she wrote which involved him.”
It is a matter of public record Suchet’s Poirot was a particular favourite of the late Queen. “And especially of the late Queen Mother,” he adds. “She absolutely loved it. In fact, we sent her and the rest of the Royal Family one particular film.” And thereby hangs a tale. “The Queen would sometimes host small, intimate lunches at Buckingham Palace and I was lucky enough to be invited to one.”
Suchet as the scheming Iago to Sir Ben Kingsley’s Othello in 1985
All went swimmingly at lunch until the fruit course arrived.
“I was talking to the Duke of Edinburgh at the moment the fruit bowl reached me,” he recalls. “I didn’t want to break eye contact with him so I reached over my shoulder and found I’d picked a mango. Now, the only thing I knew about a mango was that it’s best eaten in a bath when you can make as much mess as you like.
“But I was at Buckingham Palace. So, I made a snap decision. I turned to Prince Philip and said: ‘Excuse me, sir, I think I might embarrass myself if I try to eat this mango.’ He picked up the cue immediately. ‘Don’t worry about that,’ he said. ‘Give it to me and I’ll show you how.’
“So in front of everybody, he demonstrated how to cut and peel a mango. He was incredibly dextrous throughout the process, at the end of which he looked at me and said: ‘Voila!’ Just like Poirot. Everyone laughed.”
After the lunch, Suchet rang his producer and told him they must insert a similar episode into one of the Poirot films, which is exactly what happened. “The Theft Of The Royal Ruby was shot in 1991 and involved Poirot visiting a grand country house,”
“He spies a mango in the fruit bowl and, when the owner says he has no idea how to eat one, Hercule duly demonstrates.
“When the character eventually says, ‘Good Lord, Poirot, where on earth did you learn how to do that?’, I replied, ‘A certain Duke taught me.’ The film complete, we sent a copy to the Palace. Forever after, whenever I was at a function attended by Prince Philip, he’d say: ‘Ah, Mango Man!’”
David with actress wife Sheila and newborn son Robert in 1981
Born in London in 1946, Suchet caught the acting bug as a student at Wellington School in Somerset where he played Macbeth aged 17.
During his last years at school, he joined the National Youth Theatre and his ambition to become an actor really took hold.
The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art followed from 1966 before he cut his teeth in repertory theatres beginning in Chester. “I couldn’t have had a better grounding,” he explains. “One week, you’re playing a young man; the next, you’re the madman, Renfield, in Dracula.”
But the very best thing to come out of rep, he says, was at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry in 1972, where Sheila Ferris, the company’s leading lady, caught the young actor’s eye.
“She wasn’t an easy catch; all the men seemed interested in her,” he remembers. “It was a long time before she took any notice of me.”
But Suchet hung in there and they eventually married in 1976.
In 1981, their son, Robert, was born. Daughter Katherine followed two years later. Each now is married, each with a son and daughter. Sadly, Robert’s son, now aged nine, was quickly diagnosed with tuberous sclerosis, an extremely rare condition affecting about one in 6,000 babies born in the UK each year and causing non-cancerous (benign) tumours in many areas of the
“He’s non-verbal and he can’t chew food. But he’s a dear, darling boy. I love him so much,” says his grandfather.
Suchet has always had a strong faith and is a voracious reader of literature about the world’s religions. The arbitrariness of what has happened to his grandson must have tested his considerable faith.
“Yes, it’s not easy and one should never pretend it is. It’s a challenge to believe that the God of love can also allow such suffering. But it doesn’t stop my faith. In a sense, because it tests it, it makes it stronger.” In 1973, Suchet joined the Royal Shakespeare Company and stayed there, more or less permanently, for 13 years.
Ask him to nominate two pivotal roles during that time and he plumps for Shylock in The Merchant Of Venice and Iago with fellow theatrical grandee-to-be Ben Kingsley as Othello.
His big TV breakthrough came in 1985 with Blott On The Landscape, adapted from the Tom Sharpe novel, a role that eventually led to Poirot.
His first contract was for just six months. “Who knew what lay ahead?” he says of those early days. “I took it year by year until I’d filmed all the stories that Agatha Christie wrote featuring Hercule. It was perfect. Half the year would be taken up with filming the next Poirot mini-series, the other half appearing on stage.”
David’s collection of cartoons – with his portrait as Poirot in pride of place
He singles out the European premiere of David Mamet’s Oleanna in 1993 with Lia Williams; Arthur Miller’s All My Sons with Zoe Wanamaker in 2011; and his unforgettable turn as Lady Bracknell in a 2015 production of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.
But when producer Kim Poster first suggested the latter role to Suchet, he laughed out loud. “I turned it down on the spot. Then, a little later, Sheila said I ought to have a rethink. ‘Don’t play her as a pantomime dame,’ she said. ‘Employ all your skills as a character actor.’
“So, I approached Lady Bracknell in just the same way as I approached Iago. It took two and a half hours to get dressed and made up for each performance. It was a ridiculous amount of fun.”
Today his rich and varied body of work has inevitably seen him attain national treasure status and, inevitably, brought a slew of honours: an OBE in 2008 invested by the Queen; the CBE in 2011 courtesy of the then Prince Charles; and, in 2020, a knighthood from Prince William, though Suchet had contracted Covid and didn’t finally receive his award until January 2022.
“I’ve been knighted in plays on the stage a number of times but nothing compares to the real thing,” he smiles.
Poirot And Me by David Suchet
“Aren’t I lucky? The things I’ve been able to do on the back of the success of that little man. But while I know Poirot will dominate my obituary when the time comes, I like to think there’ll be a paragraph or two about my other work.”
After many years of living overlooking the docks in London’s East End, the actor and Sheila have now repaired to a rented barn in Wiltshire as their main residence, with their children living within half an hour in one direction or another.
Although Suchet has been a professional actor for well over half a century, he says he doesn’t feel he’s quite finished yet.
Whatever you do, don’t mention the R-word. “I would never talk of retirement,” he insists. “I’d prefer to say that the telephone stops ringing.”
- For information and bookings for Poirot And More, visit davidsuchetonstage.com. Poirot And Me by David Suchet (Headline, £12.99) is available from Express Bookshop. Visit expressbookshop.com or call 020 3176 3832. Free UK P&P on online orders over £25.