OCTOBER 5, 2014
ACTOR DAVID SUCHET had never read a single book by Agatha Christie when producer Brian Eastman offered him the lead role in Agatha Christie’s Poirot, the lavish adaptations of Christie’s Hercule Poirot novels for the British television network ITV. “She’s really not my style,” he remembers telling Eastman in Poirot and Me, which is both a biography of the fictional sleuth and an autobiography of the man who devoted 24 years of his life to playing him.
Suchet’s father, a gynecologist, had encouraged him and his brother to read the greats, and to “never forget Shakespeare.” Christie, whom Suchet must have considered an inferior writer, had not been on the family reading list. His complete lack of knowledge about the Poirot canon, which consists of no less than 33 novels and 50 short stories, posed an obstacle for Suchet, who would go on to devote a significant chunk of his acting career to the man with the famous egg-shaped head, the mincing walk, and the waxed moustache that always points to the sky.
The role of Poirot had come at a very unexpected moment in Suchet’s life. After his father had discouraged Suchet from becoming a doctor like himself, he decided to study at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. He went on to become an assistant stage manager in Chester, but was not able to make ends meet in theater. So he took on a set of alternative jobs, which included carrying dog food, working at a formal-wear clothes shop, and serving as a lift operator. The way Suchet writes about his pre-Poirot days of poverty reminded me of Karl Rossmann, the protagonist of Kafka’s Amerika, whose story ends with the young man’s joining a theater company. Suchet was a bit lost as a young man, and, like Rossmann, allowed chance and circumstances to dictate his life.
The theater company he had joined was a rather famous one — the Royal Shakespeare Company — and thanks to its prestige he was cast regularly in films and television productions, including the BBC’s famous six-part comedy series Blott on the Landscape. In 1985 he played Chief Inspector Japp, Poirot’s Scotland Yard friend and colleague, in a film adaptation of Lord Edgware Dies. When Eastman offered him the role of Poirot in 1988, Suchet had already warmed to the uncertain nature of an actor’s career. To succeed at it, one had to possess what John Keats had famously termed a negative capability, and place one’s fate in the hands of others — in this case, a group of London-based television producers.
Once Suchet agreed to consider playing the role of Poirot, the first thing he did was to telephone his brother, who had apparently devoted some of his adult life to reading novels by Christie. When asked his opinion about playing Poirot, the older brother (who worked at ITV) replied: “I wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole. I mean, Poirot’s a bit of a joke, a buffoon. It’s not you at all.” This is ironic, given that the silly people in Poirot novels are always misjudging Poirot as a “joke and a buffoon.” Instinctively, Suchet took the side of the detective and decided to accept the challenge — after all, it is an actor’s job to impersonate others, even if they are jokes and buffoons. In Scilly Isles, where he traveled to act in a British film adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s Why the Whales Came, Suchet had ample time to dip his nose into the canon. The actor had his pencil and notebook ready while he made a list of Poirot’s character traits. Those went on to form his “dossier of characteristics,” which consists of 93 entries on carefully observed specifics of the detective, from his family history to his favorite beverages.
The first thing one needs to know about Poirot is, of course, his nationality. No, he is not French, but Belgian; poor Poirot had tried hard to correct this, as well as the pronunciation of his surname (not puay-raw, but pwah-roh). Both efforts seem to have failed.
An obsessive drinker of tisane, Poirot wears “pointed, tight, very shiny patent leather shoes” and “bows a great deal — even when shaking hands.” Suchet treats those self-written notes as holy commandments, and stays religiously true to them when he plays the character. As he gets to know this possessor of “the finest brain in Europe” better, he becomes a defender of his legacy and an enemy of those who dare misrepresent him.
The first, and most serious problem, Suchet had to solve before going to the set was to find an appropriate voice for Poirot. “I started experimenting by talking to myself in a whole range of voices, some of them coming from my head — all nasal and clipped — others coming from my chest, lower and a little slower, even a little gruff,” he recalls. “Nothing sounded quite like the man I had been reading about in bed every night. They all sounded a little false, and that was the very last thing that I wanted.”
To get the voice right Suchet listened to Belgian Walloon and French radio recordings. Christie’s novels provided details of Poirot’s biography: the sleuth was born in Spa, a city located in Belgum’s Walloon Region and Province of Liège, and this fact had to be reflected in his speech. After mastering Belgian French, Suchet managed to move the voice from his chest to his head, and ended up sounding “a little more high-pitched and yes, a little more fastidious.” Those who have seen any one of the 70 episodes of Agatha Christie’s Poirot will know that Suchet’s voice is perfect; simultaneously gentlemanly, foreign, and cunning.
Having transformed his usual self into Poirot, Suchet extended his perfectionism to the lives of others, and interfered with how crew members did their jobs. However gently and reluctantly, he demanded that they take into consideration his views about Poirot’s representation. He objected, for example, to the proposed costume (“a distinctly dull, ordinary grey suit”) and asked to be dressed exactly as Christie had dictated, in “a three-piece suit, a wing collar, shiny patent leather shoes and spats.” Whenever his stage directions rubbed him the wrong way, convincing him that Poirot would never act that way, he voiced his disagreement. He pointed to passages from the canon to prove his case and during the shoot of the first episodes made clear that unless the desired costumes were provided, he would not play him. He became an expert close reader of Poirot, a kind of New Critic who asked the crew members, professorially, to stop drawing inferences about the sleuth, unless they were based on specific passages in the canon.
In a sense this perfectionism fitted Poirot’s, who once asked a waiter to change the two eggs he had ordered because they were not the same size. Both Suchet and Poirot felt like foreigners in England. (Suchet’s father’s parents were Russian Jews who had to flee the country after the pogroms.) They were both rational men going bald, much to their chagrin. (“I lost a great deal of my hair when I was just twenty-three, after a love affair collapsed,” Suchet remembers: “I was heartbroken, and so was my hair. Perhaps the same thing happened to Poirot […].”)
Suchet’s search for the perfect voice and costume was followed, naturally, by the search for the perfect moustache. A makeup artist helped him design one that was so good that it would satisfy even Agatha Christie, who famously hadn’t liked the moustache worn by Albert Finney in Sidney Lumet’s 1974 adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express. After seeing the film, the queen of mystery had protested, “I wrote that he had the finest moustache in England — and he didn’t in the film. I thought that a pity. Why shouldn’t he have the best moustache?” For Suchet, the magic formula for the moustache was “a small, neat, carefully waxed one that curled upwards at each end, and where the tip of each end […] would be level with the tip of my nose.” The last season of the series introduced little changes to this most distinctive feature of Poirot. There is even a scene, in the final episode, where the dying sleuth takes it off and tells his sidekick, Hastings, that it was a fake moustache: the poor detective’s death was foretold by the death of his moustache.
Imitating Poirot’s mincing walk demanded more cunning methods. Suchet knew about Sir Laurence Olivier’s trick for mincing (placing a penny in the crack of one’s bottom, and trying to not let it drop), which would also accelerate his walking pace. Suchet’s method was slightly different. He squeezed his bottom, and this helped him walk with short strides.
And voilà, he had become Poirot.
In the acknowledgments section Suchet thanks the London-based author and Daily Mail journalist Geoffrey Wansell for his “help” in writing the book. I assume Wansell is responsible for the book’s structure. Poirot and Me opens with a description of Suchet’s state of mind as he played Poirot for the last time in the final episode of the series, “Curtain.” Then we are transported back to the day when Eastman offered him the role. Suchet peppers the descriptions of his Jekyll-and-Hyde-like transformation into Poirot with so many interesting details that one wonders what he has to offer in the second half, or if he has anything to offer at all. He ends up summarizing the plots of every single one of the series’s 70 episodes, and providing detailed anecdotes about their making. He must have continued taking notes after completing his “dossier of characteristics” — he quotes in detail press clippings about his television performances and some of the anecdotes seem to come out of diaries. And yet it was not these details about the process of playing Poirot that I found interesting — Suchet’s struggle to define himself outside his Poirot personality is the actual subject of those chapters.
As the years passed, Suchet was forced to make painful choices: whether to accept Harold Pinter’s offer to play the lead role in David Mamet’s Oleanna at the Royal Court Theatre, or wait for the call from the Poirot team. He played Salieri in Sir Peter Hall’s production of Amadeus and a terrorist in the 1996 film Executive Decision, in which he attempted to off Kurt Russell and Steven Seagal, before taking over the world.
The best way to enjoy Poirot and Me is to read it while binge-watching the 13 seasons of Agatha Christie’s Poirot. This way, reading the 373-page-long book would take about a month’s time, provided that you watch two episodes every evening, but it is worth the effort. The real pleasure of Poirot and Me lies in witnessing the difference between the production and consumption times of the book and the television series. Suchet has written the book in less than a year, but he has played the part during the past 24 years. That the object of his reminiscence is available for us to watch in box sets provides us with an experience akin to watching Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Linklater’s film was shot over 12 years with the same actors; Poirot premiered in 1989 and continued until last year, with some of the same characters from the episodes broadcast during the waning years of the Cold War.
Watching the episodes in a breezy room in Istanbul last month I couldn’t help but notice the changes in Suchet’s portrayal of Poirot. In the later episodes his voice deepens, his comic gestures disappear, and he no longer seems eager to please other characters, or the audience, with his Poirotness. His cheerful energy in the first seasons is replaced by gloomier, and better, performances, with Suchet himself growing old and more pious. Having converted to Christianity at the age of 40, Suchet released a 78-hour-long audio recording of the Bible last year. (“The entire Bible from Genesis to the Book of Revelation — 752,702 words, in his deep, melodic, unrushed voice,” according to The Guardian.) The voice of the cheery rationalist gives way to a vengeful and angry one that reflects how much Poirot was appalled by the sinister, enduring existence of pure evil. In his last act in life, Poirot attempts to destroy it by becoming a murderer himself.
So we watch Poirot and Suchet age together, but in different universes and according to rules of different calendars. Christie published Poirot’s adventures in the course of 55 years. (The Mysterious Affair at Styles was published in 1920 and Curtain in 1975; this September saw the publication of a new Hercule Poirot novel, Sophie Hannah’s The Monogram Murders, which is set in 1920s London.) Poirot was born in 1864, joined the Belgian secret service in 1893, and came to England, as a refugee, in 1916. He was over 125 years old when he died, according to his Wikipedia entry. David Suchet was 43 when the first episode of the series premiered in 1989; he was 67 when “Curtain” was broadcast on November 13, 2013. During his 24-year-long Poirot career, Suchet had to age twice as fast as Poirot, who enjoyed a 59-year-long fictional career.
It is not only Suchet’s performance that changes throughout the years. The format of the series also changed. Episodes of the first five series are 50 minutes long each, while the sixth series consists of four feature-length episodes. There is a four-year hiatus in between series, and in the later episodes, the Nip/Tuck-like structure of the 1990s era (Poirot, Hastings, and Miss Lemon assisting customers from their office in Whitehaven Mansions) changes. These formal novelties unsettled Suchet who was often left in the dark about whether the series would be renewed.
But his parallel existence as Hercule Poirot continued and Suchet managed to transform the character from a sympathetic detective to an immigrant suffering an existential crisis. In “Murder on the Orient Express” he so strongly underlined Poirot’s Catholicism that he looked a little bit like a character from one of Robert Bresson’s films. During the final seconds of the episode, Suchet takes out his prayer beads from his pocket, and silently cries at the violence of the world, and the violent ways in which justice is served. This is the scene where the egg-shaped man, rather miraculously, made me cry.