I have been wanting to write this little piece in praise of David Suchet’s achievement for ages, but I have put it off because I have wanted to wait until he has done all Christie’s stories. Well, now I have decided that I simply can’t wait any longer – I will write it now, without having seen the final series. In fact, I think this is a fitting moment to forumulate my thoughts, simply because Suchet has just started filming Curtain, thus initiating the final year of filming for the series, after which he will have done all the stories and portrayed the character on screen for no less than 25 years!
David Suchet’s achievement with Agatha Christie’s character cannot be praised highly enough. I am still baffled by the fact that he has not received a BAFTA award for it! (Yes, he was nominated in 1991, and the series won four BAFTAs in 1990 for Best Costume Design, Best Graphics, Best Make Up and Best Original Television Music, but Suchet has never actually been awarded one for the portrayal of Hercule Poirot!). I sincerely hope he will at least receive a new nomination once Curtain has been shown on television. He certainly deserves it.
To me, David Suchet is one of the best character actors of our time. His approach to his characters is so detailed and refined. If he is playing a real person, he studies this person’s life inside and out (e.g. Sigmund Freud and Robert Maxwell). If it is a character in a play, he goes back to the original words of the playwright (e.g. Iago, Joe Keller and James Tyrone). And, as with Poirot, if it is a writer, he goes back to the novel(s) and attempts to portray and interpret what the writer has intended.
When asked, in an interview in 2001, to describe the process he goes through when approaching a particular role, for instance Poirot, Suchet explained: ‘You go to the book. With Poirot I had over 60 or 70 stories to draw on, so it was a far greater chance for me — or for Agatha Christie — to develop the character. […] When you’re doing characters from famous novels, you have a responsibility as an actor to make it what the writer intended. And then you add and expand from there to create a three-dimensional performance.’
In my mind, his main achievement with Poirot is exactly what he describes above: He has managed to bring a character to life that, for many, borders on the line of an absolute caricature, a cardboard cut-out (at least judging from pre-Suchet film and television portrayals). Not only that, through adaptations where changes have been made to the stories, he has managed to stay true to the character, to Christie’s creation, while still making it his own three-dimensional interpretation. As he put it in an interview with ITV.com in 2010: ‘I don’t have any say about where the adaptations of our stories may move, but I do have a say in how I play the character. And the way I play the character will be absolutely as near as I can possibly get to the tone, the flavour and, also, particular incidents that Agatha Christie will put in that particular novel. I am still the servant of my creator’.
(As to the particular incidents, a glimpse of his devotion was referred to in an interview: ‘When he compared the [Murder of Roger] Ackroyd script to Christie’s novel, he noticed the TV version omitted an early scene in which Poirot has a frustrating moment with a zucchini in his garden; Suchet asked for it be added. It was.’)
Suchet’s research for Poirot
Suchet was first approached about the role in 1987. Shooting began in 1988, and the first episodes were broadcast in 1989. The story of how he initially developed his interpretation of the character has been described very accurately by Suchet himself elsewhere (look, for instance, at the Poirot & Me documentary mini-series broadcasted a few years ago or one of the several interviews with him available online). Suffice to say that he went back to Christie’s original stories, noted any references made to the character, and created what he calls a ‘character dossier’ with key characteristics. Moreover, he perfected his Belgian-but-must-sound-French accent and the peculiar mincing walk, to mention but a few of the many nuances he brings to the character.
What I want to focus my attention on in this little review is the uphill battle he initially seems to have fought with the producers to be allowed to interpret the character. In conclusion, I will discuss some key features of Suchet’s interpretation in light of the criticism he has received from certain fans of the series.
In an interview in 1998, the journalist refers to Suchet’s decision to portray ‘Poirot as the novelist would recognise him, even in the teeth of opposition from worried television executives fearful of departing from the norm’. This is an aspect of Suchet’s achievement I have rarely seen mentioned. In fact, I was not aware of this opposition until recently.
A more detailed description of the producers' opposition can be found below, in an extract from the book In the Company of Actors: Reflections on the Craft of Acting, published in 2000, where Suchet describes, in his own words, the process of developing Poirot:
‘I started reading every single book that Agatha Christie wrote, from The Mysterious Affair at Styles, right through to Curtain, where he dies, and started filling a notebook with characteristics.I think this extract highlights two very important aspects of Suchet’s achievement. Firstly, the apparently fierce opposition he was initially facing from the producers, so fierce in fact that he threatened to leave the project. I must say I was completely amazed when I first read his anecdote from the costume fittings. To think that the producers wanted to dress him up in ‘hunting jackets’ and ‘Sherlock Holmes caps’ – obviously intending to make him a laughable character – does not only prove that the series could have taken a completely different form (arguably, it would not have lasted as long as it has either), it also suggests that the producers had a very different approach to Agatha Christie’s stories! Of course, we should take into account that this is Suchet’s side of the story, and some of it might have been exaggerated for dramatic effect, but I somehow don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t take his word on this. To me, the opposition he describes only makes me even more amazed at the process he has gone through with the character.
I picked up that Poirot would be totally anally-retentive [here: obsessive compulsive disorder]. […] I used the anal-retentive analysis from Freud on Poirot. […] It doesn’t make him lose his twinkle, his little fun and sense of humour. I also hope I’ve given Poirot a darker side as well.
What you saw over the course of the series was an actor trying to fight for his character from early on. Because when I first started, the costume and make-up designs turned Poirot into a buffoon. My first costume design was going to be check plus-fours, and hunting jackets, and moustache out there, and Sherlock Holmes caps. I remember one particular meeting when I walked away from the production before it even started, because I wanted to wear the clothes that he was famous for: his suits, his wing collar, bow ties, and most important of all, his morning jacket and striped trousers. I was forbidden to do so, because ‘the television public would find it boring and depressing’. At that meeting, I said, ‘You will have to cast somebody else. If you want me to play the role, I can only approach it in the way that I as an actor would approach the role. You are now taking away my individual creativity, and you must find somebody else’. I didn’t know at that time that the Agatha Christie estate only wanted me to play the role. I didn’t know the power I had. All through the first three years, I was fighting scripts that tried to make him jokey, while I was trying desperately to find the real man. Doing the short stories first – I wasn’t able to bring in the complexities of the character. But gradually, as the character evolved, I made him far more internalised in his mind, and less active physically. If he did any gestures, they wouldn’t just be gestures. He was doing something in his head, while he was active. And I allowed his darker side to come through. I won’t explain now, what his dark thoughts were. What was it like being a man, at that time, unmarried? He was not a homosexual. He was a true bachelor. Did he have any sexual frustrations? Was he lonely? All that, I began to build into the character.
If I do continue [playing the part, this was published in 2000], I hope to develop him as Agatha Christie wrote him, not just going off on my own. Her books are full of these dark moments. Poirot would brood, and would take himself off into the corner of a room, to sit and think. He didn’t know why, but he became suddenly troubled as he looked at a young girl. Agatha Christie was really into all this, and yet he was turned into, what I consider, a playful buffoon. That’s not what she wrote, and it’s only by playing him that I realised the seriousness of that lunch where her own family turned to me and said, ‘We don’t want that. If we laugh at all, it is to be with him, and not at him. (p. 190-191)
It should be said that the producers were probably persuaded quite early on – especially after that first series with over ten million viewers! Moreover, we should keep in mind that Suchet has been an ‘associate producer’ since 2003, so he now has much greater influence on the character than he – presumably – used to have in the early years. Interestingly, this is also when Suchet seems to have made his portrayal even more nuanced – just as he intended.
Secondly, the extract shows what care Suchet has taken to create a three-dimensional character; his use of Freud’s anal-retentive analysis to decipher the OCD aspects, his goal of finding ‘the real man’ and his thoughts on Poirot’s situation of life. All of these aspects point ahead towards what has become Suchet’s definitive Poirot.
The development of the character
Some viewers claim that Poirot has lost his humour in recent years; that he has been turned into something that contradicts what Christie wrote. On several occasions, Suchet has discussed his initial portrayal of the character, and how he found a reference to Poirot’s ‘twinkle’. In Peter Haining’s book, Agatha Christie’s Poirot: A Celebration of the Great Detective (1996), he says: ‘If Poirot twinkles, I thought, I can develop that. [...] As well as everything else, I believe that Poirot does sparkle. He can be fastidious and irritating, but he has the ability to appeal to the lowest as well as the highest in society. I decided to make him charming to even the lowest chambermaid – that would be what would make my portrayal different to the other versions’ (p. 64).
Moreover, he stated in the same interview that ‘[w]ith the development of the series I’ve tried to make him lighter, more humorous and witty. And although you must take his brilliance seriously, you can still smile and laugh with Poirot.’ (p. 71).
Now, this doesn’t mean that Suchet has aimed for a buffoonish “comedy angle” with his portrayal – that is evident from the extract detailed earlier in this article. On the contrary, I think he has tried to bring out the humour in Poirot’s eccentricities. Moreover, this humour has not disappeared from the series – in fact, Poirot comments on the size of his eggs for breakfast even in the most recent and undoubtedly most serious adaptation, Murder on the Orient Express (2010). The explanation for the tonal shift largely comes down to the fact that if you read Christie’s stories carefully, she clearly spent more time (and paragraphs) on his eccentricities early on in her short stories and novels, than in her later works. Moreover, as Suchet points out in the Poirot & Me documentary, the short stories have more (obvious) humour than the novels. Since the series has moved on to the later novels in recent years, it seems only natural that there is somewhat less humour, particularly as the stories themselves have become darker.
In other words, any claim that Poirot (or rather, the portrayal of the character) has lost its humour is largely a misunderstanding. The humour – which is mostly on eccentricity - was there because it was present in the short stories. There is less humour in the more recent adaptations, but it has far from disappeared. Any scenes with the two eccentrics Poirot and Mrs Oliver would testify to that. And the reason why there is less humour is largely that Christie spends less time on this particular character aspect in the later novels.
However, I will agree that the seriousness – apart from being a result of Christie’s move from short stories to novels and darker crimes (e.g. Hallowe’en Party, Five Little Pigs, Sad Cypress) – is also a result of Suchet widening his portrayal in later years. This is particularly the case with episodes made after the series was brought back by A&E in 2000.
In fact, I would argue that Suchet himself would probably explain this change in the portrayal as a natural consequence of the situations the character is put in throughout the novels. In an interview for the MOTOE press pack in 2010, he said: ‘I’ve always said with Poirot, or indeed any character I play, I want to get to know them so well that I can put them in a thousand different situations and react differently to every single one while still remaining ‘them’. In the same way I can put myself in any situation and react differently but it’s still me’.
In my opinion, there are especially three characteristics Suchet seems to have focused on – or, been led to focus on by the situations Poirot finds himself in; loneliness, religion and disillusionment.
I will start this section off with two quotes from interviews with David Suchet:
‘The more I revisit the stories, I find a lonely person, which I may have missed in the very early episodes, where Agatha Christie has him wishing he had married, wishing he had children. I now play that strain, that tension.’ (from The Christian Science Monitor, February 2000)
'Poirot is a most interesting character - apart from anything else - because he is an outsider, in this country anyway, but he is also an outsider socially. He's also got a very dark side, he's a lonely man. I think I've said before that he believes the relationship between a man and a woman, a loving relationship, is the greatest gift of God, especially when it ends up in marriage. And he himself very often in Agatha Christie's books says, 'I wish I had married'. And I try and bring out this quality of Poirot more and more because I think that it is important. You know, he lives alone, he has a manservant, but he’s a loner in all ways. And he’s become self-sufficient, because he’s had to become self-sufficient. But when I do have the opportunity of ... not falling in love with another woman in the films, but those women that I’m with will often make me aware of my own solitude. (...) The way I try and play him – I’m not asking you to feel sorry for Poirot, because Poirot doesn’t feel sorry for himself, in fact he fights not to. (from Poirot & Me, 2006)As the quotations above demonstrate, this particular character trait is largely based on what Suchet seems to describe as a lack of love in Poirot’s life – the lack of a woman or wife, that is. Now, Suchet has stated several times that he sees Poirot as entirely asexual (see, for instance, Peter Haining’s book p. 70), but he seems to be interested in Poirot’s regret at his inability to fall in love – or indeed having lasting friendships with women (apart from Mrs. Oliver, obviously).
Again, some critics have argued that this strays away from Christie’s character. However, as with Poirot’s twinkle in the earlier episodes, this is not something that Suchet has added from out of nowhere. Anne Hart, in her brilliant “biography” on the character, outlines the references from Christie’s books that I think Suchet has utilized. She alludes to his fascination with Countess Vera Rossakoff (p. 133), his comment in Dead Man’s Folly that ‘It is terrible, madame, all that I have missed in life’ when asked if he is happy to be a bachelor (p. 134), that he, as described in ‘The Third-Floor Flat’, once fell in love with a girl who couldn’t cook (p. 134) and that he was always very kind to orphaned young women or young women in distress (p. 134).
Suchet also details some of the instances where Poirot has been made aware of his own loneliness in the Poirot & Me documentary. These include a conversation with Jacqueline de Bellefort in Death on the Nile, his slight infatuation with Jane Wilkinson in Lord Edgware Dies, and the avuncular role he takes on with Katherine Grey in The Mystery of the Blue Train.
Interestingly, Anne Hart also points out that Poirot’s great hobby appears to be matchmaking (p. 131). There are several instances of this in the later episodes, for instance with Elinor Carlile in Sad Cypress, Norma Restarick in Third Girl and Maude in Mrs McGinty’s Dead. Undoubtedly, this is also a part of Suchet’s emphasis on Poirot’s lack of love. As Poirot puts it in the adaptation of Third Girl, as Norma and David are united; ‘are we looking at the greatest of mysteries that life ever throws on, a mystery that even I, Hercule Poirot, will never be able to solve; the nature of love’.
Religion and disillusionment
I group these two character developments together, because I think they are largely intertwined. Poirot’s Catholicism clearly comes as a surprise to many followers of the TV series. I don’t blame them. If memory serves me right, the only time we ever see Poirot even hinting at a religious attitude before the 2005-2006 series is in the adaptation of ‘Triangle at Rhodes’, in which Poirot makes the sign of the cross. Again, I think we have to consider this in terms of Suchet’s intention of developing the character through the situations he is put in. The three episodes that most clearly put an emphasis on Catholicism are Taken at the Flood, Appointment with Death and Murder on the Orient Express. As far as I know, Catholicism does not feature greatly – if at all – in any of these novels. So in this case, Suchet seems to have taken the small references there are to Poirot being a bon catholique (and, again, they are there – he hasn’t simply invented them!) and utilized those to delve into yet another aspect of his character. See Anne Hart’s book, p. 127-28, and the short story ‘The Chocolate Box’ for these references.
In the three aforementioned episodes, Poirot is put in situations that distress him and trouble him. In Taken at the Flood, he sees a murderer exploit the faith of a Catholic girl to commit a gruesome crime. In Appointment with Death, he learns of the abuse of orphaned children and in Murder on the Orient Express, he has to lie to the police to do the right thing and let the murderer(s) go free.
Now, it could be argued that Poirot has been in similar situations before where he has not turned to his faith for consolation. And this is where Suchet’s third and final broadening of the character comes in – his disillusionment.
If we think of this series as an evolutionary project over 25 years – and, in fact, the life of a character that will span from somewhere in the late 1800s to about 1950 – it’s only natural that Poirot’s attitudes to crime and people around him are becoming increasingly disillusioned. He has spent an entire life solving the most gruesome crimes. Any human being – even a world famous sleuth – will be affected by what he sees and experiences in life. Again, I feel fairly certain that Suchet has taken this from Christie’s novels. For instance, Poirot’s valet George tells Colin Lamb in The Clocks: ‘I think, sir, that sometimes he gets a little depressed’. In other words, Poirot wants to rid the world of crime – what Suchet has describes as his raison d’etre – but wherever he turns – even in retirement – he keeps stumbling over these horrible situations in which people do horrible things to each other. The world isn’t becoming a better place, even after a lifetime spent solving and preventing crime. To bring back the religious aspect, it seems fair that, as a bon catholique, he would eventually turn to faith for emotional support when faced with these terrible crimes.
In other words, Suchet’s interpretation perfectly brings out these nuances of the character; an individual who has evolved from his early, optimistic years (the short stories) to his retirement (the late novels), in which he becomes increasingly depressed and disillusioned, something which might be said to lead him to take the radical actions he does take in Curtain.
To summarise, I would put down the following reasons why I think David Suchet’s portrayal of Hercule Poirot is such an achievement:
1) His research and attention to detail
2) His constant desire to explore new territories within the limits of Christie’s characterisation, that is
a. The eccentricities and the twinkle
b. The loneliness
c. The religion
d. The disillusionment
3) His commitment to remain ‘true to Agatha’; the character that she wrote
As to point three, I have tried, through the references I make to Christie’s characterisations, to show that – in spite of criticism from producers and certain fans alike – Suchet has remained true to Christie’s character, while still developing his own portrayal.
I do, however, acknowledge that people are entitled to their own opinions and that certain decisions Suchet has made might be more controversial than others. In the end, though, what it all comes down to is interpretation, and I believe that Suchet’s portrayal is the closest one can possibly get to Agatha’s character – especially if we take the series’ long run into account. On that note, I would like to conclude with a quote from Suchet that clearly shows the process he goes through when interpreting the character:
‘One get sentences like ‘Everybody loves to speak to Poirot’, and you just read on, forgetting why that should be. As an actor one has to take those sort of sentences on board and think ‘Why does everybody like to talk to Poirot?’ What is that quality in a person that makes people want to talk to them?’ (p. 64 in Peter Haining’s book)All photos © ITV, all extracts and quotations are linked to their sources.