Becoming Poirot

Suchet’s portrayal was more than the sum of the character’s distinctive props.

Updated: August 2, 2014 5:41:57 am
Hercule Poirot as played by David Suchet (Source: Reuters) Hercule Poirot as played by David Suchet (Source: Reuters)

By: Ian Calvert

I have long been of the opinion that Sunday night just wouldn’t be Sunday night without exposing yourself to at least one posh person getting murdered. Nothing relaxes you for the rigours of the week ahead more effectively than seeing skulduggerous aristos bumping each other off in picturesque settings with gay abandon before receiving their comeuppance. Fortunately, TV commissioners appear to share this opinion and provide a continual supply of programmes full of such activities so that I, and others like me, are able to get our necessary fix without resorting to a life of crime and scandal, allowing the few remaining members of the landed classes to go about their daily business in relative peace.

When faced with such an embarrassment of riches, it can be hard to pick a favourite. The Oxford adventures of Inspector Morse, whose murder cases are as cryptic and ingenious as his adored crosswords, are often rightly spoken of in hushed tones. At the other end of the spectrum lies Midsomer Murders, whose policy of casting one famous actor per episode ensures you’ve established the identity of the murderer even before the credits have finished rolling. It’s hard, though, not to have a soft spot for a show that dispatches its victims in a distinctly baroque fashion. One involved a rotter of a vicar being pummelled to death by vintage wine bottles hurled from a replica medieval catapult, whilst he was pinned to the ground by croquet hoops. Good, clean, respectable fun, and as good a way of signalling an imminent commercial break as anything else.

For the golden mean between these two extremes of forcing your little grey cells into overdrive and giving them the evening off, you can do a lot worse than Hercule Poirot. Specifically, Poirot as played by David Suchet. Other Poirots are available, on film and on radio, as well as on television, but, frankly, none of these comes close to Suchet. Suchet’s outings as Poirot are special for their quantity as much as their quality; he has starred in adaptations of every single Poirot story. Now, though, after 70 episodes, produced over 25 years, the screening of the final Poirot novel, Curtain, means that Suchet’s Herculean efforts are at an end.

The first publication of Curtain in 1975 notoriously prompted The New York Times to print Poirot’s obituary on its front page. If there is any justice (or if it’s a sufficiently slow news day), the passing of Suchet’s Poirot should receive the same treatment. Poirot is a character whose highly distinctive props and mannerisms —  the waxed moustache, the patent leather shoes, the malacca cane, the prissy voice, the mincing gait —  could easily descend into caricature. Suchet’s Poirot retains all these trappings but possesses a depth and breadth of character that ensures he is far more than the sum of these parts.

Poirot’s status as a Belgian at large in England also runs the risk of him being seen as yet another funny foreigner character, which infects so much of the genre, and indeed, British attitudes in general. Suchet’s Poirot, though, skilfully avoids this, a legacy not only of his thoughtful and measured portrayal but also of the significant attention paid to the source material by both Suchet and the show’s producers. Far from making him a Belgian for comic effect when writing the first Poirot story in 1920, Agatha Christie did so in order to draw on pro-Belgian sentiments that formed such a significant part of Allied propaganda before and during World War I. Poirot is hailed as a plucky little Belgian and so replicates the supposed qualities of his nation the English chose to find so amenable.

Not, of course, that Poirot tells you a lot about Belgians. He doesn’t even tell you much about the English attitude towards the Belgians. What he does tell you, though, is a lot about what the English thought, and continue to think, about themselves, both in Christie’s period and our own. The English need to support, and be voluble in their support, of the plucky underdog is clearly a long-standing one. But Poirot’s ability to see through surface charm and spot a wrong ’un across a crowded drawing room also says much about our own idealised self-image. Both the murderers and the victims in Poirot stories tend to be liars, bounders and cads of some sort or another (although there are exceptions, of which Curtain, in fact, provides the most potent examples). If you don’t play fair with Poirot around, you receive your just, if grisly, desserts, which restores a world of clearer-cut moral absolutes. Poirot, in his pomp, reaffirms what we like to think about ourselves. Sunday nights will not be the same without him. Apart, of course, from the inevitable repeats.

Calvert is a Bristol-based writer

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