I can imagine a quiz question along the lines of ‘What do Shylock, Lady Bracknell, Sigmund Freud and Hercule Poirot have in common?’ The answer, of course, would be David Suchet, who has impersonated all these characters on stage or television during an acting career spanning half a century.
In Behind the Lens, Suchet offers a series of autobiographical sketches, written in an amiably informal style and covering many aspects of his professional and personal life. He writes of his Jewish ancestry, his childhood, his schooldays (during which he was caned for hiding a forbidden Mars Bar in one of his shoes) and his private passions — for canals, music, foreign travel and for his family, the last being ‘the most important thing in the world to me’. He writes of his professional ups and downs: during a long period of unemployment as an actor he worked as a salesman at Moss Bros in Covent Garden and was rescued from becoming a branch manager in Manchester only by an opportune phone call from his agent. And he writes movingly of his adoption of the Christian faith, reached in midlife after deep thought and serious study. He has recorded the whole of the Bible, and one of his less predictable triumphs was reading aloud in 2017 the whole of St Mark’s Gospel to a packed audience in St Paul’s Cathedral.
The cover of Behind the Lens features the photograph (right) of the author taking a photograph. Suchet’s grandfather was a distinguished press photographer, and Suchet himself takes a camera with him on all his travels. ‘The best way for you to get to know me,’ he writes, ‘is through my photography, because it’s how I see as well as what I see.’ He is, he writes, ‘a visual person’. ‘I am constantly observing. It’s my lifeblood as an actor.’
One of the pleasures offered by this generously illustrated book is to find, on turning a page, not text but a double spread of photographs, many of them in colour, some illustrating the text, others peripheral to it, displaying the author’s delight in the natural world, in idiosyncrasy, in the revelation of character through the infinite variety of the human face, the actor’s imagination that probes behind superficial appearance to identify an inner reality.
It is no doubt as Poirot — a role that he has played repeatedly on television over a period of 25 years in all of its incarnations in the voluminous canon of the writings of Agatha Christie — that Suchet figures most prominently in the public imagination. The screen enables a far wider circulation than the stage. Suchet estimates that at one point ‘Poirot was being watched by 750 million people worldwide’.
He prepared for the role with meticulous care:
I read every book and made a dossier of all Poirot’s characteristics: his clothes, his move from wearing a pocket watch to a wristwatch … how he refused to eat two boiled eggs that were not the same size.
And at the beginning of each new series
I would get out my cane, in my house, walk around the garden like him, speak out loud like him, attempt to look at the world through his eyes. And if I had two boiled eggs at home, even though I’d never insist on their being the same size, I’d notice if they weren’t.
Like Poirot, Suchet is a perfectionist. He is also a successful and happy man. One finishes reading his book with the feeling that he fully deserves the rewards that his professional life has brought him.