IT was the Friday before last Christmas that David Suchet finished filming Murder On The Orient Express.
Twelve months on it’s ITV1’s big Christmas Day film at 9pm.
I met up with David earlier this year to discuss his role in this iconic Poirot story.
Along with the documentary he filmed about his own journey on the real train, screened on the same channel last Sunday.
My feature was published in the M.E.N. on Monday.
I’ve posted it online below, followed by a few extras for fans of both David and Hercule.
“IT will be a Poirot that viewers have never seen before. I was horrified when I first saw myself in the mirror,” recalls David Suchet.
He’s back as Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot in a brand new adaptation of Agatha Christie’s best loved novel, with a visual twist for fans.
Murder On The Orient Express (ITV1, Christmas Day, 9pm) finds the luxury train stranded in a snowdrift. On board are Poirot, the body of a murdered American businessman and a mix of wealthy passengers, all suspects in the killing.
“Poirot is usually pristine. But there is no electricity, no water, nothing. He can’t shave or wash. He can’t wax his moustache. He suffers like everybody else on the train,” explains David, 64.
“You see him in a dilapidated state, possibly for the first time ever. So I let myself go,” he smiles. “It is a big move for Poirot to be seen like this on British television, let alone around the world.”
David has starred in 65 Poirot films since first taking on the role over 21 years ago but had to wait until the rights became available again for this novel before filming it.
Christie’s inspiration for the story came, in part, from a real life 1929 incident which saw the Orient Express trapped in snow for 10 days around 60 miles from Istanbul.
In a linked ITV1 documentary last Sunday(Dec19), viewers saw David embark on a “journey of a lifetime” aboard the real Orient Express, from London to Prague via Venice, even getting to drive the train at one stage.
But what the audience did not see was the reaction of one female fan. “I was getting on the train somewhere in Europe and this woman screamed. She had been bought, for her birthday, a trip on the Orient Express because her favourite character in the whole of literature was Poirot. And then she sees me. It’s surreal for them,” he grins.
“I do get recognised everywhere I go. I continue to be amazed by how many countries show Hercule Poirot. People like his company. They are genuinely interested in that strange little man.”
Why has he endured? “Poirot is of his time, as we play him, in the Thirties when he was first created. And we’ve kept him there. People like his old fashioned behaviour, his love of right, his hate of wrong. All of these things in our very materialistic, cynical world still touch people.
“It shows they are still hungry for good and trying to do the right thing. And values beyond the material, which we get lambasted with every day. And Poirot gets a wide-ranging audience. My mailbag is full of teenagers writing in. They’ve been brought into the series by their parents and are now watching.”
Salford-born Albert Finney gained an Oscar nomination for his depiction of Poirot in the 1974 big screen version of Murder On The Orient Express. This latest production, scripted by Stewart Harcourt, aims to bring something different to the table.
“It turned out to be an experience that I never, ever, expected. It really is Poirot’s journey as much as the journey of the Orient Express. It’s been approached from a very interesting psychological point of view for Poirot,” says David.
“This adaptation has brilliantly confronted a number of things that not necessarily the book or the previous iconic film ever did. It really is a journey into the deepest parts of his very existence and into his world view and beliefs, which he has to re-examine.”
The cast list includes Dame Eileen Atkins, Hugh Bonneville, Barbara Hershey, David Morrissey, Joseph Mawle and Toby Jones, with Malta doubling for Istanbul and a detailed replica of the Orient Express built at Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire.
Another new Poirot film – Clocks – has already been completed for screening next year with the script for Dead Man’s Folly also commissioned by ITV. “There are six more to go before we’ll have finished the complete works,” adds David.
What if he was unable to film the entire series of Agatha Christie Poirot stories? “I’m very pragmatic. I have to remain professional about it. Obviously I’d be gutted. But somebody said to me, ‘The best tree in the world you can be is a very tall, thin pine. You have to bend with the storms, rather than hold firm and try and resist, because you’ll crack.’
“I think Poirot is fun, charming and nice to be around on television. People like his company and I am very aware that I am only where I am because the public enjoy my work.
“Therefore, when any member of the public stops me, I will always remember what Laurence Olivier said to me one day in the National Theatre, ‘No matter how intrusive it may be, they’re probably so nervous to meet you, you’ve got to make them go away feeling better for having said hello.’”
The 1974 film?
“I know it frame by frame. It was one of my favourite films and ‘Alby’ Finney is terrific in it. He was Oscar nominated, don’t forget. And the film got an Oscar. It was iconic in its day. Look at the cast. A young Sean Connery there and all the other great, famous people.”
Making this new adaptation?
“You’re talking to a classical actor who’s been with the Royal Shakespeare Company for 15 years. I’ve been stepping into very famous shoes for a very long time. You just have to say, when you’re playing The Fool in King Lear or playing Richard III or Iago in Othello, you just have to put that aside and you have to re-examine the story for yourself with the writer or screenwriter in this and say, ‘How are we going to approach this, for the first time for me?’ Otherwise one’s always either comparing or thinking, ‘Oh gosh, I hope we’re as popular as the original.’ And, of course, that’s a killer because that’s not what I do.
“I have to approach it like a Shakespeare play. I’ve always said when I’ve taught and lectured Shakespeare to any drama student or in university, ‘Just imagine the play has come through your letter box and this is a brand new play.’ And that’s what I had to do with the Orient Express. Just forget everything. It’s just come through my letterbox. Now, what am I going to do?”
Filming this story?
“It’s always been on the cards. I think it would have been filmed many years ago, bar the fact that it was decided by whoever to make a film – Murder On The Orient Express – and bring Poirot into the 20th century with laptop and computer. I don’t know if you remember that film but there was a film made. It did not have a very long life and not with me as Poirot. So it’s not for me to say good or bad. But because that was done, it meant that we had to wait another X amount of years before the rights became available again. And they became available about 18 months ago. So we could do it.
“The first sequence in the adaptation should take place in Istanbul, but we went to Malta. All the snow scenes were done in Black Park near Pinewood, with fake snow. And the train itself was in Pinewood Studios.”
The documentary, filmed in 2009?
“I could read the book and do all my research necessary on the train. It was wonderful to read the book on the train.”
The set interior of the train was an exact replica: “They went into such detail. The detail in our sets, locations, props and set dressings are as much remarked on by our audience as anything else.”
Is he still surprised by Poirot?
“Yes. I don’t think that I could have played the character for so many years if I wasn’t still fascinated by him and still learning about him. Every story that I read, that we’re going to film, there’s always one little thing that will give me a clue into where Christie’s mind may have been for Poirot in that book. Because essentially, Christie made a point of trying never to alter the character. We know that she became fed up with him and wrote his death long before…because her publisher refused to publish the novel that she wrote. So we know she wanted to kill him off. But she also, with the later books, got forced into opening out the character more, for herself. And for me playing it, thankfully. And there are little clues in the novels.
“Agatha Christie in the queen of mystery writing.”