British actor David Suchet

“My agony as Poirot drew his last breath”, by David Suchet: Shock as the little Belgian sensationally turns out to be the killer in his own final case

David Suchet // Daily Mail. Extracted from “Poirot And Me” by David Suchet and Geoffrey Wansell, published by Headline.

Spoiler Alert: don't read if you do not want to know the final outcome!

Final case

For more than two decades, viewers have been used to seeing him solve murder after murder. But in his final TV appearance last night, the killer turned out to be Hercule Poirot himself. In a dramatic finale to the long-running ITV series, the Belgian detective — played for 25 years by David Suchet — was seen shooting a man in the head before signing a dramatic deathbed confession.

After a lifetime spent solving crime, he died of a heart attack and was found slumped in bed by his best friend Captain Hastings.

Agatha Christie fans will not have been surprised to see Poirot die in the last episode, since the novel it was based on — Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case — was first published in 1975.

But the ending was kept a guarded secret by ITV nonetheless. Even those devotees who knew the outcome found themselves wishing it would end differently. Writing online shortly before it screened last night, one viewer wrote: ‘Poirot can’t die, he just can’t.’ Another said: ‘I can’t believe Poirot’s gonna die next episode. I’m not prepared for this.’

Over 13 series, Poirot has featured 1,124 actors, including the new Doctor Who Peter Capaldi and Homeland star Damian Lewis.

In his final case, Poirot decides to kill a hotel guest, Stephen Norton, who has caused the deaths of five people without being convicted, and who plans to kill again.

After shooting him, Poirot commits suicide by failing to take the amyl nitrate he needs for his heart condition. At the end of the episode, he writes a confession explaining his actions to Hastings. As he dies in bed, he is heard to utter: ‘Forgive me.’

Here David Suchet, 67, tells the amazing story of why he came to play the role of Poirot, how he made it the definitive portrayal of the fastidious Belgian detective — and his sadness at having to say a last farewell...

On a damp, chilly November morning I am feeling old, very old. So old, indeed, that I am on the brink of death. You can barely hear my voice as the angina invading my body takes an ever-increasing toll. Every whisper seems to bring another racking cough. I have lost 2st, my face is the colour of aged parchment and my hands are gnarled like human claws.

A killer strikes: Agatha Christie's Poirot commits the perfect murder in the breathtaking finale

I am lying between stark white cotton sheets on my deathbed, about to breathe my last as Agatha Christie’s idiosyncratic Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, who has been part of my life as an actor for almost a quarter of a century. I have played him in no fewer than 66 television films. Now I am about to bid him farewell. It is quite simply one of the hardest things I have ever had to do.

I am lying in a small bedroom specially created in the middle of the great, echoing Sound Stage A in Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire. It has been built to represent the room at Styles Court where the very first Poirot case was set, and where he now returns to meet his end in this, his last case.

All around me are the crew with their huge lights and swinging sound booms, the make-up and hair ladies, the director of photography, the two cameras and their operators and the talented young director, Hettie Macdonald.

There is sadness in the air, none of the usual banter and laughter of a film unit in action. Our beloved Belgian is dying, and no one can really bear it. There are two scenes to be filmed before we get to the denouement and both of them feature just two characters in that small bedroom in the midst of the vast, still sound stage: Poirot and his old and trusted colleague Captain Hastings, played by my dear friend Hugh Fraser.

Agatha Christie fans will not have been surprised to see Poirot die in the last episode, since the novel it was based on Curtain: Poirot's Last Case was first published in 1975

As the cameras roll, the angina gripping my chest forces me to cough, and Hugh hands me a glass of water from the bedside table. Ever the detective, I am trying to make my friend understand the crime that has been committed at Styles Court. But he does not quite grasp it. With melancholy in my voice, I tell him not to worry and to go down to breakfast. There are only the ‘loose ends to be tied up’. The bell rings to indicate the end of the scene but hardly anyone moves. There is barely a sound. Every person there knows that we are nearing the end of a television era.

My wife Sheila is here and she knows better than anyone just how difficult it will be for me to say goodbye to the little man who has inhabited our lives since 1988. We walk away from the set and she hugs me. I hug her back. There is nothing more we can really say. This is the death of a dear friend. For years it has been Poirot and me — and to lose him is a pain almost beyond imagining. As I walk back on to the set for the next scene and climb back between the cotton sheets, I know I have to clear my mind of everything else. I must concentrate on what is about to happen to my old friend — and to me.

I quietly ask if I may have silence for a few moments, just to allow Poirot and me a little peace to collect our thoughts.

Poirot commits suicide by failing to take the amyl nitrate he needs for his heart condition

In this poignant scene, Poirot is aware that the end is coming. But he is not sure when, because waiting for the next attack of his angina is like waiting for a train. It could arrive without notice, suddenly squeezing the breath out of a body, rendering it first speechless, then lifeless.

He is also afraid: there is a part of this final story that has made him wonder whether God will truly ever forgive him for his deeds, and, as a good Catholic, that thought troubles him deeply.

For once in his life, Poirot cannot control the events around him. He is rendered a mere mortal again.

My heart is full as I whisper to Hastings: ‘Cher ami, go now. Let me rest.’ Even in his last moments, Poirot remains the great detective, and I conclude, my voice just a little stronger: ‘It was not suicide you know, it was murder.’

Hastings closes the door behind him and goes before Poirot whispers again: ‘Cher ami.’ My dear friend.

At the end of the episode, he writes a confession explaining his actions to Hastings. As he dies in bed, he is heard to utter: “Forgive me”

Sheila is crying quietly. My driver is watching the scene on the video playback in tears, so is my stand-in. The make-up and continuity ladies are also wiping their eyes. It is very moving. I have never experienced anything like it in my entire career.

But I cannot allow myself to cry. I don’t want Poirot’s death to be sentimental, I want to make it as real as I possibly can. I climb back into bed. I am the only actor in this next scene, the last moments of my life as Poirot.

The sound of my laboured breathing fills the air. I do not want to have to do this scene more than once as I am afraid I may not be able to control myself for a second or third take.

So I concentrate every fibre of my being on getting it exactly right. I say: ‘Forgive me, forgive . . .’ and reach across to pick up the rosary. The director calls: ‘Cut’ after one take.

When Hercule Poirot died that late November afternoon in 2012, a part of me died with him.

Words really cannot express how much that obsessive, kindly, gentle man with his mincing walk, his ‘little grey cells’ and his extraordinary accent had come to mean to me.

How had I come to inhabit his morning jacket and pin-striped trousers, his black patent leather shoes and his elegantly brushed grey Homburg hat for so many years? What had brought us together?

Back in 1987, when I first got the role, I wasn’t exactly the obvious choice. I’d spent almost 20 years playing pretty menacing parts — Shylock in The Merchant Of Venice and Iago in Othello — rather than charming detectives.

But it was my portrayal of Blott, the malevolent gardener in the dramatisation of Tom Sharpe’s marvellous comic novel Blott On The Landscape in 1985 that led to Poirot. Tom Sharpe rang me in tears to say that he’d never expected to see his character so beautifully portrayed. I was very touched.

That was why Brian Eastman, the producer of Blott, rang me up on an autumn evening in 1987 and asked if he could take me out to dinner.

Sitting opposite each other over a chicken madras and a vegetable biryani in my local Indian restaurant in Acton, West London, Brian said suddenly: ‘Have you read much of Agatha Christie?’

The truth was I hadn’t read a single book. My father, a wonderful man and a leading gynaecologist in his day, had told my two brothers and me: ‘Read the greats . . . challenge yourselves.’ We’d all taken his advice. Detective fiction was not considered among his ‘greats’.

He was horrified when I first told him I wanted to be an actor. In my early years in the profession, even I was uncertain why I was doing it.

I spent a good deal of time ‘resting’ between acting jobs. I worked as a lift operator, unloading lorry loads of dog food, and selling and hiring out formal wear at Moss Bros.

I was so terrified I was never going to work as an actor again that when Moss Bros offered me an apprenticeship as a junior manager, I was about to accept it. But that very morning, I got a call offering me a part in a television show called The Protectors, shooting in Venice.

Since then, I’ve been lucky enough to work regularly in the theatre, in films and on radio and television. I joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1973, and loved it. I even appeared in a Poirot film, Thirteen At Dinner, in 1985, playing Inspector Japp with Peter Ustinov as Poirot.

During a break in the filming Peter said to me: ‘You could play Poirot, you know, and you would be very good at it.’

That conversation came back to me as Brian Eastman told me that ITV wanted to make a series of ten one-hour films based on the Poirot short stories. Then he dropped his bombshell: ‘We are very keen that you should play Poirot.’

My spoonful of curry stopped halfway to my mouth. I was astounded. Me, the serious Shakespearean actor, portrayer of men with haunted souls, playing a fastidious, balding detective?

Brian sent me two Poirot novels and I became intrigued. The Poirot in the books was nothing like the character I’d seen on screen: he was more elusive, more pedantic, and most of all, more human. But I still wasn’t sure whether I should play him. I called my elder brother John, then a newscaster at ITN, and asked what he thought.

‘I wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole,’ John said firmly. ‘Poirot’s a bit of a joke, a buffoon. It’s not you at all.’ I gulped.

‘Well, what I’m reading isn’t a buffoon,’ I told him. ‘It’s a character that I’ve never seen portrayed.’

There was a slight sigh. ‘Of course, you must do it if you want to,’ he said quietly. ‘Good luck. Only a word of warning: it may be difficult to get people to take him seriously.’

It turned out he was right. Nonetheless, I was convinced that I could bring the true Poirot, as Agatha Christie had written him, to life. I told Brian that I would do it.

I knew I had to discover every single thing I could about the detective with the small waxed moustache and I spent all my time reading every word that Christie had written about Poirot. He was a retired police detective in his 60s when he first appeared in The Mysterious Affair At Styles, while I was in my early 40s. Not only that, he was also described as a good deal fatter than I was.

There was going to have to be some considerable padding if I was going to convince the world I was the great Hercule Poirot.

The more I read, the more the little man entranced me. There were so many foibles and mannerisms — his need for order, his dislike of the country, his silver ‘Turnip’ pocket watch. I started to write a private list of his habits and character.

‘Hates to fly,’ I wrote in my dossier. ‘Makes him feel sick. Regards his moustache as a thing of perfect beauty. A man of faith and morals. Regards himself as "un bon Catholique".’

I carried this dossier around on the set throughout all my years as Poirot, years in which I grew to love and admire the little Belgian. Now, 25 years later, I am preparing for my final scene: the discovery of Poirot’s body by Hastings. Once again I am determined that it should not be sugary. The bell rings and silence falls again.

There is no dialogue, just the sight of Hastings throwing open the door to find Poirot’s lifeless body tangled in his bedclothes. I can tell how hard it is for Hugh to play the scene by the look on his face as he bursts into the room, with me lying there motionless, my left cheek against the pillow, my right arm stretched out across my body.

For he, too, is losing someone very close to him, a man he has spent almost half his adult life alongside.

The director calls ‘cut’. We have finished for the day. As I walk back to my trailer, I feel completely lost.

The following Monday I have to film the final moments of the story in which Poirot writes a letter to Hastings — delivered four months after his death — explaining the solution to the mysterious killings in those last days at Styles.

I sign ‘Hercule Poirot’ before kissing the crucifix in my hand and giving one last look into the camera.

Poirot’s death was the end of a long journey for me. I had only ever wanted to play Dame Agatha’s true Poirot, the man she had created in 1920 and whose death she chronicled more than half a century later. Curtain was published in 1975 just months before she died.

He was as real to me as he had been to her: a great detective, a remarkable man, if, perhaps, just now and then, a little irritating.

I think back to Poirot’s last words in the scene before he dies. That second ‘Cher ami’ was for someone other than Hastings. It was for my dear, dear friend Poirot. I was saying goodbye to him as well — and I felt it with all my heart.

From: www.dailymail.co.uk

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