By Graham Chalmers
TV crime’s biggest superstar David Suchet is sitting on a Harrogate stage on a cosy armchair being questioned by Geofffrey Wansell, co-author of his new book, Poirot and Me, who’s also on a cosy armchair.
It’s as if they were any normal pair of chums having a chat in someone’s front room.
Seconds earlier, Suchet had arrived on stage to applause more expected for a rock star than a classically-trained actor.
The popular Suchet had leant forward and taken an extravagantly low bow - much like members of The Beatles had done on the exact same stage 50 years earlier.
Ostensibly appearing at the Royal Hall to talk about his 25 years on TV playing Agatha Christie’s famous Belgian detective, the packed-out event quickly turned into a genteel cauldron of hero worship.
Suchet seemed simultaneously delighted and a little uneasy with the attention while pricking the bubble occasionally with gentle mickey-taking.
“I’m sorry there’s no moustache tonight,” he says, “it’s at home having a rest.”
Suchet starts to speak humourously and, at times, movingly about how he created his most memorable role.
He showed how he built up the detective’s voice from his own low register to a higher pitch, how the walk had grown from his natural gait to the speedy mince.
It was obvious he had put a lot into Poirot for a man who was reluctant at first to take the role.
When it was first offered in 1989, his own brother John, the renowned news broadcaster, had advised him to turn it down, partly because previous actors had made Christie’s famous character a bit of a joke.
But Suchet had accepted and decided he would do it properly, to follow the books, as, indeed, Agatha Christie’s own relatives had insisted the very first time they met.
Though fans sometimes confused the man with the character, he’d kept the distinction clear, though he did let his Poirot meet Miss Marple once in public for an Agatha Christie anniversary event.
Mixing a chatty approach with actorly drama, forever in and out of character and in and out of the armchair, Suchet said, despite the series’ amazing success, he’s never known from one year to the next whether Poirot was coming back.
Such was his reluctance to get typecast, something he’d somehow managed to achieve, he said he would have said ‘no’ if he had been offered a 25-year contract at the beginning.
It wasn’t easy getting to talk to him on his own at the interval - and it wouldn’t have happened at all without the help of Harrogate International Festivals who organised the visit.
Outside the door to the reception suite there were throngs of adoring fans. Inside such was the civic ‘bling’ on show from the assorted mayors waiting to meet Suchet it was a like being backstage at a Jay Z concert.
But I was determined to chat to him about the nature of the role which had made him famous and which, in turn, had ensured the character created by Agatha Christie remains equally famous.
How had he made what would have once been called ‘light entertainment’ into something taken so seriously by so many people for so many years?
The famous actor may not have been wearing the trademark moustache of the “little Belgian detective” he played for so long but, in his waistcoat and jacket with his warm but old-fashioned manners it was almost as if Poirot was an exaggerated version of Suchet.
He seemed proud the character’s final episode had been so magnificently dark and I said Poirot was a serious programme disguised as a light one.
But then the interval came and he was back on stage.
Once upon a time, this magnificent Edwardian auditorium witnessed Beatlemania but here was something new and different - Poirot-mania.
During a question-and-answer session with the audience, many of them clutching copies of his new book, he was asked if he had kept Poirot’s cane for walking, then whether he’d used it!
“I’ve got it at home,” came the answer “I try it out around the house occasionally but can you imagine if I lost it?”
He’d always thought of himself as a “failed doctor.” His father had been a Harley Street surgeon and he might have gone the same way if he had been more suited to it, though he did have a natural flair for diagnosis.
One female fan asked him whether he’d come for Christmas dinner at her home.
He thanked her for the offer but said he wasn’t sure his wife, who was sitting in the audience in the Royal Hall would permit that.
There were more serious questions, too.
He talked about Poirot’s sex life - or lack of it. “He’s asexual. He loves women but he simply doesn’t have those sort of feelings.”
He said he’s had to fight to keep true to his vision of the character, which was Agatha Christie’s vision, especially when it came to dialogue.
The battle with the show’s parade of directors had been made easier when he became an associate producer.
Sponsored by Theakstons, Suchet’s visit was a real coup for festival organisers, Harrogate International Festivals.
It was the only truly northern date on his short book-signing tour but then Harrogate is no normal town.
Agatha Christie famously disappeared in 1926 sparking a national manhunt for fears over her safety, only to be found at Harrogate’s Old Swan Hotel.
Suchet admitted that he always felt a “frisson” when he came here because of its close links to the Poirot author herself.
He had found the final episode, Curtain, an emotional experience and admitted to not having really gotten over it yet.
Now that the TV series had exhausted the original Agatha Christie stories and one of the most lengthy runs in TV history had come to and end, Suchet admitted he really didn’t know what he was going to do next.
Whatever it was - and he’d had talks and was open to offers - he would only take it if her felt passion for it, just as he did with every role he’d ever taken.
Despite being classically-trained, despite the adulation, Suchet ends by decribing himself as “just an actor - for hire or fire.”
No one inside the Royal Hall is buying that.
A standing ovation follows as Suchet leaves the stage to begin two hours of book signing.
What we didn’t know then was that he’d already spent the entire East Coast train trip meeting fans, signing books and posing for pictures as the carriages rattled their way up from London - Poirot’s final journey.