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Meet another side of Poirot in the Dordogne

David Suchet, the actor who defined Hercule Poirot for a generation, has been filming a French TV police series in Périgord. Michael Delahaye met him at his front door

It is not often you throw open the shutters to find Hercule Poirot outside. But there he is, the actor David Suchet, instantly recognisable from 70 episodes on TV.

Here in Monpazier he is joined by half-a-dozen film trucks, a catering wagon for the 60-strong production team ... and a burned-out van parked at the South Gate like a Mafia warning.

He is filming for Capitaine Marleau, a police series on the France 3 channel that pulls in more than six million viewers an episode and features some of the most eye-catching areas of France.

A likely reason for its success is that each episode throws Marleau into an unfamiliar community in a different part of France – a great way, incidentally, of getting production money out of regional councils with an eye on the tourism spin-off.

Dordogne is the chosen department for this episode, with a shooting schedule that takes in Domme, Beynac-et-Cazenac, Cénac-et-Saint-Julien, Saint-Cyprien, Belvès… and Monpazier.

Made by Passionfilms, its star is Corinne Masiero whose captain is in the wacky style of Peter Falk’s Columbo – unconventional and shambolic but with an acute, case-cracking intuition, plus a strange hat.

The series director is Josée Dayan, probably best known to British audiences for her 1998 TV series, The Count of Monte Cristo, with Gérard Depardieu.

Here, each episode features a guest star for Marleau to spar with and for the Dordogne episode, entitled Sang et lumière, it is David Suchet playing an English detective, now retired, rather than the diminutive Belgian one he so memorably embodied for 25 years.

Episode co-writer Marc Eis­en­chteter (half-British, half-French) explains the background: “We had this idea of a mini-series, taking place in a village of south-west France, mostly English people, where there would be a crime…

“The victim would be a woman, a former London journalist who has created an online paper out here for expats, and there would be this retired private eye also living here, and the British locals would want him to investigate because they don’t trust the gendarmes.”

Ms Dayan immediately saw the possibilities for an episode of Capitaine Marleau.

The aim was not to send-up ‘Dordogne-shire’ and its expat community and other member of the writing duo, John McNulty (half-American, half- English) says the area is dramatically fertile in its own right: “In any expat community you have the people who want to live in a bubble and then you have the people that integrate; those who play pétanque and those who play cricket. In addition, there are the age-old tensions between France and England, right back to the Hundred Years War.”

Ah yes, cricket… No surprise the episode features a match.

Lucy Harrison, the actress who plays the barmaid of Churchill’s Pub (transformed from the town’s L’Ecureuil café)turns out to be the opening bat and a couple of hours before filming admits she has not held a bat since, aged 14, she played with her dad. Some coaching is hastily improvised.

To add authenticity, real players have been recruited from local expat clubs to act as extras – and, it turns out, as consultants. When it comes to the finer points of the game, the production team’s grasp is a tad tenuous. Quote: “Do we need a wicket-keeper?”.

The game itself – as per script – is interrupted by Marleau driving her beat-up Range Rover on to the hallowed turf, eliciting yelps from the home team’s captain of, “What the hell do you think you’re doing? This is cricket for God’s sake!’’

At this point, lightning forked the sky and an unscripted downpour stopped play – and filming. If it looks as good on screen, the Almighty should get a ‘special effects’ credit.

As for David Suchet? He has said Poirot’s moustache was the key to his portrayal: ‘‘Once that moustache goes on that lip, I think it’s true to say you would be speaking to Hercule Poirot.’’

No such help this time and as his detective wears a cap and is clean-shaven he looks set to be outsmarted by the show’s star.

I'm recognised wherever I go, I need somewhere isolated

David Suchet, you have played many roles, Poirot apart. Most recently you made a guest appearance in Dr Who...

Well, Poirot never typecast me. Now of course my obit, when it comes, will be full of Poirot. But, by the time I got Poirot at the age of 40, I’d already been established as one of England’s classical character actors. So my whole career has been characterisation, characterisation - and different characters.

I’ve never been the same person twice, unless it’s the same role of course, like Poirot.

So what now brings you to south-west France?

One of my great fans is the director of the Capitaine Marleau series, Josée Dayan.

She is one of France’s legendary directors and had been following my career for years and had said to everybody, “I want to work with David Suchet, I want to work with David Suchet…” And suddenly this script came about because she wanted to work with me.

And you are playing a retired English detective?

Right. He came here under the guise of moving to France but he has another agenda. You’re never quite sure who Herbert White is and what he’s doing – which is very enigmatic and exciting to play.

Do you speak French?

No, not… well, if I’m with French I speak French but my grammar is not very good.

So when you’re ‘in character’ being filmed, what are you speaking?

I’m speaking English – and I will go back to Paris to dub
myself in French. You’ll hear my voice in French but I’m going to film in English.

Except for the close-ups, which I will film in French here and learn the French sufficiently to do that.

But it would take too long on a shoot like this for me to learn and be able to perform in French.
I notice you are as instantly recognised here in France as in the UK.

All over… all over the world. Poirot was sold to 73 countries. My other work has been sold to over 50. So I can’t go anywhere.

I was in a restaurant in Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère having dinner and was recognised by two Russians. They’d just bought the boxed set of Poirot. And that’s what happens.

So after this, any thoughts about buying a house here?

I would certainly not buy a chateau at my age, but I’ve often thought of a little cottage somewhere.

I would find it difficult, though, I think.

I would have to find somewhere pretty isolated in order to have any privacy.

But I have that problem in England. If I were to come here and find myself too bothered, certainly it wouldn’t work for me.

But what I’ve seen so far, I can understand why everybody buys here.

But I’m not going to...

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