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Actor David Suchet: 'I'll definitely be needing a corset'

Following in the footsteps of St Peter and dressing up as a woman... it's been a busy old time for David Suchet, discovers Kate Whiting

Spare a thought for David Suchet this Easter. While you're feasting on chocolate, he'll be watching his waistline for his next role - so he can squeeze into a corset.

The actor best known as Poirot is due to start rehearsals for Oscar Wilde's The Importance Of Being Earnest immediately after the long Bank Holiday weekend and he's decided cinching himself in is the only way to carry off Lady Bracknell.

"I will have to wear a corset, otherwise I may find myself doing this," he says, slumping back in his chair with legs akimbo, a deep belly laugh bubbling up. "And that would be unacceptable on every level, especially for the stalls."

More of Lady Bracknell and that iconic line of hers later, but first to the more serious matter of Suchet's latest documentary series, which will see him back on screen as a presenter on Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

David Suchet: In The Footsteps Of St Peter takes the actor to Israel and Italy, following the disciple closest to Jesus, who went on to become the first Pope.

The actor, now 68, took a deeply personal journey around the Mediterranean back in 2012, in the footsteps of Paul the Apostle for a previous documentary. Suchet converted to the religion when he was 40 and while he says good-naturedly today, "I won't go into that old story, because we'll be here until tomorrow", it's clear how passionate he is about his faith and what he learned about St Peter from making the new show.

"I discovered this wonderfully flawed human being," says Suchet. "A lot of Christians now look to Peter as being so human and fallible and adorable. He's a loveable rogue, isn't he? He allows us all to fail and still be acceptable."

Suchet was born in London to a South African gynaecologist father and an English mother, but was raised without religion. He went to boarding school with his brothers Peter and John, who's a well-known presenter, before studying at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (Lamda).

His career began on the stage as a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1970s and television roles followed, including in 1985 playing Inspector Japp, opposite Peter Ustinov as Poirot in Thirteen At Dinner. Four years later, he would take on Agatha Christie's meticulous Belgian detective himself - a role he played until Curtain: Poirot's Last Case, in 2013.

He admits he's still slightly in mourning for Poirot.

"I'll never let him go. I'll never be able to because he's on our screens all the time somewhere in the world," he says, chuckling. I was in Rome last week and he was on - speaking Italian. I'm told by ITV there could be 760 million viewers worldwide, that's quite a lot."

A few weeks ago, Suchet and his wife, Sheila, whom he married in 1976 and with whom he has a daughter Katherine and son Robert, went to Prague for a weekend they'd bid for in a silent charity auction - and he saw the extent of Poirot's reach.

"We walk into the hotel and there's these young people behind reception who see me and go bananas because they grew up in the Nineties, and with all the problems in Prague, watching Poirot gave them comfort.

"One person had tears in their eyes to say that their mother and father were kept going by the series. You just do the job and go home - but it's had such a wonderful, far-reaching effect beyond just being entertainment, and that's very humbling."

But back to Lady Bracknell, whom Suchet will be playing on stage at London's Vaudeville Theatre from June to November.

"I'll be a woman for six months," he declares, then stops. "Did I say that? I think I did," he adds, before collapsing in giggles.

He's only once before donned a dress to play Napoleon escaping in disguise, but he makes a very attractive woman, from promotional pictures of the new play.

"I never thought I'd be thanking someone for giving me that compliment," he says, eyes twinkling.

Suchet concedes that he's excited but also "nervous" about taking on such a formidable character.

"She's nouveau riche - she's not naturally born to high society, so it's putting on airs and graces, which is why she's such a great comic character."

And then, of course, there's the "a handbag?!" line - Lady Bracknell's reaction to discovering her prospective son-in-law was adopted after being found in a handbag in London's Victoria Station.

"I have no idea how I'm going to approach it. That scene starts and the audience is just waiting for the line, it's just like 'To be or not to be', isn't it?

"You've just got to take a deep breath and get through it as best as possible."

  • David Suchet: In the Footsteps of St Peter, BBC One, Good Friday, April 3 and Easter Sunday, April 5 (9am)

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