Greetings, kind readers. Since I started this project, my mind has kept hurling new ideas at me, so I figure I’ll just keep mixing things up. Today, I’ll review the early years of the now-classic ITV series, and we’ll be back with some more book reviews tomorrow.
Review: “Agatha Christie’s Poirot” – series 1 – 6 (1989 – 1996)
with David Suchet (Hercule Poirot), Hugh Fraser (Captain Arthur Hastings), Philip Jackson (Inspector James Japp) and Pauline Moran (Miss Felicity Lemon)
written by Clive Exton, Anthony Horowitz et al.
Hercule Poirot, like Jane Marple, has had a busy life on the big screen, reliably overplayed and generally reduced to little more than a series of quirks. But regardless of how broad the performances of Peter Ustinov, Albert Finney, and so on, may seem to long-time fans, Poirot has always bounced off the screen, buoyed by all-star suspects, and a number of books featuring exotic locations or ‘classic’ premises. Yet, we must all bow down before ITV. While America may be the land of television as experiment, and television as high art, the Brits are a devoted country – where Doctor Who ran, relatively unfettered, for 26 years, and where – in the ’80s and ’90s – you could trust a cast of theatre stalwarts and memorable faces to return year after year for six more installments of Jeeves and Wooster or As Time Goes By or whatever other slow-burning but reliably warm series you waited for. Thank goodness, then, that in 1989, just two years after my birth, someone had the sense to not only write Poirot and his colleagues as characters, but to start with some lesser-known short stories and work their way through the canon. (Comments from the crew relating to more recent adaptations – like the well-known Death on the Nile or Murder on the Orient Express – explain that at least part of the appeal was the unknown factor. Any version of Orient Express invites comparison; adapting The Adventure of the Cheap Flat gives you room to move.)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot is a thoroughly enjoyable and delightful series, set in the late ’20s and early-to-mid ’30s. To look at the imperfections first, it’s no surprise that adapting short stories into an hour-long program can sometimes be draining. Occasionally, the strings will show. Sometimes, the comic interludes can strain both credibility and character creation. Often, recurring twists can make their ugly presence felt (well, if you watch these en masse as I did last year). My favourite standard – the servant or domestic who turns out to be either a sinister stranger, or a known character operating in disguise, because no one ever looks at a servant – is thoroughly worn into the ground. But that’s hardly the fault of these scriptwriters, now, innit?
The other issue is germane to most ’70s and ’80s television when viewed by a Gen Y such as myself, is that character development can sometimes be awkward and, more to the point, the pace of storytelling can sometimes be dishearteningly slow. (I’m sorry, the polite word is languid.) This plagued me throughout the (often good) Joan Hickson Marple adaptations, but I’m wary of the new Marple series from all I’ve heard: will have to check it out now that I’ve started this blog, I suppose!
Beyond these niggling issues, this is a beautiful series. The Brits can do period like nobody’s business, and it’s fair to say that their recreation of the time is reliable. Almost all the stories covered in these six series* were written throughout the 1920s anyway, so it makes sense to set them during this period of gorgeous architecture and fashion. We’ll look at the question of chronology if I review the later seasons, since it would eventually become a bit of a question mark.
[* The “series vs. season” debate is, in fact, a very silly one, often erroneously reduced to “British English vs. American English” prattle. If you take a moment to look at the history of television production on either side of the Atlantic, it’s quite simple. In Britain, television grew alongside film and theatre, and actors – as any biography from Judi Dench to John Barrowman will tell you – could travel the small country to do breakfast television and a nighttime musical on the same day. Actors trained in ‘acting’, not ‘television comedy’ or ‘dramatic theatre’ (generalising, obviously). As a result, one set of television episodes would be seen as an individual contract, much like taking a three-month stage show, or a six-week film shoot. The show might begin again the next year (or three or five years later) per demand, but an actor’s return was generally mandated by availability. Therefore, you’d have another ‘series’ which happened to feature the same title, writer (probably), cast (perhaps) and crew (possibly). In the United States, television emerged from vaudeville and film – being produced in Hollywood, as far from possible as the East Coast’s theatre industry – and a new breed of actors emerged, which soon found themselves a kind of ‘underclass’ to film stars. To cater for the larger country’s increased demand, and to regulate contracts in an industry where television actors were less likely to find theatre or film work in the off-periods, stars were generally contracted for several years at a time (the current rate is five or seven). Hence, a ‘series’ was the thing that ran for those seven years; each individual production block – separated only by the standard summer holidays – was a ‘season’. Makes sense, no?]
It’s great fun to see these short stories brought to life. Highlights include The Kidnapped Prime Minister and The Adventure of the Western Star, in which Hastings comes to the fore; The Yellow Iris, which – bearing the same plot as Sparkling Cyanide – can’t help but delight; The Chocolate Box, in which Poirot recalls a case from his life in Belgium; and The Double Clue, which boasts Kika Markham‘s lovely portrayal of Coutness Vera Rossakoff, Poirot’s only true love interest throughout the canon. I wasn’t won over by either of series two’s feature-length adaptations – Peril at End House and The Mysterious Affair at Styles. It was of course lovely to see the first case of Poirot and Hastings, but – perhaps due to the comparable length of the novel and script – they felt more rote and less inspired. Overall though, those first three years of short story adaptations are gems.
Performance wise, we’re nowhere short of perfection. Philip Jackson is probably the most obvious delight, giving endless dimensions to Inspector Japp, as he grows over the years from befuddled ‘ordinary cop’ to being a true colleague and confidante of Poirot. Throughout these productions, the recurring cast are utilised far more than in the short stories themselves, but it’s never reason to complain. The writers are wise enough that they never beat a dead horse: if someone is irrelevant, they don’t appear, or make only a nominal appearance. Guest characters, and guest police officers or detectives, are always equally well-written.
Pauline Moran is equally a gem. Her Miss Lemon is certainly not the stodgy, implacable Lemon of the short stories, but she’s an effervescent character nonetheless – stern and practical, yet gleeful, with a can-do spirit and a much-maligned interest in the mystic arts (which comes from Moran’s own passions, I believe.) The friendship between Miss Lemon and Hastings is utterly adorable from day one, while her growing relationship with Poirot – each relying on the other whilst often finding them only barely tolerant – is brilliant.
Hugh Fraser has by far the hardest task: much like Conan Doyle’s Dr. Watson, Hastings is a character whose believability always hangs on tenterhooks. As a useful narrative device, Hastings is required to always be the last to grasp the truth, the last to pick up on the clues, and the first to blow any cover Poirot may hav designed. It’s challenging enough as we figure things out before him, but – even when we don’t – it’s hard not to view Hastings as a lapdog, and ask why on earth Poirot keeps him around. To Fraser’s credit, he manages the task well, creating a fun-loving, romantic chap who is the centre of this group of mismatched friends. There are moments of bewildering stupidity in this series’ portrayal of Hastings, true, but they lie in the scripts, and are usually due to insurmountable problems of adaptation. Occasionally, though, as with similarly ‘stupid’ characters – like Doctor Who‘s Leela – the chance for a moment of comedy overwhelms a believable choice.
Finally, there’s David Suchet. I’ll save my full praise for a later post, but suffice it to say: Suchet is Poirot. He embodies this idiosyncratic, arrogant and yet adorable little man in every manner, completely divesting himself of all “David Suchet”-ness, and taking on such a marvelous challenge. I’ve talked before about the three stages of Poirot’s life in England, and here we’re firmly in stage one – the cocky detective who thinks he knows everything, but often struggles with his image as a ‘foreigner’, and with his bewilderment at British social mores. Suchet taps into all of the external elements of the character – which had been preyed upon by Poirot’s film portrayers – and then develops a rich inner world. He’s a multi-dimensional person whose every quirk and whim seems completely in character (aided by the wonderful puzzlement-cum-adoration in his three sidekicks). Series six, notably Hercule Poirot’s Christmas – by which point I’m sure Suchet already had dreams of being the definitive Poirot – begin to seed the elements of the man who wishes to retire, which we’ll see explode in the following series.
Poirot returned in 1992 with the fourth series – three novel adaptations – primarily as partnerships for Poirot and Japp, with Hastings having left – as Christie mandated – for Argentina. The first of these, The ABC Murders, is the strongest, taking a truly thrilling serial killer tale and making it soar. Death in the Clouds had the easiest task, as it is already a very good novel, and the adaptation utilises the pairing of Poirot and Japp to perfection. On the other hand, the decision to layer both visual and aural motifs of the nursery rhyme throughout two hours of One, Two, Buckle My Shoe becomes a bit overwhelming.
(I haven’t mentioned the guest cast, but do I really need to? A reliable band of British stalwarts imbue nearly every performance with believability and propriety. One surprising letdown is Joely Richardson, before she was famous. She’s very good now, but her disappointing turn in The Dream makes me wonder if she got the job because of her family.)
Series Five is perhaps my favourite of this batch, as the writers polished off the remaining short stories with consummate expertise. Hastings was effectively recalled from Argentina for the duration of the year, marking some of the last times that the original ‘awesome foursome’ would be seen together. The remaining short stories to be adapted are The Lemesurier Inheritance and the 12 that comprise The Labours of Hercules. The latter could presumably be done as two two-hour adaptations, but the former’s chances are a mystery. (Contrary to some websites, the other short stories that have not been adapted are only those which were themselves expanded into novels or longer short stories.)
Finally, there’s the sixth series, which is again very strong. The opening episode – Hercule Poirot’s Christmas – was the first Agatha Christie adaptation I ever saw, so it holds a special place in my heart. Rewatching it again last year, I noticed that it had one of the hardest task of all: one of the primary clues in the novel is a visual cue that we’re not suppoed to realise until the end. Onscreen, this is a little bit harder, and the script overcompensates, making the clues appear – to a seasoned Christie reader like myself, at least – more than obvious. Series Six also exemplifies one of my least-liked traits of the show, which is to have opening sequences set in the past. Personally, I find that these ruin some of the suspense, since they often point you in the right direction or, at the least, help you eliminate some of the wrong ones. (When the series returned from cancellation, they would find better ways to incorporate these artistic elements.) The remaining episodes of Series Six are all quite successful, although sadly Miss Lemon only puts in one appearance, and there’s clearly a conscious effort to do the Hastings stories so they can keep up with the series’ chronology.
Throughout the decades, British television has gone through phases with period drama – times when it’s an audience drawcard, and times when networks shy away. ITV cancelled Poirot after Series Six was filmed, and seemed to be entering one of those phases. With 1996’s broadcast of Dumb Witness, the series was done. Joan Hickson had achieved all the Marple novels but not the short stories; David Suchet appeared to have done the opposite.
Thankfully, four years later, Suchet would make his triumphant return – although with some far more controversial adaptations. Later this month, we might just take a look.