Greetings, kind readers. Today, I thought I’d offer further thoughts on ITV’s long-running series Agatha Christie’s Poirot. I discussed the first six series in an earlier post, so today I’m going to cover the four movies that comprise series seven and eight.
Review: “Agatha Christie’s Poirot” – series 7 – 8 (2000 – 2001)
with David Suchet (Hercule Poirot), Hugh Fraser (Captain Arthur Hastings), Philip Jackson (Chief Inspector James Japp) and Pauline Moran (Miss Felicity Lemon)
written by Clive Exton and Anthony Horowitz
Resurrected from cancellation hell, Agatha Christie’s Poirot returned just as opulent and clever as ever, but producing only two movies per year. This was clearly a way of testing the public’s interest, and thankfully showed that ITV had clearly enjoyed the existing cast, but we may regret this niggardly approach if we end up not seeing adaptations of the final five or six works!
To open the series, they chose The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, a damned good way of ensuring an audience. Poirot here is well developed from his previous portrayal, having officially retired and determined to grow vegetable marrows (as the 1926 novel promised). David Suchet is marvelous as a slightly more curmudgeonly, less peripatetic Poirot than in his earlier days, making the sequences in both this and Lord Edgware Dies – as he sets up his agency again – all the more delightful.
Roger Ackroyd faces some unsurprising challenges in adaptation. It’s one of Christie’s most famous novels (certainly the one that secured her fame) and has a daring twist ending. Without spoiling things, the adaptation tries to both have its cake and eat it. The novel is told from the perspective of Poirot’s rather bemused neighbour, Dr. Sheppard (here Oliver Ford Davies), and the film tries to mimic that to an extent, giving us a different view of how the case unfolds. However, the relationship between Poirot and Japp is so strong – particularly as this is their reunion after a few years – that it overshadows Sheppard’s own mentor/Paduan relationship with Poirot, which really should be central. Otherwise, why bother telling it from his perspective? Instead, Dr. Sheppard is effectively reduced to another suspect, meaning we don’t get his insights into Poirot, nor our insights into the narrator. As a result, his relationship with his sister, which proves crucial to the story, feels slightly underdrawn. The murder is well put together, but – in the final half-hour – we see the investigation from Poirot’s perspective, Sheppard’s perspective and that of another suppotring character, which leads us to the truth to early. As one recent Twitter post put it, “Why didn’t you just stick an ‘I AM THE MURDERER’ T-shirt on *****!?”. Contemporary reviews were similarly mixed (although not tweeted…) I certainly think it’s one of the weaker efforts, but quite frankly, the choice was between adapting the novel in a standard manner (and losing the twist), or trying to preserve the narrative tone of the book. Instead, the adaptation finds a middle ground: removing much of the twist element (inevitable though the decision was… and I do think only an absolute lunatic – brilliant or otherwise – would do things straight as they were) shows Roger Ackroyd up as a rather standard Christie construction.
Lord Edgware Dies is more successful, particularly at bringing Hastings and Miss Lemon back into the fold, creating a believable premise with a host of red herrings. It’s one of those novels that works best if you don’t think too hard (and indeed, it’s a rare case that seems to be 75% howdunnit and only 25% whodunnit), but it’s high class. As with Hercule Poirot’s Christmas last season, one of the biggest clues is a visual cue, which means a televisual adaptation has to work very hard to counter this. Thankfully, this episode does.
Series Eight marks the final appearances to date of Miss Lemon, Japp and Hastings, a fact that has been lamented by many fans. It’s in keeping with the novels, but it’s a loss that will truly be felt in the following seasons, as the cast and writers had created a real sense of family amongst these people. Stylistically, though, I’ll be arguing that it was the right choice. The masterful Five Little Pigs, which opens Series Nine, would have been gravely weakened if it featured further scenes of Japp pondering usages for a bidet.If the series gets revived, we can expect to see Hastings back in Curtain (and The Big Four, I suppose), and one hopes that – should The Labours of Hercules be adapted – we’ll get Japp (who’s in the book) and Miss Lemon (who’s not). Other than that, adios amigos.
Evil Under the Sun is a strong adaptation of a book which I think rests on too many contrivances, while Murder in Mesopotamia – perhaps the ultimate Christie contrivance murder! – is also very strong, largely thanks to the atmosphere instilled by the foreign locale, and the strong relationship with Hastings. Hastings isn’t in the book, but I can see why the writers decided to incorporate him, giving Hugh Fraser a good (albeit hopefully temporary) swan song.
The performances are delightful as expected, featuring a host of reliable British character actors, and a young Russell Tovey – in Evil Under the Sun – already proving he was going places. Each of the main cast members get some good airtime, with Philip Jackson ruling The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Fraser getting a good showing in Murder in Mesopotamia. Pauline Moran doesn’t get an equivalent, but her Miss Lemon is effortlessly strong, and shines in every scene. Suchet – particularly in Series Eight – is developing a stronger, more conscience-based Poirot who retains the earlier incarnation’s mannerisms, but is now affected by the rigors of age and mid-level celebrity. His Poirot is breathtakingly ‘real’ for a part that could easily be a collection of quirks, and this only foreshadows the brilliant work that he will bring to the series in later years.
Sadly, these were the final episodes written by Anthony Horowitz and the late Clive Exton, who had shepherded the series from its creation. I’m not sure why they did not return, but anyone who watches Series Nine on the heels of Series Eight will notice a considerable shift in tone, timbre and style. Whether it’s for the best is something we’ll discuss next time, but it was certainly in keeping with changes in the British miniseries format. (Imagine, for instance, how Doctor Who might have looked had it returned in 1999 instead of 2005.) These episodes still retain that late-’90s British murder mystery feel, which reminds me of my mother’s television habits when I was a kid, in a world before ‘HD’. But all that’s for next time: these four episodes are very true to the books they come from, and feature the usual reliable performances. While Roger Ackroyd is only passable, the other three are solid, with Lord Edgware Dies the stand-out. More importantly, they prefigure the more mature adaptations that we would see from 2003 on.
Next time: I’ll check in on series nine, as the series takes the great leap forward.