Sunday, 12 July 2015

REVIEW: Agatha Christie - The Pocket Essential by Mark Campbell (2015)

2015 is the year of Agatha Christie's 125th birthday. The Christie estate is gearing up for two new TV adaptations on BBC1: Partners in Crime this July (miniseries starring Tommy and Tuppence, aka David Walliams and Jessica Raine), and And Then There Were None (TV film with an "all star cast"). We could also add the upcoming adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express (apparently without David Suchet!), possibly to be directed by Kenneth Branagh, and the release of Sophie Hannah's The Monogram Murders last year, to that list.

To coincide with the anniversary, Oldcastle Books are rereleasing a new and updated edition of Mark Campbell's Agatha Christie, a 'Pocket Essential' book which examines Christie's entire body of work, as well as every English language adaptation on television, radio, stage and film (not including the not-yet-released BBC1 adaptations and the new MOTOE). Mark Campbell has written for The Independent, Midweek, Crime Time and The Dark Side. He was also one of the main contributors to the two-volume British Crime Writing: An Encyclopedia, and the last theatre critic for The Kentish Times.

Campbell's book is a comprehensive and fascinating guide to Christie. For some die-hard Christie fans, most of the information should be well-known. We get thorough introductions to each Christie character, including Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Tommy and Tuppence, Parker Pyne, Harley Quin. We also get a complete checklist of Christie's work, and each character chapter offers a guide to the individual stories, with a case overview, context, and a review by Campbell. But even for die-hard fans, there should be something to get their teeth into. I enjoyed the character descriptions, as they are possibly the most concise and accurate descriptions I've seen, apart from Anne Hart's excellent character studies of Poirot and Miss Marple in the early 1990s. And it's always intriguing to read other reviews of the stories you know, to see whether you agree with them or not. Also, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Campbell includes Christie's Mary Westmacott novels as well as her poetry, children's stories and memoirs. I shouldn't be surprised, since this claims to be a complete guide, but more often than not, books on Christie tend to focus on her crime writing career exclusively.

Since this blog focuses mainly on the Christie adaptations, particularly ITV's Agatha Christie's Poirot, I'm happy to say that Campbell is just as thorough when, later in the book, he turns his attention to every single adaptation of a Christie story. We get the same, handy guide to the individual adaptations, with cast, crew, premiere dates and Campbell's observations. The guide seems to be up to date as of 2015, including the final series of Poirot, Sophie Hannah's novel, and a new stage adaptation of The Secret Adversary. However, as a Poirot fan, I must admit I was somewhat disappointed Campbell didn't offer his thoughts on every single Poirot episode. Instead, we get an overall review. Still, with 70 different adaptations, that would almost amount to a separate 'Pocket Essential' in itself!

All in all, then, Mark Campbell's Agatha Christie is an impressively complete guide to Agatha Christie's work; an essential Christie encyclopedia. The book is a perfect birthday or Christmas present for anyone who has an above average interest in all things Christie. Or those who don't know her range - from crime to thriller, adventure, poetry, romance and children's stories. I'll certainly have my copy available whenever an 'uninitiated' Christie fan stops by!

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

The Screenwriters: Nick Dear

"I was first approached to do it in 2002 I think. (...) I couldn't say Agatha Christie was very high on my reading list. I thought I was much too much of an intellectual for that. I'm now prepared to accept that I might have been too much of a snob because after a dozen years of being associated with the shows, because I have written six of them now for ITV, I think it's very classy entertainment and I'm pleased to be associated with it." (Huffington Post interview, 2013)
Nick Dear (1955-) wrote six adaptations for Poirot between 2003 and 2013. Outside of Poirot, he is known as a BAFTA-winning script writer (for Persuasion, an adaptation of Jane Austen's novel, in 1995). He has also written biographical TV movies on Byron and Beethoven. In 2011, he adapted Mary Shelley's Frankenstein for the stage, directed by Danny Boyle and starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller (the two Sherlocks!). In other words, he was no stranger to literary adaptations when he was asked to adapt Christie's novels.
"Nobody ever grieves for a minute in Christie; 10 seconds of grief, then it's onto the next murder. What we've done with them in the last 10 years is make them rather darker, existentially bleaker, and have Poirot faced sometimes with very difficult moral choices" (Huffington Post interview, 2013)
Dear's first episode was The Hollow, for Series Nine (2003-2004). I know opinion is divided on whether this is a successful adaptation, but I'm rather fond of it. The novel is complex, in the sense that there's a lot of internal monologue. Dear elegantly balances the melancholy with the humour, the seriousness with the eccentricity of our central character. As the quote above shows, Dear's adaptation and that entire 2003-2004 series was the beginning of a new development in the series. I'm one of the supporters of this move. The difficult moral choices would resurface in his last adaptation, not to mention in Murder on the Orient Express and Curtain, adapted by Stewart Harcourt and Kevin Elyot respectively.
"In most of the stories, the proposal is of a world that we recognise in which people behave appropriately and politely, and then very quickly discover that beneath that surface there's all kinds of mayhem." (Huffington Post interview, 2013)
The above quotation could describe several, if not all, Dear's episodes. It also helps to explain his changes to Cards on the Table, which was his next adaptation, for Series Ten (2005-2006). The adaptation certainly centres on mayhem beneath the surface. I think most fans consider this adaptation a deviation too far from the source material. The episode is faithful and almost perfect up until the last half hour. I'm all for updating stories for a modern audience if it's done in a clever and almost unnoticable way, but the added gay subtext just doesn't work here, even if it provides a somewhat understandable motive for murder. Look to Five Little Pigs for an example of when a gay subtext really works.

However, I enjoy the rest of the episode so much that I'm inclined to excuse this peculiar plot change. He writes brilliantly for Suchet and Zoë Wanamaker as Poirot and crime writer Ariadne Oliver (which is probably why four of his six adaptations are Ariadne/Poirot novels).

"There's been a stipulation from ITV, who always produces it, they're always set in the 1930s. So no matter when they are written, we have to set them in the late 30s, just for that style thing that people like so much." (Huffington Post interview, 2013)
Dear's third adaptation was Mrs McGinty's Dead for Series Eleven (2008). As mentioned, Dear really makes the friendship between Poirot and Mrs Oliver work. Of course, a great deal of praise should go to the actors, but Dear manages to condense the novels and make changes without losing out on the excellent chemistry between both the characters and the actors. Once again, the theme of secrets beneath the surface is prominent, and Dear effortlessly shifts the setting from the 1950s to the 1930s (see the quote above).

Three Act Tragedy was Dear's next adaptation, for Series Twelve (2010). Like all (but one) Dear's scripts, it stays remarkably close to its source material. Dear manages to convey the theatricality of the plot as well as the darkening of Poirot's character (as a result of the added friendship with Sir Charles). The more I think of it, Dear is truly the main representative of the change in atmosphere and character study that occurred in the later years of the series.

"To a degree we are looking to 'modernise' the glamour of the story if you like. Not to update it. (...) I say modernise, I don't mean update the story, I mean update the grammar, and sometimes the pace. (...) It's trying not to make them look dated. They are all set in the 1930s, but we try and keep them at the speed that we like to watch TV now." (Huffington Post interview, 2013)
Elephants Can Remember, Dear's seventh adaptation, for Series Thirteen (2013) must have been a real challenge. It was the last Poirot novel Christie wrote, and that shows. I think the adaptation is reasonably successful. The novel is very slow-paced and rather chatty. That wouldn't do for a modern audience, as the above quote shows. It seems Dear's solution was to add the second murder investigation into the Willoughby institute, and that works surprisingly well. Most of the episode is carried by the excellent chemistry between Poirot and Ariadne, however. But the episode is surprisingly faithful, considering the circumstances.

Dead Man's Folly, for Series Thirteen, was Dear's final adaptation. It's his own favourite, as stated in a recent interview, and I'm inclined to agree with him. It flows well, it has some excellent actors and an unbeatable location. Not to mention the fact that it underlines Poirot's evolving morals, seemingly 'allowing' and approving of a murder-suicide - and that's a long way away from the 'I do not approve of murder'-Poirot from the first series.

His last adaptation is perhaps also an example of how Dear, for the most part, was gently modernising Christie's stories without making it seem to obvious (as always, Cards on the Table is the notable exception). The Hollow is 'sexed-up' with a very modern sex scene, but that doesn't intrude on the story and occurs is the result of an embellishment rather than a change to Christie's original. Mrs McGinty's Dead plays up the 'mainiac/weirdo killer' element of the murderer's character, but that's arguably a reasonable interpretation of the character. The same goes for Three Act Tragedy, and to a certain extent Elephants Can Remember. We are used to serial killers, psychopaths and maniacs in our modern crime dramas, so it's no surprise that Dear and the team decide to emphasise those elements in Christie to keep up with its audience - for better or for worse. Dead Man's Folly, finally, emphasises the difficult moral dilemmas in the subtext of some of Christie's later novels, and the later adaptations, but without stretching the source material too far.

Friday, 12 June 2015

The Screenwriters: Guy Andrews

"The book, by Agatha's own admission, was not one of her favourites, and we've taken some monstrous liabilities with it." (Behind the scenes: The Mystery of the Blue Train, 2006)
Guy Andrews wrote four scripts for Poirot: The Mystery of the Blue Train and Taken at the Flood for Series Ten (2005-2006), Appointment with Death for Series Eleven (2008), and The Labours of Hercules for Series Thirteen (2013). He is known for the mini-series Lost in Austen, Blandings and Prime Suspect 5: Errors of Judgement. The first two demonstrates that he is entrusted with adapting other literary classics (Jane Austen and P. G. Woodehouse), and in Lost in Austen I'd say he succeeds, at least within its genre of television. Prime Suspect, the award-winning and exceptional series starring Helen Mirren, proves that he masters the crime genre, and his episode is well done (Prime Suspect 5 won and Emmy for Outstanding Miniseries).

I have a very conflicted view of Guy Andrews' screenwriting abilities on Poirot, as my episode-by-episode reviews can testify to. The quotation above sums up his approach to the source material - 'monstrous liabilities'. Appointment with Death is easily my least favourite Poirot episode (or at least it would have been if it hadn't been saved by an excellent soundtrack, location and production design). Taken at the Flood is passable, but the whole point of the title and the murder is lost in transition from page to screen. The Mystery of the Blue Train is, again, simply saved by great actors and a beautiful location. Only The Labours of Hercules manages to succeed, and I think that's simply because 'monstrous liabilities' was the only thing we could expect. I'm merely impressed by the fact that he actually managed to create something that almost makes sense and tie up some loose ends in Poirot's life.

However, I say I'm conflicted, and that's because I realise that he's been given some of the most challenging adaptation tasks. Appointment with Death is the only exception, really, and I offer no apologies for that particular adaptation. Yes, it's filled with internal monologues and overheard conversations, but look at what Nick Dear managed to do with The Hollow, an intensely internal novel, or Kevin Elyot, with Five Little Pigs.

Now, back to the adaptation challenge and why Andrews should be allowed at least a little leeway. The Mystery of the Blue Train is not one of Christie's best novels, and the team had already adapted the short story on which the plot is based, 'The Plymouth Express'. So changes were, indeed, necessary. Without any knowledge of Christie's novel, the adaptation works, for the most part, for a 'modern' audience. And I'm glad he took the opportunity to emphasise Poirot's increasing loneliness by the end of the episode (though I feel certain that's Suchet's doing). Taken at the Flood suffers from ITV's insistence on keeping the adaptations in the 1930s, which meant the war background was lost in Andrews' script. So the fact that it doesn't completely work isn't entirely Andrews' fault. And once again, he manages to develop Poirot's character by emphasising the hints of Catholicism in the source material (but I think we can thank (?) Suchet for that, too).

The Labours of Hercules was the surprise of the bunch for me. Remember, this is a collection of twelve more or less unrelated short stories - an almost impossible task for any script writer and possibly the most difficult of all the Poirot adaptation (with the exception of The Big Four, perhaps). Yes, the Mexian stand-off in the denoument scene and the melodramatic final lines between Poirot and Marrascaud ('I shall not hide' etc) are over the top. And it's disappointing that so many of the short stories are left out. Not to mention the fact that it stretches credibility more than a little that all these people just happen to be in the same hotel (but, to be fair, so does the premise that Poirot just happens to stumble upon a series of cases, in the right order, that resemble the mythological Labours). However, as I've tried to demonstrate in my episode-by-episode review, the atmosphere and character study more than makes up for any plot niggles, in my view.

To summarise, Andrews is not my favourite of the Poirot script writers. He takes too many risks and the changes tend not to work - unfortunately. But his adaptation of The Labours of Hercules manages to redeem his reputation somewhat, and I think he should be given some leeway for being handed some of the more impossible novels.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

The Screenwriters: Anthony Horowitz

Anthony Horowitz (1955-) wrote eleven adaptations for Agatha Christie's Poirot between 1991 and 2001. His body of work is too long to summarise here, but he is a miracle man. Where does he get his energy from? In addition to Poirot, he created and wrote nearly all the scripts for the exceptional Foyle's War (2002-2013) and wrote the first few scripts for Midsomer Murders (1997-). He also wrote and created three other successful crime dramas; Murder in Mind (2001-2003, with a significant role for David Suchet in the first episode "Teacher"), Collision (2009) and Injustice (2011). Outside of television, he is a renowned author of young adult novels, and has written for both the Arthur Conan Doyle / Sherlock Holmes (The House of Silk, Moriarty) and the Ian Fleming / James Bond (Trigger Mortis) estates. So he is by no means a stranger to the crime genre.
"Brian Eastman [the original Poirot producer] was thinking of doing a series of Maigret and they brought me in as a possible writer, and when that didn't happen, I ended up writing scripts for Poirot. Actually, I'm much more of an Agatha Christie than Georges Simenon fan. I first encountered her as a student in my gap year and read them while I was travelling around the world – I think I read about 30 of them in one long journey. Why be snooty about her? She is what she is, which is a wonderful constructor of puzzles." (The Guardian interview, 2013).
"With Hastings I used to have a competition with Brian (Eastman) to see have many times I could get the words 'Good Lord!' into the script. Hastings would always hear something; Poirot would make an announcement, and Hastings would say 'Good Lord!'. Two or three times in one script was good going, I used to think." (Super Sleuths, ITV, 2006)
Horowitz was first brought in to adapt four short stories for Series Three (1991). These included 'The Million Dollar Bond Robbery', 'The Double Clue', 'The Mystery of the Spanish Chest' and 'The Theft of the Royal Ruby' (which he co-wrote with Clive Exton). Horowitz proved that he understood the dynamic between the main characters, and, for the most part, the right balance between humour and seriousness. In general terms, the changes he makes to the short stories are sensible and often an improvement on the source material (I'm particularly fond of 'The Double Clue' as an adaptation). Interestingly, Horowitz decides to tie some of the stories in with real historical events, as seen in 'The Million Dollar Bond Robbery' (the virgin voyage of the Queen Mary) and 'The Theft of the Royal Ruby' (the actual Prince Farouk of Egypt). This ties in neatly with his work method on Foyle's War, where almost (?) every episode is based on real life events. 

It was not until Series Five (1993) that Horowitz returned to write his final three short story adaptations; 'The Yellow Iris', 'Dead Man's Mirror' and 'Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan'. Personally, I'm not as fond of these episodes as I am of the ones I discussed above. 'Dead Man's Mirror' is a difficult short story to adapt, simply because of its length and structure, but Horowitz does a decent job and it does contribute to the gradual 'darkening' of the series. 'Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan' is certainly one of the funnier episodes of the series. I did a google search to research what casual viewers of Poirot thought of Horowitz's episodes, and most seemed to enjoy the fact that they had more humour in them than other adaptations. I would certainly agree that the humour works, but it can come dangerously close to making Poirot a 'buffoon', as Suchet describes it.

'The Yellow Iris' is special, in the sense that it distances itself significantly from the source material. Horowitz enjoyed the process:
"In an episode of mine, Yellow Irises (sic), which takes place entirely inside a West End restaurant, with a waiter trying to poison somebody at the table, we then managed to turn that into a story about a South American coup connected with some kind of scam with oil prices. In other words, the body of the story had absolutely nothing to do with this actual short story that Agatha Christie had written! Actually, it was an episode that I like very much; it has David Suchet as Poirot facing a firing squad at one particular moment, so that was sort of nice to write." (Super Sleuths, ITV, 2006)
I actually like that episode, despite the plot changes. The oil scam is reminiscent of some of Horowitz's Foyle's War episodes, in that it takes inspiration from historical events. His changes are based mostly on other events in the Poirot canon (like Poirot going to South America to visit Hastings). But I can understand how some fans might find the changes difficult to accept. Suchet felt the need to explain in his autobiography:
'Thinking about The Yellow Iris now, it reminds me that her greatest fans sometimes object when we depart from her original story in the television films - and they write to tell me so. I always reply by telling them that I am terribly sorry, but not all of her stories adapt easily to the small screen, they are simply too slight, which is why we describe them as 'based on' her originals. I think her die-hard fans forgive us for the adaptations, but I do understand how they feel.' (Poirot and Me 2013, p. 140).
Actually, I think that's one of Horowitz's great strengths. Several of the short stories he adapted are slight and need embellishment to fit the 50 minutes time frame of an episode. Others are lengthy and need to be condensed. Horowitz usually manages both while remaining, in essence, true to Christie's plot devices and way of constructing a crime.

For Series Six (1995-1996), Horowitz was brought back to adapt two novels, Hickory Dickory Dock and Murder on the Links. With the former, he once again decided to tie the story in with a real historical event, the Jarrow March in October 1936. Now, having tried to create a working chronology of the episodes, I must admit I still can't quite forgive the discrepancy with other adaptations (and within the adaptation itself!). But Horowitz is know for that, too. He messed up some of the back story details in his own Foyle's War as well. But don't get me wrong, that has absolutely no impact on the adaptation per se, it's just one of those quibbles nerds/fans like me tend to highlight... (Sorry, Anthony).

Having said that, I do think he does an acceptable job with Hickory Dickory Dock (the mouse motif of the episode is really annoying, but that isn't his fault). The novel is a challenge, because it's one of the first post-war novels to be adapted to the 1930s setting and transporting a student hostel with its diverse residents to the 30s is essentially an impossible task.
Murder on the Links is, by and large, a great episode. Yes, I know some fans dislike the newsreel sequence, but apart from that I really do believe in the love story of Bella and Hastings, and Horowitz makes only minor changes to the novel.

Horowitz's final Poirot scripts were Lord Edgware Dies for Series Seven (2000) and Evil Under the Sun for Series Eight (2001). I'm not entirely sure why, but I'm not particularly fond of any of the episodes from those two series. Perhaps it is because the team seemed to be running out of steam and the adaptations started becoming more formulaic. However, both scripts offer very capable adaptations of Christie's novels, and it's obvious that Horowitz knows Christie inside out. Curiously, he decides to add an Argentinean restaurant in Evil Under the Sun. In fact, Argentina seems to run as a subplot through several of his adaptations. Hastings mentions his dream of a farm in South America in 'The Double Clue', Poirot goes to South America in 'The Yellow Iris', Hastings returns from Argentina with the farm in financial difficulties in Lord Edgware Dies and he opens the restaurant in Evil under the Sun. I'm not entirely sure that was deliberate, apart from the fact that Hastings had to come back from his life with Bella for the remaining adaptations. But it's a curious fact, nonetheless.

"I think it's fair to say that Agatha Christie had a serious influence on my work and I look up to her to this day." (The Mysterious Affair at Styles, introduction by Anthony Horowitz, p. xi)

"The detective-sidekick relationship is a very helpful one and has been in use ever since Conan Doyle created it. Think Morse and Lewis, Barnaby and Troy or even Foyle and Sam." (The Mysterious Affair at Styles, introduction by Anthony Horowitz, p. xiv)
Personally, I see several links between Poirot and Foyle's War. For instance, I'm not surprised to see Horowitz admit that the relationship between Foyle and Sam mirrors that of Poirot and Hastings. In fact, I would suggest Horowitz's family unit (Foyle, Sam, Milner) mirrors Exton's family unit in Poirot (Poirot, Hastings, Japp/Lemon). Another similarity between the two series is the humour and warmth that Horowitz brings to his adaptations. He deserves as much credit as Exton for creating the family dynamic and the familiarity and warmth of the central characters in Poirot. (I must point out, though, that the final scene in Hickory Dickory Dock, between Japp and Poirot, really doesn't work. I'm not sure if it's supposed to be a play on words (i.e. their modern meaning) or simply a way to display Poirot's distaste for English cooking, but I do cringe a little every time a watch that particular scene.

In summation, it's fair to say that Anthony Horowitz left a distinct mark on the Poirot series. He contributed to producer Brian Eastman's main purpose for the show; to give it a definite time and place (linking it to historical events) and create a 'family' and a main character dynamic for viewers to grow fond of (using humour and catchphrases - Good Lord!). With Foyle's War and his many other successful projects in later years, he has proved that he is a crime writer in his own right, beyond scriptwriting for Poirot.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

The Screenwriters: Clive Exton

Clive Exton (1930-2007) was the principal screenwriter for most of the original Poirot series. He also oversaw a number of scripts as a script consultant. For an overview of his career, see this obituary in The Telegraph. Other notable works, much in the same vein as Poirot, include Jeeves and Wooster (1990-1993), the P. G. Wodehouse stories, with Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie), and Rosemary and Thyme (2003-2006), a television series about two female gardening detectives. Exton wrote all 23 episodes of Jeeves and Wooster at the same time as he was doing Poirot. They are similar, in some ways. Poirot is set in the 1930s, Jeeves and Wooster in the 1920s. Both sets of adaptations have a lot of humour in them, and they both centre on dynamic duos. You could even argue that Rosemary & Thyme follows the same pattern. In any case, that is certainly a very Christie-esque series. However, I should point out that Exton's work as a screenwriter was much broader than just gentle Sunday night television; the obituary in The Guardian focuses on 'his highly individual mixture of black comedy and oblique social criticism'. 

Writing about Poirot and Jeeves and Wooster, The Telegraph states in the obituary that 'both adaptations reflected his love of precision in language and his understanding of how people express themselves, as well as his ability to spin out and knit together plot lines from often scanty material'.That is certainly true of his Poirot adaptations, on more than one occasion.

In total, Exton wrote 20 scripts for Poirot (1989-2001). I won't go into detail about every adaptation (have a look at my episode-by-episode posts for that), but I would like to give an overview of his adaptations, and comment on a few of them.

For Series One, he adapted 'The Adventure of the Clapham Cook', 'Murder in the Mews', 'The Adventure of Johnny Waverley', 'Problem at Sea', 'The Incredible Theft' and 'The Dream'. Overall, the adaptations stay impressively close to their source material. This was before the screenwriters felt the need to add lengthy chase scenes or make changes to murderers, motives and plot essentials. Exton does, however, initiate a significant deviation from Christie by introducing the Poirot 'family'; Hastings, Japp and Miss Lemon appear in nearly every episode until Series Eight. He also expands their back stories, with an added car interest for Hastings, and eventually an interest in the occult for Miss Lemon. In the 2007 Super Sleuths documentary, Exton explains: 'I do think, for a television series, you need a basic family unit, whether it's a family or not; people who interact with each other. Also, it's very useful, for a not very clever writer like me, to have somebody for Poirot to confide in.'

Personally, I think Exton made the right decision. ITV intended Poirot to become its Sunday night drama 'flagship'. To make people tune in week after week, there had to be something more than just Christie's murder plots to make the nation (and later the world) tune in. His approach to the main cast, 'the big four', also seemed in tune with the short stories on which the early adaptations were based. Christie's short stories are generally much lighter than her novels. Personally, I'm also convinced that Exton and the Poirot team, like Christie, were inspired by the successful Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes series, in which the detective is surrounded by Watson, Mrs Hudson and Inspector Lestrade.

For Series Two, Exton did Peril at End House, 'The Veiled Lady', 'The Cornish Mystery', 'Double Sin', 'The Kidnapped Prime Minister' and 'The Adventure of the Western Star'. After the success of the first series, the Poirot team had decided to make some changes. Most importantly, Suchet wanted to make Poirot more human. He explains the process: 'Clive Exton's script certainly helped me. For he too wanted a little more humour in the new series, to make Poirot a bit more moving. It was an excellent idea, even if I sometimes had to restrain him from going too far towards making the little Belgian a comic character, for that certainly was not the Poirot I knew and wanted to portray. But at the same time, Clive also brightened both Hastings and Japp, making them a little less stiff. All this helped to make the films feel more affectionate towards Poirot than some of the first series. (Poirot and Me 2013 p. 77). I suppose nearly all of the above episodes had more humour in them, from Poirot in disguise to the Belgian film star Marie Marvelle. Generally speaking, Exton's scripts are faithful, but some of the additions (or time slot filler) doesn't always work. Suchet admits: 'I'm afraid I was never really happy with Double Sin, The Adventure of the Cheap Flat and The Adventure of the Western Star. They all seemed a little flat to me, a little too one-dimensional compared to the others.' (p. 84-85). However, Exton's adaptation of Peril at End House works particularly well, and I notice that it has a tendency to pop up on people's lists of their favourite episodes.

For Series Three, Exton adapted only two episodes; The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and 'The Theft of the Royal Ruby' (co-written with Anthony Horowitz). The Styles adaptation is near-perfect, with very understandable changes and a genuine respect for the source material. The same could (almost) be said of 'The Theft of the Royal Ruby', but here we have another of those slightly annoying chase scenes added.

The two novel adaptations that followed for Series Four are interesting, in more ways than one. Both mark a significant shift towards darker material and darker adaptations that would eventually take over from the cosy family unit. The ABC Murders is a particularly successful adaptation (though, again, with an added chase scene at the denouement); Suchet frequently refers to it as his personal favourite. The serial killer plot, and particularly the way Exton adapts it to the screen, significantly darkens the series. The second novel, One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, opens with a particularly brutal murder scene and has an eerier atmosphere throughout. For those who claim Exton was stuck in his family unit, then, his Series Four adaptations should prove essential viewing. Likewise for those who claim the shift towards darkness in Series Nine was sudden.

For Series Five, Exton adapted 'The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb' and 'The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman'. Both adaptations work, particularly the first, but I think that is more due to its setting than its plot. The second is, yet again, weakened by a lengthy chase scene. Why Exton insisted on adding these scenes I will never understand. Obviously, they are perfect padding to slight stories, but they do seem more and more as an 'easy' way out. He makes up for this in his adaptation for Series Six, though. Hercule Poirot's Christmas is classic Christie, and the adaptation is generally quite successful.

When Poirot returned after its four-year hiatus for Series Seven, Exton seemed to have lost his way somewhat. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd has some interesting points in its favour (for instance, I'm very fond of the opening lines from Poirot on the brutality of humanity), but the denouement doesn't work at all, and I'm not convinced the voice-over was the best way to keep Christie's ingenious twist. Suchet says of the episode: 'I felt it lacked something. I am not sure exactly why; perhaps it had something to do with my expectations being too high. The denouement was exciting and unexpected - it should have been marvellous, but somehow, there was something missing.' (Poirot and Me p. 187). Unfortunately, Murder in Mesopotamia for Series Eight is another questionable endeavour. The addition of Hastings feels contrived, and the story itself seems as though it has run out of steam.

In summation, then, how could I describe Exton's legacy? Despite his tendency to use chase scenes as padding, and his sometimes contrived attempts at keeping 'the unit', I remain convinced he was the right man for the job when the series began. For one, he was a Christie fan, and handled her most 'classic' stories with great care. More importantly, to establish the family unit was an ingenious move; I'm sure that helped establish Agatha Christie's Poirot as the phenomenon it is today (Hastings, Miss Lemon and Japp have almost become cult figures!).

Monday, 28 July 2014

The Complete Poirot: The Mysterious Affair at Styles

"Some people tend to see Poirot as one- or two-dimensional, but those who do are almost always the ones who have never read the books. If you do read them, you realise at once that there are certainly three dimensions to his character. And every time I played him, I tried to bring those extra elements of Poirot's character to the surface, reflecting the different dimensions revealed in Dame Agatha's own stories about him." (David Suchet, Poirot and Me p. 86, 2013)
It is a truth universally acknowledged (to borrow a famous first sentence) that David Suchet spent years perfecting his performance as Hercule Poirot. He read all the stories and compiled a character dossier, a copy of which was included in his memoir Poirot and Me (2013). He has repeatedly stated that he aimed to stay true to the character as Christie wrote him. For me, Suchet fully managed to inhabit that character, and I find it impossible to pick up a Poirot story and not envisage his Poirot and hear his voice.

Under the headline "The Complete Poirot", I will examine, in the coming weeks and months, the development of our all-time favourite main character in Christie's stories, and discuss passages or characteristics that are (a) included in Suchet's dossier, or (b) present in the television adaptations themselves. The books will be discussed in chronological order (based on this Wikipedia list), rather than in publication order (although they largely overlap).

Let's begin with Poirot's very first case, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, published in 1920. Page references are from the HarperCollins collection The Complete Battles of Hastings, Volume I, published in 2003.

"I came across a man in Belgium once, a very famous detective, and he quite inflamed me. He was a marvellous little fellow. He used to say that all good detective work was a mere matter of method. [...] He was a funny little man, a great dandy, but wonderfully clever." (pp. 10-11)
"Poirot was an extraordinary-looking man. He was hardly more than five feet four inches, but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little on one side. His moustache was very stiff and military. The neatness of his attire was almost incredible; I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound. Yet this quaint dandified little man, who, I was sorry to see, now limped badly, had been in his time one of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police force. As a detective, his flair had been extraordinary, and he had achieved triumphs by unravelling some of the most baffling cases of the day." (p. 20)
These are the first descriptions of Poirot and his appearance in any of Christie's books, courtesy of Arthur Hastings. It seems unnecessary to list the similarities between Poirot and Suchet's portrayal on this point, but I'll do it briefly. There is no denying that Poirot is 'a great dandy', certainly from an English point of view. I suppose that would go under note 22 on Suchet's list: 'Very particular about his appearance', as well as note 33: 'His appearance (including hair) is always immaculate. His nails groomed and shined.' According to the IMdB, Suchet's height is 5' 7'', which is very close to Poirot's 5' 4''. He has an egg-shaped head (enhanced in the particular adaptation of this story, I notice, by the hat (see above)). Note 48 on Suchet's list reads: 'Can't abide being or feeling untidy. A speck of dust is "as painful as a bullet wound".' This refers to the quote above, 'I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound'. It's a characteristic that will flourish both in later Poirot stories and in later Suchet adaptations.

It would be careless of me not to mention the limp, Poirot's war injury. This is one of only two characteristics (as far as I know) that Suchet hasn't included in his portrayal (the other is, of course, the green colour of his eyes). In a BBC Radio 4 interview in 2012, Suchet explained why this is the case: 'The only thing I've never externalised for Poirot is, in fact, in the original books, he has a limp, and it was a choice of my first producer in the series that I shouldn't limp, because if the series goes on too long, it may become a disadvantage! I actually wanted to, so that's the only aspect of Poirot I go on record for saying that I haven't actually achieved; to find his literal war wound.'
'As we drove through the village, I remembered that I wanted some stamps, so we pulled up at the post office. As I came out again, I cannoned into a little man who was just entering. I drew aside and apologised, when suddenly, with a loud exclamation, he clasped me in his arms and kissed me warmly. 'Mon ami Hastings!' he cried. 'It is indeed mon ami Hastings!' (p. 19)
'Suddenly clasping me in his arms, he kissed me warmly on both cheeks, and before I had recovered from my surprise ran headlong from the room.' (p. 149)
A few months back, I was interviewed by Norwegian public radio, and one of the questions I was asked was 'When did Poirot become a 'hugger', someone who displays affection?'. The question was raised in response to Poirot's reunion with Japp in The Big Four. I replied that Poirot, both in the books and the television series, is no stranger to displaying affection, particularly towards people he cares about. Obviously, though, as Suchet points out in note 77, he 'rarely shows his emotions'. In the 2006 Poirot & Me documentary, Suchet referred to the first scene, and the meeting with Japp in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, as his favourite moments with Hugh Fraser and Philip Jackson.
'Yes, indeed,' said Poirot seriously. 'I know Mademoiselle Cynthia. It is by the charity of that good Mrs Inglethorp that I am here'. [...] 'Yes, my friend, she had kindly extended hospitality to seven of my country-people who, alas, are refugees from their native land. We Belgians will always remember her with gratitude.' (p. 20)
'I looked at the extraordinary little man, divided between annoyance and amusement. He was so tremendously sure of himself. As though he read my thoughts, he nodded gently. 'Oh yes, mon ami, I would do what I say.' He got up and laid his hand on my shoulder. His physiognomy underwent a complete change. Tears came into his eyes. 'In all this, you see, I think of the poor Mrs. Inglethorp who is dead. She was not extravagantly loved - no. But she was very good to us Belgians - I owe her a debt.' (p. 72)
These two quotes refer to Poirot's background as a war refugee. This is rarely referenced in the series (I can only think of 'The Double Clue' and The Clocks), but it plays centre stage in the Styles adaptation.
'A window above me was cautiously opened, and Poirot himself looked out. He gave an exclamation of surprise at seeing me.' (p. 31)
In Poirot and Me (2013), Suchet discusses to the way this particular scene was adapted for the screen: 'It is to my eternal regret that this is one occasion when I totally let down the man I had become so close to. In the film, I open the window and look out without brushing my hair before doing so. Now, Poirot, the man I knew and loved, would never, ever, have done that. He would have brushed his hair carefully, no matter how urgent the knocking on his front door. To this day, I regret that I didn't brush my hair before opening the window. Every time I see that scene, I feel I've let him down.' (p. 97). So this is a very obvious breach of his mantra - true to Agatha. However, this explanation should more than make up for it. The quote further underlines his attention to detail and care for the character.
'Poirot smiled kindly on me. 'The mind is confused? Is it not so? Take time, mon ami. You are agitated; you are excited - it is but natural. Presently, when we are calmer, we will arrange the facts, neatly, each in his proper place. We will examine - and reject. Those of importance we will put on one side; those of no importance, pouf!' - he screwed up his cherub-like face, and puffed comically enough - 'blow them away!' (p. 32)
One fact leads to another - so we continue. Does the next fit in with that? A merveille! Good! We can proceed. This next little fact - no! Ah, that is curious! There is something missing - a link in the chain that is not there. We examine. We search. And that little curious fact, that possibly paltry little detail that will not tally, we put it here!' He made an extravagant gesture with his hand. 'It is significant! It is tremendous!' (p. 32)
These two quotes illustrate Poirot's methodical approach to detective work. The first was even lifted straight from the page and onto the screen. Suchet's Poirot approaches every case in much the same way.
'He was carefully engaged in brushing his coat before putting it on, and seemed wholly engrossed in the task.' (...) He opened a drawer, and took out a small dispatch-case, then turned to me.' (p. 32)
See Suchet's Note 72: 'Always brushes his coat before venturing outside. A clothes brush is nearby'. The dispatch-case was included in the adaptation, too. It was never used again, though Poirot did use a similar one in the adaptation of The Big Four, as he examined the chess board.
'Excuse me, mon ami, you dressed in haste, and your tie is on one side. Permit me.' (p. 32)
'He's such a dear little man! But he is funny. He made me take the brooch out of my tie the other day, and put it in again, because he said it wasn't straight' (Cynthia to Hastings, p. 124)
See Suchet's Note 84: 'He often straightens Hastings' tie. He will remove a lady's brooch and replace it because it was put in crooked (M. Affair at Styles - Cynthia p. 130)'. See also Note 86: 'Cynthia from M. Affair at Styles says: 'He's such a dear little man! But he is funny.'. Both qualities would re-appear in later stories and adaptations.
'Poirot stopped for a moment, and gazed sorrowfully over the beautiful expanse of park, still glittering with morning dew. 'So beautiful, so beautiful, and yet, the poor family, plunged in sorrow, prostrated with grief.' (p. 33)
This is a small glimpse of the darkness to the character, that would later be explored in more detail by Suchet.

'He rose from his knees, and walked slowly across to the mantelpiece, where he stood abstractedly fingering the ornaments, and straightening them - a trick of his when he was agitated.' (p. 37)
'Poirot had walked over to the mantelpiece. He was outwardly calm, but I noticed his hand, which from long force of habit were mechanically straightening the spill vases on the mantelpiece, were shaking violently.' (p. 64)
Suchet's Note 31: 'A PASSION for tidiness and will always straighten objects if crooked or unsymmetrical.' Of course, as Hastings points out in the quote, this is particularly the case when he is agitated. Suchet's Poirot does it a lot, especially in the later episodes. Nearly every interview takes place in a drawing-room by a fire place so that he can straighten the objects!
'Finally, he poured a few drops of the cocoa into a test tube, sealing it up carefully. His next proceeding was to take out a little notebook. 'We have found in this room', he said, writing busily, 'six points of interest.' (p. 37)
See Suchet's Note 30: 'Sometimes uses a pocket notebook'. Suchet uses a notebook in the episode.The test tube is an example of Poirot's more forensic approach in The Mysterious Affair at Styles. In later years, he would declare his disdain for tangible evidence.
From "The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly"
'He had stepped outside the french window, and was standing, apparently lost in admiration, before the various shaped flower beds. 'Admirable!' he murmured. 'Admirable! What symmetry! Observe the crescent; and those diamonds - their neatness rejoices the eye. The spacing of the plants, also, is perfect.' (p. 40)
See Suchet's Note 12: 'Likes neatness - can't tolerate a mess or anything disorderly'. Suchet's Poirot frequently refers to the symmetry of his surroundings.
'In her attitude towards Poirot, she was inclined to be suspicious, but he soon broke down her defences. He drew forward a chair. 'Pray be seated mademoiselle' [...] Poirot looked at her keenly. 'My good Dorcas, it is necessary that I should know every detail of that quarrel as fully as possible. Do not think you are betraying your mistress's secrets. Your mistress lies dead, and it is necessary that we should know it all - if we are to avenge her. Nothing can bring her back to life, but we do hope, if there has been foul play, to bring the murderer to justice. (p. 41)
The quote above illustrates Note 61: 'Very good with servants and working classes. Never patronises them'. A similar scenario can be found in 'The Adventure of the Clapham Cook', both the story and the adaptation.
Poirot observed me with quietly twinkling eyes. 'You are not pleased with me, mon ami?' (p. 48)
See Note 17: 'A great "Twinkler". Has very "twinkly eyes" (green!!)'. Suchet based his performance in the early series on this particular characteristic. His Poirot would be charismatic, friendly and likeable (despite of his other character traits). Other characteristics would become more important in later years, but Suchet's Poirot never lost his twinkle.
'Oh, lá lá! That miserable cocoa! cried Poirot flippantly. He laughed with apparent enjoyment, raising his arms to heaven in mock despair, in what I could not but consider the worst possible taste.' (p. 49-50)
Again, Suchet's Note 77 serves as an illustration: 'Rarely shows his emotions and yet dislikes the English reserve. Sometimes though with his arms raised he will utter "Oh lá lá"!'. However, unless I am mistaken, Suchet never makes use of this particular exclamation in the television series. But certain exclamations of joy are evident in the series on momentous occasions (typically an 'ah!' followed by raised arms and a smile).
'Chut! no more now!' (p. 54)
'Tcha! Tcha! You argue like a child!'
(p. 99)
See Note 80 on Suchet's list: 'WIll utter "CHUT!" instead of "Ssh"' and Note 47: 'When dissatisfied, restless, frustrated or angry will make the sound of a cat sneezing "Tchat".' The former is not a particularly common occurrence in the series, but the latter can be observed in several of the books and adaptations.
'But what was it?' 'Ah!' cried Poirot, with a gesture of anger. 'That I do not know! [...] And 1' - his anger burst forth freely - 'miserable animal that I am! I guessed nothing! I have behaved like an imbecile! [...] Ah, triple pig!' (p. 64)
Both in Styles and in later adaptations, this character trait would be displayed. Suchet explains in the 2006 documentary: 'Very often, both in the books and in our series, you see Poirot very nearly getting it wrong. I suppose it's one of the few times that you really see Poirot getting emotional. When he does get it wrong (...) he gets very angry with himself, and calls himself an idiot and an imbecile (...) which is something completely out of character, because he would never normally admit to this sort of thing. (...) Poirot does it, because that's his greatest crime to himself; getting it wrong.'
'As we walked briskly away from the house, I glanced at him more than once. I had often before noticed that, if anything excited him, his eyes turned green like a cat's. They were shining like emeralds now. 'My friend', he broke out at last, 'I have a little idea, a very strange, and probably utterly impossible idea. And yet - it fits in.' (p. 66)
I was opening my lips, when Poirot stopped me with a gesture of his hand. 'Not now, not now, mon ami. I have need of reflection. My mind is in some disorder - which is not well.' For about ten minutes he sat in dead silence, perfectly still, except for several expressive motions of his eyebrows, and all the time his eyes grew steadily greener. At last he heaved a deep sigh. 'It is well. The bad moment has passed. Now all is arranged and classified. One must never permit confusion. (p. 71)

'Still frowning, he went across to the desk and took out a small pack of patience cards. Then he drew up a chair to the table, and to my utter amazement, began solemnly to build card houses! My jaw dropped involuntarily, and he said at once: 'No, mon ami, I am not in my second childhood! I steady my nerves, that is all. This employment requires precision of the fingers. With precision of the fingers goes precision of the brain. And never have I needed that more than now! [...] I can build card houses seven storeys high, but I cannot' - thump - 'find' - thump - 'that last link of which I spoke to you' [...] It is done - so! By placing - one card - on another - with mathematical - precision!' I watched the car house rising under his hands, storey by storey. He never hesitated or faltered. It was really almost like a conjouring trick.' (p. 148)
'I stopped suddenly. For Poirot, uttering a hoarse and inarticulate cry, again annihilated his masterpiece of cards, and putting his hands over his eyes swayed backwards, and forwards, apparently suffering the keenest agony. [...] 'I have an idea' (p. 148-49)
These quotes all need to be discussed together, because they concern Poirot's moment of revelation, the epiphany. It's a frequent occurrence, both in the series and in the stories. Suchet refers to it in Note 82, which is a direct quote of Hastings's description on p. 71); 'Four about ten minutes...'. Suchet also refers to the 'little ideas' in Note 83: 'He enjoys his "little ideas" - this became a catchword. Indeed it did, both on TV and in Christie's stories. The card house would reappear in later adaptations, see 'The Disappearance of Mr. Davenheim', Three Act Tragedy.
From "The Mystery of the Spanish Chest"
'He offered me one of the tiny Russian cigarettes he himself occasionally smoked. I was amused to notice that he stowed away the used matches most carefully in a little china pot.' (p. 70)
See Suchet's Note 38: 'Smokes tiny black Russian cigarettes from a cigarette case (silver)', and note 85: 'When he hasn't got his lighter, will light his small Russian cigarettes with a match stick which he will then place in a small pottery pot'. His smoking habit is particularly evident in later episodes. I can't remember seeing him use a china pot, though.
Mon dieu! (p. 86)
See Note 76: 'Never or very rarely says "Mon Dieu!" But often will exclaim "Sacré", "Milles Tonnerres!". It's certainly true that the two latter exclamations are more common, but I'm fairly certain I've heard Suchet's Poirot exclaim mon dieu on more than one occasion (not to mention in the novels, as the above quote proves).
'Mesdames and messieurs,' said Poirot, bowing as though he were a celebrity about to deliver a lecture' (p. 93)
This is a typical example of Poirot's 'moment of theatre', as Suchet calls it.
'Sometimes, I feel sure he is mad as a hatter; and then, just as he is at his maddest, I find there is method in his madness' (p. 125)
See Suchet's Note 87, which is a direct quote of the above statement. Suchet's Poirot does seem to provoke this reaction in people, as he is often accused of having lost his mind or following the wrong track.
'The happiness of one man and a woman is the greatest thing in all the world' (Poirot to Hastings, p. 169)
It seems fitting to end the first examination of Suchet's portrayal with this quote, because it reflects Poirot's appreciation and admiration for marriage and relationships, a character trait Suchet would explore further and broaden in the second half of the series. See Note 89: 'Genuinely believes that the happiness of one man and one woman is the greatest thing in all the world'.

Next time, I'll take a closer look at the first short stories!

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

The Screenwriters: Kevin Elyot

In the coming weeks and months I will examine and discuss some of the key members of the Poirot production team, with particular focus on their work on Poirot, of course. My initial plan was to look at these crew members in chronological order, so to speak, but when I read about the sad passing of Kevin Elyot yesterday, it felt natural to start with him.

Kevin Elyot (1951-2014) was a British playwright and screenwriter. I won't attempt to discuss his career in detail. For that, I refer to this well-written obituary. The Guardian's Michael Coveney summed up his subject (as a writer) as 'the longing for love and remembrance of loves lost'. This is certainly true of some of his non-Poirot work that I've read or seen, like My Night with Reg, Clapham Junction and Christopher and His Kind. But it's also true of his Poirot (and Marple) adaptations.

Elyot adapted three Poirot novels for the series: Five Little Pigs, Death on the Nile and Curtain: Poirot's Last Case. The tragic story of the Crale family, Jacqueline de Bellefort's vendetta, and the final hour of the friendship between Poirot and Hastings - all these adaptations could fall under that phrase in The Guardian. In an behind-the-scenes interview, Eylot explained the appeal of Poirot to him:
'What appealed - appeals - to me about him is that he's a foreigner, and an outsider, a refugee, in a very class-ridden, and snobbish, and xenophobic society. That instantly gives any situation he's in an edge, and I find that very... full of potential.' (Behind the Scenes: Death on the Nile, 2004)
I'm not in any way qualified to make assumptions based on Elyot's career, but that seems to fit in well with his record of writing 'gay stories', in lack of a better phrase, stories about outsiders, often faced with prejudices from the society around them. Poirot is a 'bloody little frog', as one character describes him, and he is frequently met with a substantial amount of scepticism, even in the three stories Elyot adapted. For instance, in Five Little Pigs:
'As he had often felt lately, things were not what they used to be. Dash it all, private detectives used to be private detectives - fellows you got to guard wedding presents at country receptions, fellows you went to - rather shame-facedly - when there was some dirty business afoot and you'd got to get the hang of it. But here was Lady Mary Lytton-Gore writing (...) And Lady Mary Lytton-Gore wasn't - no, decidedly she wasn't - the sort of woman tou associate with private detectives (...) And Admiral Cronshaw (...) And now here was the man himself. Really a most impossible person - the wrong clothes - button boots - an incredible moustache! Not his - Meredith Blake's - kind of fellow at all. Didn't look as though he'd ever hunted or shot - or even played a decent game. A foreigner.' (The War Years: Five Little Pigs, p. 222)
Personally, I cherish Elyot's adaptations, all three of them. Five Little Pigs, as a whole, is still my favourite Poirot episode. It's a difficult novel to adapt successfully, with internal monologues and observations, and I think the balance was just about right between flashbacks to the past and the present day. Curtain was faithfully and accurately adapted, with the right amount of sensitivity to its themes. An apt farewell with a beloved character. Death on the Nile was possibly less successful, particularly with some of the changes to the minor characters, but nonetheless among the better episodes of the entire series. The scene, singled out by David Suchet in several interviews, between Jacqueline and Poirot, with dialogue borrowed from Dead Man's Folly, is a magnificent glimpse of that character trait that would blossom both in later novels and in later adaptations; Poirot's longing for love and remembrance of loves lost (think Vera Rossakoff, Verginie Mesnard and 'the mystery of love').

As such, I think Elyot brilliantly managed to move the character of Poirot on, to deepen, in collaboration with Suchet of course, the interpretation and add layers and dimensions. Regardless of what some fans might think of his more radical changes (mercifully fewer between on Poirot than on Marple), he deserves praise for that accomplishment. To me, he remains one of the best Poirot screenwriters.

About Me

I'm a passionate fan of Poirot, Agatha Christie and the ITV series. If you have any questions, comments, suggestions or requests, please e-mail me at, post a comment on one of my blogs, or get in touch on Twitter @pchronology. (I used to call myself HickoryDickory)