Thursday, 20 December 2012

The New Companions: Ariadne, George & Spence

In previous posts, I have explored the portrayal of Hercule Poirot himself, as well as his three associates Hastings, Japp and Miss Lemon. This time, I turn my attention to his most recent companions – crime writer Ariadne Oliver, valet George and Superintendent Spence, all of which add depth to Poirot’s semi-retirement.

Mrs Ariadne Oliver

Apart from Hercule Poirot himself, Ariadne Oliver is possibly my favourite of the recurring characters of Agatha Christie’s Poirot. This is in no small part due to the brilliance of Zoë Wanamaker. The crime writer was introduced by Christie in Cards on the Table, and she was to tag along on Poirot’s cases for no less than four decades (1937-1972). Known for frequently changing her hair styles, she was large, had ‘an agreeable bass voice’, ‘fine eyes’ and was ‘handsome in a rather untidy fashion’ (Hart p. 241). She used to drive a small two-seater car, hated to give speeches, but was a starch supporter of having a woman in charge of Scotland Yard. Her flat had an exotically wallpapered living room, giving the visitor a feeling of ‘being in a cherry orchard’ (p. 242). She was a force of nature in herself and had the honour of being the only woman (apart from servants) that Poirot ever regularly addressed by her Christian name: 'It is my friend, Ariadne'.

The list of characteristics above is supposed to exemplify the accuracy of the portrayal of Ariadne Oliver in the series. All the details above are included. An interesting insight into the character development, however, is given by Wanamaker in a 2006 interview.  ‘Scanning through all the Christie books Ariadne appears in, I picked up that the character is completely unlike me.  She's a big woman, like a battleship. David wears lots of padding as Poirot, but I decided I was not going to go down that route because it's restricting and hot (…). Instead I decided I'd wear something small that gives you a feeling of being substantial, so the costume designer found this transvestite shop which sold fake breasts. They were called ''medium beauties'', and they were really good.  We could have had ''super beauties'', but I think I would have looked like Margaret Rutherford in them’.

Wanamaker describes her character as follows: ‘I think Ariadne is a wonderful character – I’m deeply fond of her. I think Agatha Christie wrote Ariadne Oliver as a send up of herself. Ariadne is a crime fiction writer and is pressured by her publishers to constantly produce her Sven Hjerson books: it was the same with Agatha and her publisher constantly getting her to do more Poirot stories! Ariadne is the complete antithesis of Poirot himself, who’s anal and self regarding and egotistical. She has less of an ego but has this fantastic imagination and is slightly mocking. What’s great about Ariadne is her relationship with Poirot. They respect each other but they’re slightly rude to each other, which is wonderful. I think Poirot needs to be sent up a lot and Ariadne does that. I enjoy their relationship very much. It works because they enjoy each other’s eccentricities and respect each other’s minds. Ariadne would make a wonderful detective – she has a great instinct and Poirot constantly mentions that it’s her instinct which often points him in the right direction’ (Halloween Party Press Pack, 2010).

David Suchet agrees that Mrs Oliver adds a lot to the feel of the series. In the same interview, he explains that ‘Poirot and Ariadne Oliver are really good friends and, if you had a compendium of Poirot, Ariadne Oliver would be one of the women in his life. He strikes a deep friendship with Ariadne, although not in any way from the heart. It’s from the head! I think the reason Poirot likes Ariadne is because she is a crime writer and she provides for him another mind that he can tap. She will come forward with her crime writer’s solutions to the situations they find themselves in. Poirot does have a very soft spot for her. I know that because she is the only woman that Poirot ever, in the whole collection of films, calls by her Christian name without a pre-fix.  It’s also great fun with Ariadne Oliver because Poirot gets kindly irritated with her, and she gets kindly irritated with him. I think everybody likes to see Poirot with a woman. I think Zoë and I, having known each other for years and having worked in the theatre together, we bring our own knowledge of each other to that relationship’ (Halloween Party Press Pack, 2010).

In my opinion, Zoe Wanamaker has created the perfect Ariadne Oliver, and I very much look forward to her final two outings in series thirteen (Dead Man’s Folly and Elephants Can Remember). 


The Big Three: Hastings, Miss Lemon and Japp

Image "stolen" from user queenie97 (linked to source)

Following on from my discussion of David Suchet’s achievement with the character of Hercule Poirot, this article will focus on what Poirot script writer Clive Exton once described as the ‘family unit’ of Agatha Christie’s Poirot; the three companions of Hercule Poirot in his active years as a private (consulting) detective.  My main sources here will be the TV specials Super Sleuths (2006) and The People’s Detective (2010), as well as an online interview with Philip Jackson, Peter Haining’s book on the series, and Anne Hart’s brilliant biography, for references to Christie’s work.

Captain Arthur Hastings, OBE

By far the most important of these three companions, both in the books and in the series, Hastings is portrayed by Hugh Fraser. In Christie’s original stories, the character was a constant in Poirot’s life for only seven years and an intermittent companion for twelve more years after that. In total, twenty-six stories and eight novels are narrated by Hastings. 

The character was greatly expanded for the television series. As Hugh Fraser points out, ‘Hastings isn’t in very many of the books. In fact, he was put in stories that he wasn’t in, as was Japp and Miss Lemon’ (Super Sleuths, 2006). This was probably primarily because the show’s producer, Brian Eastman, and the original script writer, Clive Exton, both felt that Poirot needed a ‘basic family unit’ and ‘somebody for Poirot to confide in’, as Exton points out. Personally, I mostly agree with this decision, both when it comes to Hastings, Japp and Miss Lemon. Especially in the short stories, they provide a certain sense of continuity and familiarity, and they suit the first phase of Suchet’s Poirot perfectly; the eager and twinkling detective. I am less certain about some of the novels Hastings was added to, particularly Evil under the Sun, which I feel was contrived. However, I do realize that the inclusion of his character in that particular story was a nice way to give Fraser a (temporary) swan song series.

Both Hugh Fraser and the producers wanted to portray Hastings more true to Christie’s characterization than previous film adaptations. Fraser never saw any of the previous interpretations before they started shooting, because he wanted his ‘Hastings to be something quite original’ (Haining p. 74). Brian Eastman once explained that ‘It would have been easy to just show [Hastings] as a bit of a dolt, (…) but though there are a lot of people who do see Hastings this way, Agatha actually uses him in the books as the voice of the common man. He asks the questions that the reader is asking at any given moment in order to allow Poirot to appear very bright and explain everything’ (p. 76). Fraser set out to read some of Christie’s stories before they started shooting. He describes Hastings as ‘a likeable chap’ who is ‘very laid back’ and ‘a bit of a dilettante’, a man who has ‘fallen into detective work by chance’ (p. 74-76).  Fraser is certain that the relationship between Poirot and Hastings is ‘a working relationship and that Poirot actually employs him’ (p. 76). In my mind, this theory is truly fascinating, as it would explain why Hastings is constantly around Poirot’s flat. In Christie’s stories, he is at one time described as working for Lloyds, another time as 'a sort of secretary to an MP'. No matter what he was doing, it always seemed a bit a stretch that his employers would give him so much time off work to tag along on Poirot’s cases, so this subtle change, if never actually explicitly stated in the series, makes a lot of sense.

Hugh Fraser’s portrayal is certainly different from Christie’s characterization in many respects. For one thing, he (or the producers, more likely) has skipped the conventional ‘toothbrush’ moustache. I suspect this was a conscious decision in much of the same way as the producers decided not to have Belgians or Frenchmen in the series with French accents – it would simply be confusing for the viewer and distract from the stories. Also, I have a distinct feeling that having two mustachioed main characters would just be a bit too much and remind us more of an episode of ‘Allo, ‘Allo than Christie. Moreover, TV-Hastings is probably older than Christie-Hastings. In Christie's originals, Hastings is thirty in Styles, while Poirot is about sixty. In the series, Fraser and Suchet are almost exactly the same age. I don’t know if this was done simply because Fraser was the best actor for the job – or, perhaps more plausibly, that they didn’t expect the series to last for 25 years, and since both actors were about 40 in the first series, Suchet could easily play a character ten or fifteen years older while Fraser played a character ten or fifteen years younger. This obviously became more difficult over the years, especially when the series returned after the five year hiatus, and they don’t seem to have tried to make Fraser look younger (in fact, I think they’ve kept his natural hair colour, growing slightly greyer over the years). This change doesn’t bother me at all, especially since I think Hastings’s naivety would be the same if he was 20, 40 or 60.

Apart from this, the interpretation of the character seems to be largely in tune with Christie’s characterizations. They have even kept Hastings’s love interest Dulcie/Bella Duveen, which is quite remarkable, actually, considering that they could have so easily skipped her and the entire Argentina outing if they wanted to keep the ‘family unit’ intact. Obviously, I’m glad they didn’t, and I think Murder on the Links works quite well in this respect, especially when the series unexpectedly came to a halt when production on that series finished. The set-up was perfect for Hastings’s return in Lord Edgware Dies (that is, if they had stuck to their own chronology! I have written several posts on this over at

[I am very much looking forward to the two remaining Hastings stories for Series Thirteen, Curtain and The Big Four. Though, as much as I love Hastings as a character, I do think The Big Four could work without him as well. I somewhat fancy the idea suggested elsewhere on the Internet that Colin Race from the adaptation of The Clocks would fit nicely in with the espionage plot. But of course, the scenes where Hastings is reunited with Poirot in his flat should be quite special. Not to mention the emotional turmoil of Curtain.]

An interesting bit of information on the development of the character is provided by Fraser in Peter Haining’s book. Speaking in 1995, he explains that ‘The role can still develop more. In the early days I did seem to spend a lot of time asking what must have appeared like dumb questions. But as it got a bit repetitive the script writers moved away from that situation. In some of the recent stories Hastings has become much more of an assistant and somebody who is involved in the cases. Of course, he does have a naivety to him. But this is never allowed to become stupidity – rather an endearing quality which Poirot does find a little bit annoying on the one side, though on the other he loves him for it (…) I’m looking forward to ageing gently with David in the later stories’ (p. 79).

Personally, I certainly find the episodes where Hastings is more actively involved in the cases better than the others, but I must admit I am slightly shocked by what seems to have been a conscious plan to keep Hastings throughout the series. I very much doubt the character would have added much to adaptations such as Five Little Pigs or Death on the Nile, not to mention the cases of Ariadne Oliver. Moreover, I certainly think that the process of ‘ageing gently’ which has now taken place between Murder in Mesopotamia and The Big Four/Curtain will make the reunion scenes much more poignant than if he had been there all along. In any case, Hugh Fraser has done a magnificent job of fleshing out the 'buffoon' and making him an independent, if somewhat naïve, individual.


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)