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). 

(MORE AFTER THE JUMP!)



George (Poirot’s valet)


George (or Georges, as Poirot often calls him), is a very minor character in both Christie’s stories and the series. In fact, the part is probably as small as Miss Lemon’s would have been in the series had not the first producers decided to ignore George and expand her character (see previous post). Christie describes the character as ‘intensely English’. He was, if needed, a useful source of information: ‘Master and servant looked at each other. Communication was sometimes fraught with difficulties for them. By inflexion or innuendo or a certain choice of words, George would signify that there was something that might be elicited if the right question was asked’ (Hart p. 177). This had often something to do with social status; ‘ There is a – gentleman to see you sir. (…) Poirot was aware of that very slight pause before the word gentleman. As a social snob, George was an expert’ (p. 177). Interestingly, it was also ‘the habit of Hercule Poirot to discuss his cases with his capable valet’ (p. 177).



Actor David Yelland has had to make as much as possible out of these tiny references. In my opinion, he has certainly succeeded. Due to the exclusion of his character early on in the series, George wasn’t introduced until Taken at the Flood (2006), but the character has since been included in four episodes (as of 2012). Third Girl is probably the best example of Yelland’s portrayal, since George both contributes with observations on visitors, the case at hand, and breakfast. It is a great challenge to make a fully fleshed-out character of George, but Yelland has done it, and I look forward to an emotional finale in Series Thirteen.




Superintendent Albert (Harold) Spence


The character of Superintendent Spence is not a significant one in the Christie canon. He does, however, assist Poirot in three of his later cases: Taken at the Flood, Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, and Halloween Party. In the series, the character has been portrayed by Richard Hope, but the character was deleted from the adaptation of Halloween Party. Spence was never really properly fleshed out in Christie’s stories, and the few references there are to his personality were never included in the series. Interestingly, they also changed his Chrstian name from Albert to Harold. Nevertheless, I think Spence somewhat works in Hope’s interpretation. He is certainly less of a one-dimensional character than some of the other policemen Poirot has tackled in recent adaptations (especially Inspector Morton in After the Funeral, Inspector Kelsey in Cat Among the Pigeons, Inspector Nelson in Third Girl).



P.S. I will hopefully examine a character who really can’t be described as ‘new’ but is likely to make a comeback in series thirteen, i.e. Vera Rossakoff, at a later stage. If she is brought back for both The Big Four and The Labours of Hercules, I feel certain that there will be lots to comment on!

15 comments:

  1. I wonder if they will bring back Kika Markham as Vera Rossakoff, or if they will recast the role...

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    1. I hope they bring her back. Her portrayal of the character wasn't quite what I had in mind, but Markham's chemistry with Suchet was good, so I'd imagine the reunion of the characters would have more emotional depth if they bring her back and don't recast.

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  2. I adore David Suchet and Zoe Wanamaker together. They make quite a team.

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    1. Yes, Suchet and Wanamaker are certainly a good coupling! Of course, it helps that they've known each other for so many years, but both of them seem simply perfect for their roles! I couldn't possibly imagine another actor playing Mrs Oliver :)

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  3. Zoe Wannamaker played Miss Blacklock in ITV's A Murder is Announced!

    And it felt weird...I think she was good for the role, it was just that I kept expecting her to go, "No, I'm not either Blacklock sister...I'm a mystery writer working with Hercule Poirot to investigate Chipping Cleghorn." I half believed they'd change the ending. I was just too used to her being one of the good guys.

    And the Murder is Announced adaptation hinted at a lesbian relationship between Blacklock and Bunner (well, there are hints in the book, and other adaptations, but a little stronger here.) On the one hand, I kind of like that they acknowledge that even in those eras, and those places, when social norms and standards were so different, yes, people WERE gay.

    Hinchcliff and Murgatroyd's relationship is made explicit, leading to Murgatroyd feeling that Miss Marple's presence is a threat to their secret. Older works with gay characters usually had them die, and this, of course, is no exception.

    But in the case of Bunner/Blacklock, it reinforces the gay-person-equals-crazy-killer stereotype.

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    1. I liked her as Miss Blacklock, too! Remember, Murder is Announced was shot a year or two before she was approached for the role as Ariadne Oliver, so when the episode was first broadcast viewers wouldn't have connected her with Ariadne necessarily. If anything, I would be wondering why "Blacklock" would suddenly turn up in Poirot as one of the good guys a year or so later :D But that's the beauty of British television ;-)

      I have nothing against that rather subtle change of the lesbian subtext. It's a fairly recognised interpretation of the characters, as I far as I know. However, I would agree that it does reinforce that stereotype - unfortunately.

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    2. keptataglance2292 October 2015 at 19:46

      I definitely believe that Hinchliffe and Murgatroyd were just friends, that there was nothing between them. As well, I think it's going a bit overboard to say that Blacklock and Bunner were "a thing" (not saying those were your exact words) because Bunner was a little bit on the stupid side and Blacklock just pitied her, not loved her. And if she did love her, it was a sisterly love, and I don't think anyone would want to be a thing with Dora Bunner. That's a little bit silly.

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    3. My working assumption was always that Blacklock and Bunner were more like sisters. It probably began as a "friend you pity more than like" kind of relationship but by the end there was real (non-intimate) affection which made the story all the more tragic.

      Hinch and Murgatroyd had a Boston marriage (part of the man shortage after WWI)though I choose not to speculate on any issues of physical intimacy between them. Of course they would never think of applying term 'lesbian' to themselves at that time. But the scenes between them read like an old married couple and not friends sharing a house.

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  4. Eirik, one reason why George did not appear until Taken at the Flood and the classic series was according to Pauline Moran in the Boxtree book tie-in for Poirot, it goes like this ‘As you know, Miss Lemon doesn’t appear in all the Poirot stories. In some of them he has a butler, Georges. But at the time I was setting up Poirot I was also involved in the Jeeves series with Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. What I didn’t want was another series with a butler – so I persuaded the Christie estate that it would be better to develop the character of Miss Lemon and ignore the butler altogether. Thankfully, they agreed, and Pauline has taken what in many other people’s hands would have been a very minor and insignificant role and created a fantastic character.’, apparently Jeeves and Wooster was Poirot's competitor due to both being produced by Carnival Flims at the time and Clive Exton and Brian Eastman were involved at both series, apparently the whole Georgeless Poirot episodes continued after Jeeves and Wooster ended, but its surprising that both George and Miss Lemon appear in The Big Four and its the first and only New Series episode to have both George and all of Poirot's old companions (Hastings, Japp and Miss Lemon), while Curtain featured one of the classic companions and that was Arthur Hastings, thus making him the longest running companion in Poirot Episodes, due to Hastings having 43 episodes than any other companion in Poirot

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    1. Good point! I did explain that quote in the blog post about Hastings, Japp and Miss Lemon - I'm not sure why I didn't mention it here as well. I think another reason why they didn't introduce George earlier was that the early series focused on the active years of Poirot's career, before he went into semi-retirement. So it would make more sense for him to have a secretary in those early years than a butler. And Miss Lemon took on some of the butler / valet duties like serving him his tisanes and answering the door.

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    2. Eirik, I agree, considering that some of the Georges Poirot stories were adapted at the time when Jeeves and Wooster was being made, he was taken out of the series, i do agree that the series didn't introduce George earlier was that the early series focused on the active years of Poirot's career, before he went into semi-retirement, also things could have been worst had George appeared early in the series during the time Poirot competed Jeeves and Wooster, then Poirot would have been totaled, but luckily it didn't, but after Jeeves and Wooster ended and before Taken at the Flood, the series was still Georgeless, until he was introduced in Taken at the Flood, but that meant Miss Lemon did not show up in the New Series, to make things worst is that The Capture of Cerberus element that was in the TV Series version of The Labours of Hercules did not have Miss Lemon at all, but without a doubt that surprising that both George and Miss Lemon appear in The Big Four which is something that surprised me. Had Rosemary & Thyme was not made by Exton and Eastman. had Jeeves and Wooster continued (if it weren't for Stephen Fry having that nervous breakdown in 1995 and Fry and Laurie being solo at times and had House not been made), had LWT continued with separate identity and became independent from Granada, then Poirot would have still been produced by Carnival Films, would have reinstated the original intro and and series 6, series 1-3 and series 5, series 4 and Mysterious Affair at Styles credits, would still be produced by LWT, would have remained the same tone of series 1-8 and George would have not made it.

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  5. Eirik, one reason why George did not appear in the classic series and early new series until Taken at the Flood was according to Pauline Moran in the Boxtree book tie-in for Poirot, it goes like this ‘As you know, Miss Lemon doesn’t appear in all the Poirot stories. In some of them he has a butler, Georges. But at the time I was setting up Poirot I was also involved in the Jeeves series with Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. What I didn’t want was another series with a butler – so I persuaded the Christie estate that it would be better to develop the character of Miss Lemon and ignore the butler altogether. Thankfully, they agreed, and Pauline has taken what in many other people’s hands would have been a very minor and insignificant role and created a fantastic character.’, apparently Jeeves and Wooster was Poirot's competitor due to both being produced by Carnival Flims at the time and Clive Exton and Brian Eastman were involved at both series, apparently the whole Georgeless Poirot episodes continued after Jeeves and Wooster ended, but its surprising that both George and Miss Lemon appear in The Big Four and its the first and only New Series episode to have both George and all of Poirot's old companions (Hastings, Japp and Miss Lemon), while Curtain featured one of the classic companions and that was Arthur Hastings, thus making him the longest running companion in Poirot Episodes, due to Hastings having 43 episodes than any other companion in Poirot

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  6. I will say, now when I read a book with Mrs. Oliver I DO hear Wannamaker talking! Funnily enough, I don't hear Suchet for Poirot as much...it comes and goes more. I think that's because to me, the book and the series character are different, even though I know they use a lot of the same dialogue and character quirks.

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    1. Me too! Wanamaker has completely claimed that character for me. Suchet, too, in my case. But more in a visual sense I'd say. It's him I imagine when I read the books, not necessarily the voice. I know some fans don't like Wanamaker's interpretation, but I'm completely on board. She's supposed to be the complete opposite of Poirot, and she certainly is. And it's impossible to deny the chemistry between the actors.

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    2. I didn't enjoy Suchet as Poirot. Poirot is much different than anyone... you just cannot reproduce Poirot onstage. He's a unique character. Just like you wouldn't be able to find someone close enough to what you are like and what you look like, you just can't find Poirot's equal. Sadly. I would have loved to meet him, if there was one.

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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 poirotchronology@gmail.com, post a comment on one of my blogs, or get in touch on Twitter @pchronology. (I used to call myself HickoryDickory)