Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Episode-by-episode: Curtain: Poirot's Last Case

(c) ITV
We have reached The End.

This adaptation was based on Curtain: Poirot's Last Case, first published in 1975, just a few months before Christie's death, but written during the war, in the early 1940s. The novel was adapted for television by Kevin Elyot (who also scripted Five Little Pigs and Death on the Nile) and directed by Hettie Macdonald (who also directed The Mystery of the Blue Train).

Script versus novel
The press pack to this final episode reveals that Kevin Elyot was asked by the production team to adapt Curtain more than ten years ago, when he wrote the scripts for Five Little Pigs and Death on the Nile. I'm not at all surprised they asked him. His script for Five Little Pigs is possibly the best of the entire series, and Death on the Nile proved that he wasn't daunted by the task of writing an adaptation most Poirot fans have been both eagerly waiting for and dreading at the same time. He had also demonstrated that he fully understood Poirot's character, and that he could handle the darker side of Christie without making unnecessary changes. In my opinion, he was the best man for the job.

Elyot has made certain minor changes to the story. The murder cases that made Poirot suspect Norton are only alluded to throughout, and we don't see the newspaper clippings until Poirot's confrontation scene with Norton (which, by the way, is a brilliantly scripted scene). He has also done away with the notion of 'X' , and instead tried to keep the audience guessing. Most of Hastings' long monologue sections are deleted, which shouldn't come as a surprise given that this is a television version of a novel. Nearly all the central elements from these are kept, though. We learn of his wife's death (Elyot cleverly avoids using her name - she was called Bella in the series and Dulcie/Cinderella/Cinders in Christie's stories), his sadness, his 'simple' mind (all beautifully conveyed by Hugh Fraser through different facial expressions and brilliant acting). Some small scenes, like Hastings' visit to Boyd Carrington's manor, nearly all conversations with Nurse Craven, and Hastings' encounter with the old woman in the village, are also deleted, while others, like the inquest, are significantly shortened or moved around a bit. Some minor additions are made, like 'This is not a wheel-barrow, Hastings!' (a lovely unintentional (?) reference to Hastings' driving over the years), and 'You have lard for a brain!', mirroring several comments over the years ('Why is it the fate of Hercule Poirot to live among such philistines!').

The most significant additions, if you can call it that, are a couple of scenes in which Poirot is alone, speaking to himself. In all three scenes we see him praying (emphasising the religious subplot of the later series), and in two of them he's having small heart attacks (mentioned in the novel). The religious element shouldn't come as a surprise to those who have seen the more recent episodes. Suchet and the team have been slowly building up towards this very adaptation to make this believable. In the novel, Poirot discusses both the bon Dieu and his own doubts in his final letter to Hastings, so it's natural that this aspect of his character is emphasised here. Also, all his remarks are made in scenes that Hastings, who narrates the novel, could not have witnessed, so I'd consider this acceptable creative license. Personally, I'm also convinced that this adds an important dimension to Poirot, It's part of Suchet humanisation of the character, and it's beautifully done. His heart-breaking death scene in particular.

Essentially, though, this is a very faithful adaptation. Most of the dialogue is lifted almost verbatim from the novel, and several elements are strikingly similar. See, for instance, the introduction of Daisy Luttrell. She wears garden gloves and mirrors, like the first appearance of Evelyn Howard in The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Christie and Hastings comment on this in Curtain (the novel). Similarly, Poirot's first 'mon ami Hastings' feels like a throw-back to their first meeting in the post office all those years ago. Most importantly, Eloyt devotes almost a third of the episode to the aftermath of Poirot's death and his final letter to Hastings. It makes for an unusual and very moving denouement. The confrontation between Norton and Poirot is chilling. (I must admit, though, that I would have preferred Poirot to keep his fake moustache on. I realise it's what Christie wrote and it was necessary to pass as Norton, but I kept thinking I was watching David Suchet playing a killer, not Poirot killing a criminal. Oh well. As Tom, a reader of the blog, said to me: At least we know what Achille might have looked like!).

All in all, Kevin Elyot has done a magnificent job creating a moving, thoughtful, chilling and brilliant adaptation of one of Christie's greatest plot twists. It's so much more than we could have hoped for: near-perfection.

Direction, production design, locations, soundtrack
Hettie Macdonald's direction is such a contrast to her previous adaptation, The Mystery of the Blue Train. The floating shots and the experimental use of camera angles are more or less gone. In their place we get close-ups of faces and broader overview shots that work exceptionally well for the episode. There's also something about her 'peering' approach that simply works much better here than it did in her previous episode; Poirot is hunting down a ruthless sadist, after all, not just a jewel thief. The opening sequence is particularly well done. Scenes of Margaret Litchfield being hanged (she died in an asylum in the novel) are inter-cut with scenes of Elizabeth Cole (her sister) playing the Chopin piece to Poirot, as Hastings arrives in his taxi. The entire set-up is very reminiscent of Five Little Pigs, in which Caroline Crale's execution is inter-cut with Lucy Crale's memories from her childhood. Intriguingly, both hangings didn't appear in Christie's original novels. Litchfield died in an asylum and Caroline Crale died in prison. This was in keeping with Christie's golden rule - never let an innocent character hang, but I really think the story is much more effective because of the changes. Moreover, I was delighted to see the first shots of Poirot. The camera moves from his patent leather boots, to his hands, and finally to his head, in separate shots - a lovely homage to 'The Adventure of the Clapham Cook', the first episode of the entire series.

Macdonald's direction, the colour grading and the excellent production design bring out the autumnal quality of both the setting and the story. Really, having watched this adaptation, I think an autumn setting suits the story much better than the summer setting of the book. I must admit than I am more than a little disappointed that the production team didn't use Chavenage House, the location in which The Mysterious Affair at Styles was filmed. The location was unavailable, apparently, but I don't understand why they couldn't have found a more similar 'country manor'. Was it really necessary to go for a castle? It doesn't look remotely similar. Having said that, I was pleased that the new location has a few similarities with Chavenage, and I really think it worked for this particular adaptation. It makes the characters look small in a vast space, and the house itself almost becomes a character - the ghosts of the past.

Christian Henson's soundtrack for the episode is ingenious. Not only is there a perfect balance between eerie, almost Hitchcockian music and more melancholic touches, but the use of Chopin's 'Raindrop Prelude' (Op. 28 No. 15) is perfect. Again, this reminds me of Five Little Pigs, in which Gunning used Erik Satie's Gnossienne No. 1 as a running theme. The Chopin piece is extra poignant because it is used for Poirot's death scene. The music, combined with Suchet's superb acting, create an intensely moving atmosphere.

Characters and actors
The supporting cast for this episode is more or less perfect. Special mentions should be given to Helen Baxendale, Aidan McArdle, Anne Reid and Alice Orr-Ewing. They all manage to make their characters feel more human and/or chilling. The stars of the show, however, are David Suchet and Hugh Fraser. Let me start with Hugh Fraser. This is an actor who, for so many years, played a character whose emotional (and intellectual) range was very limited; a man who was famous for his 'I say, Poirot' and 'Good Lord!'. Fraser really comes to the fore in this adaptation; he is given so much more to play with. The grief over Hastings' wife, the concern for Judith (which will eventually drive him to attempt murder - a shocking moment, I'm sure, for several fans), and last but not least: the death of Poirot. The man who had been his closest friend, 'like a father'. Fraser does an absolutely outstanding job, and I sincerely hope he continues his career in the future.

Now - the leading man. David Suchet. What can I say? If you have ever been in doubt, then surely this is the moment to conclude: he is the definitive Poirot. What an unbelievably exquisite performance! I can only imagine what was running through his mind as he shot these scenes (or, actually, I can read about it, in Poirot and Me, published this month). The physical transformation is complete - down to the voice and the weariness of the man. The death scene is a remarkable piece of acting. Stunning and gut-wrenching at the same time. I am in awe of what this man has achieved in 25 years. He has made a cardboard cut-out a living, breathing human being that we actually care about. Given the previous incarnations of Poirot on stage and screen, that is quite an achievement. David Suchet, I salute you.

Au revoir, Poirot. (I can't say 'adieu' just yet).

Monday, 18 November 2013

REVIEW: David Suchet's 'Poirot and Me' (2013)

Last week, Agatha Christie's Poirot came to an end as Curtain: Poirot's Last Case was broadcast on ITV. But fear not! To coincide with the broadcast of the final series, Headline Publishing have released a book, written by David Suchet in collaboration with Geoffrey Wansell, called Poirot and Me. The book is an absolute must-have for any dedicated Poirot fan!
When I first heard about the plans for this release back in autumn 2012, I was immediately over-excited. Having seen numerous interviews with Suchet in the past, as well as his documentaries, I was confident that we could expect great things from this book. In short, my expectations could not have been higher. This is the man who for twenty-five years has portrayed one of my favourite literary characters in an iconic television series. 

Let me start by saying that it did not disappoint. Far from it. With over 300 pages, the book includes comments on every single episode ever made, plus some biographical Agatha Christie information. For the first time, we get the full story of how Suchet became Poirot (the walk, the talk, the appearance), with first meetings, first costume fittings, first shoots and several acting epiphanies included. We are also treated to little anecdotes from his encounters with the Poirot fans, some of which are absolutely delightful to read. We even get his 'character dossier', the list of 93 Poirot characteristics that he carried with him on set (I was secretly hoping for this to be included, but I never thought we'd actually get to see it!), and a series of photos Suchet has taken on the sets over the years. 

This is far more than just a Poirot 'encyclopedia', though. This is the life story of a character actor. I don't think I have ever seen a character actor who has been given the opportunity to describe the process of becoming different characters. In short, his craft. Poirot aside, we also get glimpses of all the other great characters Suchet has played, including the famous Shakespeare roles, George in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Salieri in Amadeus, Robert Maxwell in Maxwell, James Tyrone in Long Day's Journey Into Night, and many others. We get to share his anxiousness as he waits for the phone call from ITV saying that they want to do another series, his money worries, and holidays with his family. Sometimes when you read 'celebrity biographies' you can tell that it has been 'polished' by some PR department, and certain stories have been included to put the writer in a good light. This, however, is a very personal story told in what appears to be a very truthful and honest manner. Geoffrey Wansell should probably be given some credit here, too, because the book is incredibly 'visual', in the sense that you really feel, as a reader, that you've actually witnessed all these things. You have been a part of Suchet's journey. That is quite unusual. 

Personally, there were some things I was even more delighted to read about than others. It was encouraging to read about Suchet's disputes with some of the Poirot directors, his determination to re-introduce Whitehaven Mansions after a long absence and include Poirot's manservant, his personal contributions to the set designs (he bought the clock on Poirot's mantelpiece for the production team!), and his firm belief to stray true to the character. This is a man with a vision. In fact, that's a thought I kept coming back to while reading the book. On several occasions, Suchet has said that his aim as an actor is to serve the writer. 'Without actors, writers don't have a voice'. These glimpses behind the scenes demonstrate Suchet's determination. He has been committed to Agatha Christie, regardless of what some Christie 'purists' might say, while at the same time fleshing out Poirot to truly iconic dimensions (see my post on Suchet's achievement here). His reflections (in the book) on Murder on the Orient Express and the moving story from the filming of Poirot's final case, Curtain, underline this, too. 

All in all, Poirot and Me is a treasure-trove of information for any fan of David Suchet, Hercule Poirot, and Agatha Christie - not to mention anyone interested in acting, television and adaptation work. Highly recommended! 

P.S. I've been told by Headline that an audiobook version will be released on 21 November 2013, read by David Suchet! The book lends itself easily to an audiobook, and I'm sure the story will feel even more personal when read by Suchet himself.

 
Richard, a reader of the blog, kindly sent me these photos from one of Suchet's promotional talks. It must have been quite an evening for you!

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Episode-by-episode: The Labours of Hercules

(c) ITV
This episode was based on a series of interconnected short stories, assembled in The Labours of Hercules, first published in 1947. It was adapted by Guy Andrews and directed by Andy Wilson.

Script versus short story collection
This adaptation was a Herculean task (to borrow the pun). Fans - me included - have been discussing for years how the team behind Poirot would ever be able to adapt this collection. Essentially, this is a series of thematically interconnected stories. They are linked together by Poirot's decision to do only a selected number of cases before he retires, and all the cases are to resemble the labours of Hercules in some way or other. Now, in the earlier years of the series, this could almost certainly have been expanded into a series of 50 minute episodes, and a part of me is disappointed that this didn't happen. But for those of us who know a bit about the history of the television series, that would probably never have happened. As a matter of fact, it's remarkable that they even got to make all the other short stories in the early years, before the series was effectively cancelled in 1994/1995.(That is not to say that I wouldn't have loved to see these as a series of episodes!).

Considering that the final series nearly didn't happen - and the fact that this collection was one of the candidates to be dropped - I think we've been lucky to see an adaptation of it at all.

The scriptwriter chosen for this difficult task was Guy Andrews. Just to remind you: he also scripted The Mystery of the Blue Train, Taken at the Flood and Appointment with Death. That's one weak, one slightly unbelievable, and one terrible adaptation (in very crude terms). As you will know if you've read my episode-by-episode look at Appointment with Death, that's a very clear candidate for my least favourite episode of Poirot. It's saved by the beautiful cinematography, music, production design and acting. I was more than a little nervous when I heard that he had been commissioned for The Labours of Hercules. At the same time, this adaptation called for changes. Radical changes. And I was perfectly prepared to accept loads of them if he - against all odds - managed to make it work.

I think he did. It's not perfect and it's not 'complete', since all the stories aren't included. But it actually works as a full-length episode. Andrews' crucial decision was to create a new story using elements from several of the short stories. The prominent short stories here are 'The Arcadian Deer', 'The Erymanthian Boar', 'The Augenean Stables', 'The Stymphalean Birds', 'The Girdle of Hippolyta' and 'The Capture of Cerberus'. 'Boar' is definitely the central one, though. We get a political scandal ('The Augenean Stables'), an art theft ('The Girdle of Hippolyta'), a murdered girl, Lucinda LeMesurier (a reference to the only unfilmed short story, The LeMesurier Inheritance), a heart-broken chauffeur (mechanic in the story, 'The Arcadian Deer') reunited at the end of the episode with his Nita (aka the ballet dancer Katrina Samoushenka), two con-artists and an easily fooled Foreign Office secretary ('The Stymphalean Birds'), the marvellous Countess Vera Rossakoff, her daughter (daughter-in-law in the story), a dog and a doctor (from 'The Capture of Cerberus'). Nearly all of these characters are gathered in one location, the Hotel Olympus in the Swiss Alps ('The Erymathian Boar'), joined by a dodgy hotel manager (partly inspired by 'The Stymphalean Birds'), a shifty waiter, a parlor-game enthusiast and a mysterious master criminal called Marrascaud ('The Erymanthian Boar).

This means that six of the short stories have been more or less properly adapted. The remaining six have not been adapted, but there are some elements of the adaptation that might be linked to them, if you look hard enough. (You can skip this paragraph if you disagree). Elements of 'The Cretan Bull' are in the relationship between Katrina Samoushenka and Dr Lutz. He is playing with her mind, convincing her that she is mad, much like Hugh Chandler is manipulated in the short story. Dr Lutz might also share a passing resemblance with Dr Andersen from 'The Flock of Geryon'. Lutz might be working on Katrina in order to have her money (assuming she has some, since she's a world famous ballerina). Also, in a conversation with Poirot, he is most anxious to underline that he is 'not a Nazi'. This could be seen as a reference either to Lutzmann in Christie's first version of 'The Capture of Cerberus', or a reference to Dr Andersen in 'The Flock of Geryon', who was expelled from university in Nazi-Germany for being a Jew. Moreover, Alice is charismatic, just like Dr Andersen; she persuades Katrina into hiding the diamond necklace for her, and makes Gustave do her 'dirty work' for her. Binky, Alice's dog, whom Poirot refers to as Cerberus, could also be a reference to 'The Nemean Lion', as could Alice herself (the central criminal of the adaptation, much like Amy Carnaby in the short story collection, and Dr Lutz, who might be Binksy's true owner, since the dog recognised him so instantly (cf Sir Joseph Hoggin). The scapegoating of Katrina could also be seen as a link to Tony Hawker in 'The Horses of Diomedes'. The false rumours surrounding Harold Waring (who has taken the blame for the Foreign Secretary) can be considered a reference to 'The Lernean Hydra'). The diamond necklace is possibly a reference to 'The Apples of Hesperides'. Poirot says he 'knows the story of these stones' (though, in context, this seems to refer to the story of how Katrina has been hiding them). Tom, a reader of the blog, suggested that the diamonds might be called 'apples', similar to Ruth Kettering's 'heart of fire' from The Mystery of the Blue Train. This would tie in well with the goblet from the short story, which also has a long history behind it. Finally, the character Countess Rossakoff recognises from a night club in Brindisi could be a reference to the drugs ring in 'The Horses of Diomedes'. Admittedly, these connections are very far-fetched, but they underline the fact that The Labours of Hercules could be considered more or less adapted.

After a few false turns, including the subplots from 'The Stymphalean Birds' and 'The Arcadian Deer', Poirot reveals the culrpit Marrascaud to be Alice Cunningham, Rossakoff's daughter. She stole the jewels and hid a series of paintings (collectively titled 'The Labours of Hercules' - a clever way to include the title) in the hotel. Poirot restores order, and reunites 'Nita' with the chauffeur.

Certain elements of this adaptation don't seem to work. For instance, I was not too pleased about the Mexican stand-off in the denouement scene, and I am still not convinced that bringing together all these different people with different accents was an entirely good idea. It's more over-the-top than we've been used to with Poirot.

Having said that, I think the decision to focus on Poirot's inner journey (as a sort of sequel to the turmoil he was facing at the end of The Murder on the Orient Express) was an incredibly wise one. This is the penultimate episode of the series. Not only is there a need to continue challenging Poirot's ideas of justice and morality; it's also appropriate to give him a chance to recollect his thoughts on his career and his choices in life. Tom, the chauffeur, is a reminder of what he has missed out on in life. As Dr Burton puts it, Poirot has had a remarkable career 'at the expense of having a family'. In my opinion, Andrews manages to combine these two threads of Poirot's character in the reappearance of Countess Rossakoff and her daughter. He is challenged by Rice and Clayton, who suggest; 'The Countess Rossakoff is a criminal, monsieur, and you have done nothing to promote her arrest. You could do the same for us'. Poirot declines the threat, stating that 'Poirot, he will not be pressed'. However, when he reveals the culprit to be Countess Rossakoff's daughter, and Rossakoff tries to convince him to let her go, he is more explicit:

'I am not the law, Countess'

'Hercule. Spare my daughter. Spare her as years ago you spared me. Please, dorogoy.'

'No Countess. Poirot, he is not your love. He is Poirot'

'Then I shall accompany my daughter. A love like ours could have burnt down a city. Such a waste.'
Re-introducing Rossakoff is important, because Poirot is able to confront both his sense of justice (where is the line between an 'acceptable' and an 'unacceptable' crime, and how far can he stretch his role as judge, jury and executioner?), and his loneliness. In the end, Poirot draws the line at allowing Marrascaud aka Alice to escape justice, and he realises that he made the decision about 'family life' several years ago. The final scene, in which he looks down on a pair of cufflinks he was given by the Countess, seems to suggest that he has reconciled himself with the decision to leave the Countess behind.

Poirot's inner journey of self-discovery and redemption is also emphasised in his scenes with Alice. She suggests a link to the episode title that I am a lot more intrigued by:

'The Labours of Hercules. That is how you unconsciously conceive your career. You are the modern incarnation of Hercules.'

'How resourceful of me.'

'Dr Lutz should name a condition after you: the Hercules complex; the compulsion to conquer all obstacles however forbidding. It is why you are driven to chase Marrascaud. You simply have to.'
To me, this is what truly elevates this adaptation to the level of a character study. Andrews links the mythological figure to the fictional detective by emphasising their common purpose. Poirot is convinced that his raison d'etre in life is to rid the world of crime, as he says to Hastings in Peril at End House (the novel). Faced with failure, he has once again plunged into an investigation of a missing maid (cf The Adventure of the Clapham Cook), and by chance been given the possibility of catching the criminal who killed the girl he had promised to protect. His aim, of sorts, is redemption. But has he redeemed himself? Alice Cunningham suggests that he hasn't.
'Do you feel redeemed, monsieur? Does this atone for the death of Lucinda? Because that was a bit of a mess, wasn't it. I heard you say the words Poirot promising to protect her. You poor man's Hercules. So vain, so ineffably smug, and you failed... Don't turn your back on me. I shall find you.'

'I shall not hide.'
Although the adaptation ends with the reuniting of the lovers from 'The Arcadian Deer' and Poirot seems to reconcile himself with his decision to 'travel alone' in life, I think this scene is left ambiguous for a reason. Poirot has solved the case, but he has not remained unchanged after years of murder and horror. This is important, because it helps set the scene for the final Curtain.
'Poirot's journey (...) is a rather brilliant classic hero's tale. Poirot is at a low ebb, is given a mission, takes up the call to action, receives help and hindrance from various shades of his life and past and arriving at a physically cleansed and renewed position where he no longer has to "hide" himself and his doubt.' (Andy Wilson, director)
I realise now that this has evolved into a discussion of Poirot's character and Suchet's interpretation, instead of a straight-forward look at Andrews' adaptation. However, I think it's necessary to include all of this, because I am convinced this is why the adaptation works for me. Yes, the premise is silly. Yes, it's not perfect. Yes, we didn't get all the short stories. Yes, some of the characters are caricature. But this is an elaborate character study of the man we have become so familiar with. It's a point to reassemble Poirot's thoughts on himself and our thoughts on Poirot. In the words of Goethe (and Poirot): 'the threshold is the place to pause'. We are at the threshold, just about to enter the base, the finale of Curtain. What better place to reassemble the loose ends (loneliness, professional life, love life etc) and prepare to enter?

Direction, production design, locations, soundtrack
Andy Wilson's direction is perfection itself in this episode. Some viewers have complained that it's too dark, but his note in the episode press pack gives the reason for this:

'After a bright and garishly coloured opening sequence, when Poirot visits his doctor and in the journey through the hotel, colours will be drained and subdued, at the hotel almost monochrome. The snow ad landscape and the pale interior of the hotel itself lending weight to the monochromatic state of Poirot's feelings; the world for him has become colourless as he cannot find the energy to engage his little grey cells in proper employment. The film should have a slightly psychotic tone.'
His directing choices are interesting and not distracting. Several of the scenes have been beautifully shot. I particularly enjoyed the evening scenes at the hotel, as Poirot, Rossakoff and Alice play 'snap'. There's also a brilliant shift of location from the entrance hall to Poirot's hotel room, as Suchet turns around (rather like the recent Sherlock series).

Jeff Tessler's production design is as good as ever. Despite the heavy use of CGI, the team almost manage to convince us that this is a snow-bound hotel, when in fact the episode was shot mainly on location at RAF Halton House, Aylesbury. There's a glimpse of Whitehaven Mansions, too, through the window of Poirot's car, but I can't tell if that's footage from a previous episode. It probably is. Read the interview with him in the press pack if you are interested in the production team's process. Other locations used include The Funicular, Saint Hilaire du Touvet, in France (yes, the funicular was actually shot on location, but the inside was re-built as a set at Pinewood Studios), and the pavilions at Syon House, Brentford (the chauffeur sequences).

Christian Henson's soundtrack is particularly good in this episode. Such a shame that it isn't released on the new soundtrack album. There's a touch of the old theme tune (see, for instance, the moment when Poirot considers taking on the chauffeur's case), and a general sense of nostalgia mixed with psychological thrillers. Excellent.

Characters and actors
This really is The David Suchet Show. Honestly, this is an acting masterclass. We get some hints of Poirot's eccentricities, like him carefully unpacking his 'toiletteries' and his tendency to speak in the third person ('It helps Poirot administer a healthy distance from his genius'). There's also his loneliness and disillusionment (the scenes after the first murder), and his sense of regret (all scenes with Rossakoff). To crown the performance, we have Poirot's matchmaking trait at the end, reminiscent of several previous episodes. (By the way, the little box containing the cufflinks is such a nice homage to 'The Chocolate Box' and Virginie Mesnard's lapel pin vase. Now Poirot wears momenta from both of the women in his life; Countess Rossakoff and Virginie Mesnard.)

Of the guest cast, Orla Brady (taking over the part from Kika Markham) and Simon Callow are the standouts, but all the characters are wonderfully fleshed-out, perhaps because of their short story origins. Brady actually manages to create some sense of continuity from Markham's portrayal, although she's slightly more vivacious and humorous (in keeping with the short story). Callow and Suchet simply interact well together, and they create some classic moments.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

The Final Series of 'Poirot': An Overview

(c) ITV
Since the final four episodes have just started airing in the UK, I've decided to do a post on all the information you'll need on Series Thirteen; Elephants Can Remember, The Big Four, Dead Man's Folly, The Labours of Hercules, and Curtain: Poirot's Last Case.

The post will be updated and re-posted constantly in the coming weeks, with links to press releases, press packs, trailers, clips, important interviews, reviews and photos that might interest fans. As always, comments are more than welcome, so feel free to ask questions, give a small review or post your thoughts in the comments section!

S13E1: Elephants Can Remember
Produced: January/February 2013
Aired: Sunday 9th June 2013, 8pm
Viewing figures: 4.47 million (excluding 405,000 on +1)
Press pack: Elephants Can Remember: Production Notes (includes interview with David Suchet)
Trailer: Elephants Can Remember (ITV trailer)
Reviews: The Telegraph, Radio Times (spoiler free), The Guardian
Photos: Huffington Post (19 promotional photos!)

Read my episode-by-episode look at 'Elephants Can Remember' here.

S13E2: The Big Four
Produced: February/March 2013
Aired: Wednesday 23rd October 2013, 8pm
Viewing figures: 4.40 million (excl 405,000 on +1)
Press pack: The Big Four: Production Notes (includes interviews with David Suchet, Philip Jackson and Sarah Parish)
Trailer: The Big Four (ITV trailer)
Reviews: The Telegraph, The Daily Mail, Radio Times (spoiler free), The Guardian (praise of the series), The Guardian (video, 2:42 min in)
Photos: See my posts 'The old gang is back' and 'The Big Four: behind the scenes photos and screencaps'
Read my episode-by-episode look at 'The Big Four' here.

S13E3: Dead Man's Folly
Produced: May/June 2013
Airs: Wednesday 30th October 2013
Viewing figures: 4.37 million (excl 285,000 0n +1)
Press pack: Dead Man's Folly: Production Notes (includes interviews with David Suchet, Zoë Wanamaker and Tom Ellis)
Clip: Dead Man's Folly (video)
Trailer: Dead Man's Folly (trailer)
Reviews: Radio Times (spoiler free), The Telegraph, Mirror
Photos: see these stunning behind-the-scenes photos from Dasha's David Suchet website. Also, here's the official stills - a lovely collection of photos!

Read my episode-by-episode look at 'Dead Man's Folly' here.

S13E4: The Labours of Hercules
Produced: April/May 2013
Airs: Wednesday 6th November 2013
Viewing figures: 4.21 million (excl 365,000 on +1)
Press pack: The Labours of Hercules: Production Notes
Trailer: The Labours of Hercules (trailer)
Clip: The Labours of Hercules (video)
Reviews: Radio Times (spoiler free), The Telegraph
Photos: See my post: 'First promotional photos from The Labours of Hercules'

An episode-by-episode look at 'The Labours of Hercules' will be up by next week.
(c) ITV
S13E5: Curtain: Poirot's Last Case
Produced: October/November 2012
Airs: Wednesday 13th November 2013 (confirmed!)
Viewing figures: N/A
Press pack: Curtain: Poirot's Last Case: Production Notes. Here's the press release.
Trailer: N/A ( 'The End is Near' trailer is amazing!)
Clip: Curtain: Poirot's Last Case (video)
Reviews: Radio Times (spoiler free)
Photos: see below for a behind-the-scenes shot of Suchet. Also, have a look at this article from The Daily Mail, and this article from The Telegraph. Both include several photos.





Documentary: Being Poirot
Produced: Summer 2013 (?)
Airs: Wednesday 13th November 2013 (immediately after Curtain)
Press release: Being Poirot

Behind the scenes articles & interviews
http://www.express.co.uk/entertainment/tv-radio/439374/Poirot-s-last-case-After-25-years-his-detective-days-are-numbered
http://www.express.co.uk/entertainment/tv-radio/439451/Labour-of-Hercule-Poirot-25-years-of-mysteries
http://www.radiotimes.com/news/2013-10-23/agatha-christies-poirot-discover-the-locations-of-the-hit-detective-series
http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/features/25-years-70-episodes-700-million-viewers-suchet-hangs-up-his-homburg-8918419.html
http://www.independent.ie/entertainment/the-end-of-an-era-for-poirot-25-years-70-episodes-700-million-viewers-29721440.html
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2481668/David-Suchet-hardest-days-filming-career--pain-saying-goodbye-Hercule-Poirot.html

DVD releases: 'The Definitive Collection' and 'Collection 9'
Available for pre-order on Amazon.co.uk. Release Date: 18 November 2013


The Definitive Collection will contain all seventy episodes, plus Suchet's Being Poirot documentary, an interview with David Suchet, the David Suchet on the Orient Express documentary and a behind-the-scenes featurette on the making of Murder on the Orient Express.  Collection 9 will contain the final five episodes, plus Suchet's Being Poirot documentary and an interview with David Suchet.

Episode-by-episode: Dead Man's Folly

(c) ITV

This episode was based on the novel Dead Man's Folly, first published in 1956. It was adapted by Nick Dear (by now one of the 'regulars'), and directed by Tom Vaughan.

Script versus novel
Nick Dear's script is a very faithful retelling of the novel. Certain sections are moved around, some have a slightly different setting, and some sections are shortened down (especially the interviews), but most of the action is kept intact. Let's look at some of the changes. Obviously, the time setting has bee changed from post-war 1950s to pre-war 1930s. This doesn't manifest itself in any particular changes, apart from the deaths of Mrs Folliat's sons. Moreover, Dear adds an opening sequence that takes place a year before the investigation. The incident is based on conversations with Mrs Folliat and Merdell later in the novel. These opening sequences from the past that will later have an impact on the plot have become a norm on these productions over the years; a number of episodes have the same addition. Furthermore, the telephone call from Mrs Oliver in the opening chapter is removed, including Miss Lemon and the Whitehaven setting. Miss Lemon's absence makes sense, both because this episode isn't explicitly set after The Big Four, and because Poirot is in semi-retirement at this point of his career. George the valet could have made an appearance, but they probably decided not to include him because of availability issues or costs. Instead, Poirot has received a telegram from Mrs Oliver and is on his way from the station when we first see him. Some characters are deleted in the subsequent sections, including the Mastertons (though Mrs Masterton becomes Warburton's wife, and Warburton becomes a Member of Parliament), Sergeant Cottrell (his lines are given to Hoskins instead), the Chief Constable, and Mrs and Mr Tucker (Marlene's parents). None of these deletions really impact the story, and they are probably all a result of time constraints rather than creative decisions. A subplot involving Alec Legge and a man in a turtle-patterned shirt is deleted (probably due to time constraints, or possibly the fact that it doesn't really add anything to the plot). The incident in the camellia garden with Mrs Oliver and Poirot is deleted, and so is the police re-enactment of the possible drowning of Hattie.

Finally, the ending is changed. The setting from the denouement is changed from Folliat's lodge to the boathouse (they seem to have avoided the lodge throughout - I wonder if the location was unavailable or didn't suit the period setting?). Also, in the novel, the fate of the Mrs Folliat and her son is left open ('Will you leave me alone now? There are some things that one has to face quite alone...'). Here, Mrs Folliat asks Poirot to allow her to meet her son before she is arrested. He allows it, 'as a courtesy from an old gentleman'. She goes to James's study and tells him to do exactly what she tells him to do, for once in his life. Outside, two shots are heard, and they presumably commit a murder-suicide. Poirot seems to approve of this with the final word of the episode: 'Bon'. The new ending is intriguing. It gives the Folliats a more explicit fate, but we are not told who killed whom (reminiscent of Elephants Can Remember). Also, it's interesting to view Poirot's changed sense of justice since his encounter with the culprits in Murder on the Orient Express. The decision he had to make there has obviously affected his sense of justice (although he has 'allowed' suicides before - Peril at End House, The Hollow etc).

All in all, Dear has done an excellent job. The script is very faithful to its source material. He must know Christie pretty much inside out by now, having adapted a total of six episodes. That doesn't come close to Clive Exton, but his adaptations have generally done justice to the novels they were based on (possibly apart from the ending of Cards on the Table).

Direction, production design, locations, soundtrack
Tom Vaughan's direction really suits the atmosphere of the story and the location. He utilises the garden, the boathouse, and the woods to their utmost potential. They almost become a character of their own, helped along by the crows in the trees (reminiscent of The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor). The garden fête scene feels slightly rushed, but it does convey the hustle and bustle of the event. The production team have done an excellent job with the fête and the particularly colourful costumes in this episode. The main location used was Greenway, Agatha Christie's holiday home. It's a beautiful setting, and it really affects the way the story progresses. The house becomes a character of its own. Christian Henson's soundtrack works well for the episode (notice the minute hints to the theme tune every now and then). Some might find the muted brass instruments a bit too much, but I think they work for the atmosphere the adaptation is trying to create.

Characters and actors
Poirot is generally quite displeased with his skills this time around. That's partly based on the novel, but certain minute references are added to his 'grey cells' slowing down. Then there's his changing sense of justice, as evidenced in the end scene. It will be interesting to view this episode again when all 70 episodes have aired and consider the development of his sense of justice and morality. Of course, plenty of Poirot's eccentricities are added. He 'twirls his moustache to a ferocious couple of points' (the sentence, taken from the novel, was even a scene description in the script!), he struggles with the countryside and walking around in the woods, and he takes an instant dislike to the students in shorts. Also, there's a particularly funny scene with a large Kewpie doll, taken straight from the novel. Apparently, the scene was not intended to be included in the script, but Suchet asked for its inclusion (which reminds me of the scene with the marrow he insisted on for The Murder of Roger Ackroyd). The interaction between Suchet and Wanamaker is as brilliant as ever. Ariadne's incoherent police interview reminded me of the peacock scene from Third Girl. The afternoon tea between them in London was a nice addition. I particularly enjoyed the fact that Poirot called Ariadne back to Nasse by a telegram, the exact same method and the exact same meeting place (the battery). It highlighted the sense of humour between them. I only wish they had included the tiny reference to Hastings in that scene (but that's a minor complaint). The final exchange between them, on their two favourite methods (deduction and intuition) was also a nice touch.

Of the guest actors, Sinead Cusack stood out as Mrs Folliat. Sean Pertwee did a good job as Sir George, and several of the actors in minor roles suited their characters perfectly. The lack of an Italian accent (or small grammatical mistakes) in Stephanie Leonidas' Hattie was something of a plot hole. Similarly, Fransesca Zoutewelle's Dutch accent seemed a bit overdone, but then again the point of her character is to stand out as 'foreign', so perhaps it was necessary.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

'The Labours of Hercules': Screenshots from AleKino broadcast

"ueetba", a Poirot fan from Poland, very kindly sent me these screenshots from the broadcast of The Labours of Hercules.


Thursday, 31 October 2013

Adapting Poirot: Q&A with Ian Hallard

(c) ITV

This is a very special blog post! Screenwriter and actor Ian Hallard kindly offered to do a Q&A on the process of adapting Agatha Christie's Poirot stories for television. He has co-written The Big Four (2013) with Mark Gatiss, and acted as a script associate on the other adaptations Gatiss has scripted, Cat Among the Pigeons (2008) and Hallowe'en Party (2010). He also played Edmund Drake in Hallowe'en Party, and appeared in a cameo as Mercutio in The Big Four.

This Q&A offers a rare glimpse behind-the-scenes of the television series we all love. A big thanks to Hallard for taking the time to do this!

SPOILERS on Cat Among the Pigeons, Hallowe'en Party and The Big Four follow. Don't read on if you haven't seen the adaptations.

1) You and Mark have adapted some of the ‘impossible’ Christies. Were you commissioned for these or could you choose from the remaining novels?

Mark was approached due to an existing working relationship with Damien Timmer, the executive producer on the Christies, and asked if he’d be interested in adapting one of the remaining stories. That must have been in about 2005 or 2006, by which time most of the classic novels had already been produced, and ITV were left with an increasingly diminishing pile of books which, with the best will in the world, could not be described as the cream of Dame Agatha’s oeuvre! Nevertheless, we are both lifelong Christie lovers, so we jumped at the chance to collaborate on them. Mark initially said he’d be interested in ‘The Big Four’ purely because of the challenge involved, but instead he was asked to consider ‘Cat among the Pigeons’. Then, a couple of years later, we were asked to do ‘Hallowe’en Party’, presumably because they thought it would be a good match for Mark and his sense of the macabre. And finally, when the last 5 stories were greenlit, after all those years, the call came for ‘The Big Four’. So we pretty much did the ones we were assigned, with the exception of requesting ‘The Big Four’. Though we definitely got the impression that no one else was clamouring to adapt it!

2) How does the process work? Page by page? Script meetings? Producer/Suchet involvement? Number of drafts?

It varies from one script to the next. Usually there will be some kind of discussion with the production team about what we and they think the story needs, and what is achievable on the budget and within the 90 minute time scale. ‘Cat’ was relatively straightforward to adapt, as the structure is strong, and we were able to stick pretty closely to the story beats of the original. ‘Hallowe’en’ is more rambling, so that required more work, and then ‘Four’ even more so. Mark and I spend hours, days, weeks(!), forensically dissecting every element of the plot and the characters – deciding on any themes we want to highlight and what we think is expendable. We talk through all the potential plot holes, logic problems and any restructuring of the plot. Then finally we get on with the writing of it! Once the first draft is delivered, we meet with the producer and the script editor to discuss it, we agree on a set of notes, and then we work on a second draft and the process continues until we’re all happy with what we have. As you get nearer to the shoot and the director has come on board, he may suggest a change based on a particular location that has been found and which would work particularly well for a specific moment. David Suchet deliberately chooses only to read the very last draft or two, because he doesn’t want to get too attached to a scene, a character or even a line that may end up being cut!

3) What constraints are placed on you by ITV, the Christie estate, and the producers? (e.g. costs, creative licence, series continuity, character development?)

We’ve had relatively free rein regarding creative decisions, although it’s a collaborative process, and every adaptation has involved lengthy discussions about what stays and what goes and the overall tenor of an episode.

Some of the decisions are purely logistical. For example, with ‘Hallowe’en’ we were told right from the start that Zoe Wanamaker was only available for the first two weeks of the shoot, which unfortunately meant that Ariadne’s involvement in the story had to be limited in some way. We came up with the idea of a cold confining her to her bed, meaning she could still be a continuing presence, but also that all her scenes could be shot all at once over a day or two and so hopefully you don’t feel her absence too strongly!

You’re constantly aware that even for a high budget, prestige show like ‘Poirot’, the funds are not limitless. So, as we write, we’re bearing in mind that if we include any more than sixteen or so guest speaking characters, we’re going to be asked to cull some of them. Equally, during filming, moving between multiple locations is time-consuming and expensive, so a producer will always be grateful if you can limit the number of different locations, and put as many scenes as possible in the same place. (This is particularly relevant in a more ‘episodic’ story like ‘The Big Four’.)

4) Hastings, Japp and Miss Lemon are back! Could you describe the process of reintroducing them?

Well, we always knew that Hastings was going to be returning in ‘Curtain’, so we wanted ‘The Big Four’ to be mostly Japp’s farewell story. In fact, we were concerned that, after all this time, the emotional impact of Hastings and Poirot’s reunion in ‘Curtain’ might be diluted if we’d only just seen the two of them so recently. For a while we debated whether Hastings should appear in our episode at all! Hopefully we ended up having the best of both worlds by only bringing Poirot and Hastings together in the final minute of the episode.

It was Damien Timmer who suggested we use this as a final ‘walkdown’ for the Old Guard, and of course it’s a nice coincidence that ‘The Big Four’ can refer to Poirot, Hastings, Lemon and Japp as well.

Also – and I don’t think this is really a spoiler – the fact that Poirot stages his own death in the novel gave us the opportunity of dramatising his funeral with his oldest friends, which isn’t something you’ll see in ‘Curtain’.

In terms of their backstories, it’s muddied a bit by the fact that in the series’ chronology, it’s only actually been a couple of years since they all saw each other, whereas of course, in the real world, it’s more like eleven or twelve! Consequently, we’re in a strange situation where the gap feels much longer for the audience than it does for the characters! As a result, we decided to keep the time scale and the circumstances deliberately vague. We wanted a sense that they had drifted apart as people often do, and that as Poirot himself has aged and become a more sombre and solitary character, they have not been part of each other’s lives very much. We leave it to the audience’s imagination as to why this might have come about, but Miss Lemon’s line that she supposes Poirot must have grown used to acting on his own these days, hints at a certain melancholy which fits in with the mood of these final valedictory episodes.

5) Purists’ reactions to the plot changes are mixed, particularly the new ‘denouement’, Achille/Vera/Tysoe. Why were these changes made?

We’ve approached every script with the intention of maximising its strengths and staying as true to the source material as possible. Nothing gets altered or omitted without good reason. Of the three we’ve worked on, ‘The Big Four’ is obviously the adaptation that departs most significantly from the novel – and this is for a variety of reasons.

It’s no coincidence that it’s been left till the very end, and although the book is a lot of fun, I think you’d be hard pressed to describe it as any kind of classic: it does show signs of being cobbled together in a hurry. Poirot suddenly becomes a mixture of Sherlock Holmes and a pre-Bond James Bond; globetrotting, getting kidnapped and blown up, all of which is not very consistent with the character we’ve seen develop in the TV series over the years, especially now he’s in his old age. In addition, the villain who is a ‘master of disguise’ is all very well on the page - but how do you successfully conceal the same actor playing five or six different parts without either the characters or your audience twigging? And the Fu Manchu-like evil ‘Chinaman’ definitely feels like a product of its time and wasn’t an element of the story that we particularly wanted to perpetuate in the twenty-first century!

The one instruction we had from ITV and the producers when we started work was that the adaptation had to, as much as possible, resemble a traditional episode of 'Poirot'. And of course, we knew that the budget would never stretch to filming in a variety of foreign locations with a guest cast of thirty to forty characters. So it was always a case of trying to come up with something which represented the fun and craziness of the novel, whilst still grounding it in some kind of reality.

We decided to focus on the three murder mysteries within the story – ‘Leg of Mutton’, ‘Chess Problem’ and ‘Yellow Jasmine’, as we thought these were stronger than the pure ‘thriller’ episodes where Hastings or Poirot get kidnapped and then escape from the villains. The problem we encountered is that once you accept the notion of the Big Four as this incredibly powerful cabal, with limitless supplies of wealth, power and intelligence at their disposal, the cases do end up seeming rather trivial. For example, in ‘Chess Problem’, Christie has Number Four spending months masquerading as Dr Savaranoff in order to inherit his money. But why bother when you have Abe Ryland – the richest man in the world – on your team?! Then there’s ‘Leg of Mutton’ which has a clever solution, but again, if the terrifying and all-powerful Big Four want to kill off Whalley, why mess about having to dress up as a butcher in order to do it?

So Mark came up with the idea that rather than the Big Four being real, they could all be the fantasy of just one man. That would explain why some of the cases might at first seem comparatively inconsequential, and remove the curse of the secret society which “sounded like something out of a book”. It also gave us something the book doesn’t have and which you ideally want in a Poirot episode – a twist for Poirot to reveal at the denouement. And given that in the book Darrell is an actor, it seemed logical to play up that element and explore the theatrical setting.

We needed a way for our villain to publicise his scheme. How about an ambitious journalist to do the job, and whip up some public hysteria in the febrile atmosphere of 1939? Enter Tysoe. He was then able to be a conduit between Darrell and Poirot and provide a succession of false clues and red herrings.

We lost Countess Rossakoff because we couldn’t find a way to work her into the narrative in this new structure. With Japp, Lemon and Hastings also around, plus the three separate murder mysteries, there simply wasn’t time to do justice to her. And again, we knew she was going to feature in ‘The Labours of Hercules’, so we felt we could cut her with a clear conscience!

Deleting Achille was a much harder decision. It had been one of the things that we’d been excited about doing when embarking on ‘The Big Four’. However, the idea of Achille just being a clone of Hercule seemed a bit dull and rather a wasted opportunity, so for a long while, we considered making him a complete contrast to Poirot: an unshaven, slovenly womaniser. But whilst this would have been fun, ultimately we couldn’t imagine Poirot being able to suppress his fastidiousness sufficiently to convince in the role. He isn’t a master of disguise like Sherlock Holmes after all – so would Japp and the others have gone along with the charade despite presumably seeing through it? (Not even Japp is that stupid, after all!) It would have been fun, but with the plot steam-rolling its way to its conclusion, it just ended up being another element that we would have had to explain with yet further exposition at the end. A shame to lose him, but we wanted to focus on the funeral and Poirot’s reunion with his friends instead.

I did get a tweet from a very angry man who said he was 'livid' and that Mark and I should be arrested for the outrages we had perpetrated on the book! Well, you're never going to please everybody. If you hate the adaptation that much, you can always go back and read the book and you never have to watch the TV version again! Would purists only be happy if they see every single character and episode from the novel faithfully recreated on the screen? The story has to work for an audience who know nothing of the original material, and who have no interest in seeing it preserved in aspic. As long as we're satisfied we've done the best job we can, that's all we can aim for, although of course it is nice if people enjoy your work, and happily we received plenty of positive messages and tweets and only one or two which were negative!

6) Generally speaking, how do you decide what to cut/keep/add/change in the various adaptations?

Sometimes it’s very simple. The novel of 'Cat' had more characters than we could do justice to on screen, so some inevitably had to go, and Miss Vansittart was an obvious candidate. She's really a paler imitation of Miss Bulstrode, so we didn’t feel she would be much missed, plus it made sense to make Miss Rich the second ‘victim’ instead. By having Miss Chadwick fail in her murder attempt, it made her a more sympathetic character, ready for when she redeems herself at the end by saving Miss Bulstrode’s life.

Other changes in ‘Cat’ were made for a bit of added colour. We made Miss Springer nastier, a blackmailer, and killed her with a javelin rather than a gun. (Although when we wrote it we never imagined Ann launching her spear from across the other side of the sports hall - which goes to show you can never predict exactly how a director might choose to interpret your script!)

Ann disguising herself in order to get her hands on the tennis racquet is another example of something which is straightforward on the page but much harder to translate to the screen, so that episode was eliminated. And Miss Blake didn’t have a motive in the book, so we added one, and the intrigue of the voodoo doll gave us a nice segue into the commercial break – which is another thing you constantly have to have in your mind when writing for ITV!

The biggest change was probably involving Poirot right from the start. As a late Christie, she clearly would rather not have had him in it at all, but obviously that was never going to happen!

When it came to ‘Hallowe’en Party’, we knew we’d have to be a bit more inventive. After the startling and arresting image of the murder victim in the apple bobbing tub, the rest of the story is very much late Christie – meandering and a bit repetitive. We wanted to extend the atmosphere and spookiness of Hallowe’en beyond the party itself into the rest of the episode (it gets a bit forgotten about in the book). So we added sequences like Rowena being stalked in the garden, Ariadne’s nightmare and Poirot’s fireside story denouement. Also, most of the characters are single women living alone, which in a dramatisation isn’t much help, as you need characters to interact with each other. It’s all very well being told that Rowena Drake is a dreadful and bossy woman, but far more effective to give her two children to be unpleasant to – then you can show it! And we rather liked the idea of the insular village populated principally by women. The only male residents we see are the elderly vicar, Edmund the mummy’s boy, and strange Leopold. So it’s no wonder all the women are transfixed and swooning at the arrival of the exotic Michael Garfield!

Equally, with a limited number of cast members, you want to maximise your cast of characters and try to make everyone as suspicious as possible. Consequently, we omitted Supt. Spence and his sister, and gave their function to Mrs Goodbody. That’s often the case with an adaptation – you find a way of combining several characters into one: so Mrs Goodbody gets to be a source of information and a suspect and thematic colour as the ‘witch’ at the party.

You also don’t have long to establish each character and give them a motive: you want to make them distinctive enough to give the actor something to get their teeth into and to make them memorable for an audience - particularly when they don't have very much screen time, hence Rev Cottrell being the penny-pinching vicar, Mrs Reynolds the moaning martyr and Frances the bored and boozy vixen!

You quickly realise how succinct you need to be with your story telling to fit everything into ninety minutes. A character or a scene really has to justify their place in telling the story in order to survive being cut.

7) Did the fact that The Big Four is one of the final episodes, essentially a build-up to Curtain, impact your script choices at all?

Impact upon! (That was Mark popping in to make a contribution, by the way.) Other than reuniting Hastings, Japp and Miss Lemon, and giving us the chance to show Poirot’s funeral, not especially. Given the more sombre tone of the later episodes, it had to feel thematically consistent with the rest of the series, which a completely faithful adaptation of the source material would have struggled to do.

8) I also run a Poirot chronology blog. What made you decide on 1939? Have you had a particular series chronology in mind in your three adaptations?

Our brief for all of the episodes has been to keep the period setting as the 1930s. Given that the novel is a departure for Poirot into the world of international intrigue, and as time is marching on for him, it made sense to move the story into the months preceding World War II. Other than that, it’s really the series producer and script editors who keep an eye on that sort of thing. Sometimes the art department ask for a decision on when exactly the script is set to produce a prop, for example a newspaper which requires that information.

9) You mentioned on Twitter that you would have included all of Poirot's friends at his funeral in The Big Four if the budget had been unlimited, and that Ariadne Oliver was in an early draft. Any other scenes or characters you would like to mention that didn’t survive the time/budget constraints, in The Big Four, Cat Among the Pigeons, and Hallowe'en Party?

Yes how wonderful would that have been! To see rows of characters paying their respects – Col. Race, Miss Bulstrode, Supt. Spence, Colin Lamb, Ariadne... It’s always annoying when soap opera characters die and their kids who apparently live in the next town don't bother to show up at the funeral! There was supposed to be a big floral wreath from Ariadne but I'm not sure whether that ended up being shot. And yes, in the first draft, it was Ariadne rather than Hastings who burst through the door at the end with the line “I thought you were dead!”

As for other casualties: there's nothing too significant I think. A romantic scene between Adam Goodman and Ann Shapland had to be dropped from 'Cat' because they ran out of time to shoot it. Mrs Reynolds had a husband in an early draft of 'Hallowe'en' who didn't survive to the final shooting script.

And our first pass at 'Four' experimented with a suggestion of a romantic attraction between Poirot and Mme Olivier (she also inherited some of the characteristics of Countess Rossakoff) – but maybe that would have been a sacrilege too far!

10) There are plenty of references to past episodes in The Big Four. Some fans have also pointed out that there are several nods to Sherlock. Were these deliberate?

Similarities to Sherlock? Well of course the original novel is directly indebted to so many aspects of Conan Doyle's work, which Christie herself actually acknowledges with the sly comment that Poirot makes about all great detectives having brothers who would be even more celebrated were it not for constitutional indolence! Life is littered with so many of these coincidences: even down to the fact that Mark of course plays Mycroft Holmes (the equivalent of Achille) in 'Sherlock'. The irony is that we've been pencilled to work on 'The Big Four' for years now – long before 'Sherlock' was even a twinkle in Mark and Steven Moffat's eyes! And yet Mark, by sheer coincidence, ended up working on 'The Big Four' and his new 'Sherlock' episode 'The Empty Hearse' at more or less the same time, when of course both stories deal with our heroes' apparent demises and subsequent resurrections.

Other nods? Some of them were deliberate: the letter to Miss Bulstrode for instance, the references to Mrs Japp, the lines about “bringing down the curtain”, and the themes of thwarted or frustrated egos - for both Darrell and Flossie – but also for Poirot of course! As Darrell rightly points out, there's absolutely no need for Poirot to stage these elaborate denouements, much less fake his own death – it's just that he adores a theatrical flourish. Both Mark and I have always been interested in that side of the character. Poirot in the books is a vain, pompous, insufferable little egomaniac, so it's fun to tweak everyone's expectations of him, to undercut the image of this twinkly, avuncular figure, and expose the less pleasant side of his personality!

11) Finally, was the new ending (The Big Four) inspired by the story of Suchet's grandparents or the location you filmed in?

Yes, I saw David's interviews about his grandparents, and I'm afraid I have to spoil the romance! We didn't know the story beforehand and it wasn't an inspiration for the film's climax. Nor did we write it with a specific location in mind - Hackney Empire was simply the choice of the production team.

Please do not reproduce without permission. Contact me via e-mail (poirotchronology@gmail.com) or on Twitter (@pchronology).

A big thanks to Tom, a fellow Poirot fan, for brilliant question ideas!

A frame-by-frame look: Polish trailer for 'The Labours of Hercules'!

Labours of Hercules airs tomorrow in Poland, and a trailer has finally been released. ITV also released a press pack today. By the way, this won't be spoiler-free, so if you don't want to know anything - look away now. If you do, then you should read the press pack synopsis as well, because that will help you understand the screencaps.OK. Let's have a closer look:


First shot - and we're in the Swiss Alps! Slightly worried about the obvious CGI work here (understandable as it is, given the budget). The location is taken from 'The Erymanthian Boar', which is the central story of the adaptation (judging by this trailer and the press releases so far).

This is a new character, not present in any of the short stories: Francesco, the owner of the hotel. Fake snow! Hooray.

...aaand more fake snow! The location used is Halton House, Aylesbury.

Here's our leading man. In what looks like Murder on the Orient Express mode? (He's wearing the same coat, scarf and hat)

Now, this is where they lost me. What's going on with the sunglasses? This is in front of the mountain lift they use to get to the hotel (actually built on location next to Halton House, and covered in - you guessed it - more fake snow).

Poirot in an apparently empty reception. This has a sort of At Bertram's Hotel-feel to it, don't you think? (not entirely sure if that's a good thing).

Guest list! Intriguing. There's a certain Countess staying here as well...




So... what's going on here, then? The girl with the necklace is Lucinda LeMesurier (a reference to 'The LeMesurier Inheritance'), according to the press pack.


A painting is missing! 'Hercules Vanquishing the Hydra', according to the press pack.



Something sinister is going on. Very James Bond-ish.



More fake snow and CGI! (But those mountains look quite impressive, actually).

Here's a waiter who doesn't know what he's doing...

Poirot seems to have figured it all out (or has he?). It's his signature 'ah!' move.



Someone is having a bad day... And more James Bond effects!

Alice Cunningham might not be exactly what she appears to be.



Poirot seems to be failing after all. Someone's dead! (Lucinda?)





OK... Schwartz and Cunningham? Guns? Mexican standoff? Not sure about this.

What does everyone think? Judging by the press pack interview with director Andrew Wilson, we're in for a very dark episode exploring Poirot's journey of redemption and retirement.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Episode-by-episode: The Big Four

This episode was based on the novel The Big Four, first published in 1927. It was adapted for television by Mark Gatiss and Ian Hallard, and directed by Peter Lydon.

Script versus novel
The Big Four is generally considered to be one of Christie's most controversial (and least successful) novels. She finished the novel in 1926, in the wake of her traumatic divorce and the death of her mother. The story is based on a series of short stories that she worked into a novel in order to earn some much-needed money. The plot is quite ridiculous at times, with exploding mountains, caricature villains, racist Chinese manservants and global conspiracies. Unsurprisingly, the novel has been considered unfilmable. The wide range of locations (England, France, Italy, America etc) probably didn't help in that respect either. All in all, I'm not surprised this novel was left until the final series. It's as if the production team have been waiting for it conveniently disappear. (I don't usually go into aspects like the background of the novel and the context of the adaptation, but I think it's absolutely necessary here. It demonstrates what a complete challenge Gatiss and Hallard were facing.)

The scriptwriters had to come up with a way to streamline the narrative. This is an incredibly busy story that has Poirot travelling far more than he ever did in the early years, and now he’s even approaching retirement. They also had to include Hastings and Japp, who both appear in the novel. Ideally, they needed to find a way to include Miss Lemon as well. The Poirot fans (me included) would be very upset had Hastings and Japp been deleted from the adaptation. Since they last appeared in 2002, the Christie estate have repeatedly stated that the characters would only appear in the novels that they were originally in; they would not be added. So it naturally follows that they would return for the remaining stories that did include them. Finally, Gatiss and Hallard had to find a way to make the plot believable. I, for one, could never bring myself to believe in Christie's plot. It was too out-of-character for Poirot. Multinational villains fighting for world domination? Twin brothers? (Okay, that one could have worked! More on that later) Radium thieves? A faked death? A mountain explosion and a miraculous escape? You get the point. How could this really be the same character who solves quiet, psychological puzzles in English country houses? (I know some fans will disagree with me here).

Gatiss and Hallard decided to open the episode with the return of Poirot's three friends, thus reassuring the fans. Personally, I think the opening scenes with Hastings and Miss Lemon are absolute perfection. Hastings exclaims the (by now compulsory) 'Good Lord!' and Miss Lemon (who is added to the story) complains about the late arrival of the mail. Both lines perfectly encapsulate those two characters. Japp is in Poirot's flat writing letters to Poirot's friends (we get a glimpse of the letter to Miss Bulstrode, a lovely references to Cat Among the Pigeons, also scripted by Gatiss). These scenes culminate in Poirot's funeral. This event doesn't occur until much later in the novel, but it makes sense to introduce it here. Poirot's funeral is perhaps the only event that would believably bring Hastings, Japp and Miss Lemon back after such a long absence. Of course, Hastings could always be back on business or on holiday, Miss Lemon could be living somewhere in London and Japp could have an interesting case to discuss with Poirot. But remember that it's been 17 (18) episodes since we last saw them! If they simply returned for an everyday event, then viewers would ask themselves why they hadn't visited him before. The wake scene that follows wasn't in the novel, but it's been perfectly scripted (with Hastings' overwhelming grief and the toast to their old friend). By the way, I think it's a very sensible decision not to be too specific about why or how long they have been absent (Poirot simply says to Japp in a later scene: 'It's been too long. Far too long!').

Now, some fans have reacted negatively to the reduced role of Hastings in this episode. Japp and a new character, Tysoe, replace him through most of the novel. This is partly because of the restructured plot (i.e. Hastings returning for Poirot's funeral, just one day before Poirot's big denouement) and partly because the press (i.e. Tysoe) is integral to the new solution, which I will come back to later. As much I would love to see Hastings and Poirot investigate together, I think it's a sensible decision to emphasise the chemistry between Japp and Poirot here (giving Philip Jackson an appropriate swan song). As mentioned, the funeral is the best plot device to bring both Hastings and Miss Lemon back, and this means Hastings can't be present in the earlier investigation (oh, and he does, after all, return from Argentina, so that element from the novel is there). Also, bear in mind that Hugh Fraser gets an emotional swan song with Curtain.

Several of the 'cases' Poirot investigates in the novel have been deleted. These include 'The Unexpected Guest', 'The Man from the Asylum', 'Disappearance of a Scientist', 'The Woman on the Stairs', 'The Radium Thieves', 'In the House of the Enemy', 'The Baited Trap', 'The Mouse Walks In', 'The Terrible Catastrophe' (apart from the 'fatal' explosion), 'The Dying Chinaman' (apart from the funeral description), 'Number Four Wins a Trick', and 'In the Felsenlabyrinth' (replaced by a new denouement). The incidents that are deleted (the radium plot, the events at Abe Ryland's estate, the secret Chinese hide-away) are all fairly far-fetched, placing Poirot in situations that can hardly be described as 'typical Christie'. More significantly, though, they mainly serve one purpose; to reveal the different members of the Big Four. Now, Gatiss and Hallard manage to maintain the essence of this in the three remaining 'cases'; Leg of Mutton is linked to Li Chang Yen, Yellow Jasmine to Madame Olivier, and Chess Problem to Abe Ryland (I'll get back to how they do this later). With this in mind, I'm not too upset about the deleted chapters.

As to the characters that are deleted, most fans will be disappointed not to see Countess Vera Rosakoff and Achille Poirot. To be honest, I always thought Rossakoff's connection with the 'Big Four' was a bit too much. A jewel thief? Yes. An adversary to villains seeking world dominance? Probably not. Similarly, Achille always seemed completely unbelievable to me. It's a great twist, and it would have been fun to see it brought to life, but I find it difficult to believe that anyone (let alone master criminals) could be fooled into thinking that someone as unique and distinctive-looking as Hercule Poirot could have a twin. Christie seems to dismiss the idea, too, in the final pages of the novel, and in The Labours of Hercules:
‘Brother Achille has gone home again – to the land of the myths. It was I all the time. It is not only Number Four who can act a part.’ (The Big Four) 
'If I remember rightly - though my memory isn't what it was - you had a brother called Achille, did you not?'Poirot's mind raced back over the details of Achille Poirot's career. Had all that really happened? 'Only for a short space of time', he replied.' (The Labours of Hercules)
The remaining 'cases' (Mutton, Jasmine, Chess), and two characters that appeared in sections of the novel that have been deleted, i.e. Ingles and Flossie Monro, are tied together to make a more or less believable plot. I'll try to outline the plot in the next couple of paragraphs before I add my final thoughts. (You can skip the next six paragraphs if you already know the plot).

After Poirot's funeral, the narrative jumps four weeks back in time. Tysoe, who is a journalist, visits Ingles to inquire about the 'Big Four'. Ingles was a 'retired Civil Servant of mediocre intellect' in the novel, but here he is a senior official at the Foreign Office. Unlike in the novel, he dismisses the idea of the Big Four as 'Bulldog Drummond', complete nonsense. 'The world-wide unrest, the labour troubles that beset every nation, and the revolutions that broke out in some' that he attributed to Li Chang Yen in the novel are here presented by Tysoe, who thinks his unnamed 'correspondent' might be right. This is the first sign that Gatiss and Hallard are taking the adaptation in a different direction. The change is perfectly understandable. If they are attempting to make the story more believable, then the first step on the way would be to have the authorities (i.e. Ingles) dismiss the rather ludicrous idea that there is a group of master criminals seeking world domination.

Next up is the Chess Problem. The set-up is essentially the same as in the novel, but we get to witness the actual chess match. Japp, who has become Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard (how he managed to climb the career ladder that quickly, from 1936 to 1939, is beyond me), is in charge of security at a society event. The event is hosted by Abe Ryland, who has become a respected member of a ‘Peace Party’ (founded by Li Chang Yen) that is working for world peace at the brink of war. This was not in the novel, but it links the story to the coming war and provides a somewhat believable cover for a (supposed) 'Big Four'. Poirot is also present, possibly because of his interest in chess (actually, he declares in the novel that he doesn't play chess, but we've seen his chess set at Whitehaven – it first appeared in Third Girl – and seen him play in The Chocolate Box, so this is an acceptable change). There is a lovely scene in which the two friends are reunited (reminiscent of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd). They also briefly touch upon the subject of retirement ('Time, it catches up with us all. Perhaps also for Poirot the shadows are lengthening and the moment it has come to think of a life that is quiet'). Present at the chess match is also Mme Olivier (not be confused with Mrs Oliver!), a brilliant French scientist who specialises in the nervous system (she was more interested in radium in the novel). Like Ryland, she is a member of the Peace Party. She is joined by her friend and ally of the Party, Stephen Paynter (from 'The Yellow Jasmine Mystery'), and his personal physician Dr. Quentin (a local doctor in the novel). Even Tysoe has managed to enter the event. In the game of chess, Ryland substitutes Gilmour Wilson and challenges Savaronoff, but it's Savaronoff who is murdered. Consequently, Sonia Daviloff and the scenes in Savaronoff flat are deleted. As Poirot and Japp start investigating, Poirot is intrigued by Tysoe's mention of the 'Big Four'. Tysoe explains that he has received letters with this information, as well as information on Ryland's past. Poirot goes on to solve the chess murder more or less like in the novel. Ryland is suspected, and he disappears shortly thereafter.

Then there's the Leg of Mutton. Jonathan Whalley was 'a lover of all things Chinese' who wrote a biography on Li Chang Yen, the Peace Party founder (in the novel, he was just interested in China). The stolen jade figures have become ivory figures, but the plot remains the same (even with most of the dialogue intact). Poirot solves the murder, more or less exactly as in the novel, and he suspects that the Big Four are involved. Shortly afterwards, Tysoe finds a stabbed man in the street (a clear warning that he should stop his investigation into the Big Four). The scene is somewhat reminiscent of the warnings Hastings receives in the novel after Poirot's death, and the dying Chinaman he encounters. Tysoe, frightened by the warning, comes clean to Poirot and Japp and reveals a set of playing cards that displays the Big Four (a Chinese card for Number One, a chance card from Monopoly for Ryland, a French Dame card for Mme Olivier and La Mort (Death) for Number Four). This is reminiscent of the dying words of Mayerling in the novel.

The next case is Yellow Jasmine (but the twist here is 'gelsemine', mentioned in the novel). In the novel, Paynter had written a book on Li Chang Yen ('The Hidden Man in China' – that’s been attributed to Whalley in the adaptation), but as mentioned earlier he has become a friend of Mme Olivier and a supporter of the Peace Party here. The murder is essentially the same (the Chinese manservant, Ah Ling, is even there, but he doesn't get to speak at all). However, a wife, Diana Paynter, and Mme Olivier, are added to the plot, and the nephew Gerald is made the prime suspect (Paynter wrote 'G', not 'Yellow Jasmine' in ink). The wife suspects her husband of having an affair with Mme Olivier. Gerald, Dr Quentin and Mme Olivier are interviewed, and Poirot begins to suspect her (gelsemine falls into her field of research). She later disappears.

Poirot then returns to the scene of the Mutton crime, the Whalley household. Jonathan Whalley had an estranged nephew who used to live with him, Albert Whalley, and Poirot searches the attic for clues as to his whereabouts. He finds a scrapbook with clippings from the Methuselah Theatre (as an aside, this means 'man of the dart/spear' or 'his death shall bring judgment' - a hint to the final solution). This leads Poirot to get in touch with former actors from the theatre, and he eventually tracks down Flossie Monro. Their conversation is incredibly well scripted, with just the right amount of sadness and humour. Unlike in the novel, Flossie is not murdered but will serve an important role later on. Shortly afterwards, Claud Darrell, another of the actors, calls Poirot and invites him to meet him. Poirot enters an apartment and is seemingly killed by an explosion (reminiscent of the scene with the match box in the novel). All that is left is Poirot's burnt-out walking stick. This leads us back to the day of the funeral, in which Hastings, Japp and Miss Lemon discuss their old friend. Hastings want to continue tracking down the Big Four (like in the novel), but the others disagree and he leaves the flat in anger.

Finally, there's the denouement scene. In short, the scene takes place in the Methuselah theatre (not the Felsenlabyrinth). Claud Darrell, aka Dr Quentin and Albert Whalley, has captured Flossie Monro and explains that he did everything for her. She rejected him fifteen years ago, when they were still acting at the theatre, because she wanted to be with 'someone the whole world will remember'. Poirot appears, revealing that he was not killed in the explosion after all. He explains that the Big Four never existed, that Mme Olivier and Abe Ryland had been taken prisoners by Albert Whalley/Claud Darrell. Whalley committed the murders to implicate Ryland (Chess), Olivier (Yellow Jasmine) and Li Chang Yen (Mutton), and create a sense of hysteria and fear around the world - all in an attempt to be remembered and be loved by Flossie. Once revealed, Whalley threatens to detonate dynamite that will blow up the entire theatre (reminiscent of the Felsenlabyrinth in the novel), but Poirot persuades him that he can't kill Flossie. In the end, he pretends to surrender before threatening Poirot with a gun. Tysoe, who has appeared on the scene with Japp, then brings the curtain down on him (literally speaking), and he is killed. The end scene sees Poirot, Japp, Miss Lemon, Tysoe and Flossie celebrate their 'victory' before Hastings appears, confused about Poirot's reappearance. That scene is wonderfully evocative of the early episodes.

Several fans have claimed that Gatiss and Hallard have changed too much of the novel and that the new ending is completely unbelievable. Personally, I think the restructuring of the plot and the new ending is a brave attempt at streamlining the narrative and, actually, making the ending more believable. The new ending is still far-fetched. Most viewers would say that the scheme is far too complicated for a madman who wanted to attract the attention of the woman he loves. There are aspects here that I struggle to accept. However, bearing in mind the source material they had to work with (as outlined in my introduction), I think Gatiss and Hallard have found a more or less sensible way to humanize the culprit.

I could never truly believe in the idea of master villains controlling the world. Admittedly, Poirot stories are fiction – and anything could happen in fiction – but they are always based on the real world, particularly in the TV series, which has consistently incorporated historical events. These master criminals wouldn’t exist in the real world. A lunatic, however, would. That has been evidenced time and time again. Even elaborate lunatics like Whalley. By making the plot a personal tragedy of sorts, Gatiss and Hallard almost manage to make us feel sorry for Whalley. Orphaned, estranged from his uncle, rejected by his one true love. Also, the decision to emphasise the similarities between Whalley and Poirot (‘We are more alike than you think, Poirot’) is an interesting one, because it highlights Poirot’s less endearing qualities (his showmanship, his self-assuredness). It’s also something of a foreshadowing of Curtain. All in all, then, I’m inclined to accept all the changes Hallard and Gatiss have made, because they have managed to make a more or less coherent story out of what Gatiss has described as ‘an almost unadaptable mess’.

Direction, production design, locations, soundtrack
Peter Lydon’s direction is wonderfully effective. The back of Hastings’ head, the close-up of letters, the grey funeral scenes, the camera zooming in on Poirot’s empty chair, the hooded figures of the Big Four – and that’s just the opening shots! I particularly enjoy the shifts of scenes in the interviews at the Paynter household, the ‘Poirot must think’ sequence (seemingly inspired by Sherlock’s ‘mind palace’), the clock motif throughout (reminiscent of The Clocks), and the flashbacks of the denoument scene (such a complicated plot explained in a matter of seconds). The colour grading is particularly well done throughout as well. The production team have created some wonderful props, including the playing cards, the Big Four lair set, and the miniature theatre with the ‘Big Four’ characters that Poirot finds in the attic. The locations used include Syon House, Brentford (the chess game scene), Hughenden Manor, High Whycombe, Buckinghamshire (the home of Jonathan Whalley and the prison gates), Nuffield Place, Henley-on-Thames (the Paynter house), The Undercroft of Lincoln's Inn Chapel, London (the scene with Tysoe and Poirot), and Hackney Empire (the theatre). Christian Henson’s soundtrack is perfect for the episode, sombre and dark for the emotional scenes and cheerful and nostalgic in the investigation scenes (notice the several references to the Poirot theme, particularly in the scene where Poirot tries to find Flossie Monro, and in the end scene.

Characters and actors
Gatiss and Hallard have added numerous references to the early episodes in this episode. I’ve already mentioned Hastings’ ‘Good Lord’ and Miss Lemon’s complaints about the late arrival of the post. Miss Lemon also has a cat called Marina, which is reminiscent of the episodes The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman and The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb. Moran is given some wonderful lines in the few scenes she appears in. I particularly enjoyed the ‘he always liked things just so, didn’t he’ as she straightens Poirot’s chair. This is a wonderful reference to their shared sense of order, not to mention his constant nagging about the tisanes. She certainly had to get used to his many quirks and habits over the years. Similarly, Fraser’s few scenes are very reminiscent of a number of early episodes (apart from his moving breakdown at the wake), e.g. his determination to pursue the Big Four (and antagonism towards Japp), followed by his ‘What do I do now, old chap?’, addressed to the dead Poirot, and his re-appearance in the final scene (completely confused and made to look stupid).

Philip Jackson gets a series of wonderful one-liners as Japp. The ever-present in-joke between him and Poirot on his career (Inspector – Chief Inspector) has now become Chief Inspector – Assistant Commissioner, the repeated mentions of Mrs Japp (I would have preferred ‘Emily’, but I realize that most viewers wouldn’t understand who he as talking about) – particularly in connection with the tarot cards, and the no-nonsense action in the denoument scene.

David Suchet also gets to add a reference or two. I particularly enjoyed the dispatch case containing ‘the tools of my profession’, which we haven’t seen since The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and the aforementioned ‘think’ scene. David Yelland’s present was a nice nod to the later years. Ariadne Oliver would have been a welcome addition, to complete the references. Apparently, her character was included in an early draft, but she later had to be deleted, presumably because of costs or Wanamaker’s availability.

The guest stars all make the most of their scenes. Patricia Hodge is wonderfully over-the-top as Madame Olivier (even if she sounds like Edith from ‘Allo ‘Allo), Barbara Kirby is great fun as Mrs Andrews (thanks to the good script), Teresa Banham manages to create a moving mini-portrait of Diana Paynter, and Nicholas Burns creates a humorous caricature with Inspector Meadows. Tom Brooke is acceptable as Tysoe, and Simon Lowe isn’t too bad as Whalley/Darrell/Four, but he seems to struggle to find the right balance between camp and moving (but he is exactly as bland as he should be in the rest of the episode). However, the star performer for me is Sarah Parish as Flossie Monro. The character is very minor in the novel, and it mainly serves to elucidate the plot. Here, Flossie is the reason for the entire crime, and her character is made more tragic (in a sense). The scene between her and Poirot at Whitehaven is perfection itself. She tries to impress him with her acting roles, while Poirot obviously realizes that she is an aging, failing actress. He hasn’t seen any of her performances, but he tries to save the situation by claiming that he has seen her in Share My Cab at the Duke of York (he would never be seen at a play with a name like that!). But she only played the accordion. It probably doesn’t sound like it from my description of it, but it’s a very moving scene.

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)