Hercule Poirot (David Suchet)
David Suchet’s achievement as Agatha Christie’s character cannot be praised highly enough. I am still baffled by the fact that he hasn’t received a BAFTA for it! (He was nominated in 1991, and the series won four BAFTAs in 1990 for Best Costume Design, Best Graphics, Best Make Up and Best Original Television Music, but he has never actually been awarded one for the portrayal!).
To me, David Suchet is one of the best character actors of our time. His approach to his characters is so detailed and refined. If he’s playing a real person, he studies this person’s life inside and out (e.g. Sigmund Freud and Robert Maxwell). If it’s a character in a play, he goes back to the original words of the playwright (e.g. Iago, Joe Keller and James Tyrone). And, as with Poirot, if it’s a writer, he goes back to the novel(s) and attempts to portray and interpret what the writer has intended.
When asked, in an interview in 2001, to describe the process he goes through when approaching a particular role, for instance Poirot, Suchet explained: ‘You go to the book. With Poirot I had over 60 or 70 stories to draw on, so it was a far greater chance for me — or for Agatha Christie — to develop the character. […] When you’re doing characters from famous novels, you have a responsibility as an actor to make it what the writer intended. And then you add and expand from there to create a three-dimensional performance.’
In my mind, his main achievement with Poirot is exactly what he describes above: He has managed to bring a character to life that, for many, borders on the line of an absolute caricature, a cardboard cut-out (at least judging from pre-Suchet film and television portrayals). Not only that, through adaptations where changes have been made to the stories, he has managed to stay true to the character, to Christie’s creation, while still making it his own three-dimensional interpretation. As he put it in an interview with ITV.com in 2010: ‘I don’t have any say about where the adaptations of our stories may move, but I do have a say in how I play the character. And the way I play the character will be absolutely as near as I can possibly get to the tone, the flavour and, also, particular incidents that Agatha Christie will put in that particular novel. I am still the servant of my creator’.
(As to the particular incidents, a glimpse of his devotion was referred to in an interview: ‘When he compared the [Murder of Roger] Ackroyd script to Christie’s novel, he noticed the TV version omitted an early scene in which Poirot has a frustrating moment with a zucchini in his garden; Suchet asked for it be added. It was.’)
(As to the particular incidents, a glimpse of his devotion was referred to in an interview: ‘When he compared the [Murder of Roger] Ackroyd script to Christie’s novel, he noticed the TV version omitted an early scene in which Poirot has a frustrating moment with a zucchini in his garden; Suchet asked for it be added. It was.’)
Suchet's preparation for the role
Suchet was first approached about the role in 1987. Shooting began in 1988, and the first episodes were broadcasted in 1989. The story of how he initially developed his interpretation of the character has been described very accurately by Suchet himself elsewhere (look, for instance, at the Poirot & Me documentary mini-series broadcasted a few years ago or one of the several interviews with him available online). Suffice to say that he went back to Christie’s original stories, noted any references made to the character, and created what he calls a ‘character dossier’ with key characteristics. Moreover, he perfected his Belgian-but-must-sound-French accent and the peculiar mincing walk, to mention but a few of the many nuances he brings to the character.
What I want to focus my attention on in this little review is the uphill battle he initially seems to have fought with the producers to be allowed to interpret the character. In conclusion, I will discuss some key features of Suchet’s interpretation in light of the criticism he has received from certain fans of the series.
In an interview in 1998, the journalist refers to Suchet’s decision to portray ‘Poirot as the novelist would recognise him, even in the teeth of opposition from worried television executives fearful of departing from the norm’. This is an aspect of Suchet’s achievement I have rarely seen mentioned. In fact, I was not aware of this opposition until recently. A more detailed description of the producer’s opposition can be found below, in an extract from the book In the Company of Actors: Reflections on the Craft of Acting, published in 2000, where Suchet describes in his own words the process of developing Poirot.
‘I started reading every single book that Agatha Christie wrote, from The Mysterious Affair at Styles, right through to Curtain, where he dies, and started filling a notebook with characteristics.
I picked up that Poirot would be totally anally-retentive [here: obsessive compulsive disorder]. […] I used the anal-retentive analysis from Freud on Poirot. […] It doesn’t make him lose his twinkle, his little fun and sense of humour. I also hope I’ve given Poirot a darker side as well.[...]
What you saw over the course of the series was an actor trying to fight for his character from early on. Because when I first started, the costume and make-up designs turned Poirot into a buffoon. My first costume design was going to be check plus-fours, and hunting jackets, and moustache out there, and Sherlock Holmes caps. I remember one particular meeting when I walked away from the production before it even started, because I wanted to wear the clothes that he was famous for: his suits, his wing collar, bow ties, and most important of all, his morning jacket and striped trousers. I was forbidden to do so, because ‘the television public would find it boring and depressing’. At that meeting, I said, ‘You will have to cast somebody else. If you want me to play the role, I can only approach it in the way that I as an actor would approach the role. You are now taking away my individual creativity, and you must find somebody else’. I didn’t know at that time that the Agatha Christie estate only wanted me to play the role. I didn’t know the power I had. All through the first three years, I was fighting scripts that tried to make him jokey, while I was trying desperately to find the real man. Doing the short stories first – I wasn’t able to bring in the complexities of the character. But gradually, as the character evolved, I made him far more internalised in his mind, and less active physically. If he did any gestures, they wouldn’t just be gestures. He was doing something in his head, while he was active. And I allowed his darker side to come through. I won’t explain now, what his dark thoughts were. What was it like being a man, at that time, unmarried? He was not a homosexual. He was a true bachelor. Did he have any sexual frustrations? Was he lonely? All that, I began to build into the character.
[…]If I do continue [playing the part, this was published in 2000], I hope to develop him as Agatha Christie wrote him, not just going off on my own. Her books are full of these dark moments. Poirot would brood, and would take himself off into the corner of a room, to sit and think. He didn’t know why, but he became suddenly troubled as he looked at a young girl. Agatha Christie was really into all this, and yet he was turned into, what I consider, a playful buffoon. That’s not what she wrote, and it’s only by playing him that I realised the seriousness of that lunch where her own family turned to me and said, ‘We don’t want that. If we laugh at all, it is to be with him, and not at him. (p. 190-191)
I think this extract highlights two very important aspects of Suchet’s achievement. Firstly, the apparently fierce opposition he was facing from the producers to begin with, so fierce in fact that he threatened to leave the project. I must say I was completely amazed when I first read his anecdote from the costume fittings. To think that the producers wanted to dress him up in ‘hunting jackets’ and ‘Sherlock Holmes caps’ – obviously intending to make him a laughable character – does not only prove that the series could have taken a completely different form (arguably, it wouldn’t have lasted as long as it has either), it also suggests that the producers had a very different approach to Agatha Christie’s stories! Of course, we should take into account that this is Suchet’s side of the story, and some of it might have been exaggerated for dramatic effect, but I somehow don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t take his word on this. To me, the opposition he describes only makes me even more amazed at the process he has gone through with the character.
It should be said that the producers were probably persuaded quite early on – especially after that first series with over ten million viewers! Moreover, we should keep in mind that Suchet’s been an ‘associate producer’ since 2003, so he now has much greater influence over the character than he – presumably – used to have. Interestingly, this is also when Suchet seems to have made his portrayal even more nuanced – just as he intended.
Secondly, the extract shows what care Suchet has taken to create a three-dimensional character; his use of Freud’s anal-retentive analysis to decipher the OCD aspects, his goal of finding ‘the real man’ and his thoughts on Poirot’s situation of life. All of these aspects point ahead towards what has become Suchet’s definitive Poirot.
The development of the character
Some viewers claim that Poirot has lost his humour in recent years; that he has been turned into something that contradicts what Christie wrote. On several occasions, Suchet has discussed his initial portrayal of the character, and how he found a reference to Poirot’s ‘twinkle’. In Peter Haining’s book, Agatha Christie’s Poirot: A Celebration of the Great Detective (1996), he says: ‘If Poirot twinkles, I thought, I can develop that. [...] As well as everything else, I believe that Poirot does sparkle. He can be fastidious and irritating, but he has the ability to appeal to the lowest as well as the highest in society. I decided to make him charming to even the lowest chambermaid – that would be what would make my portrayal different to the other versions’ (p. 64).
Moreover, he stated in the same interview that ‘[w]ith the development of the series I’ve tried to make him lighter, more humorous and witty. And although you must take his brilliance seriously, you can still smile and laugh with Poirot.’ (p. 71).
Now, this doesn’t mean that Suchet has aimed for a buffoonish “comedy angle” with his portrayal – that is evident from the extract detailed earlier in this article. On the contrary, I think he has tried to bring out the humour in Poirot’s eccentricities. Moreover, this humour hasn’t disappeared from the series – in fact, Poirot comments on the size of his eggs for breakfast even in the most recent and undoubtedly most serious adaptation, Murder on the Orient Express (2010). The explanation largely comes down to the fact that if you read Christie’s stories carefully, she clearly spent more time (and paragraphs) on this early on in her short stories and novels than in her later works. Moreover, as Suchet pointed out in the Poirot & Me documentary, the short stories have more (obvious) humour and humorous scenes than the novels. Since the series has moved on to the later novels in recent years, it seems only natural that there is somewhat less humour, particularly as the stories themselves have become darker.
In other words, any claim that Poirot (or rather, the portrayal of the character) has lost its humour is largely a misunderstanding. The humour – which is mostly on eccentricity - of the earlier episodes was there because it was present in the short stories. There is less humour in the more recent adaptations, but it has far from disappeared. Any scenes with the two eccentrics Poirot and Mrs Oliver together would testify to that. And the reason why there is less humour is largely that Christie spends less time on this particular character aspect in the later novels.
However, I will agree that the seriousness – apart from being a result of Christie’s move from short stories to novels and darker crimes (e.g. Hallowe’en Party, Five Little Pigs, Sad Cypress) – is also a result of Suchet widening his portrayal in later years. This is particularly the case with episodes made after the series was brought back by A&E in 2000.
In fact, I would argue that Suchet himself would probably explain this change in the portrayal as a natural consequence of the situations the character is put in throughout the novels. In an interview for the MOTOE press pack in 2010, he said: ‘I’ve always said with Poirot, or indeed any character I play, I want to get to know them so well that I can put them in a thousand different situations and react differently to every single one while still remaining ‘them’. In the same way I can put myself in any situation and react differently but it’s still me’.
In my opinion, there are especially three characteristics Suchet seems to have focused on – or, been led to focus on by the situations Poirot finds himself in; loneliness, religion and disillusionment.
I’ll start this section off with two quotes from interviews with David Suchet:
‘The more I revisit the stories, I find a lonely person, which I may have missed in the very early episodes, where Agatha Christie has him wishing he had married, wishing he had children. I now play that strain, that tension.’ (from The Christian Science Monitor, February 2000)
'Poirot is a most interesting character - apart from anything else - because he is an outsider, in this country anyway, but he is also an outsider socially. He's also got a very dark side, he's a lonely man. I think I've said before that he believes the relationship between a man and a woman, a loving relationship, is the greatest gift of God, especially when it ends up in marriage. And he himself very often in Agatha Christie's books says, 'I wish I had married'. And I try and bring out this quality of Poirot more and more because I think that it is important. You know, he lives alone, he has a manservant, but he’s a loner in all ways. And he’s become self-sufficient, because he’s had to become self-sufficient. But when I do have the opportunity of ... not falling in love with another woman in the films, but those women that I’m with will often make me aware of my own solitude. (...) The way I try and play him – I’m not asking you to feel sorry for Poirot, because Poirot doesn’t feel sorry for himself, in fact he fights not to. (from Poirot & Me, 2006)
As the quotes above show, this particular character trait is largely based on what Suchet seems to describe as a lack of love in Poirot’s life – the lack of a woman/wife, that is. Now, Suchet has stated several times that he sees Poirot as entirely asexual (see, for instance, Peter Haining’s book p. 70), but he seems to be interested in Poirot’s regret at his inability to fall in love – or even just to have lasting friendships with women (apart from Mrs. Oliver, obviously).
Again, some critics have argued that this strays away from Christie’s character. However, as with Poirot’s twinkle in the earlier episodes, this isn’t something that Suchet has added from out of nowhere. Anne Hart, in her brilliant “biography” on the character, outlines the references from Christie’s books that I think Suchet has utilized. She alludes to his fascination with Countess Vera Rossakoff (p. 133), his comment in Dead Man’s Folly that ‘It is terrible, madame, all that I have missed in life’ when asked if he is happy to be a bachelor (p. 134), that he, as described in ‘The Third-Floor Flat’, once fell in love with a girl who couldn’t cook (p. 134) and that he was always very kind to orphaned young women or young women in distress (p. 134).
Suchet also details some of the instances where Poirot has been made aware of his own loneliness in the Poirot & Me documentary. These include a conversation with Jacqueline de Bellefort in Death on the Nile, his slight infatuation with Jane Wilkinson in Lord Edgware Dies, and the avuncular role he takes on with Katherine Grey in The Mystery of the Blue Train.
Interestingly, Anne Hart also points out that Poirot’s great hobby appears to be matchmaking (p. 131). There are several instances of this in the later episodes, for instance with Elinor Carlile in Sad Cypress, Norma Restarick in Third Girl and Maude in Mrs McGinty’s Dead. Undoubtedly, this is also a part of Suchet’s emphasis on Poirot’s lack of love. As Poirot puts it in the adaptation of Third Girl, as Norma and David are united; ‘are we looking at the greatest of mysteries that life ever throws on, a mystery that even I, Hercule Poirot, will never be able to solve; the nature of love’.
Religion and disillusionment
I group these two character developments together, because I think they are greatly intertwined. Poirot’s Catholicism clearly comes as a surprise to many followers of the TV series. I don’t blame them. If memory serves me right, the only time we ever see Poirot even hinting at a religious attitude before the 2005-2006 series is in the adaptation of ‘Triangle at Rhodes’, in which Poirot makes the sign of the cross. Again, I think we have to consider this in terms of Suchet’s intention of developing the character through the situations he is put in. The three episodes that most clearly put an emphasis on Catholicism are Taken at the Flood, Appointment with Death and Murder on the Orient Express. As far as I know, Catholicism does not feature greatly – if at all – in any of these novels. So in this case, Suchet seems to have taken the small references there are to Poirot being a bon catholique (and, again, they are there – he hasn’t just invented them!) and utilized those to delve into yet another aspect of his character. See Anne Hart’s book, p. 127-28, and the short story ‘The Chocolate Box’ for these references.
In the three aforementioned episodes, Poirot is put in situations that distress him and trouble him. In Taken at the Flood, he sees a murderer exploit the faith of a Catholic girl to commit a gruesome crime. In Appointment with Death, he learns of the abuse of orphaned children and in Murder on the Orient Express, he has to lie to the police to do the right thing and let the murderer(s) go free.
Now, it could be argued that Poirot has been in similar situations before where he has not turned to his faith for consolation. And this is where Suchet’s third and final broadening of the character comes in – his disillusionment.
If we think of this series as an evolutionary project over 25 years – and, in fact, the life of a character that will span from somewhere in the late 1800s to about 1950 – it’s only natural that Poirot’s attitudes to crime and people around him are becoming increasingly disillusioned. He has spent an entire life solving the most gruesome crimes. Any human being – even a world famous sleuth – will be affected by what he sees and experiences in life. Again, I feel fairly certain that Suchet has taken this from Christie’s novels. For instance, Poirot’s valet George tells Colin Lamb in Christie’s novel The Clocks: ‘I think, sir, that sometimes he gets a little depressed’. In other words, Poirot wants to rid the world of crime – what Suchet has describes as his raison d’etre – but wherever he turns – even in retirement – he keeps stumbling over these horrible situations in which people do horrible things to each other. The world isn’t becoming a better place, even after a lifetime spent solving and preventing crime. To bring back the religious aspect, it seems fair that, as a bon catholique, he would eventually turn to faith for emotional support when faced with these terrible crimes.
In other words, Suchet’s interpretation perfectly brings out these nuances of the character; an individual who has evolved from his early, optimistic years (the short stories) to his retirement, in which he becomes increasingly depressed and disillusioned, something which might be said to lead him to take the radical actions he does take in Curtain.
To summarise, I would put down the following reasons why I think David Suchet’s portrayal of Hercule Poirot is such an achievement:
1) His research and attention to detail
2) His constant desire to explore new territories within the limits of Christie’s characterisation, i.e.
the eccentricities, the twinkle, the loneliness, the religion and the disillusionment.
3) His commitment to remain ‘true to Agatha’; the character that she wrote
As to point three, I have tried, through the references I make to Christie’s characterisations, i.e. the twinkle, the quotes on love, religion and depression, to show that – in spite of criticism from producers and certain viewers alike – Suchet has remained true to Christie’s character, while still developing his portrayal.
I do, however, acknowledge that people are entitled to their own opinions and that certain decisions Suchet has made might be more controversial than others. In the end, though, what it all comes down to is interpretation, and I believe that Suchet’s portrayal is the closest one can possibly get to Agatha’s character – especially if we take the series’ long run into account. On that note, I would like to conclude with a quote from Suchet that clearly shows the process he goes through when interpreting the character:
‘One get sentences like ‘Everybody loves to speak to Poirot’, and you just read on, forgetting why that should be. As an actor one has to take those sort of sentences on board and think ‘Why does everybody like to talk to Poirot?’ What is that quality in a person that makes people want to talk to them?’ (p. 64 in Peter Haining’s book).
Captain Arthur Hastings, OBE (Hugh Fraser)
By far the most important of the three companions, both in the books and in the series, Hastings is portrayed by Hugh Fraser. In Christie’s original stories, the character was a constant in Poirot’s life for only seven years and an intermittent companion for twelve more years after that. In total, twenty-six stories and eight novels are narrated by Hastings. The character was greatly expanded for the television series. As Hugh Fraser points out, ‘Hastings isn’t in very many of the books. In fact, he was put in stories that he wasn’t in, as was Japp and Miss Lemon’ (Super Sleuths, 2006). This was probably primarily because the show’s producer, Brian Eastman, and the original script writer, Clive Exton, both felt that Poirot needed a ‘basic family unit’ and ‘somebody for Poirot to confide in’, as Exton points out. Personally, I mostly agree with this decision, both when it comes to Hastings, Japp and Miss Lemon. Especially in the short stories, they provide a certain sense of continuity and familiarity, and they suit the first phase of Suchet’s Poirot perfectly; the eager and twinkling detective. I am less certain about some of the novels Hastings was added to, particularly Evil under the Sun, which I feel was contrived. However, I do realize that the inclusion of his character in that particular story was a nice way to give Fraser a (temporary) swan song series.
Both Hugh Fraser and the producers wanted to portray Hastings more true to Christie’s characterization than previous film adaptations. Fraser never saw any of the previous interpretations before they started shooting, because he wanted his ‘Hastings to something quite original’ (Haining p. 74). Brian Eastman once explained that ‘It would have been easy to just show [Hastings] as bit of a dolt, (…) but though there are a lot of people who do see Hastings this way, Agatha actually uses him in the books as the voice of the common man. He asks the questions that the reader is asking at any given moment in order to allow Poirot to appear very bright and explain everything’ (p. 76). Fraser set out to read some of Christie’s stories before they started shooting. He describes Hastings as ‘a likeable chap’ who is ‘very laid back’ and ‘a bit of a dilettante’, a man who has ‘fallen into detective work by chance’ (p. 74-76). Fraser is certain that the relationship between Poirot and Hastings is ‘a working relationship and that Poirot actually employs him’ (p. 76). In my mind, this theory is truly fascinating, as it would explain why Hastings is constantly around Poirot’s flat. In Christie’s stories, he is at one time described as working for Lloyds, another time as a sort of secretary to an MP. No matter what he was doing, it always seemed a bit unlikely that his employers would give him so much time off work to tag along on Poirot’s cases, so this subtle change, if never actually explicitly stated in the series, makes a lot of sense.
Hugh Fraser’s portrayal is certainly different from Christie’s characterization in many respects. For one thing, he (or the producers, more likely) has skipped the conventional ‘toothbrush’ moustache. I suspect this was a conscious decision in much of the same way as the producers decided not to have Belgians or Frenchmen in the series with French accents – it would simply be confusing for the viewer and distract from the stories. Also, I have a distinct feeling that having two mustachioed main characters would just be a bit too much and remind us more of an episode of ‘Allo, ‘Allo than Christie. Moreover, TV-Hastings is probably older than Christie-Hastings. In the stories, Hastings is thirty in Styles, while Poirot is about sixty. In the series, Fraser and Suchet are almost exactly the same age. I don’t know if this was done simply because Fraser was the best actor for the job – or, perhaps more plausibly, that they didn’t expect the series to last for 25 years, and since both actors were about 40 in the first series, Suchet could easily play a character ten or fifteen years older while Fraser played a character ten or fifteen years younger. This obviously became more difficult over the years, especially when the series returned after the five year hiatus, and they don’t seem to have tried to make Fraser look younger (in fact, I think they’ve kept his natural hair colour, growing slightly greyer over the years). This change doesn’t bother me at all, especially since I think Hastings’s naivety would be the same if he was 20, 40 or 60.
Apart from this, the interpretation of the character seems to be largely in tune with Christie’s characterizations. They have even kept Hastings’s love interest Dulcie/Bella Duveen, which is quite remarkable, actually, when thinking that they could have so easily skipped her and the entire Argentina outing if they wanted to keep the ‘family unit’ intact. Obviously, I’m glad they didn’t, and I think Murder on the Links works quite well in this respect, especially when the series unexpectedly came to a halt when production on that series finished. The set-up was perfect for Hastings’s return in Lord Edgware Dies (that is, if they had stuck to their own chronology! I have written several posts on this over at poirotchronology.blogspot.com).
[I am very much looking forward to the two remaining Hastings stories for series thirteen, Curtain and The Big Four. Though, as much as I love Hastings as a character, I do think The Big Four could work without him as well. I somewhat fancy the idea suggested elsewhere on the Internet that Colin Race from the adaptation of The Clocks would fit nicely in with the espionage plot. But of course, the scenes where Hastings is reunited with Poirot in his flat should be quite special. Not to mention the emotional turmoil of Curtain.]
An interesting bit of information on the development of the character is provided by Fraser in Peter Haining’s book. Speaking in 1995, he explains that ‘The role can still develop more. In the early days I did seem to spend a lot of time asking what must have appeared like dumb questions. But as it got a bit repetitive the script writers moved away from that situation. In some of the recent stories Hastings has become much more of an assistant and somebody who is involved in the cases. Of course, he does have a naivety to him. But this is never allowed to become stupidity – rather an endearing quality which Poirot does find a little bit annoying on the one side, though on the other he loves him for it (…) I’m looking forward to ageing gently with David in the later stories’ (p. 79).
Personally, I certainly find the episodes where Hastings is more actively involved in the cases better than the others, but I must admit I am slightly shocked by what seems like a plan to keep Hastings throughout the series. I very much doubt the character would have added much to adaptations such as Five Little Pigs or Death on the Nile, not to mention the cases of Ariadne Oliver. Moreover, I certainly think that the process of ‘ageing gently’ which has now taken place between Murder in Mesopotamia and The Big Four/Curtain will make the reuniting scenes much more poignant than if he had been there all along. In any case, Hugh Fraser has done a magnificent job of fleshing out the buffoon and making him an independent, if somewhat naïve, individual.
Miss Felicity Lemon (Pauline Moran)
Agatha Christie described Miss Lemon as ‘the perfect machine’ and ‘a woman without imagination’, but ‘she ran Hercule Poirot’s life for him’. Her passion seems to have been filing and organizing, as Christie explains; ‘It was well known that the whole of Miss Lemon’s heart and mind was given, when she was not on duty, to the perfection of a new filing system which was to be patented and bear her name’ (Hart p. 260). [Christie scholar John Curran once described this passion as ‘seriously sad’]. Pauline Moran, who brilliantly portrays Miss Lemon in the TV series, argues that Miss Lemon is ‘a reflection of Poirot’ in that ‘she has the same fastidiousness and obsession with detail and precision’ (p. 81). Or, as David Suchet described it in The People’s Detective, ‘Her filing system is like his brain’.
The Miss Lemon of the TV series differs in several ways from Christie’s character. Some of this difference has been explained by original producer Brian Eastman. ‘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.’ (Haining p. 82).
The deletion of George’s character is understandable, both in light of the context (Jeeves & Wooster being a competing series) and in terms of character development. If scriptwriter Clive Exton’s ‘family unit’ is to be taken seriously, it makes sense to expand one of two minor characters (Miss Lemon and George) in order to create a ‘family’ for Poirot. It is interesting, however, that the new producers post-2003 decided to include George instead of bringing Miss Lemon back. Personally, I think it’s the right decision, mainly for completist/accuracy/chronology reasons, and it does make sense both in terms of the novels being filmed and in terms of character development (Poirot is semi-retired by then)
The significant expansion of Miss Lemon’s character includes her interest in the occult and what seems to be a genuine interest in fashion (!). Moreover, both the producers and the actors seem to have decided to make her genuinely interested in Poirot. As David Suchet stated in the Super Sleuths documentary; ‘I think she would have had a huge crush on Poirot’. Finally, she is given several out-of-office outings, which she seems to take great interest in, but some of these were also present in Christie’s stories, as Anne Hart points out (p. 260)
As to the first additions, those of the occult and the sense of fashion, I think it’s fair to say that these particular character traits probably come from Pauline Moran herself. Apart from her work as an actress, she is also an astrologer (see her website for more details). So her ‘psychic powers’ (displayed in the adaptation of Peril at End House), her interest in hypnosis (‘The Underdog’), and Egyptian mythology (‘The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb’) seem to be her personal contributions. Moreover, she has explained in Peter Haining’s book that she likes clothes and to design and particularly enjoys Miss Lemon’s outfits. It would have been easy to keep Miss Lemon rather plain-looking, like most secretaries of that time, but the series has been recognized partly for her fashionable wardrobe (see, for instance, this blog). Although both these additions stray quite significantly from Christie’s descriptions, I think they work in the context of the series. They add some humanity to an otherwise insignificant cardboard cut-out. The out-of-office outings similarly add depth to the character
Miss Lemon’s liking for Poirot is perhaps the cleverest addition. Brian Eastman explains; ‘Although I don’t think we’ve ever spelled it out, the viewer is quite clear about Miss Lemon’s status in the series – her aspirations, her liking for Poirot and all the things a great actress brings to a role’ (p.82). To me, the cleverness of this addition is that it never becomes too explicit, so that viewers can decide for themselves to interpret certain looks and lines in their own ways, but to me, the signs are certainly there (see, for instance, ‘The Double Clue’, particularly a scene towards the end, and some of the scenes in Peril at End House). I don’t particularly mind this addition either, especially because Poirot is never aware of her interest. In this sense, it just underlines the asexual qualities of Poirot that Suchet seems keen to portray. Pauline Moran has said the following on the matter: ‘Miss Lemon adores Poirot. But of course, this is all unspoken, as it has to be, because there is no sexual tension between the two of them, but I think the audience might pick up that she absolutely adores him’ (The People’s Detective, 2010).
Before we move on to Chief Inspector Japp, I just want to comment on the possible inclusion of Miss Lemon in the thirteenth and final series of Poirot. It seems the producers are thinking of including her in The Labours of Hercules and possibly Dead Man’s Folly. This would be a nice sense of conclusion to the series, but it would also ruin my chronology of the episodes completely! Also, how are they to explain her absence in his flat over the years? I very much doubt that would work. So as much as I love her character, I really don’t think she should be included in the remaining adaptations, unless they find some ingenious way to include her. [I could, for instance, almost be inclined to accept her presence in Labours, because she could have been brought back solely for the purpose of finding the appropriate cases for Poirot, since this episode would be a sort of ‘return from retirement’-thing anyway.]
Chief Inspector James Harold Japp (Philip Jackson)
Christie’s ‘ferret-faced’ (her words!) inspector had perhaps the longest association with Poirot of all the characters in her canon, from the Abercrombie forgery case while Poirot was still a policeman in Belgium to 1940’s One, Two Buckle My Shoe. In the series, the character is perfectly portrayed by Philip Jackson. On several occasions, he has admitted not having read Christie’s stories, because he feels the stories give little away about the character; ‘I didn't do any research when I took on the role. I don't believe that reading Agatha Christie's books is particularly useful for doing the series. While she was good on plot and ideas, Christie wasn't that good on fleshing out her characters. The only thing I remember reading about Inspector Japp is that his hobby is botany. He has an amazing knowledge of plants and collects specimens and sticks them in books. I didn't find this at all useful to the way I wanted to play the part, so, consequently, it does not figure into my performance’. [To say that Japp’s interest in gardening doesn’t feature isn’t quite true, however, as there is a tiny reference to this in ‘The Spanish Chest’; ‘I may as well stay at home and do my garden’].
What has been included in the series, however, is the duality of the rivalry/admiration between Japp and Poirot. As Jackson explains, ‘the thing about the relationship between Japp and Poirot is that we realized it would have been ridiculous to have the inspector be a stupid person and Poirot a clever one. There should be some degree of mutual respect. Although he's not particularly competent, Japp certainly has a moral vision, a strength of will and a purpose in the way that he operates. All these traits contrast with the character of Poirot, but, in a sense, they are also something that the Belgian admires. All right, Japp doesn't get it right, usually, but his methods, his doggedness, his seriousness about his work are what make it amusing. In other words, when somebody who's so concerned about being right gets it wrong it's funny. If I were to play the part as an inept person, then there's no surprise’. Personally I think the adaptation of ‘Double Sin’ is the best example, in which Japp gives a delightful lecture on detective work praising Poirot, and Poirot sneaks in to hear the lecture.
An interesting addition for the series, that wasn’t there (as far as I’m aware) in Christie’s stories, is Japp’s wife Emily. While never seen on-screen, she is present throughout many of the episodes, often as a running joke. Even though Japp doesn’t seem to be married in Christie’s books, this addition seems acceptable. Moreover, and again, it provides a fascinating contrast to Poirot’s lack of a wife. Judging from Jackson’s view of the character in general, I suspect that this addition was one of the producer rather than Jackson himself. As to Jackson’s own additions, the following quote sums up some of it: ‘He’s got a slightly ambiguous attitude to Hastings and Poirot, because, you know, they kind of live a bachelor life, and he’s not quite sure what their relationship’s like when they’re sort of off duty. They seem to hang around that apartment quite a lot. And there’s Miss Lemon in there, the three of them, and you don’t know what’s happening exactly, it might be some deep sexual thing going on for all I knew. And so I thought Japp (…) always when he went around to Poirot’s place, he’d be a bit suspicious of what might go on. Decadence and the upper classes and all that sort of stuff’ (Super Sleuths, 2006). This last part, about the decadence of the upper classes, seems to be underlined in a comment Jackson made in another interview: ‘In the 1930s, the job of Scotland Yard detective was seen as being of a quite low status. Today we tend to glamorize television detectives because they earn enormous salaries, drive around in flashy cars and have a rather elevated status in society. In those days [the thirties] it was very much a tough life investigating crimes of a rather distasteful nature. It was considered not a very good way to spend one's time, but Japp is a man with a purpose and you can sense his disapproval of the more privileged members of society. He always gets very sniffy [disapproving] of people who seem to earn a lot of money with very little effort’.
Jackson’s favourite episode is apparently Death in the Clouds: ‘It was very interesting to take Japp and put him in a foreign location. I don't think racism was a key amongst such people as Japp in those days, but there certainly was distrust of the foreigner. We had a wonderful scene in which Japp and Poirot are sitting in a cafe eating a meal, and, without being offensive, we were able to have some fun with Japp and what he thought about the French’. His part in this story was also greatly expanded from the novel. Moreover, I don’t think Christie ever brought Japp out of the country in her books, but the series have two excursions for Japp, one to Belgium (‘The Chocolate Box’) and one to France (Death in the Clouds), both of which underline his dislike of French people and foreigners in general. In that sense, I think they add a characteristic to his character.
Some brief comments on Japp’s return for series thirteen as well – I think his presence, in The Big Four and The Labours of Hercules, would be somewhat less out-of-place than Miss Lemon’s. Although I would have loved to imagine Japp as retired by this period of Poirot’s career (1938-40), it doesn’t seem too unlikely that he would still be working in the background as a police officer. So if they choose to include him, I wouldn’t object too wildly!
To summarize, the Big Three of Poirot’s professional life – Hastings, Miss Lemon and Japp – are brilliantly portrayed by Hugh Fraser, Pauline Moran and Philip Jackson, even if they have been rather significantly expanded as characters. In most cases, I think these expansions rather than feeling forced actually add to the depth of their characters. Moreover, in the case of Hastings and Japp, the return of their characters for the final series would be both welcome and necessary to add to the emotional depth of the conclusion of an era. Miss Lemon I feel less certain about, purely from a continuity point of view, but if she is included in some plausible way, her return would also be most welcome. The actors, the series and we the viewers all deserve the best possible finale.
Mrs Ariadne Oliver (Zoë Wanamaker)
Apart from Hercule Poirot himself, this 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 addressed by her Christian name.
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).
George, Poirot’s valet (David Yelland)
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. Third Girl is probably the best example of Yelland’s portrayal, since George in this episode both contributes with observations on visitors, the case at hand and breakfast. It’s a great challenge to make a fully fleshed character of George, but Yelland has done it, and I look forward to an emotional finale in Curtain.
Superintendent Albert (Harold) Spence (Richard Hope)
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).
Countess Vera Rossakoff (Kika Markham / Orla Brady)
Since it's looking increasingly likely that we will see the return of Countess Vera Rossakoff in the final series (Labours of Hercules) I thought I might write down some thoughts on that particular character, the actress who portrayed her in The Double Clue and the rumours of a new actress in the role for Labours.
In Christie's stories - and in the TV series - Poirot first met the Countess in 'The Double Clue', a short story published in the early 1920s. A member of the ancien régime of Russia, she is described by Hastings as a 'whirlwind in human form' (Hart 233), and later as 'big' and 'flamboyant' (Hart 234). By the end of the jewel-robbery case, Poirot is completely enthralled by her:
'What a woman!' cried Poirot enthusiastically as we descended the stairs. 'Mon Dieu, quelle femme! Not a word of argument - of protestation, of bluff! One quick glance, and she had sized up the position correctly. I tell you, Hastings, a woman who can accept defeat like that - with a careless smile - will go far!' (Hart 234)
In later references, Poirot describes her as 'A woman in a thousand - in a million!' (Hart 234), further enhancing our impression that this truly is Poirot's Irene Adler. The two met again in the novel The Big Four (apparently not in the adaptation that was filmed recently). This time around, the Countess was backed by some of Poirot's toughest opponents yet. In the end, she helps Poirot and Hastings escape a certain death, on the terms that Poirot would reunite her with her long lost son. Then, for the third and final time, they met on the escalators of the London Underground in the 1930s, and in the nightclub called 'Hell':
'Though it was something like twenty years since he had seen her last the magic still held. Granted that her make-up now resembled a scene-painter's sunset, with the woman under the make-up well hidden from sight, to Hercule Poirot she still represented the sumptuous and the alluring.' (Hart 237)
After 'The Capture of Cerberus', they were never to see each other again, but in Christie's words, Rossakoff remained 'the flamboyant creature of his fantasy'.
On television, Countess Rossakoff was portrayed by Kika Markham in the 1991 episode The Double Clue. Though the adaptation differs significantly from its source material (I'll probably come back to this in greater detail in my 'episode-by-episode' series), I would still count it as one of my favourites - in terms of characterisation and character development. Markham and Suchet are both given much more to play with in terms of the 'relationship' between the characters, with walks in the park, visits to museums and picnics in the countryside. Also, the final scene at the train station has remained iconic. Markham was lovely in the part.
(Rossakoff was also an added plot line in the adaptation of Murder in Mesopotamia, which didn't really make sense to me. I mean, Poirot travelling all the way to Mesopotamia because she has sent him a cryptic message asking for his help? Oh well, I guess it was a nice touch and a way of showcasing his affection for her).
Now, rumour has it, based on this interview, that actress Orla Brady will be playing Countess Rossakoff in Labours. At first, I was slightly taken aback by this. (Not by Brady - she's an excellent actress - but by the recasting). Sure, Markham is older now (72-73, according to Wikipedia, cf. 50 when the episode was shot), but so is Suchet (67 now, 44 then). However, having looked at some recent photos of Orla Brady and compared them to screenshots from The Double Clue, I'm now convinced that this was, if not the right choice, then at least a right choice. As has been mentioned on the IMDb forum recently, Brady is closer in age to what the character would be in chronology terms (if we rely on my chronology, The Double Clue is set in the mid-30s and Labours will hopefully be set just before WW2). Also, she looks remarkably similar to Markham in 1990! In other words, the recasting will somewhat ease the chronology issues, and the two actresses are sufficiently similar not to annoy viewers. (As an aside, I remember when they recast the role of Helen Lynley in the Inspector Lynley Mysteries. That was... Well, they didn't even look remotely similar....).
All in all, I'm just happy to see the return of Countess Rossakoff (if indeed that is the case). As I've mentioned elsewhere, I think her presence in one of the remaining episodes is absolutely necessary to close one of the important chapters of Poirot's life (what I've nicknamed 'Poirot's-lamentation-on-love' storyline).