Thursday 20 December 2012

The New Companions: Ariadne, George & Spence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Big Three: Hastings, Miss Lemon and Japp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miss Felicity Lemon
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 was 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 is 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 desig and that she 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 television 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 television 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
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.

Tuesday 16 October 2012

The Complete Poirot - David Suchet's Achievement

I have been wanting to write this little piece in praise of David Suchet’s achievement for ages, but I have put it off because I have wanted to wait until he has done all Christie’s stories. Well, now I have decided that I simply can’t wait any longer – I will write it now, without having seen the final series. In fact, I think this is a fitting moment to forumulate my thoughts, simply because Suchet has just started filming Curtain, thus initiating the final year of filming for the series, after which he will have done all the stories and portrayed the character on screen for no less than 25 years!

David Suchet’s achievement with Agatha Christie’s character cannot be praised highly enough. I am still baffled by the fact that he has not received a BAFTA award for it! (Yes, 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 Suchet has never actually been awarded one for the portrayal of Hercule Poirot!). I sincerely hope he will at least receive a new nomination once Curtain has been shown on television. He certainly deserves it.

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 is playing a real person, he studies this person’s life inside and out (e.g. Sigmund Freud and Robert Maxwell). If it is 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 is 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 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.’)

Suchet’s research for Poirot
Suchet was first approached about the role in 1987. Shooting began in 1988, and the first episodes were broadcast 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 producers' 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 initially facing from the producers, 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 would not 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 has been an ‘associate producer’ since 2003, so he now has much greater influence on the character than he – presumably – used to have in the early years. 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 has not 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 for the tonal shift largely comes down to the fact that if you read Christie’s stories carefully, she clearly spent more time (and paragraphs) on his eccentricities early on in her short stories and novels, than in her later works. Moreover, as Suchet points out in the Poirot & Me documentary, the short stories have more (obvious) humour 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 - 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 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 will 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 quotations above demonstrate, 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 or 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 indeed having 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 is not 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 largely 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 simply 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 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 (the late novels), 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, that is

a. The eccentricities and the twinkle
b. The loneliness
c. The religion
d. 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, to show that – in spite of criticism from producers and certain fans alike – Suchet has remained true to Christie’s character, while still developing his own 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)
All photos © ITV, all extracts and quotations are linked to their sources.

Sunday 7 October 2012

Art Deco items

A reader of the blog, Ian, sent me these photos of Art Deco items from Poirot's flat that he has been able to get hold of (see below). I am impressed by the work he must have put down to track them down and very grateful that he has given me some info to post on the blog. The descriptions below are from Ian:

Stylized Doves by Artist Le Jan (French Art Deco)
The ‘Doves’ where often seen in Poirot’s first apartment. I recall seeing them mostly in the hallway/reception area displayed on a black/chrome table. They measure 18inches across and are ‘light cream’ in colour, their glaze finish is called ‘crackleware’ which was very popular during the 1930’s Art Deco movement. Poirot or should I say the ‘Production team’ seemed to think this style of ceramic would be well liked by the character (and I tend to agree). The new apartment has even more examples of ‘crackleware’ in the form of more animals and other objects, many again in cream or turquoise.

Poirot’s Microscope (E.Leitz Wetzalar)
An almost identical replica of the Microscope is in the episode ‘Murder in the Mews’, the scene shows Poirot dictating a letter to Miss Lemon and he’s seen pacing his apartment’s sitting room area correcting minor errors in the alignment of his books and ornaments and arrives at his Microscope correcting the tilt of its mirror. Although not Art Deco in its design it's still a wonderful period object dating back to the early 1900’s.

Art Deco Bankers Lamp
The electric ‘bankers-lamp’ sits on Poirot’s desk throughout all 1-5 series. One unusual point about the lamp is that it’s covered with an unusual clear coat finish, which makes the lamp appear to have a gold sheen in some light and then can appear more sliver in others and I have noticed this effect with its on screen counterpart. Most bankers lamps also have an adjustable shade but this lamp instead has a sliding grill/filter which moves up and down by hand to enable the user to control the brightness of the light.

Thank you, Ian!

The Apartment - Another floor plan

A reader of the blog, Ian, sent me these detailed and very accurate floor plans of Poirot's apartment (see below). They are so much better than mine (see previous post), but we do have the same basic idea in terms of rooms and layout. The most difficult room to place is the kitchen (as I have discussed before). I do, however, find Ian's suggestion somewhat more likely than the one I have suggested.

Thank you, Ian!

Friday 21 September 2012

The Lemesurier Inheritance?

The Lemesurier Inheritance (1923) is a troublesome little short story from the collection called Poirot's Early Cases (1974).

For those of you who don't know, this will most probably be the only Poirot story by Agatha Christie NOT to be included in David Suchet's definitive portrayal. If you haven't read it, here's a link to a blog with the entire text:

I think there are several reasons why we most likely won't see this story on screen:

1) Its length. Since 2004, all Poirot episodes have been approx. 90 mins long. To adapt this story, it would have to be expanded into a 90 minute TV film, which, to be honest, I don't see as an attractive option. The story itself is very conventional and almost a Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson look-a-like, and I don't see it working as an expanded film. Having said that, possibly the only ITV Marple episode I have truly enjoyed was a short story, 'The Blue Geranium', expanded and adapted as a 90 min film. In other words, this point is probably not the most valid one.

2) Its setting. I know the Poirot producers have become experts at relocating Christie's stories in chronology terms (see my other blog for more on this). However, this particular story is supposed to be the very first case Poirot takes on after Styles, i.e. immediately after WW1. One of the main characters is a friend of Hastings from the army. No disrespect to Suchet and Fraser, but they both look older now than they did 20 years ago. So I very much doubt they would manage to make them look close to 30 years younger... But again, settings could be changed and story lines could be bent a little to make this work as a 1930s adaptation.

3) ITV Marple. This may sound silly, but the adaptations of Poirot and Marple for ITV are clearly interlinked. They have the same producers and much of the same crew, which means whenever the crew isn't working on a Poirot episode, they are frequently working on a Marple, as ITV tends to commission the two series together. What has become the norm for the last couple of years is that ITV commissions 4 Marples and 4 Poirots, a total of 8 films, to be made at the same time, by the same production company. This time, ITV has commissioned 5 Poirots and 3 Marples. I think it is likely that ITV wants a certain number of adaptations from each sleuth in each series, so they didn't want to push their luck and go for 6 Poirots and 2 Marples. But this is pure speculation, and I have nothing to support my claim.

3) Money. Sadly, this is probably the most likely explanation. The final series of Poirot nearly didn't happen, because of these financial issues. ITV seemed unable to find the money to carry on making the episodes. Somehow, they changed their mind, probably because of the success of Downton Abbey, but they have probably still gone for as few expenses as possible. Meaning that if anything can be cut without it being too obvious, they would do it. I think this is the case with 'The Lemesurier Inheritance'. It was an easy way to save money and thereby make the remaining adaptations better. But again, I have no proof of this being the case.

But in all of this misery (even if it is slight misery, considering that we actually get almost all the Poirot stories filmed!), there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Possibly two lights even. Firstly, David Suchet was asked on Twitter a while back whether The Lemesurier Inheritance would be referenced in some way in the final series to make it complete. His answer was "I hope so." (see below).

This makes me hopeful that they have a plan in store somehow. Even if it is a passing reference like "remember that old case, Poirot", I would be happy. It would mean a sense of completeness after all!

Secondly, David Suchet keeps referring to the fact that he will have starred in every single Poirot episode ever written. A typical example of this was in an interview with BBC's Andrew Marr. In this interview, he even corrected Marr, stating that there was one "story" he would not be starring in, i.e. Black Coffee, before he explained that he would do that at Chichester (see previous post). Notice that he had every opportunity to explain that there was also a short story he wouldn't be doing. Of course, that's probably because he doesn't want to remind people that there is a story they have had to skip, but it could, again, mean that they have something planned for this story in the five remaining adaptions. Let's hope so and keep our fingers crossed! (As I have said before, though, this short story is a minor loss and we can easily live with the fact that it won't be done if that is indeed the case).

UPDATE: According to an article in Radio Times (2012), 'The Lemesurier Inheritance' will be incorporated into the adaptation of The Labours of Hercules! (See the link: I have no idea how they will make that work, but in any case - it means that Suchet's portrayal will be complete (in theory).

Also, I think it's important to point out that Suchet actually narrated the audiobook version of this short story. Consequently, he has "performed" in an adaptation of sorts of all Christie's Poirot stories - regardless of how the short story will be referenced in the television series.

Saturday 4 August 2012

The Music of Agatha Christie's Poirot

Agatha Christie's Poirot has remained synonymous with a very distinctive theme tune, composed by Christopher Gunning, and the opening titles designed by Pat Gavin. Moreover, music is a vital element of the series in most people's eyes. I will briefly try to outline the three composers who have worked on the series over the years: Christopher Gunning (1989-2004), Stephen McKeon (2005-2008) and Christian Henson (2009-2013). Their names are linked to their respective web sites.

[EDIT FEBRUARY 2013: This post has been significantly expanded and altered due to the news of Christopher Gunning's release of a new Poirot soundtrack album - see separate post]

Christopher Gunning's music is available on a CD released in 1992. This recording has been almost impossible to get hold of over the years (and it still is!). But it does appear from time to time on places like YouTube. See below for the track list:
Hercule Poirot - The Belgian Detective (2:30)
One-two, Buckle-my-shoe (2:00)
The Double Clue (5:05)
The A-B-C- Murders (4:35)
Grey Cells (4:21)
War (2:30)
A Country Retreat (4:52)
Death of Mrs. Inglethorpe (2:29)
The Height of Fashion (2:08)
How Does Your Garden Grow (9:05)
Death in the Clouds (3:55)
To the Lakes (2:19)
The Victory Ball (4:55)
The Plymouth Express (9:29)
Two of these are available on YouTube at the moment: The Plymouth Express and The Belgian Detective. As of 2013, a new album has been released, featuring all the above tracks (apart from 'The Plymouth Express' and 'Death in the Clouds'), in addition to three previously unreleased tracks. See separate post.

The series changed tone quite drastically with Stephen McKeon. Some of his tracks are available on his web site. Below are some comments from a blog I'll most probably come back to in a later post.
"In only his second Poirot film, composer Stephen McKeon notably melds Shostakovich’s Jazz Suite No. 2 with notable Philip Glass-like highlights to create a most enchanting score that adds immeasurably to the proceedings." (Douglas Payne, sound insights blog, on the score for Cards on the Table (2006))
"Stephen McKeon’s score, a surprisingly successful mix of Philip Glass and John Williams, is remarkably effective in achieving these ends, though the curious use of the melodica, a keyboard instrument, now suggests the music of the Harry Potter films a bit more than is appropriate." (Douglas Payne, sound insights blog, on the score for Mrs. McGinty's Dead (2007))
Personally, having listened to his scores both on his website and in the films, I prefer the ones that are somewhat more sentimental in flavour, like the end music to The Mystery of the Blue Train, to the somewhat dark and moody ones that seem to scream MURDER in capital letters. However, in light of the stories he scored, I think the music works well within the context of the films.

I must admit, however, that Christian Henson is much more to my liking. He was asked to do the most recent series (2009-2010) and returned for the final series, too (2013). It seems a conscious decision - whether by him or the production team - to link his scores more closely to Christopher Gunning's, especially in the sense that several elements of the theme tune are retained throughout the scores of his episodes. Not that McKeon didn't include it, but Henson seems to be doing it more frequently. Personally, I find the music for Murder on the Orient Express some of the absolute best of the entire series.

In a blog post, Henson describes the process of scoring the episodes. Interesting if you like soundtracks/composing. He mentions his 'brief' from the producers, who instructed him to "offer hints of the period setting, coupled with the characterful nature of Hercule, and the cinematic ambitions of ITV’s flagship drama brand". Moreover, he explains that he thought the clarinet to be "very much the instrument I hoped to use to characterise Hercule". I find this rather amusing, because actor David Suchet has been playing the clarinet in his leisure time for several years!

Four of Henson's tracks are available on YouTube (at the time of writing):
1. Love Theme (from 'The Clocks')
2. Overture (from 'Three Act Tragedy')
3. Secret Garden (from 'Halloween Party')
4. Redemption (from 'Murder on the Orient Express')
Finally, there are some composers of additional material for the series, including Fiachra Trench (who I believe stepped in for much of Series Two because Gunning was unavailable at the time.

EDIT: this seems to be confirmed on Gunning's website in 2013, where his contributions for the series are detailed as series 1 & series 3-9), Neil Richardson (who composed additional music heard/seen on screen, e.g. 'I've Forgotten You' from 'Yellow Iris') and Samuel Karl Bohn (who composed additional music for Series Twelve, most notably the 'new' Poirot theme in Hallowe'en Party).

Since Christopher Gunning has just announced the release of a new 'Poirot' album (see this blog post), I thought I might add a few more words on this post. Recently, I discovered that he has commented on the Amazon page of the previous album, responding to criticism that he has not included all the different variants of the theme:
"Every Poirot film for which I composed the music had its own sub-theme. Therefore it was natural to include these on the CD. Each track should remind you of a particular story".

"You could not POSSIBLY have a whole album of the Poirot tune itself - it would be a crushing bore. However, if you listen carefully, you will discover references to the theme (overt or less so) in almost every track".
Responding to criticism that so much of the later scores had been left out on the original release, he explains:
"The CD was made relatively early on in the series. The music was thus nearly all taken from series 1 - thus, I hadn't composed "Murder on the Links," "The Incredible Theft," or "The Underdog" yet, or several other films which I'd like to include in any future CD. There would be an incredible array of stuff to draw on!"
On the subject of recording and releasing another CD (this was written before the recent news):
"I would love to record another Poirot CD, and, who knows, it may happen. The problem is that soundtrack albums seldom sell more than 1000 copies or so, and are extremely expensive to produce. It's difficult to persuade record companies to stump up the cash for something that may not cover the initial outlay, for obvious reasons."
With the new release this month, it seems this issue has been solved. Personally, I would have liked some of the scores he did for the later films to be included as well, like the ones he mentions in the comment above. However, I am more than delighted to see the old album re-released with some undoubtedly great additional tracks.

On a different note, he explains the absence of a full version of the theme in his final scores (the 2003-2004 series):
"I was instructed by the production team 1) not to quote from the Poirot theme at all, and 2) not to use the alto saxophone. You will notice that in all productions since then any references to the theme are extremely obtuse and few and far between. I think it was silly on the part of the producers."
I'm not too sure if this is actually entirely true. Obviously, the theme is missing from the episodes, but it is definitely in the end credits of Five Little Pigs, so it cannot have been forbidden to use it. As to the alto saxophone, much as I love it, I'm not sure if it is entirely neccessary to create the 'Poirot' mood. The variations on the theme in the later series, particularly in the shape of the clarinet in Henson's Three Act Tragedy overture, proves that it can easily be created in different ways too.

More generally, I am divided on the issue of Gunning's theme and its presence in later episodes. I certainly miss the theme tune, and I love Gunning's scores, but I do symphatize with the view that a full theme at the beginning of each episode would create the mood of a TV series (yes, I know it is a TV series, but the producers seemed keen to portray the adaptations as 'television films', a stand that I respect). Moreover, the mood of most of the recent episodes has been so dark that the theme would seem somewhat out of place.

On the other hand, what Gunning did with the theme in his final series proved that it would not seem too much out of place if adjusted to the mood of each episode. Although I am not an expert on music, I found the way he made the theme blend with Erik Satie's Gnossienne at the end of Five Little Pigs absolutely magnificent. By using the theme in ways that only hint at it, you keep the essence of both the character and the series, while adhering to the producers' need to portray the episodes as 'films'. In other words, although I find the decision to abandon the theme altogether (if that decision was ever made) ridiculous, I think its semi-inclusion in later episodes works quite well, in light of the producers' preferences. Also, in defence of the producers, they seem to have reversed the decision quite early on, as hints of the theme tune have been present in adaptations in series 10, 11 and 12.

In any case, I very much hope that the theme tune features prominently in some way in the final episode, Curtain. Anything else would be a crime. It would probably have to be darkened quite significantly, but it should work. Also, please, please, please, use it in The Big Four as the 'big four' of Poirot, Hastings, Japp and Lemon are reunited. That would be a wish come true (and such a wonderful way of acknowledging the series' past!)

Judging by the press pack for Elephants Can Remember, the first episode of the final series, Christian Henson is back for the final five episodes! As I've said before, Henson is the best they could have hoped for (after Gunning, of course!). I'm sure he'll come up with some very fitting music for the final adaptations.

A rehearsed reading of Black Coffee in Chichester

Hello there! Let me first apologise for the silence - I have had less time to update this blog than I first expected. But I will try to make up for that now by describing an absolutely unforgettable Sunday afternoon in Chichester!

For those of you who do not know what I'm talking about; a very special 'rehearsed reading' of Agatha Christie's only Poirot play, Black Coffee, was performed in Chichester on July 15th 2012.

For those of you who still struggle to see the attraction of that; the cast included David Suchet. As Hercule Poirot. In full costume. The first (and possibly only) time he will portray the character on stage. And as if that wasn't enough - the performance meant that by July 2013, Suchet will have starred in every single Poirot story ever written (well, almost, there's still a short story, 'The Lemesurier Inheritance', I'll come back to that some other time).

I read about this production in January - Suchet posted a comment about it on his Twitter account. It did not take me long to decide that I had to get tickets for this event - so I did. Just in time, as it turns out, because a few days later all the tickets had been sold!

Now, I acted entirely on impulse with this thing. You see, I don't live in the UK. Far from it. So getting to Chichester (a place I had never visited before) involved both an international flight and a train journey - not to mention some serious planning! So for a long time, I didn't think I would be able to go. But I did, in the end. And I'm so glad I did.

When my friend and I arrived in Chichester, I really didn't know what to expect. 'Rehearsed reading' was a very vague description of the event, and I somehow imagined that I would just spend two hours watching David Suchet sit still on a chair reading the lines of all the characters. Luckily, I was wrong.

Suchet was joined by members of The Agatha Christie Theatre Company, as well as David Yelland (known to most of us as Poirot's butler, George) as Captain Arthur Hastings. As I got hold of the programme , the cast, in itself, made me jump with joy. But it was not until about half an hour later that I realised how special this really was. Because there he was - David Suchet aka Hercule Poirot aka David Suchet (they are almost one and the same by now) in full costume. And in character.

The official Agatha Christie website summed it up very nicely - 'Poirot in 360'. As the reviewer explained, it was absolutely incredible to watch Suchet/Poirot from every angle - not just the angles dictated by cameras on TV. What struck me about it all was how incredibly 'in character' Suchet was while he was on stage. I should probably explain that the 'rehearsed reading' meant that the play was staged as a BBC radio play from the 1930s, with a set of microphones determining where characters were standing and who was involved in each scene. This meant that the entire cast was on stage all the time. So we got plenty of time to examine Suchet's performance. And he really was Poirot from the minute he walked onto the stage to the minute he walked off. For instance, he sat neatly on his chair (in a very Poirot-like manner), walked with his famous Poirot walk, kept his legs together when standing or sitting still etc. It is almost impossible to describe it accurately.

Suchet rounded it all off neatly with a Q&A session. Amazingly, almost everyone in the audience (1000 people!) remained. It was a real treat, and he gave some clues on the final series as well.

Friday 18 May 2012

The Apartment on Screen: 1989-2001 v. 2005-present

In a previous post, I discussed similarities between Christie’s descriptions in novels and short stories and the two apartments created on screen by the production designers. In this post, I will examine the similarities between the two portrayals on screen – the first (1989-2001) and the second (2005-present) Whitehaven apartment.

The new apartment has been criticised by many fans, primarily because of the discontinuity between the two. As a viewer, one might ask the following questions: 1) Why was there a need to create a new apartment? 2) Why are both apartments situated in Whitehaven Mansions?, and 3) Why do they look so different?

I will try to answer these questions in due course.

Initially, though, I would like to draw your attention to the following paragraph in the current Wikipedia article on the television series. The article seems to suggest that the new apartment is a part of a significant 're-imagining' of the Poirot and Agatha Christie brand:
‘Following the launch of the ITV series Agatha Christie's Marple in 2004, the Poirot series was retitled Agatha Christie's Poirot. The previous titles and theme music were dropped. The visual style of these later episodes was noticeably different from earlier episodes: particularly, austere art deco settings and decor, widely used earlier in the series, were largely dropped in favour of more lavish settings (epitomised by the re-imagining of Poirot's home as a larger, more lavish apartment)’
As the article accurately points out, Poirot’s home is now a ‘larger, more lavish apartment’. But in context, the description feels more negatively charged than I think is reasonable. In this post, I hope to convince you that there are, in fact, several reasons to prefer this apartment to the first one (if one of them has to be seen as "better"), and that there is a sense of continuity between the two apartments, both in terms of layout and design.

Let us return to the first question – why was there a need to create a new apartment? I think there are several possible answers to this. Firstly, I think the Wikipedia article is partially right in claiming that it has something to do with the new direction of the Agatha Christie brand. The new producers (post-2004) seem to have made a conscious decision to distance themselves from the previous series; these adaptations should be considered as independent feature-length films rather than episodes from a television series, and therefore a ‘more lavish’ apartment seems appropriate. (see more after the jump)

However, and secondly, there is also much to suggest that the decision was made because of the stories ahead. Keep in mind that David Suchet (who since 2004 has been an associate producer) has been keen to portray Poirot ‘absolutely as near as [he] can possibly get to the tone, the flavour and particular incidents’ of Agatha Christie’s stories and descriptions. In this sense, the series would, at some point, have had to abandon the ‘basic family unit’, as former scriptwriter Clive Exton once called it, of Hastings, Miss Lemon, Japp and Poirot. This is in keeping with Christie’s books, as the Wikipedia article points out: ‘The absence of their characters (Hastings, Inspector Japp, and Miss Lemon) is consistent with the books on which the scripts were based’.

A natural consequence of such a shift would be that Poirot goes into semi-retirement (as my chronology suggests) and engages George as his valet. Admittedly, Miss Lemon is present in a few of the books (but not adaptations) filmed after 2004, but her role is very small in the original text, and I would imagine that the producers would rather give David Yelland (George) a greater part to play (which is quite understandable, given that they secured an actor of his calibre). Also, considering that the previous producers excluded George’s part to expand Miss Lemon’s, I find this perfectly acceptable.

In other words, there is no need for Miss Lemon’s typing room, which was an integral part of the first apartment, and there is a need for a room for George. With these aspects in mind, I find it perfectly understandable that the production crew wanted a new apartment to build Poirot’s semi-retirement life around.

Finally, the decision to create a new apartment may have been made because production designer Jeff Tessler wanted to create a flat that was more faithful to Christie’s descriptions (though I do not claim to know his intentions). As I have detailed earlier, several (if not all) of Christie’s descriptions are taken into consideration in the new flat – everything from colours and layouts, to bookcases and desks. The similarity between what is described on paper and what is portrayed on screen is so striking that I refuse to accept that he has not taken these descriptions more literally than the previous production crew.

Whatever the reason, the fact remains that TV-Poirot has lived in two different flats in Whitehaven Mansions. Let us leave it at that, and appreciate the fact that they are both excellent representations of Poirot's domestic life.

Now, let’s move on to what this post is really supposed to cover: the similarities and differences between these two on-screen flats. See the floor plans of the flat below of the 1989-2001 apartment and the 2005-20?? respectively. The first floor plan is linked to its source and the second has been made by me (bear with me on my severe lack of artistic skills!)

(Let me clarify a few things first: The floor plan in black is from a Japanese fan site. I have renamed the rooms from Japanese (without knowing the language!), so any mistakes are entirely mine. The image is linked to its source. Also, the exact location of Poirot's bedroom is somewhat of a mystery in the first flat, but I feel fairly certain that it is next to the living room (i.e. where the 'office' of the second flat is located). See, for instance, the ending of the adaptation of 'The Third-Floor Flat'. Finally, in the second flat, there is some uncertainty as to the location of the kitchen. In 'Third Girl', George seems to be walking towards the red room, while in 'Three Act Tragedy' we see him exiting (presumably) the dark grey room on the floor plan. I find the second option more likely than the first.)

I want to start with a specific aspect of the living room; the niches/alcoves on each side of the fireplace. In the first flat, this is where Poirot’s bookcases (if you can call them that) are situated. These have, intriguingly, become “entrances” to Poirot’s office. In my opinion, that is an ingenious solution for two specific reasons. First, we can assume that there would indeed be a room behind that wall in Poirot’s first apartment (see the floor plan above, linked to its source), and those niches could easily be transformed into the openings we see in the second flat. Also, if the new flat is a slight ‘upgrade’ of apartments within the same building (which I find likely), it would be natural that the layout of this slightly larger flat would be based on the same structures and walls as the ones above or below it. Finally, by using these niches/alcoves, the production designer not only creates a link with the first flat, but he almost makes the “office extension” into a part of the sitting room – which again is in keeping with Christie’s descriptions! Quite impressive, if you ask me.

Another structural similarity is the placement of the doors to the sitting room. Both in the first and second apartment, there are two sets of doors (see below). They are slightly different in layout (but remarkably similar nonetheless), and this could easily be explained by the fact that Christie describes a redecoration and restructuring of the flats in The Clocks (see my last blog post). The only addition in the second flat is a door leading to Poirot’s ‘office’ further down the corridor – which. again, is quite acceptable if one considers this a slightly larger apartment in the same building.

Any other structural similarities should be evident from the two floor plans above, outlining the two flats.

Let us move on to the main layout of the living room itself. Apart from the desk area (which has been given a separate ‘room’), nearly all elements from the first apartment have been maintained (though mostly not in their original shape and form) in the second apartment. Firstly, the dining area (see below). A large table with chairs is situated in almost exactly the same spot as in the first flat.

Secondly, the sitting area. In both flats, this is situated close to the fireplace. The chairs seem to have changed throughout the series run in the first flat, but they have remained the same in the second. The chairs and sofas all have similar rounded (and square) shapes.

Thirdly, the ‘office’ area. Despite the new location in the second flat, there is a remarkable sense of consistency. Notice, for instance, the green desk sets in both flats. Not identical, but they contribute to a sense of continuity. Also, the two desk lamps and the jacket stand/hanger (see below); dissimilar, but still a continuity of sorts.

Finally, let me address some elements of décor. As described in the earlier blog post, Poirot’s taste in art is highlighted in both flats. Moreover, the second flat builds on the first flat’s use of (white) ceramic figures and bronzes (see below). Notice also the folding screen behind Poirot’s desk in the first flat, and then behind the dining table in the second flat.

Also, notice that the two tables/shelves/cupboards behind the table in the second flat seem to be inspired by the sideboard behind the sofa and the sideboard behind the table, both in the first flat. The two vases/lamps are also strikingly similar to the two vases in the first flat (see below).

To conclude, there are significant continuities between the two on-screen flats; doors, layout and objects. They are both faithful to Christie's description (as outlined in a previous post), and both can believably exist within the same building (almost - there's not enough windows on the outside to match the second flat, but I will ignore that and file it under 'artistic liberty'). All in all, there is no reason to dislike any of the flats as they showcase different elements - and phases - of Poirot's domestic life.

About Me

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