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.

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)