Thursday 20 December 2012
The Big Three: Hastings, Miss Lemon and Japp
Image "stolen" from poirot-fans.livejournal.com 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 poirotchronology.blogspot.com).
[I am very much looking forward to the two remaining Hastings stories for Series Thirteen, Curtain and The Big Four. Though, as much as I love Hastings as a character, I do think The Big Four could work without him as well. I somewhat fancy the idea suggested elsewhere on the Internet that Colin Race from the adaptation of The Clocks would fit nicely in with the espionage plot. But of course, the scenes where Hastings is reunited with Poirot in his flat should be quite special. Not to mention the emotional turmoil of Curtain.
An interesting bit of information on the development of the character is provided by Fraser in Peter Haining’s book. Speaking in 1995, he explains that ‘The role can still develop more. In the early days I did seem to spend a lot of time asking what must have appeared like dumb questions. But as it got a bit repetitive the script writers moved away from that situation. In some of the recent stories Hastings has become much more of an assistant and somebody who is involved in the cases. Of course, he does have a naivety to him. But this is never allowed to become stupidity – rather an endearing quality which Poirot does find a little bit annoying on the one side, though on the other he loves him for it (…) I’m looking forward to ageing gently with David in the later stories’ (p. 79).
Personally, I certainly find the episodes where Hastings is more actively involved in the cases better than the others, but I must admit I am slightly shocked by what seems 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.
- 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 firstname.lastname@example.org, post a comment on one of my blogs, or get in touch on Twitter @pchronology. (I used to call myself HickoryDickory)