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!