When the series returned for Series Seven, there had been a gap of five years (1994-1999 in filming terms, 1996-2000 in broadcast terms). It was brought back by popular demand and largely thanks to the American television channel A&E. The series opener was a clever choice – based on the novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, first published in 1926, in which Poirot has retired (a convenient explanation for the four year absence). It was adapted for television by Clive Exton and directed by Andrew Grieve.
Script versus novel
Given that the narration of the novel is an essential part of the solution, Exton’s job would always be a difficult one – indeed, almost impossible – and he doesn’t quite succeed. Many Christie fans would probably describe the adaptation as a disaster, but I won’t go quite that far. What makes Christie’s novel such a crime fiction masterpiece is the clever narrative choice and the big surprise it gives the reader in its final chapters (I will have to reveal the plot, so if you haven’t read the novel or watched the adaptation, you should look away now). Exton decides to let Poirot read the murderer’s novel as a journal in a voice-over that runs through most of the episode (though very little of Christie’s actual words are kept intact in this voice-over). In itself, this decision isn’t necessarily a bad one. Of course, he could have had Dr. Sheppard read it, but that would possibly be a bit too revealing. Letting Poirot/Suchet do it neutralises the narrative, which sort of works, I guess. In any case, it does allow for some reflections by Poirot at the beginning and the end of the adaptation . Those two scenes in the bank vault are brilliantly scripted, I’ll come back to them in the ‘Characters and actors’ section.
Now, to the plot changes. After the opening scenes, Exton adds a scene in which Sheppard and Parker go to Poirot’s house (he isn’t living there incognito in the adaptation, which is just as good, since Poirot would never be able to hide away anywhere, a fact that is often referred to in the books – and remember that the other adaptation in which his identity was an issue, ‘The Third Floor Flat’, the scriptwriter also does away with the entire incognito business). This scene is quite well done, and wonderful from a characterisation point of view, because we get a glimpse of Poirot’s cottage life (an entirely square cottage, with neat, orderly rooms, perfectly timed clocks and a garden with vegetable marrows). As I’ve discussed elsewhere, the scene in the garden was added on Suchet’s request, because it is in the novel (well, sort of). Second, Exton adds a visit to Ackroyd’s factory for Poirot (and it is revealed that Poirot lend Ackroyd the money he needed to get started several years ago). Third, the novel’s Inspector Raglan is replaced by an Inspector Davis, and of course Chief Inspector Japp is added, too. Japp’s presence is one of the main flaws in Exton’s script, if you ask me. By adding him to the story, there is no room for a Holmes-Watson relationship to develop between Dr. Sheppard and Poirot,and consequently Dr. Sheppard’s character is seriously marginalised throughout. This, in turn, weakens the surprise ending, because Sheppard isn’t in Poirot’s confidence (if anyone ever really is) to the same extent as in the novel, and we end up regarding him as just another suspect – not a Hastings character. Also, since Sheppard is marginalised, so is Caroline (sadly, since she was an inspiration for Miss Marple). Third, Exton allows for Poirot to make a visit to Mr. Ackroyd the same evening that Sheppard is invited to dinner (and he later turns up just as the murder has been discovered, as well). This is a nice way to ensure that Poirot has the facts of the case straight from the horse’s mouth so to speak, and to underline the friendship between him and Ackroyd. Fourth, three characters are deleted: Captain Hector Blunt (who was little more than a love interest / red herring), Miss Russell and Charles Kent (again, a red herring). Fifth, we come to one of the more peculiar changes; the murder of Parker, the butler. He didn’t blackmail anyone in the adaptation, but it is hinted that he might start to reveal some family secrets since he wasn’t given any money in Ackroyd’s will. Granted, Sheppard does explain that he was afraid he would remember that he had been alone in the room. Still, the hit-and-run and his drunkenness seem overdone and completely unnecessary. Sixth, Mrs. Ackroyd’s conversation with Sheppard is deleted, and so is the mah jhong party and several of the villagers, but these chapters and minor characters don’t feel missed in the adaptation.
Finally, we come to the most serious change of all. The denouement is unlike any other. Not only is it unusual in the sense that Poirot doesn’t really get to explain anything (Sheppard takes care of that). It also provides us with one of the most ridiculous chase scenes the series has ever seen (and that’s saying something). After conveniently confessing to every aspect of the crime, Sheppard makes a run for it with the help of a gun he is handed by Caroline Sheppard (who has read his journal in the car – another curious change, since she is supposed to be unaware of her brother’s crime). In short, the chase scene consists of Sheppard shooting blindly around Ackroyd’s factory (missing Poirot and Japp every time), and Japp counting the number of bullets he has got left. He then goes on to commit suicide with the final bullet. In the novel he committed suicide with veronal (like Mrs. Ferrars).
I don’t know why Exton felt the need to make this change, but I guess it was either because he or ITV felt the original ending was too tedious for a ‘modern’ audience or because it was requested by those who provided the capital, A&E. I don’t know. In any case, it does mar the adaptation. However, despite the significant changes, I can’t bring myself to dismiss the adaptation as a complete and inexcusable disaster (like some Christie fans do). My main point in favour is the magnificent way in which Poirot’s retirement is depicted. For instance, I particularly enjoy the visit to Poirot’s old flat – a scene in which he begins to come to terms with the ghosts of the past. In the end, then, the adaptation is acceptable – not fantastic, but not a disaster either.
Directing, production design, locations, soundtrack
Andrew Grieve’s directing is as good as always. I have recounted elsewhere the lovely homage to the original opening sequence in the bank vault scenes, which I find a lovely way to re-introduce Poirot after such a long absence. Also, I enjoy his play with shadows and light, and particularly the glows of a candle (in Mrs. Ferrars’ room) and a close-up on Poirot stumping his Russian cigarette at the factory. It’s nice to see that the quality of the production design survived a four-year hiatus (even if the set of the flat seems to have been remade for these episodes). Locations used include the village of Castle Combe, Wiltshire and ‘Kit's Close’, Benham's Lane, Fawley, Wycombe, Buckinghamshire (Ackroyd’s house) – and of course Charterhouse Square in front of Florin Court / Whitehaven. Ackroyd's factory was filmed in Kempton Steam Museum. Gunning’s soundtrack is particularly good in this episode. He has added a more sombre tone to the theme tune, which is used throughout (again, a nice way to show that Poirot is back).
Characterisation and actors
As I’ve already explained, the main reason I defend this episode to some extent is that it brilliantly conveys the gentle ageing of the main character. In the year(s) that have elapsed, Poirot has grown more world-weary. He retired to escape the brutality of his profession. He is no longer the cheerful character of the first few series (though there’s still plenty of humour), and the case ends with him realising that he cannot escape the brutality of humanity (and his raison d’être). Suchet’s performance is so wonderfully nuanced, and you wouldn’t think that so many years had elapsed. Below are the two monologues that open and end the episode:
“A man may labour and toil to attain a certain kind of leisure in retirement. And then find that, after all, he yearns for the old busy days, and the old occupations he had thought himself so glad to leave. I had already begun to miss the daily toil of my previous employment when, tout à coup, I was flung back into the midst of the most perversely fascinating work that there is in the world: the study of human nature. A journal came into my possession, in which a murderer had taken the trouble to record for posterity, the thoughts that had accompanied a crime most dastardly. Rarely have I come across such bitterness, such envy and contempt of others, such haughtiness misplaced.”Of the guest actors, Oliver Ford Davies is the main standout. I once read a review which stated that if it hadn’t been for the quality of Suchet’s and Davies’s acting, the episode would probably feel terrible. They bring all their gravitas to the roles and contribute significantly to the quality of the episode.
“I thought I could escape the wickedness of the city by moving to the country. The fields that are green, the singing of the birds, the faces smiling and friendly. Huh! The fields that are green are the secret burial places of the victims of murders most hideous; the birds sing only briefly before some idiot in tweeds shoots them, and the faces all smiling and friendly: what do they conceal?”