This is a very special blog post! Screenwriter and actor Ian Hallard kindly offered to do a Q&A on the process of adapting Agatha Christie's Poirot stories for television. He has co-written The Big Four (2013) with Mark Gatiss, and acted as a script associate on the other adaptations Gatiss has scripted, Cat Among the Pigeons (2008) and Hallowe'en Party (2010). He also played Edmund Drake in Hallowe'en Party, and appeared in a cameo as Mercutio in The Big Four.
This Q&A offers a rare glimpse behind-the-scenes of the television series we all love. A big thanks to Hallard for taking the time to do this!
SPOILERS on Cat Among the Pigeons, Hallowe'en Party and The Big Four follow. Don't read on if you haven't seen the adaptations.
1) You and Mark have adapted some of the ‘impossible’ Christies. Were you commissioned for these or could you choose from the remaining novels?
Mark was approached due to an existing working relationship with Damien Timmer, the executive producer on the Christies, and asked if he’d be interested in adapting one of the remaining stories. That must have been in about 2005 or 2006, by which time most of the classic novels had already been produced, and ITV were left with an increasingly diminishing pile of books which, with the best will in the world, could not be described as the cream of Dame Agatha’s oeuvre! Nevertheless, we are both lifelong Christie lovers, so we jumped at the chance to collaborate on them. Mark initially said he’d be interested in ‘The Big Four’ purely because of the challenge involved, but instead he was asked to consider ‘Cat among the Pigeons’. Then, a couple of years later, we were asked to do ‘Hallowe’en Party’, presumably because they thought it would be a good match for Mark and his sense of the macabre. And finally, when the last 5 stories were greenlit, after all those years, the call came for ‘The Big Four’. So we pretty much did the ones we were assigned, with the exception of requesting ‘The Big Four’. Though we definitely got the impression that no one else was clamouring to adapt it!
2) How does the process work? Page by page? Script meetings? Producer/Suchet involvement? Number of drafts?
It varies from one script to the next. Usually there will be some kind of discussion with the production team about what we and they think the story needs, and what is achievable on the budget and within the 90 minute time scale. ‘Cat’ was relatively straightforward to adapt, as the structure is strong, and we were able to stick pretty closely to the story beats of the original. ‘Hallowe’en’ is more rambling, so that required more work, and then ‘Four’ even more so. Mark and I spend hours, days, weeks(!), forensically dissecting every element of the plot and the characters – deciding on any themes we want to highlight and what we think is expendable. We talk through all the potential plot holes, logic problems and any restructuring of the plot. Then finally we get on with the writing of it! Once the first draft is delivered, we meet with the producer and the script editor to discuss it, we agree on a set of notes, and then we work on a second draft and the process continues until we’re all happy with what we have. As you get nearer to the shoot and the director has come on board, he may suggest a change based on a particular location that has been found and which would work particularly well for a specific moment. David Suchet deliberately chooses only to read the very last draft or two, because he doesn’t want to get too attached to a scene, a character or even a line that may end up being cut!
3) What constraints are placed on you by ITV, the Christie estate, and the producers? (e.g. costs, creative licence, series continuity, character development?)
We’ve had relatively free rein regarding creative decisions, although it’s a collaborative process, and every adaptation has involved lengthy discussions about what stays and what goes and the overall tenor of an episode.
Some of the decisions are purely logistical. For example, with ‘Hallowe’en’ we were told right from the start that Zoe Wanamaker was only available for the first two weeks of the shoot, which unfortunately meant that Ariadne’s involvement in the story had to be limited in some way. We came up with the idea of a cold confining her to her bed, meaning she could still be a continuing presence, but also that all her scenes could be shot all at once over a day or two and so hopefully you don’t feel her absence too strongly!
You’re constantly aware that even for a high budget, prestige show like ‘Poirot’, the funds are not limitless. So, as we write, we’re bearing in mind that if we include any more than sixteen or so guest speaking characters, we’re going to be asked to cull some of them. Equally, during filming, moving between multiple locations is time-consuming and expensive, so a producer will always be grateful if you can limit the number of different locations, and put as many scenes as possible in the same place. (This is particularly relevant in a more ‘episodic’ story like ‘The Big Four’.)
4) Hastings, Japp and Miss Lemon are back! Could you describe the process of reintroducing them?
Well, we always knew that Hastings was going to be returning in ‘Curtain’, so we wanted ‘The Big Four’ to be mostly Japp’s farewell story. In fact, we were concerned that, after all this time, the emotional impact of Hastings and Poirot’s reunion in ‘Curtain’ might be diluted if we’d only just seen the two of them so recently. For a while we debated whether Hastings should appear in our episode at all! Hopefully we ended up having the best of both worlds by only bringing Poirot and Hastings together in the final minute of the episode.
It was Damien Timmer who suggested we use this as a final ‘walkdown’ for the Old Guard, and of course it’s a nice coincidence that ‘The Big Four’ can refer to Poirot, Hastings, Lemon and Japp as well.
Also – and I don’t think this is really a spoiler – the fact that Poirot stages his own death in the novel gave us the opportunity of dramatising his funeral with his oldest friends, which isn’t something you’ll see in ‘Curtain’.
In terms of their backstories, it’s muddied a bit by the fact that in the series’ chronology, it’s only actually been a couple of years since they all saw each other, whereas of course, in the real world, it’s more like eleven or twelve! Consequently, we’re in a strange situation where the gap feels much longer for the audience than it does for the characters! As a result, we decided to keep the time scale and the circumstances deliberately vague. We wanted a sense that they had drifted apart as people often do, and that as Poirot himself has aged and become a more sombre and solitary character, they have not been part of each other’s lives very much. We leave it to the audience’s imagination as to why this might have come about, but Miss Lemon’s line that she supposes Poirot must have grown used to acting on his own these days, hints at a certain melancholy which fits in with the mood of these final valedictory episodes.
5) Purists’ reactions to the plot changes are mixed, particularly the new ‘denouement’, Achille/Vera/Tysoe. Why were these changes made?
We’ve approached every script with the intention of maximising its strengths and staying as true to the source material as possible. Nothing gets altered or omitted without good reason. Of the three we’ve worked on, ‘The Big Four’ is obviously the adaptation that departs most significantly from the novel – and this is for a variety of reasons.
It’s no coincidence that it’s been left till the very end, and although the book is a lot of fun, I think you’d be hard pressed to describe it as any kind of classic: it does show signs of being cobbled together in a hurry. Poirot suddenly becomes a mixture of Sherlock Holmes and a pre-Bond James Bond; globetrotting, getting kidnapped and blown up, all of which is not very consistent with the character we’ve seen develop in the TV series over the years, especially now he’s in his old age. In addition, the villain who is a ‘master of disguise’ is all very well on the page - but how do you successfully conceal the same actor playing five or six different parts without either the characters or your audience twigging? And the Fu Manchu-like evil ‘Chinaman’ definitely feels like a product of its time and wasn’t an element of the story that we particularly wanted to perpetuate in the twenty-first century!
The one instruction we had from ITV and the producers when we started work was that the adaptation had to, as much as possible, resemble a traditional episode of 'Poirot'. And of course, we knew that the budget would never stretch to filming in a variety of foreign locations with a guest cast of thirty to forty characters. So it was always a case of trying to come up with something which represented the fun and craziness of the novel, whilst still grounding it in some kind of reality.
We decided to focus on the three murder mysteries within the story – ‘Leg of Mutton’, ‘Chess Problem’ and ‘Yellow Jasmine’, as we thought these were stronger than the pure ‘thriller’ episodes where Hastings or Poirot get kidnapped and then escape from the villains. The problem we encountered is that once you accept the notion of the Big Four as this incredibly powerful cabal, with limitless supplies of wealth, power and intelligence at their disposal, the cases do end up seeming rather trivial. For example, in ‘Chess Problem’, Christie has Number Four spending months masquerading as Dr Savaranoff in order to inherit his money. But why bother when you have Abe Ryland – the richest man in the world – on your team?! Then there’s ‘Leg of Mutton’ which has a clever solution, but again, if the terrifying and all-powerful Big Four want to kill off Whalley, why mess about having to dress up as a butcher in order to do it?
So Mark came up with the idea that rather than the Big Four being real, they could all be the fantasy of just one man. That would explain why some of the cases might at first seem comparatively inconsequential, and remove the curse of the secret society which “sounded like something out of a book”. It also gave us something the book doesn’t have and which you ideally want in a Poirot episode – a twist for Poirot to reveal at the denouement. And given that in the book Darrell is an actor, it seemed logical to play up that element and explore the theatrical setting.
We needed a way for our villain to publicise his scheme. How about an ambitious journalist to do the job, and whip up some public hysteria in the febrile atmosphere of 1939? Enter Tysoe. He was then able to be a conduit between Darrell and Poirot and provide a succession of false clues and red herrings.
We lost Countess Rossakoff because we couldn’t find a way to work her into the narrative in this new structure. With Japp, Lemon and Hastings also around, plus the three separate murder mysteries, there simply wasn’t time to do justice to her. And again, we knew she was going to feature in ‘The Labours of Hercules’, so we felt we could cut her with a clear conscience!
Deleting Achille was a much harder decision. It had been one of the things that we’d been excited about doing when embarking on ‘The Big Four’. However, the idea of Achille just being a clone of Hercule seemed a bit dull and rather a wasted opportunity, so for a long while, we considered making him a complete contrast to Poirot: an unshaven, slovenly womaniser. But whilst this would have been fun, ultimately we couldn’t imagine Poirot being able to suppress his fastidiousness sufficiently to convince in the role. He isn’t a master of disguise like Sherlock Holmes after all – so would Japp and the others have gone along with the charade despite presumably seeing through it? (Not even Japp is that stupid, after all!) It would have been fun, but with the plot steam-rolling its way to its conclusion, it just ended up being another element that we would have had to explain with yet further exposition at the end. A shame to lose him, but we wanted to focus on the funeral and Poirot’s reunion with his friends instead.
I did get a tweet from a very angry man who said he was 'livid' and that Mark and I should be arrested for the outrages we had perpetrated on the book! Well, you're never going to please everybody. If you hate the adaptation that much, you can always go back and read the book and you never have to watch the TV version again! Would purists only be happy if they see every single character and episode from the novel faithfully recreated on the screen? The story has to work for an audience who know nothing of the original material, and who have no interest in seeing it preserved in aspic. As long as we're satisfied we've done the best job we can, that's all we can aim for, although of course it is nice if people enjoy your work, and happily we received plenty of positive messages and tweets and only one or two which were negative!
6) Generally speaking, how do you decide what to cut/keep/add/change in the various adaptations?
Sometimes it’s very simple. The novel of 'Cat' had more characters than we could do justice to on screen, so some inevitably had to go, and Miss Vansittart was an obvious candidate. She's really a paler imitation of Miss Bulstrode, so we didn’t feel she would be much missed, plus it made sense to make Miss Rich the second ‘victim’ instead. By having Miss Chadwick fail in her murder attempt, it made her a more sympathetic character, ready for when she redeems herself at the end by saving Miss Bulstrode’s life.
Other changes in ‘Cat’ were made for a bit of added colour. We made Miss Springer nastier, a blackmailer, and killed her with a javelin rather than a gun. (Although when we wrote it we never imagined Ann launching her spear from across the other side of the sports hall - which goes to show you can never predict exactly how a director might choose to interpret your script!)
Ann disguising herself in order to get her hands on the tennis racquet is another example of something which is straightforward on the page but much harder to translate to the screen, so that episode was eliminated. And Miss Blake didn’t have a motive in the book, so we added one, and the intrigue of the voodoo doll gave us a nice segue into the commercial break – which is another thing you constantly have to have in your mind when writing for ITV!
The biggest change was probably involving Poirot right from the start. As a late Christie, she clearly would rather not have had him in it at all, but obviously that was never going to happen!
When it came to ‘Hallowe’en Party’, we knew we’d have to be a bit more inventive. After the startling and arresting image of the murder victim in the apple bobbing tub, the rest of the story is very much late Christie – meandering and a bit repetitive. We wanted to extend the atmosphere and spookiness of Hallowe’en beyond the party itself into the rest of the episode (it gets a bit forgotten about in the book). So we added sequences like Rowena being stalked in the garden, Ariadne’s nightmare and Poirot’s fireside story denouement. Also, most of the characters are single women living alone, which in a dramatisation isn’t much help, as you need characters to interact with each other. It’s all very well being told that Rowena Drake is a dreadful and bossy woman, but far more effective to give her two children to be unpleasant to – then you can show it! And we rather liked the idea of the insular village populated principally by women. The only male residents we see are the elderly vicar, Edmund the mummy’s boy, and strange Leopold. So it’s no wonder all the women are transfixed and swooning at the arrival of the exotic Michael Garfield!
Equally, with a limited number of cast members, you want to maximise your cast of characters and try to make everyone as suspicious as possible. Consequently, we omitted Supt. Spence and his sister, and gave their function to Mrs Goodbody. That’s often the case with an adaptation – you find a way of combining several characters into one: so Mrs Goodbody gets to be a source of information and a suspect and thematic colour as the ‘witch’ at the party.
You also don’t have long to establish each character and give them a motive: you want to make them distinctive enough to give the actor something to get their teeth into and to make them memorable for an audience - particularly when they don't have very much screen time, hence Rev Cottrell being the penny-pinching vicar, Mrs Reynolds the moaning martyr and Frances the bored and boozy vixen!
You quickly realise how succinct you need to be with your story telling to fit everything into ninety minutes. A character or a scene really has to justify their place in telling the story in order to survive being cut.
7) Did the fact that The Big Four is one of the final episodes, essentially a build-up to Curtain, impact your script choices at all?
Impact upon! (That was Mark popping in to make a contribution, by the way.) Other than reuniting Hastings, Japp and Miss Lemon, and giving us the chance to show Poirot’s funeral, not especially. Given the more sombre tone of the later episodes, it had to feel thematically consistent with the rest of the series, which a completely faithful adaptation of the source material would have struggled to do.
8) I also run a Poirot chronology blog. What made you decide on 1939? Have you had a particular series chronology in mind in your three adaptations?
Our brief for all of the episodes has been to keep the period setting as the 1930s. Given that the novel is a departure for Poirot into the world of international intrigue, and as time is marching on for him, it made sense to move the story into the months preceding World War II. Other than that, it’s really the series producer and script editors who keep an eye on that sort of thing. Sometimes the art department ask for a decision on when exactly the script is set to produce a prop, for example a newspaper which requires that information.
9) You mentioned on Twitter that you would have included all of Poirot's friends at his funeral in The Big Four if the budget had been unlimited, and that Ariadne Oliver was in an early draft. Any other scenes or characters you would like to mention that didn’t survive the time/budget constraints, in The Big Four, Cat Among the Pigeons, and Hallowe'en Party?
Yes how wonderful would that have been! To see rows of characters paying their respects – Col. Race, Miss Bulstrode, Supt. Spence, Colin Lamb, Ariadne... It’s always annoying when soap opera characters die and their kids who apparently live in the next town don't bother to show up at the funeral! There was supposed to be a big floral wreath from Ariadne but I'm not sure whether that ended up being shot. And yes, in the first draft, it was Ariadne rather than Hastings who burst through the door at the end with the line “I thought you were dead!”
As for other casualties: there's nothing too significant I think. A romantic scene between Adam Goodman and Ann Shapland had to be dropped from 'Cat' because they ran out of time to shoot it. Mrs Reynolds had a husband in an early draft of 'Hallowe'en' who didn't survive to the final shooting script.
And our first pass at 'Four' experimented with a suggestion of a romantic attraction between Poirot and Mme Olivier (she also inherited some of the characteristics of Countess Rossakoff) – but maybe that would have been a sacrilege too far!
10) There are plenty of references to past episodes in The Big Four. Some fans have also pointed out that there are several nods to Sherlock. Were these deliberate?
Similarities to Sherlock? Well of course the original novel is directly indebted to so many aspects of Conan Doyle's work, which Christie herself actually acknowledges with the sly comment that Poirot makes about all great detectives having brothers who would be even more celebrated were it not for constitutional indolence! Life is littered with so many of these coincidences: even down to the fact that Mark of course plays Mycroft Holmes (the equivalent of Achille) in 'Sherlock'. The irony is that we've been pencilled to work on 'The Big Four' for years now – long before 'Sherlock' was even a twinkle in Mark and Steven Moffat's eyes! And yet Mark, by sheer coincidence, ended up working on 'The Big Four' and his new 'Sherlock' episode 'The Empty Hearse' at more or less the same time, when of course both stories deal with our heroes' apparent demises and subsequent resurrections.
Other nods? Some of them were deliberate: the letter to Miss Bulstrode for instance, the references to Mrs Japp, the lines about “bringing down the curtain”, and the themes of thwarted or frustrated egos - for both Darrell and Flossie – but also for Poirot of course! As Darrell rightly points out, there's absolutely no need for Poirot to stage these elaborate denouements, much less fake his own death – it's just that he adores a theatrical flourish. Both Mark and I have always been interested in that side of the character. Poirot in the books is a vain, pompous, insufferable little egomaniac, so it's fun to tweak everyone's expectations of him, to undercut the image of this twinkly, avuncular figure, and expose the less pleasant side of his personality!
11) Finally, was the new ending (The Big Four) inspired by the story of Suchet's grandparents or the location you filmed in?
Yes, I saw David's interviews about his grandparents, and I'm afraid I have to spoil the romance! We didn't know the story beforehand and it wasn't an inspiration for the film's climax. Nor did we write it with a specific location in mind - Hackney Empire was simply the choice of the production team.
Please do not reproduce without permission. Contact me via e-mail (email@example.com) or on Twitter (@pchronology).
A big thanks to Tom, a fellow Poirot fan, for brilliant question ideas!
Labours of Hercules airs tomorrow in Poland, and a trailer has finally been released. ITV also released a press pack today. By the way, this won't be spoiler-free, so if you don't want to know anything - look away now. If you do, then you should read the press pack synopsis as well, because that will help you understand the screencaps.OK. Let's have a closer look:
First shot - and we're in the Swiss Alps! Slightly worried about the obvious CGI work here (understandable as it is, given the budget). The location is taken from 'The Erymanthian Boar', which is the central story of the adaptation (judging by this trailer and the press releases so far).
This is a new character, not present in any of the short stories: Francesco, the owner of the hotel. Fake snow! Hooray.
...aaand more fake snow! The location used is Halton House, Aylesbury.
Here's our leading man. In what looks like Murder on the Orient Express mode? (He's wearing the same coat, scarf and hat)
Now, this is where they lost me. What's going on with the sunglasses? This is in front of the mountain lift they use to get to the hotel (actually built on location next to Halton House, and covered in - you guessed it - more fake snow).
Poirot in an apparently empty reception. This has a sort of At Bertram's Hotel-feel to it, don't you think? (not entirely sure if that's a good thing).
Guest list! Intriguing. There's a certain Countess staying here as well...
So... what's going on here, then? The girl with the necklace is Lucinda LeMesurier (a reference to 'The LeMesurier Inheritance'), according to the press pack.
A painting is missing! 'Hercules Vanquishing the Hydra', according to the press pack.
Something sinister is going on. Very James Bond-ish.
More fake snow and CGI! (But those mountains look quite impressive, actually).
Here's a waiter who doesn't know what he's doing...
Poirot seems to have figured it all out (or has he?). It's his signature 'ah!' move.
Someone is having a bad day... And more James Bond effects!
Alice Cunningham might not be exactly what she appears to be.
Poirot seems to be failing after all. Someone's dead! (Lucinda?)
OK... Schwartz and Cunningham? Guns? Mexican standoff? Not sure about this.
What does everyone think? Judging by the press pack interview with director Andrew Wilson, we're in for a very dark episode exploring Poirot's journey of redemption and retirement.
This episode was based on the novel The Big Four, first published in 1927. It was adapted for television by Mark Gatiss and Ian Hallard, and directed by Peter Lydon.
Script versus novel
The Big Four is generally considered to be one of Christie's most controversial (and least successful) novels. She finished the novel in 1926, in the wake of her traumatic divorce and the death of her mother. The story is based on a series of short stories that she worked into a novel in order to earn some much-needed money. The plot is quite ridiculous at times, with exploding mountains, caricature villains, racist Chinese manservants and global conspiracies. Unsurprisingly, the novel has been considered unfilmable. The wide range of locations (England, France, Italy, America etc) probably didn't help in that respect either. All in all, I'm not surprised this novel was left until the final series. It's as if the production team have been waiting for it conveniently disappear. (I don't usually go into aspects like the background of the novel and the context of the adaptation, but I think it's absolutely necessary here. It demonstrates what a complete challenge Gatiss and Hallard were facing.)
The scriptwriters had to come up with a way to streamline the narrative. This is an incredibly busy story that has Poirot travelling far more than he ever did in the early years, and now he’s even approaching retirement. They also had to include Hastings and Japp, who both appear in the novel. Ideally, they needed to find a way to include Miss Lemon as well. The Poirot fans (me included) would be very upset had Hastings and Japp been deleted from the adaptation. Since they last appeared in 2002, the Christie estate have repeatedly stated that the characters would only appear in the novels that they were originally in; they would not be added. So it naturally follows that they would return for the remaining stories that did include them. Finally, Gatiss and Hallard had to find a way to make the plot believable. I, for one, could never bring myself to believe in Christie's plot. It was too out-of-character for Poirot. Multinational villains fighting for world domination? Twin brothers? (Okay, that one could have worked! More on that later) Radium thieves? A faked death? A mountain explosion and a miraculous escape? You get the point. How could this really be the same character who solves quiet, psychological puzzles in English country houses? (I know some fans will disagree with me here).
Gatiss and Hallard decided to open the episode with the return of Poirot's three friends, thus reassuring the fans. Personally, I think the opening scenes with Hastings and Miss Lemon are absolute perfection. Hastings exclaims the (by now compulsory) 'Good Lord!' and Miss Lemon (who is added to the story) complains about the late arrival of the mail. Both lines perfectly encapsulate those two characters. Japp is in Poirot's flat writing letters to Poirot's friends (we get a glimpse of the letter to Miss Bulstrode, a lovely references to Cat Among the Pigeons, also scripted by Gatiss). These scenes culminate in Poirot's funeral. This event doesn't occur until much later in the novel, but it makes sense to introduce it here. Poirot's funeral is perhaps the only event that would believably bring Hastings, Japp and Miss Lemon back after such a long absence. Of course, Hastings could always be back on business or on holiday, Miss Lemon could be living somewhere in London and Japp could have an interesting case to discuss with Poirot. But remember that it's been 17 (18) episodes since we last saw them! If they simply returned for an everyday event, then viewers would ask themselves why they hadn't visited him before. The wake scene that follows wasn't in the novel, but it's been perfectly scripted (with Hastings' overwhelming grief and the toast to their old friend). By the way, I think it's a very sensible decision not to be too specific about why or how long they have been absent (Poirot simply says to Japp in a later scene: 'It's been too long. Far too long!').
Now, some fans have reacted negatively to the reduced role of Hastings in this episode. Japp and a new character, Tysoe, replace him through most of the novel. This is partly because of the restructured plot (i.e. Hastings returning for Poirot's funeral, just one day before Poirot's big denouement) and partly because the press (i.e. Tysoe) is integral to the new solution, which I will come back to later. As much I would love to see Hastings and Poirot investigate together, I think it's a sensible decision to emphasise the chemistry between Japp and Poirot here (giving Philip Jackson an appropriate swan song). As mentioned, the funeral is the best plot device to bring both Hastings and Miss Lemon back, and this means Hastings can't be present in the earlier investigation (oh, and he does, after all, return from Argentina, so that element from the novel is there). Also, bear in mind that Hugh Fraser gets an emotional swan song with Curtain.
Several of the 'cases' Poirot investigates in the novel have been deleted. These include 'The Unexpected Guest', 'The Man from the Asylum', 'Disappearance of a Scientist', 'The Woman on the Stairs', 'The Radium Thieves', 'In the House of the Enemy', 'The Baited Trap', 'The Mouse Walks In', 'The Terrible Catastrophe' (apart from the 'fatal' explosion), 'The Dying Chinaman' (apart from the funeral description), 'Number Four Wins a Trick', and 'In the Felsenlabyrinth' (replaced by a new denouement). The incidents that are deleted (the radium plot, the events at Abe Ryland's estate, the secret Chinese hide-away) are all fairly far-fetched, placing Poirot in situations that can hardly be described as 'typical Christie'. More significantly, though, they mainly serve one purpose; to reveal the different members of the Big Four. Now, Gatiss and Hallard manage to maintain the essence of this in the three remaining 'cases'; Leg of Mutton is linked to Li Chang Yen, Yellow Jasmine to Madame Olivier, and Chess Problem to Abe Ryland (I'll get back to how they do this later). With this in mind, I'm not too upset about the deleted chapters.
As to the characters that are deleted, most fans will be disappointed not to see Countess Vera Rosakoff and Achille Poirot. To be honest, I always thought Rossakoff's connection with the 'Big Four' was a bit too much. A jewel thief? Yes. An adversary to villains seeking world dominance? Probably not. Similarly, Achille always seemed completely unbelievable to me. It's a great twist, and it would have been fun to see it brought to life, but I find it difficult to believe that anyone (let alone master criminals) could be fooled into thinking that someone as unique and distinctive-looking as Hercule Poirot could have a twin. Christie seems to dismiss the idea, too, in the final pages of the novel, and in The Labours of Hercules:
‘Brother Achille has gone home again – to the land of the myths. It was I all the time. It is not only Number Four who can act a part.’ (The Big Four)
'If I remember rightly - though my memory isn't what it was - you had a brother called Achille, did you not?'Poirot's mind raced back over the details of Achille Poirot's career. Had all that really happened? 'Only for a short space of time', he replied.' (The Labours of Hercules)
The remaining 'cases' (Mutton, Jasmine, Chess), and two characters that appeared in sections of the novel that have been deleted, i.e. Ingles and Flossie Monro, are tied together to make a more or less believable plot. I'll try to outline the plot in the next couple of paragraphs before I add my final thoughts. (You can skip the next six paragraphs if you already know the plot).
After Poirot's funeral, the narrative jumps four weeks back in time. Tysoe, who is a journalist, visits Ingles to inquire about the 'Big Four'. Ingles was a 'retired Civil Servant of mediocre intellect' in the novel, but here he is a senior official at the Foreign Office. Unlike in the novel, he dismisses the idea of the Big Four as 'Bulldog Drummond', complete nonsense. 'The world-wide unrest, the labour troubles that beset every nation, and the revolutions that broke out in some' that he attributed to Li Chang Yen in the novel are here presented by Tysoe, who thinks his unnamed 'correspondent' might be right. This is the first sign that Gatiss and Hallard are taking the adaptation in a different direction. The change is perfectly understandable. If they are attempting to make the story more believable, then the first step on the way would be to have the authorities (i.e. Ingles) dismiss the rather ludicrous idea that there is a group of master criminals seeking world domination.
Next up is the Chess Problem. The set-up is essentially the same as in the novel, but we get to witness the actual chess match. Japp, who has become Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard (how he managed to climb the career ladder that quickly, from 1936 to 1939, is beyond me), is in charge of security at a society event. The event is hosted by Abe Ryland, who has become a respected member of a ‘Peace Party’ (founded by Li Chang Yen) that is working for world peace at the brink of war. This was not in the novel, but it links the story to the coming war and provides a somewhat believable cover for a (supposed) 'Big Four'. Poirot is also present, possibly because of his interest in chess (actually, he declares in the novel that he doesn't play chess, but we've seen his chess set at Whitehaven – it first appeared in Third Girl – and seen him play in The Chocolate Box, so this is an acceptable change). There is a lovely scene in which the two friends are reunited (reminiscent of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd). They also briefly touch upon the subject of retirement ('Time, it catches up with us all. Perhaps also for Poirot the shadows are lengthening and the moment it has come to think of a life that is quiet'). Present at the chess match is also Mme Olivier (not be confused with Mrs Oliver!), a brilliant French scientist who specialises in the nervous system (she was more interested in radium in the novel). Like Ryland, she is a member of the Peace Party. She is joined by her friend and ally of the Party, Stephen Paynter (from 'The Yellow Jasmine Mystery'), and his personal physician Dr. Quentin (a local doctor in the novel). Even Tysoe has managed to enter the event. In the game of chess, Ryland substitutes Gilmour Wilson and challenges Savaronoff, but it's Savaronoff who is murdered. Consequently, Sonia Daviloff and the scenes in Savaronoff flat are deleted. As Poirot and Japp start investigating, Poirot is intrigued by Tysoe's mention of the 'Big Four'. Tysoe explains that he has received letters with this information, as well as information on Ryland's past. Poirot goes on to solve the chess murder more or less like in the novel. Ryland is suspected, and he disappears shortly thereafter.
Then there's the Leg of Mutton. Jonathan Whalley was 'a lover of all things Chinese' who wrote a biography on Li Chang Yen, the Peace Party founder (in the novel, he was just interested in China). The stolen jade figures have become ivory figures, but the plot remains the same (even with most of the dialogue intact). Poirot solves the murder, more or less exactly as in the novel, and he suspects that the Big Four are involved. Shortly afterwards, Tysoe finds a stabbed man in the street (a clear warning that he should stop his investigation into the Big Four). The scene is somewhat reminiscent of the warnings Hastings receives in the novel after Poirot's death, and the dying Chinaman he encounters. Tysoe, frightened by the warning, comes clean to Poirot and Japp and reveals a set of playing cards that displays the Big Four (a Chinese card for Number One, a chance card from Monopoly for Ryland, a French Dame card for Mme Olivier and La Mort (Death) for Number Four). This is reminiscent of the dying words of Mayerling in the novel.
The next case is Yellow Jasmine (but the twist here is 'gelsemine', mentioned in the novel). In the novel, Paynter had written a book on Li Chang Yen ('The Hidden Man in China' – that’s been attributed to Whalley in the adaptation), but as mentioned earlier he has become a friend of Mme Olivier and a supporter of the Peace Party here. The murder is essentially the same (the Chinese manservant, Ah Ling, is even there, but he doesn't get to speak at all). However, a wife, Diana Paynter, and Mme Olivier, are added to the plot, and the nephew Gerald is made the prime suspect (Paynter wrote 'G', not 'Yellow Jasmine' in ink). The wife suspects her husband of having an affair with Mme Olivier. Gerald, Dr Quentin and Mme Olivier are interviewed, and Poirot begins to suspect her (gelsemine falls into her field of research). She later disappears.
Poirot then returns to the scene of the Mutton crime, the Whalley household. Jonathan Whalley had an estranged nephew who used to live with him, Albert Whalley, and Poirot searches the attic for clues as to his whereabouts. He finds a scrapbook with clippings from the Methuselah Theatre (as an aside, this means 'man of the dart/spear' or 'his death shall bring judgment' - a hint to the final solution). This leads Poirot to get in touch with former actors from the theatre, and he eventually tracks down Flossie Monro. Their conversation is incredibly well scripted, with just the right amount of sadness and humour. Unlike in the novel, Flossie is not murdered but will serve an important role later on. Shortly afterwards, Claud Darrell, another of the actors, calls Poirot and invites him to meet him. Poirot enters an apartment and is seemingly killed by an explosion (reminiscent of the scene with the match box in the novel). All that is left is Poirot's burnt-out walking stick. This leads us back to the day of the funeral, in which Hastings, Japp and Miss Lemon discuss their old friend. Hastings want to continue tracking down the Big Four (like in the novel), but the others disagree and he leaves the flat in anger.
Finally, there's the denouement scene. In short, the scene takes place in the Methuselah theatre (not the Felsenlabyrinth). Claud Darrell, aka Dr Quentin and Albert Whalley, has captured Flossie Monro and explains that he did everything for her. She rejected him fifteen years ago, when they were still acting at the theatre, because she wanted to be with 'someone the whole world will remember'. Poirot appears, revealing that he was not killed in the explosion after all. He explains that the Big Four never existed, that Mme Olivier and Abe Ryland had been taken prisoners by Albert Whalley/Claud Darrell. Whalley committed the murders to implicate Ryland (Chess), Olivier (Yellow Jasmine) and Li Chang Yen (Mutton), and create a sense of hysteria and fear around the world - all in an attempt to be remembered and be loved by Flossie. Once revealed, Whalley threatens to detonate dynamite that will blow up the entire theatre (reminiscent of the Felsenlabyrinth in the novel), but Poirot persuades him that he can't kill Flossie. In the end, he pretends to surrender before threatening Poirot with a gun. Tysoe, who has appeared on the scene with Japp, then brings the curtain down on him (literally speaking), and he is killed. The end scene sees Poirot, Japp, Miss Lemon, Tysoe and Flossie celebrate their 'victory' before Hastings appears, confused about Poirot's reappearance. That scene is wonderfully evocative of the early episodes.
Several fans have claimed that Gatiss and Hallard have changed too much of the novel and that the new ending is completely unbelievable. Personally, I think the restructuring of the plot and the new ending is a brave attempt at streamlining the narrative and, actually, making the ending more believable. The new ending is still far-fetched. Most viewers would say that the scheme is far too complicated for a madman who wanted to attract the attention of the woman he loves. There are aspects here that I struggle to accept. However, bearing in mind the source material they had to work with (as outlined in my introduction), I think Gatiss and Hallard have found a more or less sensible way to humanize the culprit.
I could never truly believe in the idea of master villains controlling the world. Admittedly, Poirot stories are fiction – and anything could happen in fiction – but they are always based on the real world, particularly in the TV series, which has consistently incorporated historical events. These master criminals wouldn’t exist in the real world. A lunatic, however, would. That has been evidenced time and time again. Even elaborate lunatics like Whalley. By making the plot a personal tragedy of sorts, Gatiss and Hallard almost manage to make us feel sorry for Whalley. Orphaned, estranged from his uncle, rejected by his one true love. Also, the decision to emphasise the similarities between Whalley and Poirot (‘We are more alike than you think, Poirot’) is an interesting one, because it highlights Poirot’s less endearing qualities (his showmanship, his self-assuredness). It’s also something of a foreshadowing of Curtain. All in all, then, I’m inclined to accept all the changes Hallard and Gatiss have made, because they have managed to make a more or less coherent story out of what Gatiss has described as ‘an almost unadaptable mess’.
Direction, production design, locations, soundtrack
Peter Lydon’s direction is wonderfully effective. The back of Hastings’ head, the close-up of letters, the grey funeral scenes, the camera zooming in on Poirot’s empty chair, the hooded figures of the Big Four – and that’s just the opening shots! I particularly enjoy the shifts of scenes in the interviews at the Paynter household, the ‘Poirot must think’ sequence (seemingly inspired by Sherlock’s ‘mind palace’), the clock motif throughout (reminiscent of The Clocks), and the flashbacks of the denoument scene (such a complicated plot explained in a matter of seconds). The colour grading is particularly well done throughout as well. The production team have created some wonderful props, including the playing cards, the Big Four lair set, and the miniature theatre with the ‘Big Four’ characters that Poirot finds in the attic. The locations used include Syon House, Brentford (the chess game scene), Hughenden Manor, High Whycombe, Buckinghamshire (the home of Jonathan Whalley and the prison gates), Nuffield Place, Henley-on-Thames (the Paynter house), The Undercroft of Lincoln's Inn Chapel, London (the scene with Tysoe and Poirot), and Hackney Empire (the theatre). Christian Henson’s soundtrack is perfect for the episode, sombre and dark for the emotional scenes and cheerful and nostalgic in the investigation scenes (notice the several references to the Poirot theme, particularly in the scene where Poirot tries to find Flossie Monro, and in the end scene.
Characters and actors
Gatiss and Hallard have added numerous references to the early episodes in this episode. I’ve already mentioned Hastings’ ‘Good Lord’ and Miss Lemon’s complaints about the late arrival of the post. Miss Lemon also has a cat called Marina, which is reminiscent of the episodes The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman and The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb. Moran is given some wonderful lines in the few scenes she appears in. I particularly enjoyed the ‘he always liked things just so, didn’t he’ as she straightens Poirot’s chair. This is a wonderful reference to their shared sense of order, not to mention his constant nagging about the tisanes. She certainly had to get used to his many quirks and habits over the years. Similarly, Fraser’s few scenes are very reminiscent of a number of early episodes (apart from his moving breakdown at the wake), e.g. his determination to pursue the Big Four (and antagonism towards Japp), followed by his ‘What do I do now, old chap?’, addressed to the dead Poirot, and his re-appearance in the final scene (completely confused and made to look stupid).
Philip Jackson gets a series of wonderful one-liners as Japp. The ever-present in-joke between him and Poirot on his career (Inspector – Chief Inspector) has now become Chief Inspector – Assistant Commissioner, the repeated mentions of Mrs Japp (I would have preferred ‘Emily’, but I realize that most viewers wouldn’t understand who he as talking about) – particularly in connection with the tarot cards, and the no-nonsense action in the denoument scene.
David Suchet also gets to add a reference or two. I particularly enjoyed the dispatch case containing ‘the tools of my profession’, which we haven’t seen since The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and the aforementioned ‘think’ scene. David Yelland’s present was a nice nod to the later years. Ariadne Oliver would have been a welcome addition, to complete the references. Apparently, her character was included in an early draft, but she later had to be deleted, presumably because of costs or Wanamaker’s availability.
The guest stars all make the most of their scenes. Patricia Hodge is wonderfully over-the-top as Madame Olivier (even if she sounds like Edith from ‘Allo ‘Allo), Barbara Kirby is great fun as Mrs Andrews (thanks to the good script), Teresa Banham manages to create a moving mini-portrait of Diana Paynter, and Nicholas Burns creates a humorous caricature with Inspector Meadows. Tom Brooke is acceptable as Tysoe, and Simon Lowe isn’t too bad as Whalley/Darrell/Four, but he seems to struggle to find the right balance between camp and moving (but he is exactly as bland as he should be in the rest of the episode). However, the star performer for me is Sarah Parish as Flossie Monro. The character is very minor in the novel, and it mainly serves to elucidate the plot. Here, Flossie is the reason for the entire crime, and her character is made more tragic (in a sense). The scene between her and Poirot at Whitehaven is perfection itself. She tries to impress him with her acting roles, while Poirot obviously realizes that she is an aging, failing actress. He hasn’t seen any of her performances, but he tries to save the situation by claiming that he has seen her in Share My Cab at the Duke of York (he would never be seen at a play with a name like that!). But she only played the accordion. It probably doesn’t sound like it from my description of it, but it’s a very moving scene.
This episode was based on the novel Elephants Can Remember, first published in 1972. It was adapted for television by Nick Dear and directed by John Strickland.
Script versus novel
This was the last Poirot novel that Agatha Christie wrote (Curtain was written in the 1940s). It's not her most successful novel. It's been criticised as rambling, chatty and out of focus. Some even suggest that it shows early signs of Alzheimer's. With this in mind, Nick Dear faced a challenge. He needed to re-structure, trim and re-focus the plot and make it work as two hours (or 89 minutes, to be precise) of exciting television. I think he has been reasonably successful. Let's look at the obvious changes first. Obviously, the setting is moved from the 1970s to the 1930s. In fact, that makes hardly any difference. Yes, there are a few references to post-war objects and events in the novel, but the main plot could easily be set in the 30s.
A much more significant change, however, is to introduce a new subplot. Dear decides to flesh out a backstory that involves Dr. Willoughby (who was in the novel for a chapter). His elderly psychiatrist father (who was dead years ago in the novel) is found murdered in the basement of the Willoughby Institute, and Dr. Willoughby appears to be the only viable suspect. Dear also makes him a longtime friend of Poirot's. Someone suggested online that Poirot had been brought out of retirement in this episode, but this fact proves that he is still just taking cases that (a) interest him or (b) concern friends of his (Mrs Oliver gets him involved with the 'elephants', Willoughby with the death of his father. I think that's why Dear decided to make him a friend of Poirot's in the first place. The same goes for Inspector Neale, who is investigating the case. (He seems to partly substitute Superintendent Spence here, which is a shame, but the reason could be availability issues I suppose). Poirot was never really retired anyway (apart from the Ackroyd case), he has just entered a state of semi-retirement (which is in keeping with the later novels). I think The Labours of Hercules, due to be broadcast soon, will probably see him entering retirement for good. But back to the subplot. Dear adds an 'American' secretary/lover for Dr. Willoughby (later revealed to be Canadian, thanks to some fairly obvious hints in the script), and even ties the Institute and Dr. Willoughby's practise to the backstory of Desmond Burton-Cox. Poirot is only too keen to investigate the Willoughby case - so keen, in fact, that Mrs Oliver has to manage the 'elephants' case more or less on her own for about half the episode (which is a good thing - I'll come back to that later).
I think the subplot works well. It's a clever way to make the story more 'active' (a full-length episode solely concerned with Mrs Oliver's 'elephant' interviews could become a little tedious). I even suspect that is one of the reasons behind this change; Poirot gets a much more active role than the 'provider of information' he becomes in the novel. It also helps to distinguish the story from Five Little Pigs, a story it shares more than a passing resemblance with. Instead, the episode is tied more neatly to cases like Mrs McGinty's Dead and Hallowe'en Party, that deal with intertwined cases from the past and the present. (I must say, though, that I find all these retrospective, psychologically driven investigations some of the most fascinating of Poirot's cases. There are no fingerprints, (usually) no murder weapon and no bodies. We really get to see his main investigative method - the study of human behaviour - at its best). Still, it should be said that the last link between the subplot and the main plot seems a bit forced. The culprit SPOILER is revealed to be Marie, Dorothea Jarrow's long lost daughter (briefly mentioned in the novel), out on a personal vendetta to take revenge on the psychiatrist and Celia. For one, I thought Dorothea disliked children, so why would she still send her daughter letters, telling her the truth? And why didn't she speak up sooner? (She explains that she was 'a poor secretary' who had to earn money to get to the UK from Canada, which would be true in the 30s, but still). Also, she was present at Overcliffe and just happened to overhear the crucial conversation between Zelie and General Ravenscroft? Then again, the plot is in keeping with Christie storytelling (double identities, the secretary, mistakes made in the past), and the actors make it believable.
As mentioned earlier, Mrs Oliver is left to investigate the Ravenscroft case (more or less) on her own for about half the episode. This main plot and the subplot are intertwined throughout the episode. Nick Dear has written wonderfully for Wanamaker and Suchet before (I particularly enjoy the interaction in Mrs McGinty's Dead). The 'cold case' isn't too interesting in itself, but Ariadne's approach is a complete joy to watch, and the conversations with the 'elephants' are fun ('In this part of the world, Ariadne, one either hunts or one has affairs'). Poirot (who is really only interested in the Willoughby case and has to be persuaded to give advice) helps her along, urging her to look for a motive in the past. In this sense, Mrs Oliver becomes his apprentice, since Poirot isn't too keen to investigate himself (reminiscent of quite a few cases with Hastings in the past, e.g. 'The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim' and 'Double Sin'). Ironically, Mrs Oliver describes Poirot as her 'assistant' (the look on Suchet's face is hilarious) to Mrs Burton-Cox.
Dear has had to make several changes to the original plot. Most sections have been shortened down (the literary luncheon, conversations between Poirot and Ariadne, and between Ariadne and the elephants. Desmond has become a pianist (which allows for a lovely concert scene I'll come back to later). Mrs Buckle helps out at Mrs Matcham's place, and her daughter is deleted. Mr Goby has been removed (Beale takes over his tasks), which is in keeping with all the other adaptations of stories he appears in. Madame Rouselle and Mademoiselle Zelie Meauhourat have been merged into Zelie Rouselle (a very sensible decision). Most significantly, perhaps, is Desmond's new backstory. We are told that he 'formed an attachment to someone', who is later revealed to be Zelie. His adoptive mother Mrs Burton-Cox persuaded psychiatrist Dr Willoughby to take him on, and it is later revealed that he fell in love with her. He was 15, she was 25. Personally, I think this backstory can be deduced from the novel (he certainly viewed her as a friend, and they stayed in touch), so I'm not too surprised. Apart from these changes, the plot is kept more or less intact, and several scenes have been lifted almost word-by-word from the novel.
Finally, I have to comment on a script error. A commenter on the IMdB board, 'brucekaren136' said: 'I was left wondering if the plot contained a major goof. I might be wrong but 1) it was clearly stated that the 'suicide/murder' had happened 13 years previously, 2) that Desmond Burton-Cox had had a crush on Zelie when he was 15 which presumably was before the suicide etc and that 3) Desmond's birth mother in leaving him a fortune had stated that he could not inherit the money until he was 25 years old or got married, whichever came sooner. Surely taking 1) and 2) together Desmond was already 28 and should already have inherited the money that his adoptive mother was trying to prevent him from getting by getting married.'. I'm sure the mistake wasn't intentional, but it's a bit careless all the same.
All in all, I think Dear's script is fairly successful. He manages to bring a slightly pedestrian story to life by adding a subplot, changing a few backstories and focus the attention on the force of nature that is Ariadne Oliver. In the end, this makes for an enjoyable 89 minutes of television.
Directing, production design, locations, soundtrack
John Strickland's direction should be particularly commended. The way he introduces Poirot (with the clock, the radio and the cigarette in Whitehaven is a good example. So are the scenes in the Willoughby basement, in which the shadows are allowed to create a particularly chilling atmosphere. The transitions between scenes are particularly well done. For instance, a shot of Garroway adding sugar lumps to his coffee is intercut with the fall of 'Dorothea' from the cliff (white sugar versus woman in white). Similarly, a scene in front of Poirot's Whitehaven fireplace transforms into a scene with the Ravenscrofts by a fireplace at Overcliffe. A part of the denouement has a similar shift from the present to the past in the Ravenscroft office. (These directoral choices remind me of several of the recent Sherlock episodes). I'd also like to point out the train sequence in which Poirot travels to Paris (we even get a tiny glimpse of his passport!). The production team have done particularly well here. For the first time since 2005, they've been back at Florin Court (aka Whitehaven Mansions) to shoot exterior scenes, and I love these (Ariadne arriving in her car, the conversation between Beale and Ariadne, Desmond arriving etc). Some of the camera angles are inventive, too, and we get to see the building from slightly new perspectives. They've even added a decorative elephant sculpture in Poirot's window, which is good, too (thought slightly obvious symbolism). Also, Zelie's Parisian shop is beautifully continental and perfectly in period.
I particularly noticed the colour grading in this episode, and I discovered this interview with Dan Coles, the colour grader on the episode:
“Poirot aims to give TV audiences a cinematic experience, so in the grading we made the images look rich and beautiful with filmic contrast levels,” says Coles. “In this episode we accentuated the art deco feel in Poirot's flat with vibrant red and orange tones, while maintaining cooler tones in the shadows. We decided to go for warmer colours of the spectrum for most scenes, for example using golden hues for interiors. We contrasted this overall look with a stark and steely blue shades for the first murder sequence.”
Now, I have to comment on the use of green screens. I understand that this is a necessity to keep costs down, and I'm normally not too bothered. The glimpse of 1930s Paris was quite acceptable, for instance. However, when this episode was broadcast on ITV, there was a major green screen mistake! When Poirot visits Dr. Willoughby's episode for the first time, a massive green screen is visible in the window! I sincerely hope that this will be fixed for the DVD/Blu-ray releases. It's completely unacceptable and shouldn't happen on a show that prides itself on its production values!
“Much of the episode was shot using green screen, and composited later on so we had to take great care grading foregrounds and backgrounds using supplied mattes. An antique de-saturated look was applied to the flashback material, along with occasional defocused vignettes.”
The locations used for the episode include The Park Lane Hotel (last seen in The Mystery of the Blue Train, here used for the literary luncheon scenes), Greys Court in Oxfordshire (Julia Carstair's house), Netherwhylde Equestrian (mostly used for Ariadne's driving scenes I think). Most of the other scenes are shot at Pinewood and Shepperton Film Studios. Christian Henson's soundtrack is absolutely perfect for the episode. It doesn't draw too much attention to itself, but it accompanies the scenes well. I also like the use of Bach's Goldberg Variations (for the concert scene) and Chopin's Nocturne #7 (for the end credits).
Characters and actors
Poirot (and Suchet) is back in investigative mode here. There are certain character continuities worth commenting on. I've already discussed his semi-retirement and his friendship with Willoughby. There's also an amusing incident with Poirot and a passing taxi (Sacre!). Most importantly, though, there's the scene between him and Zelie in Paris. The interaction between Suchet and Elsa Mollien is exceptionally well done. I particularly like two of Poirot's comments: 'Neither you nor I are married (*he touches her ring finger*). We may never be married. But they should be', and 'It is easier to hate when you have once loved than to remain indifferent'. Both lines touch upon the loneliness in Poirot's life, the longing for a life companion that can never be fulfilled.
The actors are all (more or less) perfectly suited for their roles. Zoë Wanamaker is as brilliant as ever as Mrs Oliver. Greta Scacchi is great as the conniving adoptive mother. Caroline Blakiston is absolutely enjoyable as Julia Carstairs. So is Hazel Douglas as Nanny Matcham, and Maxine Evans as Mrs Buckle. Ruth Sheen is perfect in the cameo as Madame Rosentelle, and Iain Glen manages to come across as almost sympathetic as Willoughby. Ferdinand Kingsley (Desmond) and Vanessa Kirby (Celia) don't quite stand out, but they suit their characters. Alexandra Dowling (Marie) is faced with a challenging role with many layers, and she is reasonably successful. I have been told her Canadian/American accent isn't quite convincing, though.
Finally, I'd just like to comment on what is a major quibble to me on the actor front. Why couldn't they have brought David Yelland back as George? I realise that the reason might be scheduling difficulties, but it's so obvious that they have filmed and scripted scenes so that the character is conveniently out of sight. Poirot asks him to pack his bags (and gets a 'Yes, sir' in reply that clearly isn't Yelland, and we catch a glimpse of a stand-in opening the door for Desmond (but he clearly has black hair and doesn't at all look like Yelland. Still, I'm glad they didn't just forget that Poirot has a manservant and actually made the effort to make it seem as if he was there.
This episode was based on the novel The Clocks, first published in 1963. It was adapted for television by Stewart Harcourt and directed by Charlie Palmer (son of Geoffrey Palmer, who plays Vice Admiral Hamling in the adaptation).
Script versus novel
Harcourt, who also scripted Murder on the Orient Express, is admirably faithful to the source material here. The most significant change, perhaps, is to set the adaptation in the late 1930s, directly preceding the Second World War. It's both a necessary and a wise move. It's necessary because of the production team's creative decision to keep Poirot in the Thirties, and it's wise, because the transition of an essentially 1960s spy novel into pre-war espionage is seamless. The setting is Dover, and Dover Castle is a perfect backdrop for this pre-war story (reminiscent of Foyle's War's Hastings at times). Another change that's also dictated by the series itself is the decision to change Colin Lamb's name to Lt. Colin Race and make him the son of Colonel Race. In the novel, Christie implies that Colin might be Superintendent Battle's son ('Lamb' is a cover), but since Battle was never introduced to the television series; he was deleted from Cards on the Table and replaced by Superintendent Wheeler. Now, Colonel Race was introduced to the viewers in Death on the Nile as an old and cherished friend of Poirot's. He should also have been in Cards on the Table, but actor James Fox was unavailable to reprise the role. To delete the fake identity and make Colin his son makes absolute sense, and I'm glad the scriptwriters pay attention to continuity every now and then.
As I've already implied, the adaptation is faithful to its source material. There are, however, several minor (and more significant) changes. Harcourt adds an opening scene in which we see Larkin (who has become Annabelle here) steal some documents from the navy base at Dover Castle. Race's girlfriend Fiona, who works there, follows Larkin and is eventually hit by a car (but she manages to write down the code, 'M 61' before she dies (like the secret agent in the novel). To give Race's investigation a personal touch is a clever move, as his professional judgement is at stake. Moreover, Harcourt adds a theatre performance attended by Poirot. It's one of Mrs Oliver's crime stories, starring Sven Hjerson. This scene is delightful for a number of reasons. We have a reference to Ariadne Oliver, who has really become Poirot's closest friend in these later years of his career. We get to see her detective, who in many ways is exactly as eccentric and 'foreign' as Poirot. Then there's the fact that Ariadne had been persuaded by Robin Upward to adapt one of her novels for the theatre in Mrs. McGinty's Dead (2008) - the actual production never began (for obvious reasons). But most importantly, the scene is a reference to the novel Dumb Witness and the short story adaptation 'Third Floor Flat', in which Hastings takes Poirot to the theatre to see a 'whodunnit'. Obviously, Poirot would be extremely bored (as indeed he is when he is interrupted by Colin Race in this adaptation).
By this point I should probably mention that Harcourt introduces Poirot much earlier than in the novel, and he is in a much more active 'investigative' mood here (in the novel, his valet George (who is sadly lacking from this adaptation, but he gets a mention, explains to Colin that he thinks his master might be getting depressed). This change is in keeping with the more recent adaptations, which have all introduced Poirot earlier than the novels. Of course, part of the fun of the novel is to see Poirot solve a case from his armchair (which he is famous for), but this has been referenced in several of the short story adaptations (most prominently in 'The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim'.
But let's list the main changes. Sheila Webb isn't Miss Pebmarsh's daughter (that was too unbelievable anyway). She does, however, have an affair with one of her clients, Professor Purdy. This wasn't in the novel, but it demonstrates her self-doubt and insecurity (that will eventually make Colin fall in love with her - they are both 'damaged goods'). Miss Pebmarsh works for the local photographer, Mr Wright (not as a teacher). We eventually discovered that she used the equipment available to her to photocopy the documents that were smuggled out of the Dover facility. Harcourt has added a scene in which Vice Admiral Hamling (a new character that sort of replaces Colonel Beck) discusses the coming of war with Poirot ('hellfire corner'). It's a lovely reference to Poirot's past in the Belgian police and as a war refugee. Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay have been removed (but a Mr. Mabbutt replaces them). Mrs. Curtin (the cleaning lady), Sheila's aunt and the Naughtons are removed, and the boys Ted and Bill have become two girls, Jenny and May. The Waterhouse siblings have become Jews (previously named 'Tuchmann', they fled Germany in the early 1930s). The interviews are generally a lot sillier than in the novel, and so is most of the action (but many fans will welcome the return of some humour to these adaptations). The interaction between Inspector Hardcastle and Poirot is particularly well done, reminiscent of the days with Japp.
There are essentially two threads to this story, with the murder in Miss Pebmarsh's house being one and the spy/war plot being the other. Apart from Pebmarsh's house, there's not much that links the two (which is partly the point of the novel). This has been expertly streamlined here, and the spy plot has been given a more sensible backstory here (all that 'secret offices in bookstores' from the novel is not very Christie). Here, Miss Pebmarsh wants to prevent a new war no matter what costs, because she lost her two sons in the First World War. Mr. Mabutt has a possibly more business-like approach to the treason, but both stories work well here. There's also a confrontation between these two and the Jewish siblings, in which Poirot delivers a powerful speech on the perils of occupation (once again, Harcourt manages to reference his Belgian past). The adaptation ends as Poirot brings the two lovers (Sheila and Colin) together, perfectly in keeping with his matchmaker hobby (Sad Cypress, Mrs. McGinty's Dead etc). All in all, Harcourt's script is a success. It manages to streamline a fairly second-rate Christie novel and make it a good adaptation.
Directing, production design, locations, soundtrack
Charlie Palmer's direction works well here. It doesn't draw too much attention to itself, but it's well executed. Jeff Tessler's production design is spotless as always (the Dover HQ and the different houses are decorative sets). The locations used include Dover Castle, Castle Hill Road, St. Margaret's Bay, Richmond Theatre dress circle bar, Thornhill Crescent in London (Wilbraham Crescent), St. Andrew's Church in Thornhill Square, Woburn Walk / 13 Duke's Rd in London (the shops and the secretarial bureau), The Sun Inn Bar in Richmond (the B&B Hardcastle recommends), The Churchill Hotel (Dover Seafront), Inner Temple in London (Rival's murder, also seen in Third Girl and possibly The Big Four), Fountain Court (Middle Temple) and Surrey County Council (the court scenes). See some photos here, here and here. Christian Henson's soundtrack is delightful here, with several very obvious hints to Gunning's theme tune, particularly in the opening sequence.
Characters and actors
Poirot shines in this adaptation, with a lot of time to investigate. I like the 'thinking mode' Suchet lets him enter (see, for instance, the scene at the theatre with Colin or the scene in his Dover hotel room). It's also nice to have a reference to George and something reminiscent of Japp and Captain Hastings in Hardcastle and Lt. Race (I even thought the ice cream scene reminded me of the end scene with Hastings, Japp and Miss Lemon in Peril at End House, but perhaps I'm just excited about their return for The Big Four). The references to Poirot's past (and his memories of war) are particularly delightful, too. Of the guest actors, Geoffrey Palmer provides the necessary gravitas as the Vice Admiral. Tom Burke (son of David 'Dr. Watson' Burke) and Jaime Winstone (daughter of Ray Winstone) are sufficiently 'damaged' as Colin and Sheila. But I particularly enjoyed the more joyful characters of Hardcastle (Phil Daniels), Merlina Rival (Frances Barber, who also played 'Lady Millicent' in 'The Veiled Lady') and Mrs. Hemmings (Beatie Edney, who also played Mary Cavendish in The Mysterious Affair at Styles). Oh, and John Thaw's daughter Abigail Thaw plays Rachel Waterhouse, so we have something of a collaboration between the Poirot, Holmes and Morse spheres here!
(UPDATE 21/10/13: We have a press release and air date - 6 November, 8 pm!)
Here are the first promotional photos for The Labours of Hercules. Image source: ETomlinsonCom on Twitter, www.eleanor-tomlinson.com/thumbnails.php?album=110. Photos linked to their source. Copyright ITV. This particular episode is still a mystery in every sense of the word; very little is known about how this collection of short stories will be adapted into one episode. Any thoughts after seeing these photos?
This episode was based on the novel Murder on the Orient Express, first published in 1934. It was adapted for television by Stewart Harcourt and directed by Philip Martin.
Script versus novel
Opinion is particularly divided on this episode. That is hardly surprising. We are, after all, talking about Christie’s most famous Poirot novel, which just happened to be adapted into an Oscar-winning big screen movie, directed by Sidney Lumet, in 1974. Not to mention the fact that this was one of the most intensely anticipated episodes of the ITV series. With this in mind, Stewart Harcourt faced a near impossible challenge when adapting this novel. How do you adapt one of the most famous crime novels in crime fiction history and avoid comparison with the successful 1974 film? And how do you make exciting television, when most people already know the solution?
I’m not an expert on scriptwriting and the adaptation process. But it seems to me that anyone adapting a famous, universally acclaimed masterpiece is faced with two options for, or approaches to, the source material. They can (a) decide to write a plot-centred adaptation, focusing on Christie’s famous ‘puzzle’, or (b) explore the broader themes of the text and emphasise the characters in relation to those themes. Both approaches can be seen in adaptations of a number of famous novels and plays. Anything by Shakespeare is the prime example. In the case of Murder on the Orient Express, Harcourt was faced with some constraints – but also some considerable advantages – that probably had an impact on the choice between these two approaches. I’ll look into these before I come back to Harcourt’s script.
Let’s look at the disadvantages first. A new version would inevitably be facing time constraints. Agatha Christie’s Poirot is, after all, a television series. It has to fit into the broadcaster’s strict schedules. ITV have scaled down the length of these adaptations over the years (presumably to make room for more ad breaks within the two-hour time slot). The first ‘feature length’ episodes lasted about 100 minutes. This was cut down to 93 minutes in the later years. The most recent series of episode (the one we are eagerly awaiting) has an average adaptation length of 89 minutes. Anyway, the point is that this version of the novel had about 90 minutes to play with. In comparison, the 1974 film had 128 minutes. Secondly, the small screen version could never match the ‘all-star cast’ of the big screen version. Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Albert Finney, Vanessa Redgrave, Sean Connery, John Gielgud (I could go on forever, really). Nor could it match its budget. Hollywood and British TV are two completely different things.
So what advantages did this new version have? First, the team had the opportunity to make a more authentic version. By that I mean they could largely go for less known (but highly skilled) actors, some of whom actually shared the nationality of their characters. Second, they had some money (this version cost about £3 million), but more importantly, they also had the latest special effects technology, and a highly skilled production team who had been working on these period dramas for more than two decades. Third, and most importantly, they had David Suchet. The Definitive Poirot. An actor who, by this point in time, had had 64 episodes to research, explore, develop and portray every nuance of Christie’s character. That was always going to be the big selling point of this version. And I think that’s why they decided to explore themes and characters.
The crime fiction plot – the ‘puzzle’ – had been wonderfully brought to life in the two-hour 1974 film. Most people know (or know of) the solution because of that. What this version could bring to the table was an exploration of characters, themes and motivations. Most importantly, it could explore the mind of Hercule Poirot, a character the viewers had become so familiar with over the last two decades that there really was no need just to explore his eccentricities (like the film, and the novel, to a certain extent, do). In the article ‘Love, Crime, and Agatha Christie’, Mark Aldridge explains:
The power of [this adaptation’s denouement] lies in its further context, specifically the fact that Suchet has played the part since the program began in 1989, portraying Poirot as a reserved character, precise and unemotional. The sudden fury therefore becomes a shock to the audience, indicating the extent to which this one case has affected him. [...] His emotional response can only have real resonance in the television series, where the audience has had over twenty years with the character and actor and are fully aware of the importance of the truth to him whatever the implications.
Scriptwriter Harcourt decided to emphasise the themes of justice and morality in the novel. In an article he wrote for the Daily Mail, Harcourt outlines the themes of the adaptation (and, in turn, the novel):
When I was writing it, I found myself thinking about the McCanns. What would happen if they knew who had taken Madeleine and that person was cleared of the crime? What happens to people when they feel justice has been denied? How far is it legitimate to go? Here are 12 good people who have lived blameless lives until they find themselves in the middle of nowhere to take vengeance. A child's life has been taken away and these people, who have put their faith in justice, have been let down.
They are incapable of going on with their lives until they achieve closure. For the fastidious Poirot, this puts him in a quandary. Should he turn them over to the police, or has justice been done?
With this context in mind, it’s time to look at the changes Harcourt has made to the plot. He adds an opening scene, in which Poirot witnesses (or indeed causes) the suicide of a soldier. This is actually mentioned in the novel (‘A very distinguished officer had committed suicide’), but in a different context. As “therebelprince” over at The Agatha Christie Reader puts it, this scene ‘allows us to drop any pretence of Poirot simply being a ‘white knight’, as he is asked to question his own intractable belief that the truth, and a narrow view of justice, is all that matters’. Next, there’s a conversation between Poirot and another soldier, who escorts him to Istanbul (not at the train platform, like in the novel, but on a ferry). The soldier thinks the suicide was unjust, but Poirot objects that it was the dead man’s own choice to lie. This further emphasises Poirot’s sense of right and wrong, which will be challenged later on. He trusts his own sense and right and wrong. Moreover, Harcourt adds a stoning scene in the streets of Istanbul. This has been heavily criticised. I can agree with that criticism, to a certain extent. This isn’t typical Christie. It adds a serious aspect to the story that wasn't there in the first place. However, I’m inclined to support the addition. It highlights the dilemma that Poirot will later be facing, and it brings the questions of the law and the jury system to the fore. Who are the 'savages in the street' and who are 'twelve good men and true', and what differentiates the two senses of justice?
As Poirot arrives at the hotel in Istanbul, he doesn’t immediately recognise M. Bouc. In the novel, they are old friends, but here he’s just another acquaintance who Poirot barely remembers. The following restaurant scene (and Poirot’s first encounter with MacQueen and Ratchett) is removed. Instead, we get some scenes that show the threatening letters discovered in Ratchett’s hotel room. The Taurus Express (that was removed from the opening scenes) is mentioned by Miss Ohlsson, who has just arrived by that train. As the passengers board the train, we learn that Mary Debenham has a limp arm (we later learn that this was caused by the important events in the past). Later, a conversation between Miss Debenham and Poirot on justice (in light of the stoning) is added. Once again, this highlights the central questions of justice and morality that Harcourt has decided to explore.
Moreover, Dr. Constantine, the Greek doctor, has become a Greek obstetrician living in America. We later discover he has also been made a culprit to the crime; he replaces Mr. Hardman, who has been deleted. The change and deletion of the character is perfectly understandable. Harcourt reduces the number of characters because of the limited screen time. Also, it’s in keeping with other Christie plots to have one of Poirot’s ‘helpers’ become a culprit in the crime (see, for instance, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd or The ABC Murders).
The famous line, ‘Forgive me for being personal - I do not like your face’ has been removed. However, it’s very clear from the exchange of looks between Poirot and Ratchett that the essence has been kept. Moreover, Ratchett is seeking penance. He has turned to God for protection (“an extra gun”). This was certainly not in the novel, but I think it works here, because it increases the dilemma Poirot is eventually faced with; does it make a difference if the guilty party is repentant? Also, later in the film, we see Poirot with his rosary, praying. Even Ratchett prays. Again, opinion has been divided on these changes. Many viewers dislike the addition of religion to Poirot’s character, but that should hardly be news. He proclaims himself a bon catholique throughout the novels, and in the series there have been references to his faith in ‘Triangle at Rhodes’, Taken at the Flood, Appointment With Death and Third Girl. This is the same man who proclaims to Hastings in Peril at End House, ‘I will not sit back and say ‘le bon Dieu has arranged everything, I will not interfere.’ Because I am convinced that le bon Dieu created Hercule Poirot for the express purpose of interfering’. It is my métier’. As mentioned, I also think the change to Ratchett’s character, making him a repentant criminal, adds an important aspect to Poirot’s subsequent dilemma.
Once the murder has occurred, Poirot is somewhat reluctant to take the case on. Some viewers might find this surprising. In the past, Poirot has always jumped at the opportunity of solving an interesting case, and this can certainly be said to be interesting. Again, I think this change makes sense in light of the experiences he has had before he gets on the train; the suicide and the stoning. Also, we are watching a more world-weary Poirot. This is, after all, set in the later years of his career. Both these aspects explain why Poirot is more reluctant than usual. He is disturbed by the recent events and disillusioned by the persistence of crime and murder despite his efforts to ‘rid the world of crime’. His overall irritated state should also be attributed to the environment he finds himself in. As Chris Chan points out, Poirot strongly dislikes cold, damp environments, and he can get very grumpy if he is forced to endure them. See, for instance, the adaptation of ‘The Mystery at Hunter’s Lodge’ or Hercule Poirot’s Christmas. Suchet’s acting is perfectly in keeping with the earlier episodes on that point.
Generally speaking, all the interviews are shortened down. Significantly. As earlier mentioned, this is mainly because the length of this adaptation was restricted (like most of the feature length adaptations) to about 90 minutes. It’s understandable, but it would have been nice to see some more of the actual investigation. Still, the 1974 film is fairly faithful to that part of the story, so fans could always watch that one if this is a particularly crucial loss. Some viewers, especially Americans, have complained that the adaptation as a whole feels particularly rushed. I can share some of that frustration, but I think the main reason behind it is that PBS, the channel that airs Poirot in the US, cut several important scenes from the adaptation, including the red kimono clue, Poirot’s arrival on the train and bits and pieces of all the interviews. No wonder it felt rushed. But of course the time constraints I have already mentioned contributed, too.
There are several minor changes as well, e.g. combining some of the interviews, the lack of water/heating/electricity I mentioned earlier, and Helena Goldenberg becomes Wasserstein (Waterstone in English – the 1974 film chose Grünwald, Greenwood). Also, Miss Ohlsson is more religious than in the novel (she has strong opinions about Catholic penance and forgiveness as opposed to Protestantism), but then she did have a faith in the novel, too (‘That there are in the world such evil men. It tries one’s faith’). But let’s turn our attention to the denouement.
If the interview sections were shortened down, the denouement and its aftermath is given more prominence than both the previous film and the novel. Poirot and the culprits enter into a lengthy discussion on justice and the rule of law, linked in part with religion. While this was never present in the original story, I think it’s a natural extension of the themes of the novel. This is a story about justice, about doing ‘the right thing’, and about the grey areas of right and wrong. Is Ratchett any worse than the others? If he is, then what is it that makes us so sure of that fact? What is the ‘right’ and the ‘wrong’ kind of justice?
Harcourt adds a crucial scene in which Colonel Arbuthnot is about to kill Poirot and Bouc, but he is stopped by Mary Debenham and the others. Some say this is completely out of character. In a way, I suppose it is. But the scene is added, I think, to prove a point. This might be what tips the scale for Poirot. Miss Debenham says that if he kills them, ‘he’s no better than Casetti’, and she urges him to remember that ‘we don’t do what is wrong’. The difference between Ratchett/Casetti and the 'jurors' is that they accept the course of justice once Poirot has revealed the truth. They wanted justice for Daisy, but they are unlikely to repeat the act, because that would make them as bad as Ratchett.
Of course, this is a difficult decision to make, and Poirot doesn’t let them go light-heartedly. Some fans have objected that he is too troubled by the decision in light of other cases in which he has let the guilty party get away with the crime (e.g. The Double Clue, The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly, The Chocolate Box). There are two important points to be made here. In the two first cases, we are not dealing with murder, and the culprits return what they have taken/stolen. In the third case, the culprit is deadly ill, and Poirot is merely postponing the truth. Second, in all three cases, there’s only one culprit. Here, Poirot is faced with more culprits than in any other story. And it’s murder. So there’s a noticeable difference between the situation he is faced with in Murder on the Orient Express and the ones he faced in these short stories. Finally, as I mentioned earlier, I think it’s important to bear in mind that Poirot is a more world-weary man here. He returned to the ‘ghosts’ he tried to escape in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and recent events prove that the world hasn’t become a better place, even with him present to ‘interfere’. By this point in his career, he might very possibly be facing serious doubts about his raison d’etre, especially when faced with a case unlike any other.
In summary, scriptwriter Stewart Harcourt has remained true to the essentials of the story (all the characters bar one are there, the interviews are there, the solution is the same etc), but he has also added several scenes to emphasise and further explore the themes of the novel (justice, morality, and by extension religion). He has emphasised character complexity over plot, which is an option that was open to him because of the two decades of adaptations. The team, Harcourt, and David Suchet, had the confidence that the audience would know the character inside out. All in all, I think this is a successful attempt at reinterpreting a classic. It’s not perfect, but it’s as close at it can get.
Directing, production design, locations, soundtrack
Philip Martin was a good choice as director for this adaptation. In collaboration with cinematographer Alan Almond (who should be given credit here!), he manages to convey the sense of confinement the train has to offer. Camera angles, lighting and colours all create a specific atmosphere. The use of close-ups increases the tension, and I particularly enjoy the way certain shots convey the exchange of looks between the culprits throughout. Production designer Jeff Tessler and his team should be given due credit as well. The recreation of the Orient Express is absolutely perfect and completely believable. Some of the CGI shots feel slightly artificial, but that can hardly be blamed on anyone in the crew (that’s a money issue, more than anything else). The actual locations used, apart from the train set at Pinewood Studios, include Black Park Country Park (the scene in the woods), Nene Valley Railway (?, the train exterior), St. Ursula Street in Valetta, Malta (the streets of Istanbul), and the Freemason Hall (Tokatlian Hotel reception). Christian Henson’s soundtrack for this film is absolutely outstanding, echoing the rhythm of the train and story and culminating in a particularly poignant end scene (“Redemption).
Characters and actors
Many fans have argued that Suchet’s portrayal is inconsistent in this adaptation. They refer to his anger, his mood, his religious attitudes and the lack of his eccentricities. As I have tried to outline in the script section, I’m not of that opinion. His anger and irritation is perfectly natural given the situation he is put in (the moral dilemma, the challenge to his raison d’etre, the unwelcoming, cold and uncomfortable environment). The religious element is in keeping with Christie’s character, but it has been played up in recent years as a way for Suchet to explore new territories with the character. His eccentricities are still there (the eggs of the same size, the moustache wax, his vanity etc), but they are naturally overshadowed by other themes. [See my analysis of David Suchet’s achievement for more details].
As to the guest cast, there’s not much to say. Most are perfectly suited to their characters (e.g. Eileen Atkins, Toby Jones, Jessica Chastain, Barbara Hershey). I particularly like the fact that they have tried to use actors who are actually German and French for actual German and French roles – with important exceptions (even though both actors are good and work well for the adaptation, Briton Joseph Mawle doesn’t really come across as Italian, and Canadian Marie-Josée Croze isn’t entirely convincing as Swedish). It’s difficult to pick a favourite here, but I think Chastain proves why she has gone on to achieve greater fame since this adaptation was made.