Sunday 12 July 2015

REVIEW: Agatha Christie - The Pocket Essential by Mark Campbell (2015)

2015 is the year of Agatha Christie's 125th birthday. The Christie estate is gearing up for two new TV adaptations on BBC1: Partners in Crime this July (miniseries starring Tommy and Tuppence, aka David Walliams and Jessica Raine), and And Then There Were None (TV film with an "all star cast"). We could also add the upcoming adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express (apparently without David Suchet!), possibly to be directed by Kenneth Branagh, and the release of Sophie Hannah's The Monogram Murders last year, to that list.

To coincide with the anniversary, Oldcastle Books are rereleasing a new and updated edition of Mark Campbell's Agatha Christie, a 'Pocket Essential' book which examines Christie's entire body of work, as well as every English language adaptation on television, radio, stage and film (not including the not-yet-released BBC1 adaptations and the new MOTOE). Mark Campbell has written for The Independent, Midweek, Crime Time and The Dark Side. He was also one of the main contributors to the two-volume British Crime Writing: An Encyclopedia, and the last theatre critic for The Kentish Times.

Campbell's book is a comprehensive and fascinating guide to Christie. For some die-hard Christie fans, most of the information should be well-known. We get thorough introductions to each Christie character, including Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Tommy and Tuppence, Parker Pyne, Harley Quin. We also get a complete checklist of Christie's work, and each character chapter offers a guide to the individual stories, with a case overview, context, and a review by Campbell. But even for die-hard fans, there should be something to get their teeth into. I enjoyed the character descriptions, as they are possibly the most concise and accurate descriptions I've seen, apart from Anne Hart's excellent character studies of Poirot and Miss Marple in the early 1990s. And it's always intriguing to read other reviews of the stories you know, to see whether you agree with them or not. Also, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Campbell includes Christie's Mary Westmacott novels as well as her poetry, children's stories and memoirs. I shouldn't be surprised, since this claims to be a complete guide, but more often than not, books on Christie tend to focus on her crime writing career exclusively.

Since this blog focuses mainly on the Christie adaptations, particularly ITV's Agatha Christie's Poirot, I'm happy to say that Campbell is just as thorough when, later in the book, he turns his attention to every single adaptation of a Christie story. We get the same, handy guide to the individual adaptations, with cast, crew, premiere dates and Campbell's observations. The guide seems to be up to date as of 2015, including the final series of Poirot, Sophie Hannah's novel, and a new stage adaptation of The Secret Adversary. However, as a Poirot fan, I must admit I was somewhat disappointed Campbell didn't offer his thoughts on every single Poirot episode. Instead, we get an overall review. Still, with 70 different adaptations, that would almost amount to a separate 'Pocket Essential' in itself!

All in all, then, Mark Campbell's Agatha Christie is an impressively complete guide to Agatha Christie's work; an essential Christie encyclopedia. The book is a perfect birthday or Christmas present for anyone who has an above average interest in all things Christie. Or those who don't know her range - from crime to thriller, adventure, poetry, romance and children's stories. I'll certainly have my copy available whenever an 'uninitiated' Christie fan stops by!

Wednesday 1 July 2015

The Screenwriters: Nick Dear

"I was first approached to do it in 2002 I think. (...) I couldn't say Agatha Christie was very high on my reading list. I thought I was much too much of an intellectual for that. I'm now prepared to accept that I might have been too much of a snob because after a dozen years of being associated with the shows, because I have written six of them now for ITV, I think it's very classy entertainment and I'm pleased to be associated with it." (Huffington Post interview, 2013)
Nick Dear (1955-) wrote six adaptations for Poirot between 2003 and 2013. Outside of Poirot, he is known as a BAFTA-winning script writer (for Persuasion, an adaptation of Jane Austen's novel, in 1995). He has also written biographical TV movies on Byron and Beethoven. In 2011, he adapted Mary Shelley's Frankenstein for the stage, directed by Danny Boyle and starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller (the two Sherlocks!). In other words, he was no stranger to literary adaptations when he was asked to adapt Christie's novels.
"Nobody ever grieves for a minute in Christie; 10 seconds of grief, then it's onto the next murder. What we've done with them in the last 10 years is make them rather darker, existentially bleaker, and have Poirot faced sometimes with very difficult moral choices" (Huffington Post interview, 2013)
Dear's first episode was The Hollow, for Series Nine (2003-2004). I know opinion is divided on whether this is a successful adaptation, but I'm rather fond of it. The novel is complex, in the sense that there's a lot of internal monologue. Dear elegantly balances the melancholy with the humour, the seriousness with the eccentricity of our central character. As the quote above shows, Dear's adaptation and that entire 2003-2004 series was the beginning of a new development in the series. I'm one of the supporters of this move. The difficult moral choices would resurface in his last adaptation, not to mention in Murder on the Orient Express and Curtain, adapted by Stewart Harcourt and Kevin Elyot respectively.
"In most of the stories, the proposal is of a world that we recognise in which people behave appropriately and politely, and then very quickly discover that beneath that surface there's all kinds of mayhem." (Huffington Post interview, 2013)
The above quotation could describe several, if not all, Dear's episodes. It also helps to explain his changes to Cards on the Table, which was his next adaptation, for Series Ten (2005-2006). The adaptation certainly centres on mayhem beneath the surface. I think most fans consider this adaptation a deviation too far from the source material. The episode is faithful and almost perfect up until the last half hour. I'm all for updating stories for a modern audience if it's done in a clever and almost unnoticable way, but the added gay subtext just doesn't work here, even if it provides a somewhat understandable motive for murder. Look to Five Little Pigs for an example of when a gay subtext really works.

However, I enjoy the rest of the episode so much that I'm inclined to excuse this peculiar plot change. He writes brilliantly for Suchet and Zoë Wanamaker as Poirot and crime writer Ariadne Oliver (which is probably why four of his six adaptations are Ariadne/Poirot novels).

"There's been a stipulation from ITV, who always produces it, they're always set in the 1930s. So no matter when they are written, we have to set them in the late 30s, just for that style thing that people like so much." (Huffington Post interview, 2013)
Dear's third adaptation was Mrs McGinty's Dead for Series Eleven (2008). As mentioned, Dear really makes the friendship between Poirot and Mrs Oliver work. Of course, a great deal of praise should go to the actors, but Dear manages to condense the novels and make changes without losing out on the excellent chemistry between both the characters and the actors. Once again, the theme of secrets beneath the surface is prominent, and Dear effortlessly shifts the setting from the 1950s to the 1930s (see the quote above).

Three Act Tragedy was Dear's next adaptation, for Series Twelve (2010). Like all (but one) Dear's scripts, it stays remarkably close to its source material. Dear manages to convey the theatricality of the plot as well as the darkening of Poirot's character (as a result of the added friendship with Sir Charles). The more I think of it, Dear is truly the main representative of the change in atmosphere and character study that occurred in the later years of the series.

"To a degree we are looking to 'modernise' the glamour of the story if you like. Not to update it. (...) I say modernise, I don't mean update the story, I mean update the grammar, and sometimes the pace. (...) It's trying not to make them look dated. They are all set in the 1930s, but we try and keep them at the speed that we like to watch TV now." (Huffington Post interview, 2013)
Elephants Can Remember, Dear's seventh adaptation, for Series Thirteen (2013) must have been a real challenge. It was the last Poirot novel Christie wrote, and that shows. I think the adaptation is reasonably successful. The novel is very slow-paced and rather chatty. That wouldn't do for a modern audience, as the above quote shows. It seems Dear's solution was to add the second murder investigation into the Willoughby institute, and that works surprisingly well. Most of the episode is carried by the excellent chemistry between Poirot and Ariadne, however. But the episode is surprisingly faithful, considering the circumstances.

Dead Man's Folly, for Series Thirteen, was Dear's final adaptation. It's his own favourite, as stated in a recent interview, and I'm inclined to agree with him. It flows well, it has some excellent actors and an unbeatable location. Not to mention the fact that it underlines Poirot's evolving morals, seemingly 'allowing' and approving of a murder-suicide - and that's a long way away from the 'I do not approve of murder'-Poirot from the first series.

His last adaptation is perhaps also an example of how Dear, for the most part, was gently modernising Christie's stories without making it seem to obvious (as always, Cards on the Table is the notable exception). The Hollow is 'sexed-up' with a very modern sex scene, but that doesn't intrude on the story and occurs is the result of an embellishment rather than a change to Christie's original. Mrs McGinty's Dead plays up the 'mainiac/weirdo killer' element of the murderer's character, but that's arguably a reasonable interpretation of the character. The same goes for Three Act Tragedy, and to a certain extent Elephants Can Remember. We are used to serial killers, psychopaths and maniacs in our modern crime dramas, so it's no surprise that Dear and the team decide to emphasise those elements in Christie to keep up with its audience - for better or for worse. Dead Man's Folly, finally, emphasises the difficult moral dilemmas in the subtext of some of Christie's later novels, and the later adaptations, but without stretching the source material too far.

Friday 12 June 2015

The Screenwriters: Guy Andrews

"The book, by Agatha's own admission, was not one of her favourites, and we've taken some monstrous liabilities with it." (Behind the scenes: The Mystery of the Blue Train, 2006)
Guy Andrews wrote four scripts for Poirot: The Mystery of the Blue Train and Taken at the Flood for Series Ten (2005-2006), Appointment with Death for Series Eleven (2008), and The Labours of Hercules for Series Thirteen (2013). He is known for the mini-series Lost in Austen, Blandings and Prime Suspect 5: Errors of Judgement. The first two demonstrates that he is entrusted with adapting other literary classics (Jane Austen and P. G. Woodehouse), and in Lost in Austen I'd say he succeeds, at least within its genre of television. Prime Suspect, the award-winning and exceptional series starring Helen Mirren, proves that he masters the crime genre, and his episode is well done (Prime Suspect 5 won and Emmy for Outstanding Miniseries).

I have a very conflicted view of Guy Andrews' screenwriting abilities on Poirot, as my episode-by-episode reviews can testify to. The quotation above sums up his approach to the source material - 'monstrous liabilities'. Appointment with Death is easily my least favourite Poirot episode (or at least it would have been if it hadn't been saved by an excellent soundtrack, location and production design). Taken at the Flood is passable, but the whole point of the title and the murder is lost in transition from page to screen. The Mystery of the Blue Train is, again, simply saved by great actors and a beautiful location. Only The Labours of Hercules manages to succeed, and I think that's simply because 'monstrous liabilities' was the only thing we could expect. I'm merely impressed by the fact that he actually managed to create something that almost makes sense and tie up some loose ends in Poirot's life.

However, I say I'm conflicted, and that's because I realise that he's been given some of the most challenging adaptation tasks. Appointment with Death is the only exception, really, and I offer no apologies for that particular adaptation. Yes, it's filled with internal monologues and overheard conversations, but look at what Nick Dear managed to do with The Hollow, an intensely internal novel, or Kevin Elyot, with Five Little Pigs.

Now, back to the adaptation challenge and why Andrews should be allowed at least a little leeway. The Mystery of the Blue Train is not one of Christie's best novels, and the team had already adapted the short story on which the plot is based, 'The Plymouth Express'. So changes were, indeed, necessary. Without any knowledge of Christie's novel, the adaptation works, for the most part, for a 'modern' audience. And I'm glad he took the opportunity to emphasise Poirot's increasing loneliness by the end of the episode (though I feel certain that's Suchet's doing). Taken at the Flood suffers from ITV's insistence on keeping the adaptations in the 1930s, which meant the war background was lost in Andrews' script. So the fact that it doesn't completely work isn't entirely Andrews' fault. And once again, he manages to develop Poirot's character by emphasising the hints of Catholicism in the source material (but I think we can thank (?) Suchet for that, too).

The Labours of Hercules was the surprise of the bunch for me. Remember, this is a collection of twelve more or less unrelated short stories - an almost impossible task for any script writer and possibly the most difficult of all the Poirot adaptation (with the exception of The Big Four, perhaps). Yes, the Mexian stand-off in the denoument scene and the melodramatic final lines between Poirot and Marrascaud ('I shall not hide' etc) are over the top. And it's disappointing that so many of the short stories are left out. Not to mention the fact that it stretches credibility more than a little that all these people just happen to be in the same hotel (but, to be fair, so does the premise that Poirot just happens to stumble upon a series of cases, in the right order, that resemble the mythological Labours). However, as I've tried to demonstrate in my episode-by-episode review, the atmosphere and character study more than makes up for any plot niggles, in my view.

To summarise, Andrews is not my favourite of the Poirot script writers. He takes too many risks and the changes tend not to work - unfortunately. But his adaptation of The Labours of Hercules manages to redeem his reputation somewhat, and I think he should be given some leeway for being handed some of the more impossible novels.

Sunday 7 June 2015

The Screenwriters: Anthony Horowitz

Anthony Horowitz (1955-) wrote eleven adaptations for Agatha Christie's Poirot between 1991 and 2001. His body of work is too long to summarise here, but he is a miracle man. Where does he get his energy from? In addition to Poirot, he created and wrote nearly all the scripts for the exceptional Foyle's War (2002-2013) and wrote the first few scripts for Midsomer Murders (1997-). He also wrote and created three other successful crime dramas; Murder in Mind (2001-2003, with a significant role for David Suchet in the first episode "Teacher"), Collision (2009) and Injustice (2011). Outside of television, he is a renowned author of young adult novels, and has written for both the Arthur Conan Doyle / Sherlock Holmes (The House of Silk, Moriarty) and the Ian Fleming / James Bond (Trigger Mortis) estates. So he is by no means a stranger to the crime genre.
"Brian Eastman [the original Poirot producer] was thinking of doing a series of Maigret and they brought me in as a possible writer, and when that didn't happen, I ended up writing scripts for Poirot. Actually, I'm much more of an Agatha Christie than Georges Simenon fan. I first encountered her as a student in my gap year and read them while I was travelling around the world – I think I read about 30 of them in one long journey. Why be snooty about her? She is what she is, which is a wonderful constructor of puzzles." (The Guardian interview, 2013).
"With Hastings I used to have a competition with Brian (Eastman) to see have many times I could get the words 'Good Lord!' into the script. Hastings would always hear something; Poirot would make an announcement, and Hastings would say 'Good Lord!'. Two or three times in one script was good going, I used to think." (Super Sleuths, ITV, 2006)
Horowitz was first brought in to adapt four short stories for Series Three (1991). These included 'The Million Dollar Bond Robbery', 'The Double Clue', 'The Mystery of the Spanish Chest' and 'The Theft of the Royal Ruby' (which he co-wrote with Clive Exton). Horowitz proved that he understood the dynamic between the main characters, and, for the most part, the right balance between humour and seriousness. In general terms, the changes he makes to the short stories are sensible and often an improvement on the source material (I'm particularly fond of 'The Double Clue' as an adaptation). Interestingly, Horowitz decides to tie some of the stories in with real historical events, as seen in 'The Million Dollar Bond Robbery' (the virgin voyage of the Queen Mary) and 'The Theft of the Royal Ruby' (the actual Prince Farouk of Egypt). This ties in neatly with his work method on Foyle's War, where almost (?) every episode is based on real life events. 

It was not until Series Five (1993) that Horowitz returned to write his final three short story adaptations; 'The Yellow Iris', 'Dead Man's Mirror' and 'Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan'. Personally, I'm not as fond of these episodes as I am of the ones I discussed above. 'Dead Man's Mirror' is a difficult short story to adapt, simply because of its length and structure, but Horowitz does a decent job and it does contribute to the gradual 'darkening' of the series. 'Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan' is certainly one of the funnier episodes of the series. I did a google search to research what casual viewers of Poirot thought of Horowitz's episodes, and most seemed to enjoy the fact that they had more humour in them than other adaptations. I would certainly agree that the humour works, but it can come dangerously close to making Poirot a 'buffoon', as Suchet describes it.

'The Yellow Iris' is special, in the sense that it distances itself significantly from the source material. Horowitz enjoyed the process:
"In an episode of mine, Yellow Irises (sic), which takes place entirely inside a West End restaurant, with a waiter trying to poison somebody at the table, we then managed to turn that into a story about a South American coup connected with some kind of scam with oil prices. In other words, the body of the story had absolutely nothing to do with this actual short story that Agatha Christie had written! Actually, it was an episode that I like very much; it has David Suchet as Poirot facing a firing squad at one particular moment, so that was sort of nice to write." (Super Sleuths, ITV, 2006)
I actually like that episode, despite the plot changes. The oil scam is reminiscent of some of Horowitz's Foyle's War episodes, in that it takes inspiration from historical events. His changes are based mostly on other events in the Poirot canon (like Poirot going to South America to visit Hastings). But I can understand how some fans might find the changes difficult to accept. Suchet felt the need to explain in his autobiography:
'Thinking about The Yellow Iris now, it reminds me that her greatest fans sometimes object when we depart from her original story in the television films - and they write to tell me so. I always reply by telling them that I am terribly sorry, but not all of her stories adapt easily to the small screen, they are simply too slight, which is why we describe them as 'based on' her originals. I think her die-hard fans forgive us for the adaptations, but I do understand how they feel.' (Poirot and Me 2013, p. 140).
Actually, I think that's one of Horowitz's great strengths. Several of the short stories he adapted are slight and need embellishment to fit the 50 minutes time frame of an episode. Others are lengthy and need to be condensed. Horowitz usually manages both while remaining, in essence, true to Christie's plot devices and way of constructing a crime.

For Series Six (1995-1996), Horowitz was brought back to adapt two novels, Hickory Dickory Dock and Murder on the Links. With the former, he once again decided to tie the story in with a real historical event, the Jarrow March in October 1936. Now, having tried to create a working chronology of the episodes, I must admit I still can't quite forgive the discrepancy with other adaptations (and within the adaptation itself!). But Horowitz is know for that, too. He messed up some of the back story details in his own Foyle's War as well. But don't get me wrong, that has absolutely no impact on the adaptation per se, it's just one of those quibbles nerds/fans like me tend to highlight... (Sorry, Anthony).

Having said that, I do think he does an acceptable job with Hickory Dickory Dock (the mouse motif of the episode is really annoying, but that isn't his fault). The novel is a challenge, because it's one of the first post-war novels to be adapted to the 1930s setting and transporting a student hostel with its diverse residents to the 30s is essentially an impossible task.
Murder on the Links is, by and large, a great episode. Yes, I know some fans dislike the newsreel sequence, but apart from that I really do believe in the love story of Bella and Hastings, and Horowitz makes only minor changes to the novel.

Horowitz's final Poirot scripts were Lord Edgware Dies for Series Seven (2000) and Evil Under the Sun for Series Eight (2001). I'm not entirely sure why, but I'm not particularly fond of any of the episodes from those two series. Perhaps it is because the team seemed to be running out of steam and the adaptations started becoming more formulaic. However, both scripts offer very capable adaptations of Christie's novels, and it's obvious that Horowitz knows Christie inside out. Curiously, he decides to add an Argentinean restaurant in Evil Under the Sun. In fact, Argentina seems to run as a subplot through several of his adaptations. Hastings mentions his dream of a farm in South America in 'The Double Clue', Poirot goes to South America in 'The Yellow Iris', Hastings returns from Argentina with the farm in financial difficulties in Lord Edgware Dies and he opens the restaurant in Evil under the Sun. I'm not entirely sure that was deliberate, apart from the fact that Hastings had to come back from his life with Bella for the remaining adaptations. But it's a curious fact, nonetheless.

"I think it's fair to say that Agatha Christie had a serious influence on my work and I look up to her to this day." (The Mysterious Affair at Styles, introduction by Anthony Horowitz, p. xi)

"The detective-sidekick relationship is a very helpful one and has been in use ever since Conan Doyle created it. Think Morse and Lewis, Barnaby and Troy or even Foyle and Sam." (The Mysterious Affair at Styles, introduction by Anthony Horowitz, p. xiv)
Personally, I see several links between Poirot and Foyle's War. For instance, I'm not surprised to see Horowitz admit that the relationship between Foyle and Sam mirrors that of Poirot and Hastings. In fact, I would suggest Horowitz's family unit (Foyle, Sam, Milner) mirrors Exton's family unit in Poirot (Poirot, Hastings, Japp/Lemon). Another similarity between the two series is the humour and warmth that Horowitz brings to his adaptations. He deserves as much credit as Exton for creating the family dynamic and the familiarity and warmth of the central characters in Poirot. (I must point out, though, that the final scene in Hickory Dickory Dock, between Japp and Poirot, really doesn't work. I'm not sure if it's supposed to be a play on words (i.e. their modern meaning) or simply a way to display Poirot's distaste for English cooking, but I do cringe a little every time a watch that particular scene.

In summation, it's fair to say that Anthony Horowitz left a distinct mark on the Poirot series. He contributed to producer Brian Eastman's main purpose for the show; to give it a definite time and place (linking it to historical events) and create a 'family' and a main character dynamic for viewers to grow fond of (using humour and catchphrases - Good Lord!). With Foyle's War and his many other successful projects in later years, he has proved that he is a crime writer in his own right, beyond scriptwriting for Poirot.

About Me

I'm a passionate fan of Poirot, Agatha Christie and the ITV series. If you have any questions, comments, suggestions or requests, please e-mail me at, post a comment on one of my blogs, or get in touch on Twitter @pchronology. (I used to call myself HickoryDickory)