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.


  1. Hello Eirik. It's good to see you posting again. Always enjoy your thoughts!

    1. Hi there! Thanks a lot! I intend to do some more posts this summer, needed a break :)

  2. Welcome back I hope all is well Eirik?

    1. Hi Danny! Thanks! Nice to hear from you. All is well. It's just been a busy year. Plus, I needed a break from our little Belgian friend. But if everything goes as planned, I'll be back doing more posts this summer :-)


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)