30 Years of Agatha Christie’s Poirot

agatha-christies-poirot

In early 1989, I was nearly 10 years old. My mother was – and still is – an Agatha Christie fan, so when she spotted that a new TV series based on Christie’s work was starting on ITV, she suggested we watch it together. Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first shown on Sunday 8 January. It was a detective show with ingenious scripts, a brilliant regular cast, and wonderful production values. Each episode was a self-contained mystery plot (usually a murder mystery) adapted from an Agatha Christie short story or novel and featuring one of her greatest creations, the private detective Hercule Poirot. I loved it immediately.

Initially, the creative forces behind the scenes were producer Brian Eastman and writer Clive Exton, who between them set the tone and format and look for the show. Exton wrote many early episodes himself and also script-edited other writers, including David Renwick (One Foot in the Grave, Jonathan Creek) and Anthony Horowitz (Crime Traveller, Foyle’s War). When setting up the series, the two men made several masterstroke decisions. One was to move every story to a mid-1930s setting. Agatha Christie’s original stories take place across a half-century spread, but here the writers set almost every episode in 1936 or 1937. (An adaptation of the first Poirot novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was kept in 1917 as a kind of flashback special. There was also an episode telling us about Poirot’s pre-war life as a Belgian policeman.)

If this created a rather head-scratching timeline – in just a couple of years, Hercule Poirot solves more than 60 complex cases, has a temporary retirement to the country, and makes several lengthy overseas trips – it was really worth it, because it meant the show could take place in a gorgeous Art Deco world. Episodes glisten with beautiful sets, costumes and locations that evoke a fantasyland Britain of ornate architecture, sleek 1930s cars, trains and powerboats, post-flapper fashions and modernist art. (Eastman and Exton later pulled the same trick with Jeeves & Wooster, ITV’s hootful adaptation of PG Wodehouse.)

Another insightful and cheerishable decision by the creative team was to establish three other regular characters, creating a team of sidekicks around the central detective character of Poirot. This trio came from Christie’s work, for sure, but Eastman and Exton chose to insert them into stories in which they didn’t originally appear. A radical decision, but an immensely wise one, as it created not only continuity across the episodes but a loveable gang of friends we enjoy hanging out with.

And casting of those four regular characters was absolutely perfect.

There have been many great fictional crime-solvers on television – Columbo, both incarnations of Morse, the recent Sherlock, Christopher Foyle – but the finest and the most entertaining is the fastidious, pedantic, perceptive, idiosyncratic, iconoclastic, kind, generous, insightful, arrogant, vain, Belgian private detective Hercule Poirot as played by David Suchet.

The character had debuted in Christie’s first ever novel and went on to appear in 32 more, as well as a few dozen short stories and a stage play. When he was cast in the role in 1988, Suchet read all of these stories and noted down 93 specific details about the detective gleaned from Christie’s text. The first one was ‘Belgian! NOT French.’ The actor quickly gained a reputation for fiercely protecting the all-important specifics of Poirot: the way he walked, the way he spoke, the look of his moustaches and suits. Therefore the TV version of the character stayed reasonably close to his prose origins. Even so, Suchet added a huge amount of depth, texture and enjoyable humour too. He took a character who’s compelling enough to read in a novel or short story, and brought him to life and made him feel real. In each and every scene, you can’t take your eyes off Poirot. It’s one of the *the* great performances in British TV history.

As mentioned, in most episodes of Agatha Christie’s Poirot made in the 20th century, there’s also a recurring group of allies. Hugh Fraser played the stoic, brave and affable Captain Arthur Hastings, a man invalided out of the First World War who became Poirot’s right-hand man, confidant and sounding board. (He’s often the audience’s proxy, asking the obvious questions and jumping to the wrong conclusions. But you always love him for his naivety.) Cast as Miss Felicity Lemon, Poirot’s endlessly efficient secretary, was Pauline Moran, who added withering sarcasm to the character’s primness and poise. Scotland Yard’s Detective Chief Inspector James Japp, meanwhile, was played with gruffness, guile and ramshackle charm by Philip Jackson. None of these sidekicks appears in every episode, but you always miss them when they’re not involved. They’re absolutely brilliant.

Yet another masterful decision made early on concerned the adaptations. The scripts were faithful to Agatha Christie’s originals… to a point. They retained the spirit and essence of Christie – the perfectly engineered plots, the mysteries, the clues, the vivid guest characters, the drama, the wit – but often made *numerous* changes. Almost every episode in the show’s first five years, for example, was based on a short story – and some of Agatha’s short stories were very short indeed. The episodes clearly needed expanding. Sometimes these extra subplots came organically out of what Christie had written. Or they could be period colour – scenes at a 1930s film studio, for example, or in the nightclubs of Chinatown. Often they were just unashamedly comedic. Whether it was Japp misunderstanding what a bidet is, or Miss Lemon spending an entire episode looking for some lost keys, these embellishments are just as important as the murders and the suspects and the country houses.

There were, however, changes as the series developed. Occasional feature-length specials were added to the mix, then became the norm when the well of short stories had dried up. A new regime at ITV insisted that Hastings, Japp and Lemon were dropped – unceremoniously and regrettably – after the 2002 special Murder in Mesopotamia. The episodes became more filmic and more ostentatiously star-studded. And two new occasional characters were introduced: Zoe Wanamaker’s Ariadne Oliver (a mystery-story writer who Agatha Christie fairly obviously styled on herself) and Poirot’s unflappable valet, George (David Yelland). The quality remained, but in a different way. There were still many fine and enjoyable episodes, but they were a touch more earnest and perhaps less charming.

For quarter of a century, the show adapted Hercule Poirot’s entire canon. (Well, nearly. A short story or two slipped through the net. The stageplay was ignored.) Then it came to an end on 13 November 2013 with Curtain, an episode based on the novel that details Poirot’s final case…

Agatha Christie is the single most successful author in history. The fact usually trotted out in these circumstances is that her catalogue has been outsold by only the Bible and William Shakespeare. It’s such a well-quoted detail that maybe we’re numbed to its power, so let’s emphasise: that is a *monumental* achievement. Of every novelist there’s ever been, in any language you care to mention, at any point in history, Agatha Christie is the best-selling. And she didn’t publish anything until Shakespeare had been dead for three centuries.

Her work has been adapted into films and television shows countless times. Some of them are good, some of them are bad. But the David Suchet series Agatha Christie’s Poirot is easily the best.

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