30 Years of Agatha Christie’s Poirot

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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.

My 15 favourite hour-long episodes of Agatha Christie’s Poirot

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Yeah, I know they’re technically about 50 minutes when you lose the adverts. But having once listed my favourite feature-length episodes of ITV’s Poirot series, I thought I’d mop up the best of the rest.

* Murder in the Mews (15 January 1989) – this early episode has a neat twist and also demonstrates how the show embellished some often thin short stories when adapting them for TV.

* The Third Floor Flat (5 February 1989) – Josie Lawrence pops up in an episode set mainly in Poirot’s block of flats.

* Problem At Sea (19 February 1989) – one of the earliest Poirot-on-holiday stories, and the first episode where I worked out who did it (I was nine years old and very smug).

* The King of Clubs (12 March 1989) – especially in its early series, the show often used its 1930s setting to provide colour and flavour. This episode, for example, centres on the British film industry.

* The Dream (19 March 1989) – Agatha Christie’s plotting sometimes relies on you not being able to *see* the events and that obviously presents a problem for television. This episode has an ingenious solution.

* The Veiled Lady (14 January 1990) – in this light, frothy episode, Poirot dresses up as a workman so he can burgle a house.

* The Lost Mine (21 January 1990) – a slight mystery, but a stylish episode that uses London’s Chinatown as a backdrop.

* The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim (4 February 1990) – there’s a sticks-out-like-a-sore-thumb twist, but also lots of comedy. Poirot learns some magic tricks, has to look after a parrot, and sends Hastings out to investigate on his behalf. The episode was written by David Renwick (One Foot in the Grave, Jonathan Creek, Love Soup).

* How Does Your Garden Grow? (6 January 1991) – a nice, well-written mystery with some lovely subplots and a comedic conclusion.

* Wasps’ Nest (27 January 1991) – Peter Capaldi guest stars in a dark yet bucolic mystery story.

* The Mystery of the Spanish Chest (17 February 1991) – a nasty whodunit with stylish flashbacks.

* The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge (10 March 1991) – the script contains a superb sleight of hand, which plays tricks with the drama convention that characters always tell the truth about certain things.

* The Chocolate Box (21 February 1993) – a flashback episode to when Poirot was a copper in pre-war Belgium. Oddly, everyone has an English accent… except Poirot.

* Dead Man’s Mirror (28 February 1993) – a cracking mystery set in a country house with a limited cast of suspects (ie, the definitive Agatha setting).

* Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan (7 March 1993) – Poirot and Hastings visit the seaside in the last ever ‘hour-long’ episode. A valuable necklace is stolen and I claim my five guineas.

My 20 favourite TV title sequences – part four

Note: I’ve restricted myself to dramas and comedies.

Part one here. Part two here. Part three here.

5 Magnum PI (1980-1988)

4 Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)

3 Black Sails (2014 onwards)

2 The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990-1996)

1 Agatha Christie’s Poirot (1989-2013)

 

My 10 favourite TV performances

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A while ago, my mate Robert Dick mooted assembling a list of his 10 favourite TV performances. It got me thinking, so here’s mine. What are your favourites?

* Peter Falk (Columbo in Columbo)

* Martin Freeman (Tim Canterbury in The Office)

* Tamsin Greig (Alice Chenery in Love Soup)

* Allison Janney (CJ Cregg in The West Wing)

* David Jason (Del Boy Trotter in Only Fools and Horses)

* Shelley Long (Diane Chambers in Cheers)

* James Marsters (Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

* Bob Peck (Ronald Craven in Edge of Darkness)

* Matthew Perry (Chandler Bing in Friends)

* David Suchet (Hercule Poirot in Agatha Christie’s Poirot)

Narrowing it down to 10 was tough. I didn’t have room for Patrick Stewart (Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation), Bradley Whitford (Danny Tripp in Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip), John Cleese (Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers), Terry O’Quinn (John Locke in Lost), Kirstie Alley (Rebecca Howe in Cheers), John Thaw (Morse in Inspector Morse), Hugh Fraser (Captain Hastings in Agatha Christie’s Poirot), Jason Alexander (George Costanza in Seinfeld), Dexter Fletcher (Spike Thompson in Press Gang) and others that have slipped my mind.

My 10 favourite feature-length episodes of Agatha Christie’s Poirot

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* The ABC Murders (5 January 1992) – the best one: a delightfully directed and structured tour de force, with an imaginative plot and plenty of fun.

* Dumb Witness (16 March 1997) – her off of The Brittas Empire, a speedboat and Monsieur Bob.

* The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (2 January 2000) – a clever-clever adaptation of Christie’s most ingenious novel.

* Lord Edgware Dies (19 February 2000) – it may cheat, showing you something that doesn’t actually happen, but this is still terrific entertainment. Great characters. Killer twist.

* Evil Under the Sun (20 April 2001) – a devious little plot based on a holiday island. And the last time we see all four main regulars together for ages.

* Five Little Pigs (14 December 2003) – the series is relaunched (fewer regular characters, a new filmic house style) with this POV-twisting flashback tale.

* Death on the Nile (12 April 2004) – a famous story, beautifully adapted with a fun cast.

* After the Funeral (26 March 2006) – the twist is glaringly obvious, but I just didn’t see it.

* Murder on the Orient Express (25 December 2010) – a sombre, thoughtful, pensive version of Poirot’s most famous story. Very moving.

* Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case (13 November 2013) – we waited for 25 years for this episode. It didn’t disappoint.

See a list of my favourite hour-long episodes here…