The Curtain Begins to Fall on “Poirot”

Last night PBS here in America screened “The Big Four”, a television adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel featuring her world-famous private detective, Hercule Poirot.  This kick-off of the final season of the long-running British period television series, “Agatha Christie’s Poirot”, is something of a cultural watershed.  Not only is it a remarkable example of acting longevity, in that David Suchet has now played Poirot in an adaptation of every novel and major story featuring that character, but it also raises some questions about how popular culture has changed in the 25 years since the series began.

I was not surprised to learn, while researching this post, that writer Mark Gatiss adapted the screenplay of “The Big Four”.  Gatiss is the co-creator of the popular series “Sherlock”, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman; he is also one of the writers for the equally popular revival of the “Dr. Who” series.  Last night’s “Poirot” episode at several points felt like a rehashed version of “Sherlock”, complete with an unexpected explosion nearly killing off the master detective.  Regular readers will know that I dislike “Sherlock” intensely.  Nor am I a fan of the revival of the Dr. Who series, even though on both of these points I realize I am in the minority.

That being said, the perceptible changes in the “Poirot” series are not down to Gettis alone, since many writers have worked on the show over the past quarter of a century.  Early episodes, for example, featured a spry, Wodehouse-like dialogue, belying the serious nature of the crimes depicted; there was also a generally bright, Art Deco look and sense of optimism to the series.  Later, “Poirot” developed a more shadowy feel, giving rise to a moodier, more Byzantine atmosphere.  The proceedings seemed to grow darker, with murders showcased in increasing detail, rather than being briefly witnessed and later alluded to.  More recently, murders on the show have often accompanied by acts of outright cruelty and humiliation beyond a simple shooting or stabbing, veering into torture.

A contributing factor to the change in tone arose from the whittling down of the regular cast.  Supporting characters such as Poirot’s sidekick, the sporty Captain Hastings, the perpetually glum Inspector Japp, and Poirot’s ever-efficient secretary Miss Lemon, created more of an ensemble feel in the earlier shows.  The actors played off of each other well, mixing seriousness and humor in an outstanding example of good casting.  The absence of these characters from more recent episodes allowed Suchet to really shine as an individual actor, but it also seemed to turn Poirot in on himself: he found himself doubting, questioning, and losing his cool more regularly.

It was obviously a joy last evening for long-time fans of the series to see the old, familiar characters in the opening scenes of the premiere of this final season.  We were treated to shots of Hastings on his ranch in the Pampas, Miss Lemon with her latest cat companion at her London home, and Japp at his desk in Scotland Yard, all within the first three minutes.  Yet even though they returned to the side of their old friend, Poirot himself is clearly not the same man whom they had last worked with years earlier.  There were moments of the old, upbeat sparkle, but on the whole the levity was long-gone, replaced with a more ponderous, sometimes sinister undertone.

Those who know how the Poirot books came to an end, as indeed shall the series, will not find these shifts entirely out of place. Over the years, Agatha Christie grew tired of her most famous literary creation, and in the 1940’s she wrote “Curtain”, the final Poirot case, to be released whenever she thought the series should finish.  The novel was kept in a bank vault, and remained unpublished until shortly before Christie’s death in 1976.

If the final episode of “Poirot” is anything like the original novel, “Curtain” will present significant ethical problems for some viewers and not for others.  Today, the seeming moral ambiguity of Poirot’s last case is something which our contemporary culture not only accepts, but demands.  Today’s audience, apparently, does not want black and white, it wants shades of gray, as it were.  Viewers want conflicted heroes who find difficulty in distinguishing right from wrong.  “There ain’t no good guy, there ain’t no bad guy, there’s only you and me and we just disagree,” as the old song goes.

Although I find it a pity that Christie chose to end Poirot’s career in the way that she did, it would be unfair to the producers of this final series to blame them for the darkening tone which is completely appropriate to the conclusion of this series.  This ending will also be an opportunity, for those who watch it, to observe what transpires, and ask whether there is a right and a wrong, or whether morality is always ambiguous.  The fact that we would even have such a discussion, of course, shows us that quite a lot has changed in the past quarter century, since the “Poirot” series was first broadcast.

Pauline Moran, Philip Jackson, David Suchet, and Hugh Fraser in "The Big Four" (2013)

Pauline Moran, Philip Jackson, David Suchet, and Hugh Fraser in “The Big Four” (2013)

 

Do We Have a Moral Obligation to Shopkeepers?

Although I celebrate the principle of historic preservation, there are times when it can go a bit too far.  The recent case here in Washington of the hideous Christian Science Church near the White House is a good example of how people confuse “old” with “historic” in this country.  However there is a different topic in historic preservation which often gets overlooked, and that is the historic business.  The question I want to pose to the reader is, do we have a moral duty to shopkeepers to preserve their old business, or does that business have to rise or fall through its own merits?

My favorite city in the world, Barcelona, is a very ancient place, founded by the Carthaginians and later populated by the Greeks and Romans.  While no garum shops survive from Roman days – although you can find their amazingly well-preserved ruins in the underground streets atop which sits the City History Museum – there are some businesses still trading that existed a century or more ago.  Set Portes restaurant down near the harbor, for example, has been serving seafood and rice dishes since 1836.

As of January 1st of this year, many of the older shops in Barcelona and throughout Spain are facing almost certain closure.  A national law which we might translate as the “Urban Lease Act”, created substantial changes to the property leasing market throughout Spain.  It contains a number of common-sense reforms, such as clarifying rights and responsibilities for landlord-tenant agreements for university students, but as part of these reforms, the new law also does away with existing rent controls for commercial properties.  This means that many historic shops which lease their premises, and have existed for 50-100 years or more, are now facing extinction.

One early victim, the nearly 70-year-old Canuda bookshop in the Gothic Quarter, has already shut its doors.  So has the superb Monforte toy store, which first opened its doors in 1840.  And it has recently been announced that the lovely old Quilez grocery/delicatessen/liquor store, where I used to go to buy a very specific brand of Russian vodka one cannot find in this country, is going to have to close as well.  The rent hikes on its prominent and prestigious building, located on the corner of a fashionable shopping street downtown, were too great to bear.

Of course, the change in the law will not affect all historic businesses the same way.  As one might imagine, luxury dealers in items like women’s accessories or jewelry/watch dealers will probably survive.  And although it will be too late for many historic businesses, Barcelona city officials are now scrambling – better late than never – to try to come up with some sort of municipal plan of action to save what is left, perhaps through tax breaks or zoning changes.

So this situation brings us back to the question I asked at the beginning of this piece, which is whether we have a moral obligation to protect businesses such as these from changes in the economic environment, or whether the effects of the market on such businesses are morally neutral.

No one likes to see a beautiful old business shut its doors, leaving a hole in a community where it had long-standing ties.  There is something tragic about the loss to the fabric of a neighborhood when this happens, even if it the business in question was only open for a few decades rather than a few centuries.  The departure of several old taverns in my Washington neighborhood of Georgetown for example – particularly The Guards – left me and many others genuinely saddened by the loss.  Georgetown’s commercial district more and more comes to resemble an outdoor shopping mall for people who do not live in the neighborhood, and less of an actual neighborhood for those of us who do live there.

Yet the impetus to engage in commerce, lest one forget it, is in most cases not a charitable one.  Commercial property ownership is not entered into with the expectation that one will lose money by engaging in it, any more than a commercial business sets up shop just to be nice.  The parties are there to make a profit, and to ignore the profit-making principle is to sentimentalize their motives.  In fact, to argue that a business should be preserved simply because it sells nice things that no one wants to buy is arguably a form of idolatary, in which we are asked to worship a golden calf in the form of a book or a marionette or a bottle of gin.

It seems to this scrivener that if there is a moral obligation to preserve an historic business, it is at best one limited to specific instances and not a universal principle – although I rely on you, gentle reader, to upbraid me in the comments box if you disagree.  When customers are not buying, or profits are non-existent, that is unfortunate, and perhaps it is time to shift to trading in something else.  However, that does not mean that the original commercial enterprise must be renewed ad infinitum simply because it is old. Otherwise, we would still have blacksmiths and wig makers on every corner.

The Colmado Quilez on Rambla Catalunya, Barcelona

The Colmado Quilez on Rambla Catalunya, Barcelona

Don’t Touch That Stove!

We are all familiar with the expression, “getting burned” by someone or something.  We use it in the obvious sense, such as when we touch something very hot, and we also use it to mean that we have learned from a previous, negative experience.  We may also use the expression to mean that someone has given us a particularly harsh level of criticism.  Yet while this “burning” level of criticism rarely benefits anyone, we have now witnessed the banishment of virtually any type of corrective criticism in Western culture, to the point where no one seems to realize that something rather more important than someone’s personal feelings are burning.  And this state of affairs stems largely from the confusion of the fluctuating standards of personal taste with the unchanging standards of personal virtue.

While I cannot say that my opinions are any less…well, opinionated now than they were 20 years ago, it is clear to The Courtier that his opinions on many matters have softened somewhat as he has gotten older.  This is not so much because of an abandonment of a sense of standards, or a befuddling of a line between good and bad.  Rather it is a realization that some things, which are not intrinsically right or wrong in themselves, simply come down to a question of taste.

For example, both watching a basketball game and eating chicken wings are, in essence, matters of personal taste; for me, these things are both awful, and I do not enjoy them. We can certainly talk about whether or not we like these things, and why, without addressing any deep, important questions of our time.  Depending on our answer, we may not be asked over to Phil’s house next week to participate in the combination of both these things, but that’s as may be.  What is disturbing about our present age, however, is that we have confused expressing our personal taste, and the relative nature thereof, with the expression of concern over moral issues, which are not in fact relative.

If someone were to say to you that they do not care for a particular reality television program – and sadly one is spoilt for choice these days – because the people in it behave in a completely depraved fashion, the common response to such a statement is not one of, “We should complain to the broadcaster and get this off the air.”  Instead, the response is dismissive: “If you don’t like it, then you don’t have to watch it.”  Is that simplistic response really a legitimate answer to this type of criticism?

It should be obvious that since I do not want to watch said television program, because I find it morally objectionable, I do not need to be told not to watch it when I express a criticism of its moral content.  Obviously I have already reached the conclusion that there is something wrong with this content, otherwise I would have said nothing, and my purpose in raising the issue is not really for my own benefit.  Rather, it is for the benefit of both of us.

To put it another way, if I see a pot bubbling away on a hot stove, I know that it would be dangerous to touch that pot without some sort of protection.  Otherwise, I shall end up burning my hand.  Yet what is my obligation when I see that you are about to pick up that bubbling pot without using a tea towel or an oven mitt: do I simply stand there and say nothing, because I am not supposed to judge your actions?

Let us take this analogy a bit further, and look at what happens next.  Ask yourself, what happens when you decide to behave stupidly, and pick up that boiling pot, while I keep my mouth shut.  When you cry out in pain and anguish, am I supposed to just ignore you and go about my business? No: you would expect me to help and comfort you, providing you with some type of treatment, and taking you to the doctor if need be.

Now imagine that not only did I say nothing before you picked up that pot, since I cannot judge your actions, but I did nothing, as you stood there screaming and crying after injuring yourself.  If I did not help you, you would criticize me for being inhumane, and you would be right to do so.  You might even conclude that I was lacking in basic human decency, and that I was a cruel person with no feeling toward others.

Therefore why is it acceptable for me to assist you after you have ruined your hand, but not acceptable for me to warn you not to burn your hand in the first place?  For surely the latter is far easier than the former, let alone less costly and time-consuming for both parties.  If of course you do not listen to my warning and burn yourself anyway, then we can take that as it comes,  However if I can persuade you not to burn yourself in the first place, aren’t we both better off, in the end?

Our culture has gone so far in the direction of not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings, that we are terrified to open our mouth and say that something is wrong or inappropriate, for fear of being criticized or shunned by our peers.  I must stand by and watch you burn yourself on the stove while saying nothing, and then clean up afterwards, again while saying nothing.  This is utter nonsense.

If we are to bring Western society back from the selfish malaise into which it has fallen, we need to start asking the questions which our contemporary culture does not want us to ask.  In doing so, we will be rejecting the assumptions which we are told are those held by reasonable people.  And if that is what is to happen, gentle reader, then I say, so be it.  I am not going to stand idly by and watch you injure yourself.

At the same time, remember that being right does not absolve you from helping another pick up the pieces when things fall apart.  We must be the very first at hand when someone needs our assistance and we are in a position to provide it, even if we find it unpleasant or inconvenient.  Otherwise, we are standing by the stove, saying, “I told you so,” as our fellow man writhes in pain from his poor decisions.  Not only does this do no one any good, but it is simply a variant of the gross selfishness which got us into our present mess in the first place.