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.