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)

 

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8 thoughts on “The Curtain Begins to Fall on “Poirot”

  1. We’ve loved this series. Have watched the show with our kids on and off, and I think the whole tale is a valuable contribution to literature as well as the show to visual arts. I’ll certainly still have a problem with the end, but that might come from being ‘old fashioned.’

    It’s funny that writers come to so fully abhor their primary characters (those they are known best for) that they do this type of thing to them. Doyle was the same way with Holmes, and when he ‘brought him back’ the stories were of a much darker and more despicable character than ever portrayed before the Reichenbach.

    Someone made a point about the ‘grey characters’ recently. When you put enough of them together, it’s the whites that come out looking the best. The example they gave was Ed Stark in Game of Thrones.

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    • Thanks so much for reading and sharing your thoughts, Thomas (would that more people took the time to leave comments, good or bad!) I have to confess that I have a soft spot for the earlier series, with Poirot’s toilette and sartorial eccentricities, Captain Hastings being all “golly, I say,” like Bertie Wooster, Japp being a dour but decent cockney who’s worked his way up through the ranks, and Miss Lemon keeping everyone and everything in line. They were a terrific ensemble and I much prefer these sunnier episodes to the later stuff, even if I recognize that the darker stories have greater narrative power.

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      • We also watched the series “Monk” and it was fantastic. While it did address some of the darker issues underlying both the character’s OCD and the death of his wife, it handled them around the comedy that was central to the show, and maintained it pretty well all the way through. There were certainly dark moments, and even in the comedy there was some dark humor, but it was a well done show. I’d have liked to seen more of that from the Poirot series, but it’s changed hands a few too many times to keep up that kind of tone.

        [I know how you feel about the comments!]

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      • Interestingly, the Judi Dench series “As Time Goes By” had the same writer I believe all the way through the end of the run, and as a result there was a remarkable degree of continuity in the story line, which you don’t often get in shows that last for many years.

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      • I enjoyed the early episode of Poirot, too, but he also needed to move out of his safe confines for the sake of the show and the character.
        One of the reasons for the time line issue (13 series in 25 years?) had to do, I think with a few things…one of which was a change of custody. Michelle Buck and Damien Timmer as producers made MOVIES that gave more depth to Poirot (series and the man).
        Personally, I would have loved to see everyone involved in that series, as well. The Big Four was good, but it’s a shame they couldn’t have done the same for Curtain. Well, there was a way, but Agatha couldn’t be bothered. I can though.
        Remember that big dinner confabb between Judith Hastings and X.? Not to mention a statement she made earlier in the movie, regarding old and ill people. I don’t know if this was meant soley as the proverbial red herring or if Mr. Elyot wanted to go somewhere with it, but couldn’t. But it opens the door for some great fan fiction ideas.

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      • Oy, sites like this need an EDIT button. I meant to say that I enjoyed the early EPISODES of Poirot. That was likely assumed anyway, but I just wanted to clear up any confusion.

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    • The more we see of the entire series, the harder Curtain will be to watch.
      I saw it the first time after maybe….watching ten episodes or so and it was sad. The first two minutes in, if you have seen the full series, are a shot to the heart! Poirot’s time is short and he knows it. But he has one piece of unfinished business he feels COMPELLED to deal with. X. And I LOVE Poirot’s (and David’s) utter dedication to this task!

      Remember that this case isn’t a commission. Poirot is retired, and who’s going to hire a man with a heart condition, famous or not? So there goes the money angle. And what of the EGO Agatha Christie so callously accuses him of? No one even knows there’s a killer at Styles except Poirot …and the killer. And the killer (like so many others have done) underestimated Poirot’s persistence and tenacity as well as his sense of purpose. If I know there’s something wrong and I don’t do something, how can I live with myself? But then the matter of WHAT to do? Because, of all killers, this one is the most cagey of Poirot’s career. He skates CLOSE to the edge but not close enough to be caught. X plays his game well. However, a rather bizarre dinner conversation has X over-playing his hand. And right in front of Poirot! Sweet!

      To say Poirot gets his killer is almost a “Well, D’uh!” but this is no occasion for a victory celebration. Poirot feels worse for having done what he felt he had to do than X felt in doing all he did.

      To this end, I congratulate (though he’s no longer with us) Kevin Elyot , who wrote the screenplay with heart! See, in Agatha’s novel, it’s CURTISS (a temporary assistant to Poirot) who finds him. This falls flat as there is no emotional connection to Curtiss, but Christie couldn’t care less. In the movie, on the other hand, it was HASTINGS who found his friend, not long after going down to breakfast, in fact.

      Another point in Elyot’s credit column is a question he lets Poirot ask: “Do you think God will forgive me?” There are those who had issues with the ‘religious’ aspect of this movie, but for pity’s sake, the man was dying! Everyone, if they’re honest, has questions about their lives, whatever their views about life/ death are. It’s only natural. And for Poirot to ask such a question, when he had been kind enough to give solace to others, (Appointment with Death, Taken at the Flood) made me wish I could have been with him to answer the question personally! Heck there are so many things I’d like to do for Poirot, that Christie couldn’t give tuppence for! Giving him a love story (avec Virginie Mesnaud) , which I plan to do. (Thank heaven for fan fiction!) and give him a decent send-off with the help of Scotland Yard.

      If the truth be told, I have serious issues with Agatha Christie’s disdain for Poirot. For me, if a novelist can’t stand up for their characters, then they have no business even being writers. It’s like a parent who keeps running down their child in front of company! Here’s the deal, writers; NOVELS MAKE CHARACTERS as surely as SEX MAKES BABIES. Especially when you aren’t expecting them and don’t want them. Story / character outlines started at the outset are something of an engagement before the marriage. You let yourself know if you’re ready for a long-term relationship with this person. If you don’t think you are, then simply write the story to yourself, get it out of your head and move on. Or, better yet, don’t write a series character. Mary Higgins Clark is a mystery writer who has used a character (Elvira Meehan) twice. Maybe three times, tops. However, to my knowledge, she hasn’t done it since.
      While I’m not crazy about Ms. Clark’s insistence of having just about all her female characters being young and successful (though, with only one outfit between all of them, if the description is anything to go by) there is also no animosity with characters as none of them are serial characters. I couldn’t write a series character, either. But if you are an author with such a character in mind, give yourself options at the outset. have an escape plan. Develop other characters, whatever! Just don’t whine over a success that others would give their eye-teeth to have!

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