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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You Must Remember This: Meaning and Pop Culture Relics

The recent re-discovery of a Hollywood treasure once presumed lost, and an item up for sale in an upcoming auction of movieland memorabilia, have set the film world a-buzz.  Tara, the mythical home of Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind”, was not a real place, but the stage set that was built for the 1939 film certainly was: in fact, it has been sitting in pieces in a barn in Georgia for decades, awaiting restoration.  Meanwhile, this November Bonham’s auction house in New York will be selling off a private collection of Hollywood history, which includes the piano on which Dooley Wilson played “As Time Goes By” in the 1942 classic “Casablanca” for Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart.

It may seem curious that these pop culture objects of little intrinsic value carry such excitement, when they come to light in news stories or auction catalogues.  After all, hundreds of movies, concerts, and sporting events take place every year, and the vast majority of them are quickly forgotten, the detritus of their production disappearing into basements or scrap heaps.  There is no museum containing the cast-off socks of basketball players from the 1982 Philadelphia 76’ers, so far as I am aware.  And even if such a thing still exists, I cannot imagine that there is a huge market for anyone to own something like Robin Williams’ furry hat from 1982’s “Moscow on the Hudson”.

The survival of any pop culture item often depends on who is entrusted with its care.  Somewhere in one of her jewelry boxes my mother has an old, yellowed lace handkerchief of her mother’s.  Back in the 1940’s, grandmother had gone to see the legendary Spanish bullfighter Manolete work his blood-stained magic in Barcelona.  Manolete was a handsome, hugely popular figure in Spain after the Civil War, who drew crowds of admirers because of his very reserved technique and persona, in which he never made a show of himself to the crowds, as had many bullfighters both before and after him.

My grandmother, being a very elegant and beautiful lady, happened to draw the matador’s gaze when he entered the ring, and she gave him her handkerchief to carry during the fight, an echo of the Medieval tradition of courtly love and carrying your lady’s favor into battle.  After his successful dispatch of the bull that day, he returned the handkerchief to my grandmother, who of course kept it as a relic afterwards.  It was an object which became the more precious after Manolete was killed in 1947 at the age of 30, when he was gored by a bull during a fight in Andalusia.

Why do we hold on to these relics of past popular entertainments?   One very obvious reason is that of trying to preserve our memories.  As we grow older, to be able to draw out some piece of ephemera which reminds us of another time, is to have a bittersweet way of remembering who we are and where we came from.  This is something which human beings seem particularly keen on doing: one does not see birds flying about carrying bits of previous nests, or snakes dragging their old skins along with them as they slither through the underbrush, each reflecting back to a time when they were just hatchlings.

However that sense of a personal, infused meaning which encapsulates part of who a person was at a particular point in their life does not last forever.  Grandmother could pull out that old, stained handkerchief in her declining years, and remember back to a time when she was the belle of the ball.  After her death, her daughter could do the same, calling to mind her glamorous mother and telling the story of that handkerchief to her own children.

Yet the significance of such an object changes, as it goes forward in time.  Today Manolete is merely a name, the bullring where he fought has been converted into a shopping mall, and long-departed grandmother is the haughty grand dame whose portrait gazes confidently back at the viewer above the piano in her daughter’s living room.  The relic of the lady and the bullfighter will retain a personal value for the descendants of the lady who owned it, only for so long as an interest in her life remains.  After that, the value will either disappear entirely, or it will change to become that which may be ascribed to something once touched by a famous person.

At that point, grandmother’s handkerchief becomes no different from Scarlett’s home or Sam’s piano.  The people who lived through the experience of that particular entertainment are no longer around to provide context or personal meaning for these objects.  Vivien Leigh and Dooley Wilson have been gone for decades, and as each year passes, fewer and fewer people directly connected to the making of either “Gone With the Wind” or “Casablanca” remain.  So while we may admire the achievements of those who made and worked with such things, we are rapidly reaching a point where we will not have any personal connection with them.

This is why pop culture relics often survive to go on into a kind of materialist afterlife.  Long after the people who are associated with them have shuffled off this mortal coil, we can tell the stories of who they were and what they meant to our culture, by looking to those objects which once meant something to them.  Thus, while there may be no significant monetary value in something like an old, upright piano, appreciation of that piano’s significance to popular culture far outweighs the monetary worth of the object.  Whatever becomes of grandmother’s handkerchief, I certainly hope we may yet get to see Tara rebuilt, and Sam’s piano sitting in pride of place at a public institution.

Sam Dooley, Humphrey Bogart, and Ingrid Bergman in a scene from "Casablanca" (1942)

Dooley Wilson, Humphrey Bogart, and Ingrid Bergman in a scene from “Casablanca” (1942)

>Mrs. Garrett: Red Agent

>As my American readers may know, actor Gary Coleman, who played “”Arnold” on the 1980’s American sitcom “Diff’rent Strokes”, died in an accident on Friday. Watching the news that evening I began to think about the show’s theme song, and also that of one of its spin-offs, “The Facts of Life”. The lynch-pin between the two series was the departure of Mrs. Edna Garrett, the Drummonds’ housekeeper, from the one show to become the maternal figure to a group of boarding school girls on the other. Had I known at the time she was a Red Agent, I probably would have stopped watching both.

These were both programs I enjoyed watching as a child, along with most other people I knew, but they have for the most part long passed out of my consciousness. And truthfully, I had a bit of insomnia and needed to think about something that was not particularly effective on the brain. Except, that is, for the respective catchy theme songs of these two shows, which made things worse.

Obviously if you are a composer of these sorts of jingles, you know you are doing a good job if, many years after the show has gone off the air, people can still sing most or all of the lyrics you wrote. Heaven forbid, however, that people actually take a moment to think about what they are singing, and why it is so WRONG – like those who mindlessly sing along to hymns written by Marty Haugen or Dan Schutte at mass. As it happens, the theme songs to both “Diff’rent Strokes” and “The Facts of Life” were written by the same people: Alan Thicke (of various dubious entertainment industry achievements), Gloria Loring (ditto), and Al Burton.

At the very beginning of the “Diff’rent Strokes” theme, we are told:

Now, the world don’t move to the beat of just one drum,
What might be right for you, may not be right for some.

Recalling this song 30 years after I first heard it, I was absolutely shocked at what had been implanted into my brain without my realizing it, that long ago. Could there be a more succinct statement of moral relativism? What sort of an impact did this insipid hogwash have on me at a subconscious level from the earliest years of my social formation?

However what beats all in the realm of utter stupidity , it must be said, are the following lyrics from “The Facts of Life”:

You take the good, you take the bad,
you take them both and there you have
The Facts of Life, the Facts of Life.

Assuming that nothing is morally neutral, is it fair to say that the lyricists are simply recommending that one take everything, indiscriminately? Then why bother to separate them out like sheep from goats, only to put them back together again?

Another little gem of head-scratching is:

It takes a lot to get ’em right
When you’re learning the Facts of Life.

To get what right, exactly – what is the “em” here? (For that matter, why is “Different” spelled “Diff’rent” in the preceding?) Is the “’em” the “Facts of Life”? That would make no sense, as our songwriters have already claimed that the “Facts of Life” are everything that there is, good or bad, so surely it is impossible to get “’em” right, they simply ARE, and, as “Diff’rent Strokes” has previously taught us, there is no “right” or “wrong”.

Rest assured, dear reader, I am not turning into Patrick Bateman. While this piece may seem odd and trivial – and it is – there is a point to be made here. These are elements of popular culture for my generation that, for most of us, remained simply unquestioned. Catchy little tunes about leftist social values (or the lack thereof) seem more worthy of Chairman Mao than they do this country, but unfortunately that is what the Baby Boomers have done to us. Certainly I am not of the camp that advocates turning off the television completely, but it is surprising how very insidious it can be, when seeming perfectly innocent.

It’s all YOUR fault, Edna…