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)


Cultivating Mystery in a Confessional Culture

The prospect of meeting up with an old friend whom you have not seen in quite some time can take one of two turns.  Either it is someone you’ve kept in regular contact with, and you are not going to have to play a huge amount of catch-up, or it is someone whom you have not spoken to with any frequency, and you have some choices to make.  It can be difficult to decide whether you plunge in and share everything that’s happened since you last saw each other, or whether you hold back since you are not that close anymore.  However this is not just an individual problem each of us has from time to time, but rather something which at present troubles society as a whole.

Paradoxically, we live in an age when no one feels the need to seek the sacrament of confession with any regularity, and yet everyone feels compelled to confess the most intimate details of their lives on social media.  This is something which used to be the almost exclusive purview of insecure entertainers, who could not be certain whether or not they were alive unless they were on-screen, on stage, or in the papers.  Now, this desire for personal glorification is everywhere.  It may once have fueled the plots of classic films like “Sunset Boulevard”, but it is now demonstrated among the untalented and ordinary by the inexplicably long-lived careers of the various members of the Kardashian clan.

That being said, there is still a place – a very important place – for moments when personal moments or thoughts are revealed.  We can think of the beauty of revelation demonstrated in C.S. Lewis’ classic “Surprised By Joy”, for example, or the often melancholy works of Frederic Chopin.  Cancer survivors learn from one another’s experiences with coping through books, talks, and support groups.  New parents learn from been-there-done-that parents in pre-natal classes and videos.

Yet even when there are revelations in such incredibly personal and intimate areas of human experience as these – faith, love, illness, birth – there must also be some element of restraint.  It is deeply regrettable that we have lost our old appreciation for mystery, in favor of throwing everything into the harsh glare of the klieg lights.  For it is in celebrating mystery that the imagination of mankind created its wonders.

An obvious instance of this is in how Western Christians worship God.  At some point in recent history, God stopped being viewed as the Almighty: mysterious, powerful, and benevolent.  Instead, he started to be seen as our peer, who would overlook anything we did wrong so long as we loved one another, under whatever definition of love one preferred to adopt.  There was to be no more fuss, no more muss, and the prayer shifted from, “Have mercy on me, Oh Lord, a sinner,” to “I’m okay, you’re okay.”  This seismic shift from God as God to God as drinking buddy was reflected in architecture, music, art, and the like.

Similarly, when women decided to “liberate” themselves from actually being women, and when men rather stupidly agreed to go along with the excesses of this and stop being men, this change was reflected in numerous ways.  It was shown in the types of films produced, for example, where the man is little more than a bundle of uncontrolled stimuli looking for an intelligent woman with vast amounts of previous sexual experience to get him under control.  It was reflected in how each of the sexes dressed, to the point where now in many cases the runways are full of garments which are completely interchangeable with no difference between them.

When there is no mystery, no “otherness”, there is no wonder.  When we share everything about ourselves with just about anyone who will listen, we cheapen ourselves and our experiences.  And much as I appreciate your readership, gentle reader, there are certain aspects of my life to which you will not be privy unless you happen to be a close friend (and perhaps not even then), for the simple reason that they are none of your business.  That is admittedly a counter-cultural attitude to take in the present day, but given the lack of culture in our present day it is in fact the only possible and sensible attitude to take.

So tonight when I have cocktails with my old friend, it will be good to catch up, and share stories of what has been going on in each of our lives.  Yet at the same time I have no intention of using the hour or two we have in each other’s company to create some kind of tawdry news bulletin about the myriad of things I have experienced since last we saw each other.  For some things, in the end, are better kept to oneself – a fact which, regrettably, contemporary society does not seem to understand.

“St. Peter Martyr” by Fra Angelico (c. 1441)
Museo di San Marco, Florence