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)


An Insufferable “Sherlock”

[N.B. For those of my American readers who are still waiting to see Sunday’s premiere episode of Season 2 of “Sherlock” on PBS Masterpiece, I would advise that you not read this blog post until you have had a chance to see it.  I will not be giving too many spoilers, but nevertheless there is always the possibility that my take on the show may color yours.  So for the rest of you, let us carry on.]

If you remember the old Jeremy Brett “Sherlock Holmes” series for Granada Television, in which he played the famous detective with a mix of hyperactive theatrics and detached insouciance, no doubt like me you found Holmes was at times a rather annoying figure.  However on the whole, the producers of that series, though they took liberties with the original stories, tried to remain faithful to those tales, and to consider ideas that were interesting to Conan Doyle and those of his times: the effect of advances in the sciences and technology on both the practice and investigation of crime; curiosity in the phenomenon of spiritualism as obtained from far-flung pagan cultures; the global political implications for the British Empire of certain events, and so on.  If Brett’s Holmes was not exactly by-the-book for purists, on the whole his manifestation of the character and the series itself were at least rooted in Holmes’ era, and the environment from which he arose.

I have always thought that the premiere episode of the Brett series, “A Scandal in Bohemia”, which features the mysterious and alluring character of Irene Adler, to be one of the finest of them all.  Holmes himself is always portrayed as being somewhat asexual, with no romantic life to speak of and an attitude toward women which is one of the respect a gentleman owed a lady, coupled with a disdain for the occasionally irrational, emotional outbursts of the fairer sex.  The fact that Holmes falls, if one could put it that way, for Irene Adler, and keeps a memento of her among his possessions, brings a wonderful, unrequited quality that is touching in the great man of thought who cannot quite bring himself to be as conventional as other men are.  This is in keeping with others of his type whom we know from history, such as Dr. Samuel Johnson, or even arguably C.S. Lewis, who was as surprised as anyone when late in life he met and was briefly married to his wife, Joy.

When Sunday’s episode of “Sherlock” began,and I saw that the title was “A Scandal in Belgravia”, meaning it would be a take-off on the Irene Alder story, I knew at once that we were in for trouble.  Having seen Season 1 of “Sherlock”, I was aware that the goal of the producers was to produce something hip and cool, trying to mix elements from such disparate elements in British cinema and television as the action of “Casino Royale”, and the near-nihilism of “Waking The Dead”.  I sat through Season 1, enjoying some of the more interesting parts such as the use of text across a scene when a character receives a message, or having a camera give us a sense of how Holmes’ brain works in analyzing a group of objects or people.  However, I was always distracted by the fact that apart from the bumbling Watson, there was no grounding of morality in what I saw.

Whereas in the Brett series the characters talked of virtues such as a man’s personal honor and dignity, respect for women, charity for the poor, love of Queen and country, and so on, there is often no higher purpose to the actions of the characters in “Sherlock”.  The title character himself is simply interested in the process, which was not the case in the Brett series: no matter how much the earlier incarnation of Sherlock might have professed to be detached from emotional concerns, what drew you in was the fact that every now and then, out of some word or gesture or action, you got a sense that maybe Holmes did in fact care just a tiny bit more about what we might call old-fashioned British standards than what he let on.  By contrast in “Sherlock”, it is clearly every man – and woman – for himself, and there is nothing redeeming about anyone.  To paraphrase another Conan Doyle story, it is a study in selfishness.

In the Brett series Irene Adler was a woman who had finally found a man who loved her for herself, not for her fame, and wanted to take her away from all the glamour and glitz of high society; she wanted to sacrifice herself to marry him and to finally lead a good and quiet life, so she could get away from the King who was still besotted with her.   In her new incarnation for “Sherlock” however, Irene Adler turns out to be a bisexual professional dominatrix, who has had a dalliance with a female member of the British royal family, and kept the pictures as protection.  At the revelation of this rather repulsive plot point I probably should have turned off the television altogether, but morbid curiosity kept me tuned in to see exactly how low the series would go.

At one point, the actress playing Adler makes a rather triumphant introduction of herself to Holmes, stripping off completely naked and sitting down to chat with him and Watson in her living room, almost like a nod to Christine Keeler in the Profumo scandal.  The problem is, this rather juvenile attempt at titillation of the audience speaks more to a teenage mind than an adult one.  This Irene Adler is not a temptress: she is simply a tart.

For one thing Lara Pulver, the actress who plays Irene Adler in “Sherlock”, is a perfectly nice looking woman, but nothing special.  A Gayle Hunnicutt – the stunning, red-haired actress who portrayed Irene Adler in the Brett series – she is not. It is hard to believe that someone so ordinarily pretty as this new Irene Adler could convince high-powered members of both sexes to risk everything in order to be with her.

And while stripping off to disarm her pursuers might be considered daring television, in truth in the earlier television version what made the character so appealing was her mysteriousness. The character of Irene Adler was an opera singer who made her way into the upper classes of Europe by her beauty, talent, and graciousness, and into the beds of the men she met because she learned, as a true courtesan knows, that it is what is not revealed that entices. This new Irene Adler is little more than a lower-class stripper from some seedy burlesque club in Soho, rather than a woman trained in the art of seduction.

I will avoid going through how the rest of the story goes downhill from here, other than to say that I spent more time asking myself about plot holes than paying attention to what was going on. Why did Watson have to go to Dublin, which had nothing to do with the plot, for example? Why does the overcoat worn by the rather tall Sherlock Holmes fit the rather short Irene Adler like a tailored garment, rather than an oversized bathrobe when she puts it on? Why is Mycroft Holmes’ assistant working for Irene Adler when she comes to pick him up at Baker Street? These and many other problems will have you scratching your head repeatedly, if you choose to watch this episode.

For my part, I am now finished with “Sherlock”. I have no interest in seeing what happens to a midget Moriarty ripped from a particularly bad episode of “Gossip Girl”, running around pretending he is as good an actor as Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight Rises” (which he most certainly is not.)  And as Sunday’s episode featured Watson punching the stuffing out of Holmes – something I have wanted to do ever since I started watching this series – I believe I am now emotionally content with leaving it where it is.

A series which has gone to such great lengths to insult my intelligence and my sense of taste is worth no further consideration on my part – nor, if you take my advice, should it have any further attention from you, gentle reader, either. It is a trashy thing, albeit for admittedly trashy times, and does nothing to build up our culture or provide worthy entertainment.  My children, if and when I am fortunate to have them, will never see it in my home.  Instead, I will be very happy to sit down with them, when they are old enough, and watch the Brett series which, however dated it may be, still upholds both a certain dignity and a belief that there is a difference between good and evil, right and wrong, which is sorely lacking from this new and childish production.

Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Irene Adler (Lara Pulver) in “Sherlock”