Looking Back At AGATHA CHRISTIE'S POIROT - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Tony uses his little grey cells.
When Agatha Christie saw Joan Hickson, aged just 40, in one of her plays, she sent the actress a note saying that she hoped one day, Hickson would get to play her “dear Miss Marple.” 38 years later, she did, starring in a BBC adaptation of all the Miss Marple novels that to this day remains definitive for a lot of people – not least because of Christie’s early approbation, and how thoroughly Joan Hickson fulfilled that promise.

When LWT, a UK commercial TV region, began planning a series of adaptations of Christie’s works featuring her best-known detective, Hercule Poirot… the Christie family themselves recommended David Suchet for the role of the fussy, obsessive compulsive Belgian detective – which in the absence of Agatha herself is about as good as it gets in terms of a recommendation. Rosalind Hicks, Christie’s daughter, later told Suchet she was sure her mother would have approved of his playing of the role.

Agatha Christie’s Poirot would go from an interestingly unobtrusive start – the run of stories began in January 1989 with The Adventure of the Clapham Cook – to feature EVERY single major story in the Poirot canon, both novels and short stories, across the course of 70 episodes, 24 years and 13 series, ending with Curtain, the final Poirot story, in November 2013.
It was not a show without its drama. Relatively early during the filming of Series 1, David Suchet threatened to walk, because producers and directors were proposing to cut some sequences which showed the extreme fastidiousness of the detective. As a method actor who had ploughed through all the source material before beginning to act the role, it was a case of the actor knowing best.

Fans everywhere relished the true-to-the-books portrayal of their favourite detective, with all his foibles, vanities, charm, huffs and rages intact across the whole run of the show. And this to-the-finest-detail professionalism on Suchet’s part remains evident if you’ve read the books, rewatch after rewatch.

There had been a tendency to play Poirot as a glutton, as a bombast, even as a comedy throwaway, and usually, that was the fault of actors or directors only being interested in how he came across in the particular story they were making.

It’s absolutely true that Christie herself on more than one occasion took the opportunity to mock elements of Poirot’s nature – by the ninth novel in publication order, Lord Edgware Dies, Poirot’s friend and frequent biographer Captain Hastings admits that he long since learned to tune out when Poirot started talking about his little grey cells. But when you get an actor of Suchet’s commitment starring in a series covering as many of the stories as possible, the difference it brings is someone who understands the vanities, the idiosyncrasies of someone like Poirot, but plays them always with a kindness to the man overall.
It’s been claimed by many people that Suchet’s Poirot is the DEFINITIVE Poirot, and you’ll hear no different from us – the commitment to a performance gives universally superb results, allowing Poirot to be unorthodox, moral, usually kind to servants, and yes, occasionally pompous and deliciously self-regarding. Ultimately, the result is a complete body of work that shows the whole of the character, which has rarely if ever been done before. That’s as definitive as it gets.

What’s less regularly claimed is that there’s a consistency across all 13 series. And there’s a good reason why you won’t hear that. The production team that was in place for the first eight series, Clive Exton and Brian Eastman, left in 2001 to go and shepherd rival ITV crime drama Rosemary And Thyme into life. Michele Buck and Damien Timmer came in to replace them, and the tone of the show changed notably, losing some of the Sherlock Holmes elements of the show (and of many of the books).

For instance, the usual ornaments of Poirot’s genius, his friend (and Watson) Captain Hastings, his secretary Miss Lemon (standing in for Mrs Hudson), and the harassed but good-hearted Scotland Yard Inspector (later Chief Inspector, and a dead ringer for Lestrade) Japp, disappeared entirely from the show between series 9-12. Some of the humour of the first eight series was quashed in these darker years, too, so Agatha Christie’s Poirot became more of a straight drama. Other characters which, in fairness, appear in the novels and were removed from earlier series, began to appear with greater regularity, including Poirot’s valet, George, and his crime novelist friend, Ariadne Oliver (Christie in all but name – she has a Finnish detective at the heart of her stories).
There were changes in visual and audio tone, too, though again, dedicated fans of Poirot in the novels approved of both versions. Poirot’s apartment and office in the first eight series were smallish, but impeccably neat. In later series, they grew somewhat more expansive and luxurious.

The reason Poirot fans adored both versions was that Poirot in the novels and short stories never followed a distinct chronological timeline, so there was room for both versions. Whether Poirot had just arrived in England and was meeting up with his old friend Hastings, or later, at the peak of his second career, with Hastings faithfully dogging his steps, Christie made room for it. She even wrote stories set later still, when Poirot was retired from his second career as an independent detective and trying to live quietly in the country, or travelling the world to experience new things and places and having adventure follow him.

We like to think whole-life story arcs across multiple books or series are something we invented in the age of binge TV. So, so wrong. Also, this just in – Agatha Christie was a bit of a genius.
By covering the whole Poirot canon, the show was able to give us all those shades and types and times of Poirot, with Suchet rising to the challenge of each era, having given himself a thorough knowledge of the work before he stepped into Poirot’s shoes.

It’s important to go beyond the impact of Suchet, though, impressive though it was. The casting throughout was superb, with Hugh Fraser as Hastings doing exactly the “Watson” thing that Hastings demands – he can’t be too stupid, and he can’t be too weak. He’s an Englishman of good standing, who is both occasionally frustrated, and regularly awed by his continental friend.

Philip Jackson as Japp brought similarly truthful energy to the production, as the professional policeman who is good at his job, but is continually out-performed by the retired Belgian detective. Again, it’s that grudging balance between frustration and appreciation for the little foreigner with his egg-shaped head and his fussy moustaches that makes the whole thing so endlessly watchable.

And as with the BBC’s Miss Marple series, across the whole run of Poirot stories, (both the lighter, brighter ones and the darker, more dramatic ones), every single element of the production felt like you were genuinely transported to the era in which the stories were set. Poirot won awards for its design, its costume, its make-up, its music and its graphics throughout its run. The worldbuilding was like the setting of the perfect stage for Suchet and his accomplices to tell the stories of the most famous creation of the biggest selling novelist in history.

When everything comes together, it’s like a symphony of angels. And across 70 episodes, 13 series, and 14 years, everything came together on Agatha Christie’s Poirot – the look, the sound, the feel of arguably the 20th century’s greatest literary detective, with some world-class actors in both leading, recurring roles and guest parts. And there, right in the middle of it all, was a central performance that to this day remains impeccable every time you watch.

David Suchet made Christie’s Poirot a real person, flawed, fallible, funny and pompous, but never really less than brilliant.

It’s a long rewatch, so you’re going to want to dedicate a couple of months to it, but when you do, it’s going to reward you both on its own terms and with the memory of the pure craft that went into it from start to finish.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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