Agatha Christie's "Poirot" - series/films

Review by Jenn

When the death of Jeremy Brett in 1995 brought a premature end to his brilliant portrayal of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, Steve and I sadly resigned ourselves to making do with our DVD collection of the late master's interpretation. Though we continued to treasure these "repeat" performances, we had definitely developed a taste for well-directed, well-produced, and well-acted British period mysteries, and so we headed to our local library to see what their collection could provide. Enter David Suchet as Hercule Poirot, the diminutive Belgian detective created by the famous Twentieth Century mystery writer, Agatha Christie.

Christie and Poirot owe a definite debt of gratitude to Doyle and Holmes. Though the time period and the characters are very different, Christie leaned heavily on the formula pioneered by Doyle, and with great success: Poirot in England during the years between the Twentieth Century's two World Wars mirrors Holmes in Victorian England. Both men operate out of their London "flats," and the character setup in Poirot's world echoes that of Holmes: the dimwitted-but-game Captain Hastings serves as the small sleuth's Watson; his erstwhile secretary, Miss Lemon, is the counterpart to Holmes' competent landlady/housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson; the unimaginative-yet-capable Chief Inspector Japp of Scotland Yard is a later version of Inspector LeStrade of that same institution.

I have frequently wondered why the detectives in mystery stories seem so often to be full of quirky characteristics and idiosyncrasies, and the theory I arrived at is that the plot-driven tales don't allow for a great deal of room for character development; therefore, the characters must make their memorability felt in other ways. Except for their tremendous ability to solve crimes (and preference for city living!), Holmes and Poirot could not be more different: Holmes is long and lean, Poirot short and rotund; Holmes' trademark shabbiness is belied by Poirot's obsessive neatness, etc. Even the manner in which the two sleuths approach detection is different. Holmes favors a scientific method based on concrete and tangible clues while Poirot embraces unlocking the psychology of his perpetrators. But the two are brothers in their shared crime-solving passion, single-mindedness, multiple character quirks, impatience, solitariness, and incomparable brilliance.

Quite a number of capable actors have taken on the challenge of acting out the role of Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney and Peter Ustinov, to name two) - and I'm not exaggerating when I call it a challenge, for being able to pull off a good portrayal of the complex Belgian sleuth is no mean feat. To this writer's thinking (and there are many, many Agatha Christie fans who agree with me), none has been able to pull it off quite like David Suchet.

David Suchet has a long, varied, and prestigious acting background. Even if you are not a particular fan of BBC Television, chances are still good that you have seen him without knowing it. He does not come off as the leading man type - this is due in part to an appearance that is decidedly nondescript (save for a pair of piercing eyes overshadowed by bold, arching brows that have, I suspect, been the reason he has so often and to such great effect appeared in villainous roles), but even more so to his tremendous acting talent which gives him the ability to all but completely disappear into a character (let's face it, you don't exactly forget it's Brad Pitt you're seeing during a movie!). Suchet has appeared in such widely diverse roles as a Middle Eastern terrorist in Executive Decision, the fool in a stage production of Shakespeare's King Lear, a futuristic astronaut on the SciFi Channel's Space Odyssey, and Van Helsing in a production of Dracula. The same prodigious voice talent Suchet uses to deliver a flawless French-Belgian accent (a Special Features section on one of the DVDs reports that, on days he is shooting a Poirot, the actor stays "in voice" the entire day in order to maintain consistency) has also won him the role of Aslan in an ambitious dramatic radio production of C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia, and continues to make him a desirable narration choice for many audio books (including Poirot stories by Agatha Christie).

The first Poirot episode I ever saw was from the early years of the show, titled "How Does Your Garden Grow?" (Christie had a definite penchant for using lines from nursery rhymes as story titles). I find it curious that I initially reacted to this episode in almost the same way as I did to the first Holmes episode that I ever saw, "The Problem of Thor Bridge" starring Jeremy Brett. I was unimpressed, and pretty certain that I was not going to be interested in seeing more. Perhaps I just needed to develop a taste for mysteries, but a great part of my reaction was due to how blasted annoying I found Hercule Poirot. I can hardly be blamed for this, I think, when Christie herself described her most famous character as "insufferable," and declared that, if he were a real person, she would certainly not waste her precious time in his presence for longer than she could possibly help. (Yes, we writers are nice, stable people!)

In this first episode I viewed, I immediately got a feel for Poirot's extreme sense of self-importance. One of the ways Suchet achieves this is by deliberately keeping his voice pitched rather soft; the impression one gets is that of a man who is so sure that what he has to say is of such supreme importance that naturally his listeners will strain to hear it. Next to hit me was the ridiculous mustache, which Poirot obviously waxes and curls into a highly unrealistic shape. Add in his over-the-top smugness at the "honor" of having a pink rose named after him and his refusal to surrender his perfectly folded pocket handkerchief to a miserably sniffling Hastings (who was suffering an allergic reaction to Poirot's expensive cologne) and my first impressions of Hercule Poirot were not particularly favorable. I'm not sure what led me to try him again, but as time went on, I began to see what Christie was aiming for in this character, and what Suchet amazingly achieves - a man who is squeamish and a dandy, but not effeminate or mincing; conceited and arrogant, but also kind and sympathetic; fussy and impeccable, but genuinely suave and chivalrous; comic, yet utterly brilliant. Poirot's exaggerated sense of dignity is at a distinct variance with Holmes' manic moods, but, like Jeremy Brett did with Sherlock, Suchet imbues deep within his character's extreme propriety a sense of bitter world-weariness, along with a generally poor opinion of mankind that is made redeemable only by his obvious affection for his small circle of friends and the high value he places on human life.

Mystery series leave plenty of room for guest appearances (and plenty of good actors show their faces here, including David Burke and Edward Hardwicke, both of whom portrayed Watson to Brett's Holmes - Steve and I sometimes think that Britain has only about twenty-five actors and actresses in all and just keeps recycling them, but that's a topic for another essay), but the regulars remain an important part of the cast, and these days I very much miss the presence of Pauline Moran as the formidable Miss Felicity Lemon, Hugh Fraser as kind, steady "strong-arm" Captain Arthur Hastings, and, especially, Philip Jackson as the stalwart Chief Inspector James Japp, on whom Steve accuses me of having a slight crush (it's true I think Japp is adorable, like a nice big bloodhound, and I'm always pleased to see him on-screen - the fish-and-chips, stout-loving bloke makes a wonderfully funny foil for the tisane-sipping, snobbishly gourmet Poirot). The show's writers included these characters to a greater extent than Christie herself did in the stories, to the great benefit and strengthening of the series. The regular, hour-long program has ended, but David Suchet, who has stated his intention of dramatizing all of the Poirot tales if possible, continues to produce at least one or two movie-length films each year. These later stories take place mainly during Poirot's traveling years, after his so-called "retirement" from consulting, and so generally do not include Miss Lemon, Hastings, or Japp, though I have hopes the original actors will reprise their roles at a later date. Steve and I feel that these films do not have the appeal of the earlier series - a fact that may be due in part to the change in the production company - but they are still very well-directed, they are still "Poirot," and, most importantly, they still feature the incomparable David Suchet in the title role.

I've gone on longer than I had planned, but I don't feel I can close without devoting a few words to the setting, which has such a strong impact in defining the show's "feel" that it could almost be viewed as another character in and of itself.

The Sherlock Holmes stories take place against the backdrop of Victorian England, and I am afraid that, like many Americans who have never actually visited the country, I subconsciously formed a picture of Britain in my mind that did not progress much beyond this time period - at least as far as architecture was concerned. This is based in part, I think, on the literature I had to study in high school and college, and on a vague sense of the sheer history of British architecture, with which no American structure could even begin to compete. (I guess I was buying into the old joke about the American travelers who were incensed to learn that they were to be housed in the "new wing" of a certain historical inn they had looked forward to visiting, and were then sheepish to learn that the "new wing" had been added in the year 1622!)

If I was mentally preparing myself for a set akin to the famous "Baker Street" set put together by Granada Television for Sherlock Holmes, however, it is no wonder I had a bit of a shock when I first began watching Poirot. Agatha Christie wrote that Hercule Poirot had emigrated as a refugee to England from Belgium during World War I; the years of his "prime," therefore, took place during the Twenties and Thirties. It was during this time period that the Art Deco design movement was in full swing, and the creators of the television series took full advantage of this to give the program a definite sense of time and place.

Art Deco influenced not only architecture and interior and industrial design; it also placed its distinctive stamp on fashion, painting, graphic arts, and visual arts. Intrigued by the boxy and "Art Nouveau" look of the building architecture in the Poirot series (along with Poirot's own choice of interior décor in his Whitehaven Mansions flat), the art work that was displayed, and even the geometric designs used in the animated opening credits, I did some reading on the subject and learned that Art Deco was a combination of many early 20th Century styles such as Cubism and Futurism, and heavily influenced by the native, "primitive" arts of Egypt, Africa, and Aztec Mexico. Characterized by the use of materials such as aluminum, stainless steel, lacquer, inlaid wood, "sharkskin," and "zebraskin," Art Deco featured stepped forms, sweeping curves, and sunburst motifs, and was considered to be, at the time, purely decorative, elegant, functional, and ultra-modern. (An example of an Art Deco architectural influence would be the spire of the Chrysler Building, which was erected in 1928 in New York City.)

Poirot's directors stay faithful to the original stories and novels as much as possible, but are not afraid to deviate from them when they feel they can make improvements on the interpretation for the small screen. Including the Hastings, Japp, and Miss Lemon characters on a regular basis is one way in which they do so; another is the use of Art Deco design. An example: I recently listened to a production of "The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding" on the BBC, the story upon which the episode "The Theft of the Royal Ruby" was based. In the radio production, Poirot as narrator made a point of describing the home at which he was spending the holidays as an old-style country manor. It worked in setting up the scene of the old-fashioned Christmas, but it also worked in the television episode when the producers changed the setting to that of an Art Deco-style establishment, re-emphasizing the 1930s setting. So, while Art Deco may not be my preferred style of décor, I can honestly say that, thanks to the show, I learned to appreciate it while at the same time learning a bit of Art History!

To sum up: superlative acting with superior direction, excellent story-to-screen interpretation, and a unique sense of time and place, "Agatha Christie's Poirot" is as fine an example of period drama you can come by. If these things appeal to your viewing tastes, then your "little gray cells" will be in for a treat!

Hercule Poirot Central
Dedicated to the fictional character Hercule Poirot; also includes some of Agatha Christie's other works and characters.

"Masterpiece Theater" and "Mystery!" on PBS
These great programs feature new Poirot episodes and many other mystery - and non-mystery - television gems.

The Official Agatha Christie Web Site
Have you fallen victim to Agatha Christie?

BBC - Drama Faces
All you ever wanted to know about actor David Suchet.

ArtLex Art Dictionary
A great resource for learning the styles and origins of the different art movements, including Art Deco.