As a fictional detective, a fastidious, eccentric little Belgian detective solving predictable mysteries in pre-WWII England may not be a match for the dashing, modern-day Sherlock Holmes or Doctor Who. However, none of the fine actors in the latter two shows can match the dramatics of the supreme David Suchet, who has now played Poirot longer than any of the actors who played him before: Peter Ustinov, Albert Finney, et al. The brilliance of Suchet’s portrayal is in how he has chosen to stay completely faithful to Christie’s novels.
This is also why the show is titled “Agatha Christie’s Poirot.” There are several interviews about how Suchet prepared for the role by reading everything Christie had written about Poirot, how he worked hard to keep all the little details, the foibles, the idiosyncrasies straight. I have also enjoyed this collection of behind the scenes videos – both about Christie as well as the TV show — as they shed light on the meticulous research, preparation and thought that has gone into each episode by the many people involved.
Poirot was so well-loved, despite his annoying, self-centered pomposity, that, when Christie finally released her last novel, Curtain, killing him off after more than 5 decades, he received a front-page obituary on August 6, 1975 in the New York Times. He might be the only fictional character to have achieved this dubious honor. [Aside: When she first started writing Poirot, he was already an older man and she had no idea, per her autobiography, that she would write about him for so long. In real-life years, Poirot would have been well over a hundred by the last novel, especially as she wrote it in the 1940s and locked it away till 1974.]
Poirot mysteries were sometimes very similar. One common plot type involved a family member poisoning another family member either for inheritance or to keep them from spilling some scandalous secret. Often, there was a second murder to silence a character who had stumbled onto the truth. And, almost always, there was a big tableau gathering at the end where the great detective would bring all the suspects together and slowly unravel each one’s motivations and secrets till it was clear to everyone who the real murderer among them all was. More often than not, the families, murderers and victims were from the glamorous British upper-classes. And, while this did rather pander to the reader appetite at the time for high-society scandals, actual socio-political events and happenings rarely made their way into a story. I haven’t quite figured out whether this is because Christie wanted Poirot’s world to stay within certain bounds or whether she herself was not interested enough to write about what was, undoubtedly, a very interesting time for England between the two World Wars.
If you’ve watched or read enough of the more regular Poirot stories, you will typically have the murderer pegged before getting to the end – despite the intricate plotting. But, really, the whole point of these books and shows is not the fun of solving the whodunits. The pleasure of reading or watching Poirot is his full-on quirkiness, which is more heavily influenced by Dickens’ writing and characters than by Conan Doyle’s Holmes (although, of course, he’s there too).
For Christie to manage such intricate plotting with every novel and keep her stories straight was an amazing feat, when you consider how prolific she was and how many characters she created in total throughout her books – stereotypical though many of them were. Many “real” people, including herself and her husband, found their way into the books too. She was not a literary writer by any means. But, she understood, better than many writers of her time, the importance of a thoroughly plotted story and the need for consistency and relevancy in details. We’ll get to her in more detail in a different post later.
Coming back to the TV show, in addition to the regular ensemble cast that complements and plays off Suchet’s Poirot perfectly, many other now-famous actors have played multiple characters across various seasons. Given how much the British public has always loved murder mysteries as entertainment, shows like Poirot have served well as launching-pads for many actors in their early days.
The production sets and locations are worth a proper mention because they give the stories much of their atmosphere, and ambience. Look through some of these here. The architecture, design, and decor are either well-preserved originals of or stunningly-recreated homages to the luxurious and glamorous Art Deco design style. This movement was derived from an exhibition of the decorative arts staged in Paris, France in 1925. The style was sometimes also known as Jazz Moderne due to the closeness of both styles. Between the two World Wars, this design style was used extensively in commercial buildings – hotels, offices, cinemas, shops. It was less about discipline and more about letting the designer’s imagination run free. That said, it was also a simplified form of classical Greek and Roman architecture – reduced to their most basic forms, then blended with motifs from other cultures / periods, e.g. Egyptian art, which was very much in vogue then as the tombs of ancient Pharoahs were being discovered by British archeologists. Complementing this simple classicism with varying motifs were modern materials such as chromium plate, stained glass, colored tiles, smooth render over brick, etc. arranged in jazzy, geometric patterns.
All of this sheer elegance can be seen in beautifully-lighted glory in almost all the episodes. His home office is quite true to the style too. Also, feast your eyes on some other examples of Art Deco architecture in England from that time here. Sadly, there aren’t too many left standing, what with all the tearing down and redeveloping in the late-20th century.
The opening theme of each show could have been lifted straight off one of the Art Deco book covers — it probably was.
You can catch all but the current season on ITV’s Player for 99 pence each in the UK. Netflix in the US stopped offering streaming earlier this year, so it’s DVD-only for now, sadly.
Sep 4, 2013: An announcement that Sophie Hannah, writer of contemporary crime thrillers will write a new Poirot novel – 93 years after the last one was written by Agatha Christie. This will not end well. There are too many fans up in arms already – just read the comments in the linked article. Apparently, she had a plot twist she’d been working on for 2+ years and it just wasn’t happening for her as a contemporary novel. So, she used it for a 100-page outline with Poirot as character, sent it off to a publisher and Bob’s-your-uncle. Sad. No need for this. I’m just glad David Suchet is retiring from playing Poirot and will not be subjected to having to deal with this story. I might pick it up out of curiosity, I suppose, to see how an established author reverts to fan fiction instead of creating new fiction. I mean, she could have set her plot in the same era as Poirot but as an entirely different book of its own. Why pick on Poirot? Her “leettle grey cells, they are not working too well, I theenk”, as Poirot might say.
October 23, 2013: A lovely Guardian article on how, the Poirot series coming to an end is also the end of one of TV’s greatest castings — Suchet-as-Poirot. I couldn’t agree more.
November 25, 2013: A very well-written LA Times article on 25 years of Poirot on screen. C’est magnifique, as Poirot would say.