In what has unexpectedly turned into a quest, I’m watching the David Suchet Poirot series via Britbox on Amazon Prime Video.
Because the short stories are too short, or the novels too long, they are often significantly reworked to fit into the Procrustean bed of 51-minute episodes. Particularly in the early years, there’s also a desire to establish a family of established characters: Poirot, Miss Lemon, Hastings, and Japp. So the supporting cast often feature in their own B or C storylines to pad out an episode to 54 minutes.
Example: An early series episode, “The Chocolate Box,” where Japp and Poirot travel to Belgium for Japp to receive an award, and Poirot relates an early case from when he was a policeman. In the original story, Poirot simply retells the case to Hastings. In the TV episode, the expanded world created by the producers offers scope for great scenery, and enlarges both Japp and Poirot’s inner and outer lives, and their respect and affection for each other. Christie never imagined such character-defining moments because such moments were never really her concern.
The TV shows often significantly change the stories, and not only by adding B and C storylines that don’t exist. Again, in “Chocolate Box,” the short story features the murderer correcting Poirot’s deductions by confessing, and the young woman Virginie leaves to join a convent. But in the TV episode, Poirot correctly deduces the murderer, he secretly loved Virginie, and she marries his best friend.
Events planted in the early years – Hastings' marriage and his move to the Argentine to be a rancher, Poirot’s first retirement – return and are played up or played down as needed in later years. While these threads don’t always work, they provide a sense of a continuing story despite several years' gaps between series.
So, the three periods of TV-Poirot.
The early seasons of single-episode “cozies” that established the theme music and style aesthetics. The production qualities are at a comfortable and uniform level: Art Deco-inspired sets, impeccable costuming and set designs, and a generally high to medium-high quality of acting. It’s also great fun to see young actors starting out, like Christopher Eccleston and Jeremy Northam.
The stories look as if they take place on a grand stage, with Poirot the most dandified character on set, and very much belonging to this world. The direction is four-square and conventional, though the opening scenes sometimes show a dark playfulness and imagination (i.e., the opening of “One Two, Buckle My Shoe”).
I’m assured of a dependable and cozy, if unexciting, standard of viewing pleasure. For that reason, I only rewatched episodes I remembered favorably, or hunted for particularly interesting stories from the first 5-6 years.
“Why Are We Here?”
The middle period, beginning roughly with “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” is deeply uneven. Only the opening bars of the Poirot theme, and a few seconds of the original credits are used; so a rethink of the stories' presentation is taking place, but the choices don’t go deep.
The TV family appears now and then, the sets and costuming don’t look as good, the direction is even more boring, and the acting ranges from OK to embarrassing. The drop in overall quality from the early years is rather shocking.
“Roger Ackroyd” seems to mark the beginning of something new, with Poirot’s silhouette in the framing credits promising a more interesting visual style. Given the source novel, a little more imagination is needed to tell the story and they pull it off, even if Japp is brought in by the scruff of the neck. The framing is clever, but the story is told unremarkably.
However unfair the comparison between this period’s “Evil Under the Sun” to the Ustinov movie, the comparison highlights this period’s deficiencies in setting, acting, and direction from its previous dependable standard. (“Murder in Mesopotamia”? “Lord Edgeware”? Tres crap, especially the acting, which is usually one of the most dependable aspects of British TV.)
“Ah, This is Why We’re Here”
I’ve now entered what I think of as the last period, as exemplified by “Murder on the Orient Express,” which I saw out of order before my rewatch. This period, overseen by new producers, is a breathtaking and daring revision of the Poirot world from Period 1, and not only visually. Especially so as compared to Period 2, which left no clue that such a vast boost in quality, atmosphere, and storytelling – an older, darker, richer vision – was possible for the series.
Seeing Poirot in what is recognizably a more naturalistic world, he now stands out as less a stage dandy, and more a weird creature, a deep eccentric clothed in the fashions and morals of a different time and place. This tension provides a meatier subtext for Suchet. His Poirot, ever the outsider, is assaulted more by the modern world, its noise, its ill manners, its neverending brutal violence and stupidity, and its inability to take responsibility for the consequences of its actions.
Example: “Five Little Pigs” (gah, a terrible title; the original title “Murder in Retrospect” is a little better but not much). Time is taken to establish the characters, the direction and script are breathtakingly modern despite having to hew to the genre tropes, and best of all is the acting: total commitment from all the players, which makes the interviews – potentially the dullest part of the story – absolutely riveting.
The next story, “Sad Cypress,” is also long on mood, with again excellent acting and an involving denoument; I watched this twice just to make sure I saw everything I missed on the first watch. What turned my head here was a dream in which Poirot sees the victim’s face bulge, reshape, and transform itself into another face before peeling back to show a skull. I jumped in my chair almost as violently as Poirot did in his bed. It was a bold and wonderful way of giving Poirot a clue (i rewatched that bit three times because I couldn’t quite believe it, but even so, I could see the face horrifically reshape itself into that of the victim’s mother).
And “Death on the Nile,” while not as luxurious as the Ustinov version, is also remarkably good and atmospheric.
I’m really enjoying this series.