Sunday, 12 July 2015

REVIEW: Agatha Christie - The Pocket Essential by Mark Campbell (2015)

2015 is the year of Agatha Christie's 125th birthday. The Christie estate is gearing up for two new TV adaptations on BBC1: Partners in  Crime this July (miniseries starring Tommy and Tuppence, aka David Walliams and Jessica Raine), and And Then There Were None (TV film with an "all star cast"). We could also add the upcoming adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express (apparently without David Suchet!), possibly to be directed by Kenneth Branagh, and the release of Sophie Hannah's The Monogram Murders last year, to that list.

To coincide with the anniversary, Oldcastle Books are rereleasing a new and updated edition of Mark Campbell's Agatha Christie, a 'Pocket Essential' book which examines Christie's entire body of work, as well as every English language adaptation on television, radio, stage and film (not including the not-yet-released BBC1 adaptations and the new MOTOE). Mark Campbell has written for The Independent, Midweek, Crime Time and The Dark Side. He was also one of the main contributors to the two-volume British Crime Writing: An Encyclopedia, and the last theatre critic for The Kentish Times.

Campbell's book is a comprehensive and fascinating guide to Christie. For some die-hard Christie fans, most of the information should be well-known. We get thorough introductions to each Christie character, including Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Tommy and Tuppence, Parker Pyne, Harley Quin. We also get a complete checklist of Christie's work, and each character chapter offers a guide to the individual stories, with a case overview, context, and a review by Campbell. But even for die-hard fans, there should be something to get their teeth into. I enjoyed the character descriptions, as they are possibly the most concise and accurate descriptions I've seen, apart from Anne Hart's excellent character studies of Poirot and Miss Marple in the early 1990s. And it's always intriguing to read other reviews of the stories you know, to see whether you agree with them or not. Also, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Campbell includes Christie's Mary Westmacott novels as well as her poetry, children's stories and memoirs. I shouldn't be surprised, since this claims to be a complete guide, but more often than not, books on Christie tend to focus on her crime writing career exclusively.

Since this blog focuses mainly on the Christie adaptations, particularly ITV's Agatha Christie's Poirot, I'm happy to say that Campbell is just as thorough when, later in the book, he turns his attention to every single adaptation of a Christie story. We get the same, handy guide to the individual adaptations, with cast, crew, premiere dates and Campbell's observations. The guide seems to be up to date as of 2015, including the final series of Poirot, Sophie Hannah's novel, and a new stage adaptation of The Secret Adversary. However, as a Poirot fan, I must admit I was somewhat disappointed Campbell didn't offer his thoughts on every single Poirot episode. Instead, we get an overall review. Still, with 70 different adaptations, that would almost amount to a separate 'Pocket Essential' in itself!

All in all, then, Mark Campbell's Agatha Christie is an impressively complete guide to Agatha Christie's work; an essential Christie encyclopedia. The book is a perfect birthday or Christmas present for anyone who has an above average interest in all things Christie. Or those who don't know her range - from crime to thriller, adventure, poetry, romance and children's stories. I'll certainly have my copy available whenever an 'uninitiated' Christie fan stops by!

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

The Screenwriters: Nick Dear

Photo: Nobby Clark

"I was first approached to do it in 2002 I think. (...) I couldn't say Agatha Christie was very high on my reading list. I thought I was much too much of an intellectual for that. I'm now prepared to accept that I might have been too much of a snob because after a dozen years of being associated with the shows, because I have written six of them now for ITV, I think it's very classy entertainment and I'm pleased to be associated with it." (Huffington Post interview, 2013)
Nick Dear (1955-) wrote six adaptations for Poirot between 2003 and 2013. Outside of Poirot, he is known as a BAFTA-winning script writer (for Persuasion, an adaptation of Jane Austen's novel, in 1995). He has also written biographical TV movies on Byron and Beethoven. In 2011, he adapted Mary Shelley's Frankenstein for the stage, directed by Danny Boyle and starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller (the two Sherlocks!). In other words, he was no stranger to literary adaptations when he was asked to adapt Christie's novels. 
"Nobody ever grieves for a minute in Christie; 10 seconds of grief, then it's onto the next murder. What we've done with them in the last 10 years is make them rather darker, existentially bleaker, and have Poirot faced sometimes with very difficult moral choices" (Huffington Post interview, 2013)

Friday, 12 June 2015

The Screenwriters: Guy Andrews

"The book, by Agatha's own admission, was not one of her favourites, and we've taken some monstrous liabilities with it." (Behind the scenes: The Mystery of the Blue Train, 2006)
Guy Andrews wrote four scripts for Poirot: The Mystery of the Blue Train and Taken at the Flood for Series Ten (2005-2006), Appointment with Death for Series Eleven (2008), and The Labours of Hercules for Series Thirteen (2013). He is known for the mini-series Lost in Austen, Blandings and Prime Suspect 5: Errors of Judgement. The first two demonstrates that he is entrusted with adapting other literary classics (Jane Austen and P. G. Woodehouse), and in Lost in Austen I'd say he succeeds, at least within its genre of television. Prime Suspect, the award-winning and exceptional series starring Helen Mirren, proves that he masters the crime genre, and his episode is actually rather good (Prime Suspect 5 won and Emmy for Outstanding Miniseries).

Sunday, 7 June 2015

The Screenwriters: Anthony Horowitz

(Photo: Andrew Crowley, The Telegraph)

Anthony Horowitz (1955-) wrote eleven adaptations for Agatha Christie's Poirot between 1991 and 2001. His body of work is too long to summarise here, but he is a miracle man. Where does he get his energy from? In addition to Poirot, he created and wrote nearly all the scripts for the exceptional Foyle's War (2002-2013) and wrote the first few scripts for Midsomer Murders (1997-). He also wrote and created three other successful crime dramas; Murder in Mind (2001-2003, with a significant role for David Suchet in the first episode "Teacher"), Collision (2009) and Injustice (2011). Outside of television, he is a renowned author of young adult novels, and has written for both the Arthur Conan Doyle / Sherlock Holmes (The House of Silk, Moriarty) and the Ian Fleming / James Bond (Trigger Mortis) estates. So he is by no means a stranger to the crime genre.
"Brian Eastman [the original Poirot producer] was thinking of doing a series of Maigret and they brought me in as a possible writer, and when that didn't happen, I ended up writing scripts for Poirot. Actually, I'm much more of an Agatha Christie than Georges Simenon fan. I first encountered her as a student in my gap year and read them while I was travelling around the world – I think I read about 30 of them in one long journey. Why be snooty about her? She is what she is, which is a wonderful constructor of puzzles."  (The Guardian interview, 2013).
With Hastings I used to have a competition with Brian (Eastman) to see have many times I could get the words 'Good Lord!' into the script. Hastings would always hear something; Poirot would make an announcement, and Hastings would say 'Good Lord!'.  Two or three times in one script was good going, I used to think. (Super Sleuths, ITV, 2006)

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

The Screenwriters: Clive Exton

Clive Exton (1930-2007) was the principal screenwriter for most of the original Poirot series. He also oversaw a number of scripts as a script consultant. For an overview of his career, see this obituary in The Telegraph. Other notable works, much in the same vein as Poirot, include Jeeves and Wooster (1990-1993), the P. G. Wodehouse stories, with Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie), and Rosemary and Thyme (2003-2006), a television series about two female gardening detectives. Exton wrote all 23 episodes of Jeeves and Wooster at the same time as he was doing Poirot. They are similar, in some ways. Poirot is set in the 1930s, Jeeves and Wooster in the 1920s. Both sets of adaptations have a lot of humour in them, and they both centre on dynamic duos. You could even argue that Rosemary & Thyme follows the same pattern. In any case, that is certainly a very Christie-esque series. However, I should point out that Exton's work as a screenwriter was much broader than just gentle Sunday night television; the obituary in The Guardian focuses on 'his highly individual mixture of black comedy and oblique social criticism'.

Writing about Poirot and Jeeves and Wooster, The Telegraph states in the obituary that 'both adaptations reflected his love of precision in language and his understanding of how people express themselves, as well as his ability to spin out and knit together plot lines from often scanty material'.That is certainly true of his Poirot adaptations, on more than one occasion.


Monday, 28 July 2014

The Complete Poirot: The Mysterious Affair at Styles

Some people tend to see Poirot as one- or two-dimensional, but those who do are almost always the ones who have never read the books. If you do read them, you realise at once that there are certainly three dimensions to his character. And every time I played him, I tried to bring those extra elements of Poirot's character to the surface, reflecting the different dimensions revealed in Dame Agatha's own stories about him.' (David Suchet, Poirot and Me p. 86, 2013)

It is a truth universally acknowledged (to borrow a famous first sentence) that David Suchet spent years perfecting his performance as Hercule Poirot. He read all the stories and compiled a character dossier, a copy of which was included in his memoir Poirot and Me (2013). He has repeatedly stated that he aimed to stay true to the character as Christie wrote him. For me, Suchet fully managed to inhabit that character, and I find it impossible to pick up a Poirot story and not envisage his Poirot and hear his voice. 

Under the headline "The Complete Poirot", I will examine, in the coming weeks and months, the development of our all-time favourite main character in Christie's stories, and discuss passages or characteristics that are (a) included in Suchet's dossier, or (b) present in the television adaptations themselves. The books will be discussed in chronological order (based on this Wikipedia list), rather than in publication order (although they largely overlap). 

Let's begin with Poirot's very first case, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, published in 1920. Page references are from the HarperCollins collection The Complete Battles of Hastings, Volume I, published in 2003.


Tuesday, 10 June 2014

The Screenwriters: Kevin Elyot

In the coming weeks and months I will examine and discuss some of the key members of the Poirot production team, with particular focus on their work on Poirot, of course. My initial plan was to look at these crew members in chronological order, so to speak, but when I read about the sad passing of Kevin Elyot yesterday, it felt natural to start with him.

Kevin Elyot (1951-2014) was a British playwright and screenwriter. I won't attempt to discuss his career in detail. For that, I refer to this well-written obituary. The Guardian's Michael Coveney summed up his subject (as a writer) as 'the longing for love and remembrance of loves lost'. This is certainly true of some of his non-Poirot work that I've read or seen, like My Night with Reg, Clapham Junction and Christopher and His Kind. But it's also true of his Poirot (and Marple) adaptations. 

Elyot adapted three Poirot novels for the series: Five Little Pigs, Death on the Nile and Curtain: Poirot's Last Case. The tragic story of the Crale family, Jacqueline de Bellefort's vendetta, and the final hour of the friendship between Poirot and Hastings - all these adaptations could fall under that phrase in The Guardian. In an behind-the-scenes interview, Eylot explained the appeal of Poirot to him: 
'What appealed - appeals - to me about him is that he's a foreigner, and an outsider, a refugee, in a very class-ridden, and snobbish, and xenophobic society. That instantly gives any situation he's in an edge, and I find that very... full of potential.'
(Behind the Scenes: Death on the Nile, 2004)
I'm not in any way qualified to make assumptions based on Elyot's career, but that seems to fit in well with his record of writing 'gay stories', in lack of a better phrase, stories about outsiders, often faced with prejudices from the society around them. Poirot is a 'bloody little frog', as one character describes him, and he is frequently met with a substantial amount of scepticism, even in the three stories Elyot adapted. For instance, in Five Little Pigs:
'As he had often felt lately, things were not what they used to be. Dash it all, private detectives used to be private detectives - fellows you got to guard wedding presents at country receptions, fellows you went to - rather shame-facedly - when there was some dirty business afoot and you'd got to get the hang of it. But here was Lady Mary Lytton-Gore writing (...) And Lady Mary Lytton-Gore wasn't - no, decidedly she wasn't - the sort of woman tou associate with private detectives (...) And Admiral Cronshaw (...) And now here was the man himself. Really a most impossible person - the wrong clothes - button boots - an incredible moustache! Not his - Meredith Blake's - kind of fellow at all. Didn't look as though he'd ever hunted or shot - or even played a decent game. A foreigner.' 
(The War Years: Five Little Pigs, p. 222)
Personally, I cherish Elyot's adaptations, all three of them. Five Little Pigs, as a whole, is still my favourite Poirot episode. It's a difficult novel to adapt successfully, with internal monologues and observations, and I think the balance was just about right between flashbacks to the past and the present day. Curtain was faithfully and accurately adapted, with the right amount of sensitivity to its themes. An apt farewell with a beloved character.  Death on the Nile was possibly less successful, particularly with some of the changes to the minor characters, but nonetheless among the better episodes of the entire series. The scene, singled out by David Suchet in several interviews, between Jacqueline and Poirot, with dialogue borrowed from Dead Man's Folly, is a magnificent glimpse of that character trait that would blossom both in later novels and in later adaptations; Poirot's longing for love and remembrance of loves lost (think Vera Rossakoff, Verginie Mesnard and 'the mystery of love'). 

As such, I think Elyot brilliantly managed to move the character of Poirot on, to deepen, in collaboration with Suchet of course, the interpretation and add layers and dimensions. Regardless of what some fans might think of his more radical changes (mercifully fewer between on Poirot than on Marple), he deserves praise for that accomplishment. To me, he remains one of the best Poirot screenwriters. 

About Me

I'm a passionate fan of Poirot, Agatha Christie and the ITV series. If you have any questions, comments, suggestions or requests, please e-mail me at, post a comment on one of my blogs, or get in touch on Twitter @pchronology. (I previously called myself HickoryDickory)