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.

SEE MORE AFTER THE JUMP

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.

MORE AFTER THE JUMP

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. 

Friday, 18 April 2014

The future of Poirot: 'Introducing Poirot for a new generation'?

ITV's long-running series of Poirot adaptations, Agatha Christie's Poirot, has ended. The final episodes were broadcast in the UK in November. Of course, fans in several countries around the world are still waiting eagerly for the final series, (for instance, the final four episodes air on consecutive nights in Norway this Easter, and in the U.S. the final series will be broadcast on PBS and Acorn TV this summer), but it's only a question of time before a remarkable journey is over.

So what now for our favourite mustachioed Belgian detective? David Suchet has hinted at remaking a few of the stories for the cinema if there's the money and the interest, but I am fairly certain that's wishful thinking. However, the Christie Estate seems as eager as ever to continue the success story of Christie and Poirot. I'm one of those people who will never be able to envisage Poirot without David Suchet, but I will try to keep an open mind for future projects. Since my last post back in November, exciting news have emerged:

(MORE AFTER THE JUMP)

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Episode-by-episode: Curtain: Poirot's Last Case

(c) ITV

We have reached The End.

This adaptation was based on Curtain: Poirot's Last Case, first published in 1975, just a few months before Christie's death, but written during the war, in the early 1940s. The novel was adapted for television by Kevin Elyot (who also scripted Five Little Pigs and Death on the Nile) and directed by Hettie Macdonald (who also directed The Mystery of the Blue Train).


Script versus novel
The press pack to this final episode reveals that Kevin Elyot was asked by the production team to adapt Curtain more than ten years ago, when he wrote the scripts for Five Little Pigs and Death on the Nile. I'm not at all surprised they asked him. His script for Five Little Pigs is possibly the best of the entire series, and Death on the Nile proved that he wasn't daunted by the task of writing an adaptation most Poirot fans have been both eagerly waiting for and dreading at the same time. He had also demonstrated that he fully understood Poirot's character, and that he could handle the darker side of Christie without making unnecessary changes. In my opinion, he was the best man for the job.

SPOILERS. IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE ADAPTATION YET I WOULD ADVISE YOU TO WAIT - READ THIS POST AFTERWARDS.

Monday, 18 November 2013

David Suchet's 'Poirot and Me' (2013)

Last week, Agatha Christie's Poirot came to an end as Curtain: Poirot's Last Case was broadcast on ITV. But fear not! To coincide with the broadcast of the final series, Headline Publishing have released a book, written by David Suchet in collaboration with Geoffrey Wansell, called Poirot and Me. The book is an absolute must-have for any dedicated Poirot fan!

When I first heard about the plans for this release back in autumn 2012, I was immediately over-excited. Having seen numerous interviews with Suchet in the past, as well as his documentaries, I was confident that we could expect great things from this book. In short, my expectations could not have been higher. This is the man who for twenty-five years has portrayed one of my favourite literary characters in an iconic television series.

Let me start by saying that it did not disappoint. Far from it. With over 300 pages, the book includes comments on every single episode ever made, plus some biographical Agatha Christie information. For the first time, we get the full story of how Suchet became Poirot (the walk, the talk, the appearance), with first meetings, first costume fittings, first shoots and several acting epiphanies included. We are also treated to little anecdotes from his encounters with the Poirot fans, some of which are absolutely delightful to read. We even get his 'character dossier', the list of 93 Poirot characteristics that he carried with him on set (I was secretly hoping for this to be included, but I never thought we'd actually get to see it!), and a series of photos Suchet has taken on the sets over the years.

This is far more than just a Poirot 'encyclopedia', though. This is the life story of a character actor. I don't think I have ever seen a character actor who has been given the opportunity to describe the process of becoming different characters. In short, his craft. Poirot aside, we also get glimpses of all the other great characters Suchet has played, including the famous Shakespeare roles, George in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Salieri in Amadeus, Robert Maxwell in Maxwell, James Tyrone in Long Day's Journey Into Night, and many others. We get to share his anxiousness as he waits for the phone call from ITV saying that they want to do another series, his money worries, and holidays with his family. Sometimes when you read 'celebrity biographies' you can tell that it has been 'polished' by some PR department, and certain stories have been included to put the writer in a good light. This, however, is a very personal story told in what appears to be a very truthful and honest way. Geoffrey Wansell should probably be given some credit here, too, because the book is incredibly 'visual', in the sense that you really feel, as a reader, that you've actually witnessed all these things. You have been a part of Suchet's journey. That is quite unusual.

Personally, there were some things I was even more delighted to read about than others. It was encouraging to read about Suchet's disputes with some of the Poirot directors, his determination to re-introduce Whitehaven Mansions after a long absence and include Poirot's manservant, his personal contributions to the set designs (he bought the clock on Poirot's mantelpiece for the production team!), and his firm belief to stray true to the character. This is a man with a vision. In fact, that's a thought I kept coming back to while reading the book. On several occasions, Suchet has said that his aim as an actor is to serve the writer. 'Without actors, writers don't have a voice'. These glimpses behind the scenes demonstrate Suchet's determination. He has been committed to Agatha Christie, regardless of what some Christie 'purists' might say, while at the same time fleshing out Poirot to truly iconic dimensions (see my post on Suchet's achievement here). His reflections (in the book) on Murder on the Orient Express and the moving story from the filming of Poirot's final case, Curtain, underline this, too.

All in all, Poirot and Me is a treasure-trove of information for any fan of David Suchet, Hercule Poirot, and Agatha Christie - not to mention anyone interested in acting, television and adaptation work. Highly recommended!

P.S. I've been told by Headline that an audiobook version will be released on 21 November 2013, read by David Suchet! The book lends itself easily to an audiobook, and I'm sure the story will feel even more personal when read by Suchet himself. 


 

Richard, a reader of the blog, kindly sent me these photos from one of Suchet's promotional talks. It must have been quite an evening!

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Episode-by-episode: The Labours of Hercules

(c) ITV
This episode was based on a series of interconnected short stories, assembled in The Labours of Hercules, first published in 1947. It was adapted by Guy Andrews and directed by Andy Wilson. SPOILERS to follow.

Script versus short story collection
This adaptation was a Herculean task (to borrow the pun). Fans - me included - have been discussing for years how the team behind Poirot would ever be able to adapt this collection. Essentially, this is a series of thematically interconnected stories. They are linked together by Poirot's decision to do only a selected number of cases before he retires, and all the cases are to resemble the labours of Hercules in some way or other. Now, in the earlier years of the series, this could almost certainly have been expanded into a series of 50 minute episodes, and a part of me is disappointed that this didn't happen. But for those of us who know a bit about the history of the television series, that would probably never have happened. As a matter of fact, it's remarkable that they even got to make all the other short stories in the early years, before the series was effectively cancelled in 1994/1995.(That is not to say that I wouldn't have loved to see these as a series of episodes!). Considering that the final series nearly didn't happen - and the fact that this collection was one of the candidates to be dropped - I think we've been lucky to see an adaptation of it at all.

The scriptwriter chosen for this difficult task was Guy Andrews. Just to remind you: he also scripted The Mystery of the Blue Train, Taken at the Flood and Appointment with Death. That's one weak, one slightly unbelievable, and one terrible adaptation (in very crude terms). As you will know if you've read my episode-by-episode look at Appointment with Death, that's a very clear candidate for my least favourite episode of Poirot. It's saved by the beautiful cinematography, music, production design and acting. I was more than a little nervous when I heard that he had been commissioned for The Labours of Hercules. At the same time, this adaptation called for changes. Radical changes. And I was perfectly prepared to accept loads of them if he - against all odds - managed to make it work.

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 poirotchronology@gmail.com, post a comment on one of my blogs, or get in touch on Twitter @pchronology. (I previously called myself HickoryDickory)