So, the little grey cells have finally wound down. RIP David Suchet’s Hercule Poirot. ITV’s quarter century love affair with Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective has finally come to an end, and the massive audience who probably took their occasional ‘Sundays with Hercule’ for granted will have to look elsewhere for their cosy kicks.
But was it just cosy drama, or does it mean a bit more to us than that? Christie’s detractors say that she lacks depth and that her characters are perfunctory, and yes, no-one would accuse ITV’s Poirot of mining the depths or darkness of modern Scandinavian style crime-lit. And it’s certainly not Love/Hate! Yet at its best, as per last Sunday night, Agatha Christies Poirot is the type of old fashioned drama which combines perfect period escapism with the classic detective story. Christie may not be recognised as the best crime fiction writer of all time, or even of that early 20th century golden era of crime fiction, but she had the best plots, a light yet engaging style and a peculiarly compelling way of writing about families and human nature. So, while never revered by literary critics, she remains beloved by millions and is the 2nd highest selling fiction author of all time after Shakespeare, with over two billion books sold.
The ITV adaptations have not always been perfect, for example one of the problems of adapting every single book is that some of the short stories are somewhat slight, but they have still been very consistent over the years and never really veered towards the slightly jokey silly style that the same channel has been guilty of recently with Miss Marple. And twenty five years ago, a new period drama on Sunday nights was still ‘event television’, and a shared experience for the viewing public.
But, we’re here to memorialise Poirot, not Marple, and specifically David Suchet’s Poirot. Suchet and Poirot don’t seem to have aged much over the last 25 years, but for this last film, ‘Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case’, the detective is seen as an elderly wheelchair-bound man. And this was the beauty of Suchet’s final unshowy performance, he played it with well-judged pathos, and as the story line is revealed, we see his rage at his own decline and at his inability to prove the guilt of the murderer, a particularly insidious villain in this case. We also see him cling to religion as he grapples with these issues, and the massive moral dilemma that arises for him. Christie had always given us Poirot as a Catholic, but not usually as overtly as in this final case.
Suchet was the latest in a long line of TV and film Poirots, including, most notably, Peter Ustinov and Albert Finney. For a generation though, Suchet is ‘our Poirot’ and with good cause. A combination of the accent, the twinkly eyes and of course the peculiar walk, all made him a very specific Poirot, more likeable than Finney and less hammy than Ustinov. And now that ITV have adapted every single Poirot novel and short story we can trace Suchet’s progress, not to mention his moustaches(!), through the entire oeuvre. It helps of course that Suchet is a genuinely talented actor, particularly on stage as well as the small screen, while Ustinov was a charming but limited character actor and Finney more notable for his big screen work.
The short story adaptations were usually one hour, and the novels two. The earlier novels tended to be the strongest and the most suited to adaptation, for example ‘The ABC Murders’ and ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’, which have incredibly tight plotting and twists. The final Poirot book, which we saw on ITV last week, and which is one of her strongest, ‘Curtain’, was actually written in 1940 but Christie deliberately held it back from publication until close to her own death in the mid-1970s. So, even though she initially created Poirot as a retired policeman in the first book (‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’ from 1920), she keeps Poirot at around the same age right up until the later 1960s Poirot novels. ITV however, seemed to set all their adaptations in the 1930s. But these inconsistencies don’t really matter. Production values were invariably very good, with many of the films having a strong art deco look, along with excellent scripts by the likes of Kevin Elyot and Anthony Horowitz.
Suchet’s Poirot was not only notable for the lead performance by Suchet. Throughout the decades we saw nicely judged performances from the actors playing Inspector Japp, Miss Lemon and especially Hugh Fraser as Hastings. And of course, ‘Curtain’ is also Hastings’ swansong as much as it is Poirot’s and the warmth, even bromance (?!) and occasional tetchiness between the two old comrades was played out very nicely in the final episode.
So, what then of this man, this detective who has died at the age of (we presume) 80-something? What has he given us? And how will he be remembered? Well, although some may prefer other detectives such as Holmes or Dalgliesh, Poirot gave us the best of Agatha Christie (more or less), he gave us a sense of the importance of both justice and compassion, a belief in the superiority of brain over brawn, and a sense that it’s ok to be slightly ridiculous, eccentric, even pompous.
An obituary usually finishes up with who the person is survived by, but part of the pathos of Poirot is that behind the exciting detective’s life and massive brain power lay a lonely batcherhood existence, so he died as he lived his life - alone. And as his screen life faded away on our televisions last week in this most sympathetic of adaptations, we felt that loneliness. But, on the page, he lives on.
By Ken Cowley November 2013