Poirot's Circle of Friends


By Steven Quan



Much of the enjoyment I have in the Agatha Christie's Poirot TV series, Season 1 through Season 8 (Carnival/ITV 1989 - 2001), is watching the side-stories involving Hercule Poirot, Captain Hastings, Miss Lemon, and Chief Inspector Japp that accompany the main mystery story. One my favorites has Captain Hastings and his friend Hercule Poirot enjoying a drive in the English countryside. In the TV episode "The Adventure of Johnny Waverly" (1989), Hastings is teaching Poirot a traditional counting song to help pass the miles away.


THREE men went to mow, went to mow a meadow,
THREE men, TWO men, ONE man and his dog —
went to mow a meadow.

On their way back, their motorcar stalls out; stranding the two on the side of a country road. Of course there is not another car or even horse drawn wagon in sight. Poor Poirot urgently needs to get back, so he walks across open fields and over fences in his spats and patent leather shoes. Hastings later discovers to his embarrassment that he had run out of gas!

These side-stories are fun to watch as well as serving to develop the TV character of Hercule Poirot into the beloved TV character played by David Suchet. I think this had a great deal to do with the success of this highly rated and long time running mystery series.

Credit for this goes to Clive Exton (the primary scriptwriter and the series story consultant) and producer Brian Eastman. Their adaptations for TV of the original Christie's series of stories and novels bring Hercule Poirot to life. The TV series brings to the screen the look and feel of the Art Deco time period between the World Wars as well as fleshing out the regular series characters.

As originally written, the Hercule Poirot mysteries are primarily puzzle stories. Convoluted plots and cleverly deceptive red-herrings are the hallmarks of an Agatha Christie mystery. Lots of red-herrings. She keeps the reader guessing until the final scenes when the great Belgian detective Hercule Poirot explains all and identifies the guilty among the gathered suspects. Her murder mysteries still have a large popular following, but she has been criticized for her "cardboard cutout characters" by the likes of P.D. James and Edmund Wilson. Also Christie is not above recycling her characters using the same stock characters under different names. There is the ne'er do-well heir, the modern outspoken daughter, the gentleman freeloader, the pretentious matriarch, the outsider, the bastard, the bitter relations, and the rich and loathsome victim.

Even the great Poirot himself is often little more than the master of ceremonies whose role is to reveal all at the end. The character of Hercule Poirot never becomes greater than the collection of character tags Christie gives him. Hercule Poirot is Belgian and speaks with a distinct French accent. He is fastidious in dress and manners. His toilet is most precise, if a bit old fashioned. He still wears spats with his patent leather shoes. He observes the old world courtesies. His moustache is iconic. But for all that, the reader never really gets to know Poirot.

When Clive Exton and Brian Eastman adapted the Poirot stories for TV, they fleshed out the regular series characters. Exton and Eastman did this to keep viewers coming back week after week to watch the next Poirot episode. They knew the convoluted mysteries alone would not carry a long running TV series. The prolific Christie recycled her plots like her characters. For instance, the plots are obviously the same between the novel EVIL UNDER THE SUN and the short story "Triangle at Rhodes."

Exton and Eastman knew TV viewers, like myself, come to watch the character of Poirot as much as for the mystery. Even if the mystery and the current suspects are less than engaging, the viewers still enjoy watching Poirot and his circle of friends.

In the TV series Hercule Poirot is more than just a fastidious thinking machine. From the glimpses we get into Poirot's daily life, we discover a kind hearted soul who values his friendship with Captain Hastings and the loyalty of his secretary Miss Lemon. Poirot even extends his generosity and goodwill to the plodding Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Japp. From the first episodes, there is great chemistry among the regular cast.

David Suchet's performance as Hercule Poirot is in the consensus of many viewers and critics the definitive version of Agatha Christie's Belgian detective. Suchet brings the character of Poirot to life right down to the patent leather shoes and ionic moustache. Suchet's affection for the Belgian detective comes across the screen to the viewers. His performances are a joy to watch.

Among the regular cast members is Hugh Fraser who plays Captain Arthur Hastings, the ever loyal and trusted friend of Hercule Poirot. Fraser's performance has made Captain Hastings a popular TV character. Fraser's Hastings embodies all that is good in the English gentleman: old fashioned chivalry, loyalty, honesty (his word is his bond), and always doing the right thing. He loves fast cars and car racing. He plays golf and tennis. His loyalty to Poirot is absolute. Often he is Poirot's foil when it comes to the significance of clues. Hastings' basic goodness makes him blind to the treachery of others. But Fraser's Hastings is not portrayed as a stuffy, clueless, buffoon to be laughed at. We, the viewers, can always count on a bit of fun between the two regardless of the current dead body or two.

An extraordinary detective like Hercule Poirot needs an equally extraordinary secretary. Her shorthand and typing must be flawless. She must be meticulous in everything from cross indexing Poirot's files to getting the Chinese laundry to get the starch in Poirot's collars just so. Happily Poirot has his Miss Felicity Lemon, played by Pauline Moran. Pauline Moran's screen version of Miss Lemon is in contrast to the unattractive Christie version. The TV Miss Lemon wears stylish but subdued dresses with low-heel shoes and understated jewelry. Her hair style is the "finger waves" popular during the Art Deco period between the Word Wars. She occasionally can be very stern with Poirot and Hastings when she thinks they are not properly taking care of their health. Overall Miss Lemon is more an associate than a hired typist.

The last of the regular cast is Chief Inspector James Harold Japp of Scotland Yard played by Philip Jackson. Jackson's portrayal as the dry humored Chief Inspector Japp is probably the most well known version and the most popular. Poirot relies on Chief Inspector Japp for information and now and then official assistance. In return, many is the time Poirot has prevented Japp from arresting the wrong parties. Japp is too quick to take clues at their face value. In the TV episode "Dead Man's Mirror" (1983), Japp's quick survey of the crime scene convinces him that Gervase Chevernix-Gore committed suicide by shooting himself. The pistol is in the dead man's left hand. The door and windows are locked from the inside. The door key is in the dead man's pocket. There is even a suicide note, crudely scrawled with the single word "sorry." But Poirot sees more. The bullet that passed through the dead man's head cannot be found. And was Gervase Chevernix-Gore right or left handed? The answers eventually convince Japp that it was murder disguised as suicide. In the TV episode "Murder in the Mews" (1989), what Japp at first concludes is murder is proved by Poirot, in this case, to be suicide. A vital clue is whether the victim was right or left handed.

The relationship between Chief Inspector Japp and Hercule Poirot isn't the expected antagonistic relationship the official police officer has towards the private detective. Japp tolerates, even respects, Poirot's "little grey cells." Japp might at times say, "Leave it to Poirot to see more into something than there is," but Japp also recognizes when he is out of his depth and needs Poirot's help. Poirot, on his part, has a sincere goodwill toward Japp, even a tentative friendship. In the TV movie "Hickory, Dickory, Dock" (1995), Poirot takes pity on his friend Chief Inspector Japp. Japp's wife is away and from Japp's unkempt appearance, it is readily apparent to Poirot and Miss Lemon that the Chief Inspector is not doing well without Mrs. Japp. Poirot invites Japp to stay in the spare bedroom while Mrs. Japp is gone. This makes for some humorous moments when the working class Japp is exposed to a gourmet dinner and a bidet. To show his appreciation, Japp invites Poirot to lunch. Japp has prepared a proper meal of faggots (See Notes), mashed potatoes, and mushy peas (the peas have to be mushy). And for desert there is spotted dick (See Notes). Poirot politely begs off saying he has "the allergy to faggots!"

The epilogues in the TV series usually end with Hercule Poirot, Captain Hastings, and Chief Inspector Japp in a light hearted anecdote. The viewers are assured that the with the mystery solved and the guilty caught, all is once again right with the world. The Hercule Poirot TV mysteries are, after all, cozies.


Season 9 and onward...


Starting with Season 9, I find the Poirot TV movies less watchable. Casting, I feel, in several of the TV movies didn't work. Elliot Gould doesn't fit the role of the wealthy American businessman Rufus Van Aldin in "The Mystery of the Blue Train" (2005). The Rufus Van Aldin character comes across as a bad parody of the Englishman's view of the American business tycoon of the 1920s and 1930s. I don't care about the victim, Ruth Kettering played by Jamie Murray. Georgina Rylance's performance as Katherine Grey is not strong enough to carry the story.

In "Appointment with Death" (2010) Tim Curry never really gets into the character of Lord Boynton. John Hannah is also badly cast as Dr. Gerard ("Appointment with Death").

Gould, Curry, and Hannah are excellent actors but not in these roles. The bottom line is that too many of the TV movies starting with Season 9 didn't hold my interest because the actors or the acting didn't hold my interest.

The great regular characters of the TV series are gone. Though David Suchet reprises his role as the great Belgian detective in these later movies, he is not the same Poirot as developed by Clive Exton and Brian Eastman. Gone are Hastings, Miss Lemon, and Chief Inspector Japp. Gone are the delightful side-stories, the touch of good fellowship and optimism of Seasons 1 through Seasons 8. The later Poirot is now the cool, detached specialist. The later TV movies are dark and tragic. In "Murder on the Orient Express" (2010), the tone is disagreeably preachy. As least for me, I miss Poriot's circle of friends.


Notes:

Faggot is a traditional English dish sometimes made with pig's heart, liver, fatty belly or bacon and minced together with herbs. Meats are from off-cuts and offal, usually pork.

Spotted Dick is English steamed suet pudding usually with currants or raisins. It is commonly served with custard.


Steven Quan is a long time fan of British TV mysteries.


Copyright 2013 Steven Quan. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!


Return to Over My Dead Body! Online.