Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Virtues of Old Fashioned Pleasures: TV’s Poirot

Note: the following contains a spoiler

I’ve been checking out some recent mysteries on TV and more and more, I can’t help wondering why so many of them really fail to gel as good drama or become convincing stories. Alan Cubitt’s The Fall, yet another serial killer series – can that trope be dispensed with once and for all? – offered up an interesting depiction of fraught police work in Belfast, Ireland, and a fine performance by Gillian Anderson (The X-Files) as an independent but socially oblivious police inspector who doesn’t care whose feathers she ruffles as she conducts her investigations. Yet it became progressively less compelling over its five-part run (it’s been renewed for a second go round) namely because its conceived serial killer became less and less believable. Despite a neat plot development in episode five, the series, which didn’t but should have wrapped up this particular storyline, was distinctly unsatisfying. Top of the Lake, co-created by Jane Campion (The Piano) and Gerard Lee is a wonky drama about a 12-year-old pregnant girl who goes missing in rural New Zealand. That’s certainly a provocative premise but the seven-part drama – which I’m about halfway through – is hobbled by Campion’s usual tin ear for how people actually speak and a pallid lead performance by Elisabeth Moss as a cop who gets involved in the case. American Moss (Peggy from Mad Men), is a good actress but her part is poorly written and in Top of the Lake she seems to be trying so hard to get her New Zealand patois right – it sounds okay – that she mostly forgets to act. (The less said about Holly Hunter's monosyllabic and lazy performance as the leader of a feminist commune the better.) If not for a fascinating turn by Peter Mullan (Trainspotting, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) as the missing’s girl’s rough hewn, criminally minded father, I don’t think I’d be sticking with it at all. Cubitt and Campion ought to take a gander at the long running TV incarnation of Agatha Christie’s famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot to see how snappy mysteries should be done. Poirot may not be as edgy or topical as their two shows but it’s superior television nonetheless.

Writer Clive Exton and producer Brian Eastman, the creators of Agatha Christie’s Poirot, as the show is now officially called (it was simply known as Poirot from 1989 when it premiered, until 2004) had originally set a goal of adapting all of the (66) stories and novels featuring the vain detective (played by David Suchet) whose ‘little gray cells’ are regularly being exercised to solve all manner of arcane and strange mysteries. And, in fact, the British made series, after 13 seasons, is set to finally end, exactly 25 years after it debuted, in January 2014 in the UK with Poirot’s final case, "Curtain," which also marks the character’s demise. PBS which runs the series in the U.S. will air the last five episodes sometime in 2014.

David Suchet as Hercule Poirot
I must confess two things here. One is that I’m not a fan of Christie’s written output, which I’ve generally found to be contrived, chock full of stock characterization, Poirot aside, and flatly written. (I had assumed since I rarely read much about her in the press that her books were long out of print but, as I found out upon taking a job in a large bookstore, it’s to the contrary. They all remain in print and they sell pretty briskly.) The other is that I’m not at all happy with most of the longer adaptations of her novels, which run about 100 minutes on TV, compared to the 51 minute (approximately) versions of the Poirot short stories. (The latter which comprised 30 of the shows were all run in seasons 1-3 and season 5; the rest of the seasons contain feature length episodes.) Having not read any Poirot short stories, I must assume, based on the TV adaptations, that Christie’s strengths lie in the shorter mystery form, though even some of those like many TV mysteries, from Columbo to Elementary, don’t always hold up to close scrutiny. (If you think about them too much, you realize that the stories tend to be overly coincidental or based on assumptions of people behaving a certain way or committing a certain action so another action flows in succession. Point A, not always believably, leads to Point B in the story and onward.)

Much of the more recent decline in the show, I believe, stems from the departure of Exton and Eastman after Season 8 and, more significantly, of the dropping of the three great supporting characters who at the same time make Poirot who he is and serve as his listening posts and sometimes foils. Those three are his efficient but acerbic private secretary, Miss Lemon (Pauline Moran), whose first name Felicity, is rarely uttered by Poroit, Captain (Arthur) Hastings (Hugh Fraser), his friend and assistant and Scotland Yard’s Chief Inspector James Japp (Philip Jackson), who somehow gets involved in most of Poirot’s cases, either because Poriot comes calling to investigate or because Japp brings him into the case. Of the three, Japp is the most original. If Moran’s character, enjoyable as she is, isn’t really given enough to do, though she has her moments, and Hastings’ ingenuousness and sometimes cluelessness is too reminiscent of Sherlock Holme’s sidekick, Dr. Watson, Japp is actually an improvement on Holmes’s relations with Scotland Yard where Inspector Lestrade and virtually all its cops were basically idiots who existed to make The Great Detective look good. (They’re the weakest links of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels and stories.) Japp is a bit of a plodder but he’s not a bad cop; he just lacks the imagination Poirot possesses in spades to see outside of the box and determine what is usually not an obvious resolution to a case’s conundrums. He’s also highly respectful of Poirot, though the detective is certainly capable of exasperating him, thus creating an aspect of mutual admiration and, dare I say it, deep and touching friendship, which is something the determinedly unsentimental Poirot is somewhat loath to admit, in relation to any of his friends and co-workers. (The argument put forth by Exton and Eastman's successors Michele Buck and Damien Timmer for dispensing with the trio of characters was that since they did not appear in Christie’s later novels, they needn’t be in the TV episodes based on those books, but that’s disingenuous since the show itself has moved forward in time from the 1920s to the 1930s. Obviously fidelity to the source material is not sacrosanct. They will make an appearance in the final season, however, Hastings twice (including in "Curtain") and Miss Lemon and Japp once each, which is welcome and something of a tacit acknowledgement that they’ve been missed.)

Chief Inspector Japp, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings 
The appearances of Miss Lemon, Hastings and Japp, who are all superbly acted, brought a welcome lightness of tone to many of the early episodes of the series and filled out Poirot’s world in the process. Without them, the later episodes often come across as heavy handed, even pedantic. (Zoë Wanamaker as Ariadne Oliver, an eccentric crime novelist who helps Poriot with some of his cases is a poor substitute.) Suchet, of course, is the fulcrum the series revolves around and he is nothing short of amazing. He has his props, the slicked-back dyed hair, the pompadour moustache which he is always straightening if not twirling, and his quirks – his hard-boiled eggs must be of specific dimensions and equal in size to each other and he wears suits everywhere in public, even on the beach –  but these are never tics or mere mannerisms. (By comparison, both Albert Finney (Murder on the Orient Express, 1974) and, to a lesser extent, Peter Ustinov (Death on the Nile, 1978) tended to overdo things when they played Poirot on screen though their portrayals were still entertaining. Suchet actually played the part of  Japp, a role he dismisses, opposite one of Ustinov’s six Poirot turns, in a 1985 TV movie called Thirteen at Dinner.) They’re all part and parcel of a well thought out character, more so than in Christie’s original books, a unique man who is also a compassionate and wise observer of humanity’s foibles but also still treated as something of a second class citizen in his adopted London, where he is periodically reminded that he is a foreigner and not ‘English.’ For good reason, Suchet’s Poirot has over the series’ long run become one of the most beloved and enduring characters in TV history

The shows have also benefited from their superb art direction and costume design, elements that are not always done well on period TV. (I’m a big fan of the late actor Jeremy Brett’s interpretation of Sherlock Holmes but the Victorian London depicted on his series always felt pinched to me, as if an expansion of its scope would reveal the camera crews filming just around the corner.). The London of the 30s in Poirot is beautifully rendered, from his architecturally distinctive apartment façade to the diverse cityscape that he, Hastings and Japp wander through. It looks right and, tonally, feels right without ever calling attention to its period detail and settings, which extend to English small towns and the countryside, not a mean feat in of itself. This is a show that is comfortable in its own skin, aided by Christopher Gunning’s evocative score, which was largely dropped after Exton and Eastman left.

Pauline Moran as Miss Lemon
None of this would matter if the episodes, particularly the shorter ones, weren’t so tightly and well written by Exton, who died in 2007. They’re classic mysteries in many ways, revolving around murders (but also thefts, scandals and disappearances) and Poirot’s cases play out cleverly and satisfyingly, nicely balancing serious matters and humorous asides and subplots, such as Poirot’s dental adventures or obsessive fiscal concerns. (One small criticism, and I blame Agatha Christie for this, is the preponderance of scenarios whereby Poirot calls all the suspects together and dramatically exposes the real culprit. That one got tired real fast.) They also, very subtly, telegraph the impending Second World War (most episodes take place circa 1936 though some flashback to earlier years), with plans for a new airplane that have gone missing the focus of one episode or Mussolini’s fascist Blackshirts paramilitary popping up in a case taking place on the island of Rhodes in another. Those add a patina of menace and foreboding to the series, reminding us that the show is not pure escapism but that it has a relation to the dangers and turmoil of the real world. There’s also a bit of social commentary in the show, with various episodes depicting societal and prejudicial attitudes not to merely perceived foreigners like Poirot but to London’s minorities, such as the Roma or the Chinese residents of the city. Poirot even has a Jewish tailor, who is sympathetically depicted, notable because Christie harboured anti-Semitic views which occasionally found their way into her novels.

As I’ve mentioned, the later episodes of the show have not been nearly as good as those in the Exton/Eastman years, with some unlikely elements added, such as one episode where Poirot utilizes a rosary (prayer beads), likely an addition of the highly devout Suchet since a rationalist like Poirot would not do so. That might have worked conceptually if the series had been updated to a post-war period – suggesting, perhaps, Poirot’s turning to religion for solace after some horrific experiences during World War Two – but the episode was set in 1938. It’s also somewhat disconcerting to see Suchet in  those episodes; he's’s aged 20 years since the show began but he's playing a character who’s only two years older. Nevertheless, his time in the show is coming to an end and I can hope and anticipate that Season 13 will end on a high, creative note. But even if it doesn’t, much of Poirot still bears watching and re-watching. The fact that, like the stellar Downton Abbey, it’s a series utterly devoid of explicit language and sex and containing very little  violence – a TV series any one in the family could love – is not a strike against it. In a show this classy, such old-fashioned virtues are highly appealing and pleasurable. Rest in peace, Hercule, you deserve it.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he will be teaching a course on acting archetypes in the fall. He will also be giving two lectures on American film censorship on Tuesday September 3 and  Tuesday September 10 from 10-11:30 am at the Bernard Betel Centre (1003 Steeles Avenue West).

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