With his rumpled raincoat, ever-present cigar, bumbling demeanour and Sherlock Holmesian powers of deduction, disarmingly polite homicide detective Lieutenant Columbo took on some of the most cunning murderers in Los Angeles, most of whom made one fatal, irrevocable mistake: underestimating his investigative genius.
This whodunit series based on Agatha Christie's crime novels and short stories, is named after its star sleuth, Hercule Poirot, a famous former Belgian policeman, who settled for good in London after the war, soon so famous as an infallible private detective that he becomes a society figure in his own right. In each episode Poirot gets to solve a crime mystery -mostly murder(s)- for a paying client or otherwise catching his attention, generally along with his faithful English sidekick Captain Hastings and/or his Scotland yard 'friendly rival' Detective Chief Inspector Japp. Written by
Granada Television scored another hit with David Suchet's faithful delineation of the irritating little habits and precise fastidiousness of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot to provide the most credible interpretation to date. The same production company had also been responsible for the earlier extremely watchable Sherlock Holmes series with the incomparable Jeremy Brett. Although Sir Peter Ustinov gave colourfully entertaining performances in various movie and TV dramatisations (`Death on the Nile', `Evil Under the Sun', etc.) his pompous Belgian detective always seemed too large and gregarious to be convincingly possessed of all the little foibles of Christie's narratives.
Hugh Fraser is appropriately laid back as Poirot's companion, Captain Hastings, in noticeable contrast to his more commanding Wellington in the enjoyable and successful ITV dramatisations of Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe novels. A convincing Chief Inspector Japp is provided by Philip Jackson who, whilst in respectful awe of Poirot still attempts to promote Scotland Yard as other than the implied bunch of duffers most famous fictional private detectives encounter. Pauline Moran played the ever-efficient assistant Miss Felicity Lemon. Other than these four constants, a host of guest actors, directors, scriptwriters and cinematographers were involved in the series to provide a variety of storylines and styles. Over the past decade Carnival Films amongst others have also made various one-offs with the same key cast.
The two episodes I have seen recently, and first shown in February 1989, seem to particularly warrant some observation on their themes. `The Third Floor Flat' makes a tongue-in-cheek comment on The Queen of Crime' herself with Poirot losing his bet with Hastings to detect the murder culprit in an amateurish theatrical play, as the writer (whom Poirot dismisses as `an imbecile') does not reveal all the facts until the wily detective on the stage has exposed the perpetrator to an assembled gathering of the usual suspects. In this instalment the motive for the inevitable murder is given as the absurdly flat refusal by one spouse to grant a divorce to the other, a common mechanism of Christie's that is rather extreme and not wholly satisfying. This episode is also notable for a rare display of emotion by Hastings when he is visibly shaken after his beloved vintage car is wrecked, and Josie Lawrence makes a guest appearance in one of her first straight roles after the comic improvisations of `Whose Line Is It Anyway'.
Fine photography and attention to detail prevail to create a nostalgic impression of 1930's London although there is not much evidence of the Great Depression affecting this particular society. There is a superb evocation of the art deco period with the Mansion flats being particularly impressive and similar to those found around Marylebone.
`Triangle at Rhodes' affords Poirot a chance to escape the London scene and his usual crowd, and provides us with a travelogue promotion, whilst also touching on attitudes to divorce. With her boyish husband (Peter Settelen) seemingly besotted with the archetypal femme fatale, Valentine Chantry (Annie Lambert) on her fifth marriage, Marjorie Gold (Angela Down; `Emma') makes a deliberately misleading impassioned proclamation on the ease of divorce in the 1930's claiming she is from the old fashioned generation that doesn't believe in it or holds with the modern attitude to life of `easy marriage, easy divorce.' If divorce was that easy then it is a contradiction to Christie's often used plot device for removing stubbornly recalcitrant partners. Although divorce was a painful experience for Dame Agatha herself in 1928 (with her husband's affair leading to her notorious disappearance for eleven days in 1926, the subject of Michael Apted's stylish 1979 film `Agatha') she does not address the issues with any feeling, only using it as a contrivance, unlike Charles Dickens some 70 years earlier in the 19th century with his social commentary in `Great Expectations', when there was little scope for women caught in an abusive marriage. With Italian troops occupying Rhodes there is some recognition of history as Poirot passes on his observation of the strengthening of harbour defences to a highly improbable MI5 type, ineffectively trying to hide as a harmless Major (Timothy Knightley) by paying unreciprocated attention towards another English hotel guest (Frances Low) holidaying on her own, who in turn seeks Poirot's protection.
Incidentally with 2001 being the 25th anniversary of Dame Agatha's death on 12 January 1976 her books are being relaunched by HarperCollins and the Palace Theatre in Westcliff-On-Sea, Essex has dedicated a festival season to all 23 of her plays.
The original Granada series is available in DVD and VHS tape formats from Amazon and Britannia Music.
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