Sunday, February 06, 2011

How It All Went - the Denouement

© ITV

During the course of nearly one year, I’ve traced the chronology of one of my favourite television series – Agatha Christie’s Poirot. Through the posts on this blog, I’ve tried to present my findings. In general, I’m surprised to find that things fitted neatly together to such a great extent. Of course, I have had to take some radical measures and set quite a few episodes earlier or later than intended, as I cannot bring myself to agree with the writers on all of them, but all in all, this project has made it evident that there really is some sort of order in the chaos – even if it wasn’t intended.

1936 – Brian Eastman’s and Clive Exton’s decision
A short while ago, I discovered an interview with the original Poirot producer, Brian Eastman, on the chronology of the series. In Agatha Christie’s Poirot: A Celebration of the Great Detective (1995) by Peter Haining, Eastman quite clearly states that it was a conscious decision to place all the stories in 1936, just as I’ve seen him state in the documentary Super Sleuths (2006) on ITV. I’ll reprint some extracts from this interview here:
“(…) to me there was something about all her [Agatha Christie’s] writing which felt pre-war (…) I felt it was important to start the series in a pre-war setting. We were also helped by the fact that many of the short stories fitted very neatly into that time frame” (p. 13).

“(…) when we were deciding on a date for Poirot we looked at all the aspects of the Thirties (…) and came to the conclusion that 1936 would be a very good year!” (p. 14).
In the same interview, script writer Clive Exton explains that the production team thought 1936 fitted very well with Poirot’s character:

“(…) In a way the mid- to late- Thirties were an incredibly flourishing and futuristic period – and Poirot was a man who was very interested in such things [modern inventions] (…)” (p. 14).

Brian Eastman adds that they did not set all episodes in 1936:

“’we do allow ourselves a little bit of license’ (…) ‘sometimes we take an event from 1935 and sometimes from 1937 – but pretty much within a twelve- to fifteen-month period (…)” (p. 15).

Interestingly, the attitude of both David Suchet and the current production team must be different from Eastman’s and Suchet’s attitudes in 1995 towards the placement of stories, as is seen in this quote from Haining's book:

“(…) eventually we shall come to books that cannot be set pre-war. Those, that is, which have integral parts that can only occur because of post-war activities. So we have been facing up to the fact that we shall have to see him go through the Second World War and then into the Fifties and Sixties. In fact, David is already thinking of how he will allow himself to age bit by bit (…)” (p. 39).
There are several other interesting bits of information in this excellent, rare interview (buy the book if you can!). But these small references provide extremely fascinating clues to the placement of the novels and short stories. That the original production team decided to place the stories in 1936 does not really come as a surprise. After all, this is more or less common knowledge by now. That they admit placing episodes outside the 1936 time frame is another matter. Not surprisingly, I find it hard to believe Eastman’s “within a twelve- to fifteen month period” as the limit of their placement of episodes. I’ve found specific 'evidence' to prove that episodes were deliberately placed as early as June 1934. 

However, the most intriguing information in this interview is arguably that Eastman, Exton and Suchet actually planned to move the series onwards in time, to the 40s, 50s and 60s! Obviously, this would have made the feel and look of the series completely different – and a chronology of Poirot’s life would have been as unbelievable as in Christie’s original stories (possibly even more unbelievable, as aging on screen and aging in text is visually very different. The post-Eastman producers must have had radically different views on the development of the series, as we (since 2004) have seen that several novels have been moved from their original post-war setting (e.g. The Clocks, Third Girl) to a pre-war setting in the TV series.

My findings – some clear patterns
There are a few patterns evident from my “research”:

1)      Several episodes (18) do not contain references (see previous post).
2)      Several episodes made before 2004 have been consciously placed outside the 1936 time frame (1934 and 1935)
3)      Of the post-2004 episodes, several (6) do not contain references, while those that do more or less exclusively refer to dates outside the 1936 time frame (1937 and 1938, possibly 1939 and 1940).
4)      It seems probable that the current producers are aiming at a conclusion of the series directly after the Second World War (Curtain), making Poirot’s on-screen timeline both significantly younger and, arguably, significantly more believable than Christie’s original. The fact that Poirot is younger is also commented on in Peter Haining’s book (see below). As I’ve stated earlier, I see Poirot as being probably around 40 when arriving in England and around 60 in the majority of the episodes. I imagine him to die around 1945-50, aged around 70.
“What was altogether different about this episode [The Mysterious Affair at Styles] was that the little detective was now a younger man (…) [David Suchet’s] head was partially covered with a new hairpiece to make the immaculately groomed hair look thicker” (p. 27).
A note on the producer's chronology
It seems evident to me that the producers have had some sort of chronology in mind, as is evident from the above mentioned quotes and countless interviews with David Suchet. In short, I think this chronology plays out more or less as follows:


1934-5: Most episodes of Series One-Three. Poirot in Clapham Cook (1935) is at the height of his career. He lives in Whitehaven Mansions, employs Miss Lemon (and possibly Hastings?).

1936: Most episodes of Series Four-Eight. Hastings meets Bella in Series Six (1995-6) and returns in Series Seven (2000), having lost his ranch in Argentina. He visits his cousin in Mesopotamia in Series Eight and has since disappeared from screen (supposedly he's back in Argentina).

1937-8: Most episodes of Series Nine-Twelve. New producers arrived, and the decision to move on in time must have been made almost immideately. Poirot is now living alone with his manservant George.

(See also the page 'Episodes', where I have listed all episodes in viewing order with chronology references).
While I make no attempt to hide my disappointment with the script writers and producers as to the chaos they've created in terms of chronology, I still acknowledge that this chronology (almost) works. It does, however, require any eagle-eyed viewer to ignore all references to setting - or regard the timeframe as a very "floating" mid-to-late 1930s setting.

Denouement
I’ve learned a lot about my favourite television series through this little project. It’s been exciting to sort out the quirky little details, even though I've really been struggling with some of them. And I might not be completely done yet; there are still some I am very uncertain about. So things might change. And anyhow, I’ll probably have to place coming series in the chronology as well (I’m really hoping for news on a new series soon!).

My hopes for the coming series are that the producers and writers will bring the series to a reasonable end. I hope they continue what seems to be a conscious decision – to place episodes in the post-1936 time frame. Hopefully, some of the stories to come – like The Big Four and Labours of Hercules – are placed directly preceding World War II; between 1938-1940. Then, Curtain, the final novel, will be set alone in the mid-to-late 1940s – almost ten years after the others. That would, in my opinion, give the series a decent and reasonable conclusion. (This does, however, require them to change the character of Judith Hastings in Curtain, as she would be about ten or twelve years old in a late-40s version of the story! Perhaps she could be Hastings's niece instead of daughter?)

Finally, let me conclude by saying that it is my genuine wish that this blog will serve as an inspiration and a source of information for all other Poirot fans. I would reccommend reading the posts in publication order - from the first to the last post. This will make it easier to follow the references I make to other episodes in the chronology.

I kindly ask that you will respect the work and effort I have put into this project by asking for my permission (leave a comment) before taking any of the information on this blog for your own use. Thank you.


EDIT:  I just want to clarify that this blog will not be updated, unless I discover any mistakes, uncovered areas etc OR new episodes are produced. The blog is intended to be an "encyclopedia" of 'Poirot' chronology and will not be developed further from the basic posts already on here. Comments are, of course, more than welcome.

4 comments:

  1. This is great! We've been in contact before on the Agatha Christie website, but I think I would like to refer to your wonderful blog when I write essays about the series. May I please have your permission for that?

    -GKCfan

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  2. Thank you! Of course, you are welcome to refer to the blog in any way you like :)

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  3. I've often wondered why they've set it in 1936 as well. I think it should have gone through the war until at least the early 1950s. The BBC's recent Father Brown series set those in the 1950s (instead of 1910s) and still felt very much like Poirot or Marple time, so I think those should have followed suite, especially as Marple seems to be set in the early '50s now.

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    1. I agree that the series could have continued into the 1940s and 50s. It would definitely have worked. But considering Poirot's age I would probably have preferred if they had started the series in the 1920s instead, and done most of the short stories in that decade. That would have made a massive difference. As to Marple, I think that's partly because of the success of the Hickson series (which was set in the late 40s and 50s) - and the fact that Poirot is set in the 30s, so they wanted to distinguish the two shows somewhat.

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