Agatha Christie's Poirot began its new run on ITV tonight with The Big Four, co-written by Mark Gatiss and Ian Hallard. Among other pleasures, the episode reintroduced Hugh Fraser, Pauline Moran and Philip Jackson as Captain Hastings, Miss Lemon, and the world-weary cop Japp, all of whom played an enjoyable part in supporting the great David Suchet in the early days of the series. The main cast members attended one of the most memorable crime events I can recall, the Agatha Christie Centenary Banquet at Torquay' s English Riviera Centre in September 1990. It was a wonderful, unforgettable night, complete with a dramatic firework display over the bay.
Now, although I'm a Christie fan, I'm the first to acknowledge that not all her detective stories are masterpieces. The Big Four was published at a low point in her life, not long after her famous disappearance, and was cobbled together from a series of lurid episodes. As a result, the book is fragementary, and the plot material pretty risible. How do you adapt something like that so as to satisfy a 21st century television audience?
The answer is to do it confidently, but with respect for the strong points in Christie's writing and the characters. Mark Gatiss, a writer I admire, is well qualified to do this, and I felt he and Ian Hallard did a pretty good job, at least until the closing scenes, which were crazier in mood than the earlier part of the story. I sensed the writers' energy flagging a bit towards the end, with Hastings disappearing from the action for no good reason..But anyone who has read the original novel will surely agree that it would be a challenge to adapt.
Some people might argue that in some ways, it is easier to make a success of adapting a poor Christie book than a good one. In support of that view, I felt that, to take just one example, the TV version of The Sittaford Mystery was hugely disappointing. Having said that, the screenplay of The Secret of Chimneys, which was another Twenties thriller in broadly the same vein as The Big Four, was over the top from start to finish. Despite that faltering in the later stages, The Big Four worked better overall..
Of course, the presence of David Suchet is a huge asset to this series. Almost everyone who has responded to my post on Joan Hickson agrees she was the best Jane Marple, and I think there's even less argument about the definitive nature of Suchet's interpretation of Poirot. He was as good as usual in The Big Four.