Six Damn Fine Degrees #72: The Wrong Poirot

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

In the early ‘70s, a British film studio hoping to make a global success decided to tap into one of the nation’s most famous exports: Agatha Christie. When it came to which of her works they would adapt, they opted for Murder On The Orient Express – a story that would allow for an exotic (if relatively cheap) location and a large cast that could be filled with bankable stars. Audiences, they hoped, would head to the cinemas thanks to the name of the author and the likes of Sean Connery, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Perkins.

The formula worked. The film was a huge hit, a commercial triumph topping the US box office. It also enjoyed great reviews, with critics praising Sidney Lumet’s stately direction and the strength of the adaptation. Indeed both audiences and critics seemed to mention just one flaw with the film: Albert Finney as Poirot.

As a result, when the studio decided to produce the inevitable sequel Death On The Nile, they recast the lead role. Peter Ustinov became the new Poirot. And was almost immediately a success in the role. He was to go on to play the character in a number of subsequent film and TV movies. Up until David Suchet began his monumental run of TV adaptation, Ustinov was even cited as the definitive Poirot. In other words, everyone agreed that the producers had executed a very successful course correction.

But here’s the thing: I really like Finney’s Poirot. There’s a wonderful unlikeable quality to him, reflected in his fastidiousness in a way that would clearly wind people up the wrong way. As someone described as an annoying little Belgian, Finney ticks all those boxes. There’s a silliness to him too – when he loses his temper he rasps like a croaking general barking orders to a militia of toads. And because of this daft and annoying nature, he is underestimated by all the many murderers he exposes. This, to me, captures the Poirot I first met in the books.

Whereas Ustinov is a much more likeable lead, a charisma that is more than capable of carrying a franchise. But to me, he’s just more Ustinov than he is Poirot. He slouches through the films, a louche raconteur who, if he wasn’t solving a murder, would be telling you an incredible witty anecdote about a night on the town his Poirot once enjoyed with his fascinating showbiz friends Georges Simenon and Méliès. As the cinematic outings shift to the small screen, he seems even less bothered with the role. Which only ups the Ustinov charm quotient even more.

And this, I think, illustrates a flaw in the idea that you can ever produce a definitive adaptation. There’ll never be such a thing, because sometimes an adaptation might be more successful the more you don’t try and capture the book. There is scope for a wide variety of Poirots, across all different forms of media and the debate as to which one is best will, like the battle for the best Doctor Who, never be won.*

That said, if you ever want an interesting take on the character, BBC Radio once adapted Hercule Poirot’s Christmas with Peter Sallis, now most famous as the voice of Gromit’s Wallace. A fine actor but one who could never quite replace his native accent with that of a Belgian. The BBC has disowned the adaptation and it’s never repeated, but it can be found on the internet if you really want to experience that most-rarest of beasts: A Cockney Yorkshire Francophone.

*Even though it’s Patrick Troughton.

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