Martin Amis’s England

March 24, 2014 by  
Filed under Reviews


Martin Amis’s fictions paint a bleak portrait of England. Under the influence of J.G. Ballard and Anthony Burgess, and to some extent his father, he depicts it as a hostile, culturally baron country, occupied by feckless idiots, drunks and hedonists. His characters are frequently working-class, hold thoroughly untenable opinions and almost invariably they are obsessed with money, both spending and obtaining it.

Amis’s last novel, Lionel Asbo: State of England, an unabashed and misdirected sendup of chav culture, was perhaps his most disparaging depiction of England to date. Yet he insists that he’s a patriot, and in Martin Amis’s England sets about trying articulate his true feelings on the place, free from the comical exaggeration of his novels. At first it’s hard to grasp the concept of the programme: the title and synopsis might suggest that this is a documentary in which Amis addresses the camera directly, reciting pre-written monologues about what it means to be English.

But instead the programme takes the form of a long interview, ostensibly recorded at Amis’s home, and is inter-spliced with footage from the BFI’s National Archive. The subject of the sexual revolution is illustrated by shots of groovy girls in mini skirts, while black and white footage of grim looking streets is shown to demonstrate how bleak life in England was after World War II. At times this footage does Amis the disservice of being more interesting than he is. Mostly, though, as is true of his writing, he manages to be entertaining even when his point seems morally questionable.

Over the course of 55 minutes, Amis speaks of a variety of things that he believes define England: the weather, the fall of imperialism, football, multiculturalism and what he calls England’s obsession with pleasure — that is, our supposed propensity for booze, which in turn, he says, leads us to sex. In spite of perhaps this last point, it is hard to imagine that many people would disagree with much of what he says, which is surprising given Amis’s reputation as controversial writer.

Even on the subject of class he’s surprisingly non-contentious. He’s always been obsessed with it, he admits. When he was just a boy he remembers taking a “How Posh Are You” test in The Daily Mail. He was very pleased with himself, convinced that he was scoring well, until he arrived at the last question: What would you name your child? In the upper-class category were names like “George” and “Edward”, he says, and in the lower-class category, next to “Keith”, that hallmark of commonness, was his name. That’s when he threw the newspaper and pen to the floor.

Amis describes his own upbringing as lower middle class, but says he’s never felt sure of his standing in society. On the one hand, he seems to appreciate the culture of the upper classes, but on the other likes to make it known that he’s not above enjoying a lager beer or partaking in a bit of weasel fighting down the old pub. For a man who has written so damningly about members of the working class, he seems strangely envious of low-culture, as though such things are part of an exclusive club for labourers and members of the residuum.

Perhaps the most discrediting thing about Amis is that, although he admits that he has little connection to the working class, he still speaks with complete certainty on the subject, even when it becomes plainly clear that he’s out of his depth. He has a similar air of self-assurance when discussing other things, too, but is at least able to speak somewhat convincingly about post-war England, imperialism and national identity.

Only occasionally is he able to seem mildly self-deprecating, such as when he recalls the first time he ever saw a black person. He was a Rhodesian academic, Amis says. His father, Kinglsey, was meeting him in town, and beforehand schooled his young son on what he was about to see. “He’s going to have black skin,” he explained, and Martin replied confidently that he knew what to expect. Yet when he met the Rhodesian academic in person, he became overcome with shock, and with his finger pointed yelled, “You’ve got a black face!”

Amis seems more than a little embarrassed to admit this. He feels strongly that multiculturalism has been a good thing for England; without it the country might not have gotten over the fall of the British Empire. It helped solidify in people’s minds that imperialism was not a good thing, and it progressed the country at a much faster rate than any of its neighbours. We might have been in decline for the past 70 years, but he believes that our poetry is still the best in the world, and our sexual revolution happened long before it did elsewhere in Europe.

And then, as if to prove both these points, he quotes Larkin: “Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three (which was rather late for me) / – Between the end of the Chatterley ban / And the Beatles’ first LP.”

But though he has seldom before spoken so positively about the place, Amis goes on to say that he isn’t entirely fond of England. He hates our bizarre tradition of football violence, and loathes of our conflicting relationship with alcohol, as footage of drunk, slack-jawed lads in V-neck tops illustrates.

Of course no doubt anybody who is at all averse to Martin Amis will wonder, well, who cares what he thinks of England anyway? And indeed this is a perfectly fair question to ask. But anybody who has ever found Amis remotely interesting, in his fiction or in his journalism, should find his thoughts here at least entertaining, even if they disagree fervently with almost everything he has to say.

Martin Amis’s England is on BBC Four on Sunday 23 March at 9.00pm

The Widower

March 18, 2014 by  
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Malcolm Webster is currently serving a life sentence.

At his sentencing in 2011, Lord Bannatyne explained that his “was a murder of a wholly exceptional kind, and of a type rarely seen in these courts. This was a murder which could properly be described as cold-blooded, brutal and callous”.

This three-part ITV drama follows the true story of a dangerous psychopath; a man who murdered his first wife, attempted the murder of his second, and ensnared a subsequent fiancé. In each case, his motive was a desire to amass money.

Webster’s trail of deceit and calculation covers a wide breadth of time and space; during the thirteen years after the murder of his first wife (Claire Morris, played by Sheridan Smith) in Scotland, he made a similar attempt on a second wife’s life (Felicity Drumm, played by Kate Fleetwood) in New Zealand, and subsequently returned to Scotland where he pursued a similar scheme with Simone Banajee (played by Archie Panjabi).

The reality is a chilling tale. A man, who proves himself capable of premeditated murder, similarly proves capable of building robust and trusting relationships with successive women and their respective families, whilst maintaining respectable employment. This is where the fascination lies and where, unfortunately, ITV’s dramatization is weakest. The story as told by Jeff Pope (ITV’s award-winning factual drama screenwriter and filmmaker) begins each chapter at the weddings, thereby affording little time to the development of the relationships.

When the actual story appeared in newspapers, the ubiquitous question was: how did this man so effectively deceive three women? That question remains after watching this drama. One would assume that to fulfil his grim quests Webster must have been, by all appearances, charismatic and affable. Whilst Reece Shearsmith’s portrayal is suitably disturbing, it also presents a man who is somewhat socially-awkward, rigid, and creepy; as such, it fails to provide an insight into how three intelligent and beautiful women were taken in by him.

The drama makes for unsettling viewing, but this may be largely because the viewer knows the events to be true, rather than any particular strength of the depiction. One has to question as well the purpose of dramatizing such events. If it serves as a cautionary tale to others; to ensure that Webster’s cold-bloodedness is not granted the relief of fading in our collective memory; or to offer an insight which allows the public to better understand the perspective of his victims – that it was no failure of theirs to be deceived, then it fulfils a worthy cause. If it serves as prime-time, post-dinner television entertainment, it risks being voyeuristic.

The Widower is on ITV at 9pm on Monday 17 March

Rocket City Rednecks

March 18, 2014 by  
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Rednecks are rarely an American stereotype associated with highly educated rocket scientists, and it’s exactly upon this crux that the new show Rocket City Rednecks draws its unique selling point. Having already completed two seasons in the states, the show has been picked up for a UK running by trusty channel Dave (and most-likely multiple multiple re-runnings).

One of the show’s first charms is Travis Taylor, a highly educated and charismatic ‘redneck’, who leads the events, clarifies the science for the audience and helps to bond his engineering friends together through banter – and the occasional beer. He’s a likeable character and as with all of his crew (either friends or family members) they’re clearly highly-educated professionals in their chosen fields of expertise. A quick glance at the screen or opening credits could see you mistaking this show for nothing more than a few Southern American simpletons playing around with machinery – but don’t let the Southern drawls fool you – there is a lot of method to the madness.

The opening episode sees the gang explore ways in which they could destroy a hypothetical comet set for a collision with earth, on a weekend away from the mass budgets and space age technology their NASA jobs may offer. They instead solve this problem with a simple trebuchet, a crate of watermelons and in-true-redneck-style a truck load of guns. Again this could be perceived as rednecks shooting watermelons in their back garden, which it ultimately is, but behind each model, construction or method there is a meticulous scientific grounding. This simple approach to science is exactly where Rocket City Rednecks draws its charm. Everything feels simple, down to earth and understandable yet at the same time the models that are created provide cheap and effective solutions to complex scientific problems.

This juxtaposition of Southern stereotyping and effective research method makes the science digestible and the overall show extremely fun and entertaining. It does feel like the Southern-ness is at times overplayed, with the opening credits springing to mind, but overall it provides an enjoyable framing device for a science show that enjoyably pokes holes in Southern stereotypes. At times the show falls into semi-reality TV territory with awkward editing and over-constructed delivery of lines, although these are sparse enough as to not take away from the overall experience. The 30 minute format keeps the pace exciting whilst still being easily consumed, and thankfully steers the programme away from the ‘45 minutes of build up for one final large experiment’ format of some other science magazine shows.

Rocket City Rednecks is a blend between serious science and Southern caricaturing that somehow works, not to mention fits perfectly into the Dave’s archive of shows. The reality TV elements are stomach-able but feel tacked on for the social media generation and although the redneck focus can be overplayed it ultimately provides comical relief and that time old treasure – Southern hospitality. Somehow this programme feels larger than life while also being rooted in reality, the constructions are modest and not built to hog the limelight, but the Southern accents, solutions and lifestyle give a surrealist tinge to the overall production.

It’s a simple but effective recipe, like deep fried chicken and potatoes: take one part Scrapheap Challenge and knead in a healthy scoop of Mythbusters, before seasoning with chunks of Duck Dynasty, fry for 30 minutes and you’ve got something close to Rocket City Rednecks.

Rocket City Rednecks will be broadcast at 7pm, on Monday 17th of March on Dave.

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

March 10, 2014 by  
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Like David Attenborough, Carl Sagan’s success as a presenter came from a sincere and unrivalled passion for his subject. As he proved with his BBC lectures in the 1970s, he didn’t need props or special effects to be interesting; he spoke as well interacting with a group of school children as he did strolling along a beach, or standing next to a cardboard cut-out of what was supposed to be a spaceship.

Yet even when these devices were employed, such as in his landmark series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, the project upon which Sagan’s legacy still rests, he himself always remained effortlessly fascinating.

When he died of pneumonia in 1996, it seemed extremely unlikely that there would ever be a follow-up to the series, or whether a worthy successor to carry on in Sagan’s place would ever be found. But now, thirty-four years after the original aired, it returns, this time hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, presenter of PBS’s Nova ScienceNow and one of Sagan’s close friends during his lifetime.

Gone this time around are the cardboard cut-outs and what Tyson calls “mutton chops” — i.e. scenes in which historical events are acted out by actors in tights and wigs; in Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey such stories are told through graphic novel-style animation and narrated by Tyson, who sits aboard an expensive-looking CGI spaceship, his face illuminated by flickering buttons and the kindly light of distant galaxies.

In episode one Tyson describes just how incomprehensibly old our universe is. He explains that if all time were to be represented as a calendar of the month, our history—that is, every war and battle there has ever been, every king and every queen, every person from Pytheas to Eric Pickles — would appear as a single tiny dot in the very corner of the 31st day.

He then takes us back into what is comparatively the very near past to tell the story of Giordano Bruno, the 16th century Italian philosopher who correctly proposed that the Sun was just another star moving in space and not the centre of our universe. Bruno’s epiphany, Tyson says, was not accepted in his time, and as he had no way of proving his theory, he was shunned and later burnt at the stake for blasphemy and heresy.

Some viewers — particularly those who know Tyson as one of the unofficially elected faces of internet atheism — may believe that this sad and gruesome story is Tyson’s way of suggesting that religion is detrimental to furthering our understanding of the universe. But in fact Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey is by no means explicitly anti-religious. The series instead encourages viewers to be sceptical of all that is unproved and seeks to open minds to what is unarguably a vast and wonderful universe.

More accurately, if it is against anything at all, it is against ignorance. Both Tyson and Ann Druyan, Sagan’s widow and one of the creators of the original Cosmos, have expressed their disappointment at a supposed trend towards anti-intellectualism, which they say is prevalent throughout the United States. A Spacetime Odyssey is thus their attempt to change all this by inspiring a generation of young people the same way Sagan and the original Cosmos did over three decades ago.

Whether this can be achieved remains to be seen. Yet judging from this first episode, full of dozens of humbling facts about the world in which we live and the stars and planets that surround us, it doesn’t seem improbable to hope that hundreds of astrophysicists will be created because of it.

That’s not to say that it’s entirely beyond reproach. Perhaps the worst thing that can be said of the new series, which is more a matter of preference than an overt criticism, is that it looks a little too slick. Robert Hughes proved with The New Shock of the New that a follow-up to a classic documentary series doesn’t need glossy production values; and though the Cosmos has much more need for elaborate visual aids, it does tend to overuse CGI to the point at which it becomes a distraction rather than a useful tool.

Nevertheless it is hard to be especially critical given that the original series, too, had its fair share of cheesy special effects—most of which were created using string and cardboard. Even for its time these effects were not great, though ultimately it didn’t matter: viewers tuned in for Carl Sagan, for his charisma and his ability of explaining the seemingly unexplainable.

With A Spacetime Odyssey, the same seems true of Tyson. Very few people could have convincingly stepped into this role, but he manages to pull it off by showcasing his own disparate talent as a presenter, as well as the boundless charisma he possesses. Though it contains far more distractions than its predecessor — particularly those of the CGI variety — Tyson ensures that A Spacetime Odyssey is as equally thrilling and concerned with celebrating the natural beauty of the universe as the original series was.

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey starts on Sunday 16 March at 7PM on National Geographic

37 Days

March 9, 2014 by  
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If the privileged aristocrats of ‘Downton Abbey’ cared to know about the underpinnings of World War I, they would take up roles in ’37 Days’.

The new fact-based drama on BBC Two takes a look at the political discussions and decisions leading up to World War I. Created for the BBC World War I centenary season, ‘37 Days’ aims to tell an unbiased, accurate depiction of wartime situations from the perspective of people who were directly involved in the operations.

During a time of high political strife and social tension in Europe, government leaders juggled the principles within their country’s foreign policy. In Episode 1, Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey attempts to respond to the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and work out relations with the other European nations, particularly Germany.

Ian McDiarmid leads the memorable cast in portraying their characters’ temperament through rich dialogue and emotional aloofness. The narrator of the episode shifts from an Irish telegraph runner to a German liberal working in the Reich Chancellery, both of whom provide an open-minded perspective of the uptight and otherwise secretive environment of their offices.

The programme recreates the era of history as if it were 1914 today, though fortunately not. The scenes in Episode 1 only begin to unfold the drastic events that would greatly impact the world we currently live in.

For any WWI historiphiles, ’37 Days’ may just be their cup of tea.

37 Days is on BBC now

I Never Knew That About Britain

March 3, 2014 by  
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Paul-Martin-and-Spitfire--014 I Never Knew That About Britain

Britain has such an eventful past that we can only just about piece it together today.

In ‘I Never Knew That About Britain’, presenter Paul Martin along with historian Suzannah Lipscomb and scientist Steve Mould set out to do just that and discover the untold stories behind Britain’s history. The programme follows each presenter to a different city, where they experiment with inventions firsthand or hear the stories from the experts.

First in Duxford, Cambridgeshire, Paul takes a ride in spitfire plane, comparing its construction to that of a buggy. He then explains the work of Engineer Owen McClaren who designed folding buggy based on the WWII plane and shares the story from McClaren’s granddaughter.

Suzannah, visiting Fishguard in Wales, uncovers the group of women who helped protect Britain against Napoleon, led by shoemaker Jemima Nicholas. The invasion also led the Bank of England to issue paper money for the first time.

In Edinburgh, Scotland, Steve learns about the early pain relieving methods used in childbearing. He meets with a professor at the Royal College of Physicians to relive James Simpson’s infamous dinner party.

Providing historical information as well as the recognition of unsung heroes in Britain, ‘I Never Knew That About Britain’ serves as an informative programme in multiple aspects. The presenters delve in the historical background of each invention or event while including the insights from a relative or scholar of the leading figure. The audience not only learns about a new, groundbreaking moment in Britain’s history but is also invited to provide their own stories with the Twitter hashtag “#ineverknewthat”.

‘I Never Knew That About Britain’ further proves Britain’s got talent…historically.

I Never Knew That About Britain is on ITV from March 7

Jonathan Creek – Series 5

February 24, 2014 by  
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Jonathan Creek 1

The master of seemingly impossible crime solving has been on and off our tellies for over 15 years now, and much has happened in that time.

When we first encountered Jonathan Creek (Alan Davies) in 1997, he was working as a designer of magic tricks, living in a windmill and sporting a duffle coat. Now in 2014, he has settled down, got married to a woman named Polly (Sarah Alexander) and is working in an office and no longer wearing his old trademark garment. In terms of location, this is something later exploded in this new series and best not delved into further.

This new three-part series still has the same mix of crime detection and trademark comic writing from David Renwick, who also wrote One Foot in the Grave. During the course of the series, an actress starring in a rather shoddy stage musical adaptation of a locked-room mystery becomes the victim of a locked room mystery herself; and a retired mentalist seemingly predicts the lottery numbers fifty years before the draw took place.

Some of the stories are noticeably easier to solve than others. In the first episode, with the aforementioned actress in the locked-room, the viewer actually knows quite a lot about the case in advance. In fact, the story is less about the viewer trying to solve it and more about how the other characters are trying to get to the bottom of everything. This episode has already been noted for its mocking take on Sherlock, with Jonathan having to work alongside a forensic student and wannabe detective who is similar to Benedict Cumberbatch’s interpretation of the character.

As indicated above, the humour is still a strong point; and not just the Sherlock parody. Ranging from unflattering portraits to cases of mistaken identity, from projectile vomiting to what might be seen as Victor Meldrew-esque suffering at the start of the series when Jonathan tries to stop people filming a stage show on their mobile phones. The characters are also entertainingly comic. Sarah Alexander’s Polly is rather similar to the role she had as Dr. Angela Hunter in Green Wing: seemingly perfect and slightly annoying. It’s a style that has worked before and works again. The second episode also has plenty of good comedy acting talent, including John Bird, James Bachman and New Zealand stand-up Jarred Christmas.

Overall, this new series of Jonathan Creek is nice return to form. The only real issue is that if you’ve not seen Sherlock, some of the references will be hard to spot and thus some jokes may fall flat.

4 / 5

Series 5 of Jonathan Creek starts on February 28 on BBC 1 at 9pm

WPC 56

February 7, 2014 by  
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The role of women in the workplace has provided much provocative televisual drama in the post-WWII era. The first series of the police comedy/drama WPC 56 focused on the work of woman police constable Gina Dawson (Jennie Jacques), or WPC 56, as the first female police officer to serve the Brinford community of Birmingham. In an industry dominated by men, Dawson finds herself initially serving her male colleagues instead. Despite the position this puts her in, she works with them to solve the central crimes of the series, which involve two missing boys, while also developing a budding relationship with her partner, Detective Inspector Jack Burns (Kieran Bew).

Series two opens with the episode “Cry, Cry, Cry,” in which a travelling fair sets the bustling scene for a foreshadowing crime. A couple engaged in a carnival game are quickly interrupted by an oddly suited man, watching from a distance. The man in the couple realizes they are being followed and a suspenseful game of cat and mouse ensues in a room of distorted mirrors. The couple escapes a mysterious shooting and encounters WPC Dawson, who asks about a girl in a photo, previously shown bumping into the woman. They are only able to direct her so far, which then leads Dawson to the fair owner, Brendan McCormack (Francis Magee). The missing girl’s name and age are revealed as Tracy Nicholls, who is 15. The owner is aware of the girl, who had a previous conflicting relationship with his son.

The office environment changes as the episode makes a significant turn away from the last series’ motif of sexism. The initiative not only involves a transformation of Dawson’s character but also an increase in recurring female cast members by placing more women in the office. Dawson’s step forward occurs as she returns a cunning remark to her colleagues when asked to bring them tea. Striving for gender equality while maintaining a realistic outlook of the times, the men still attempt to degrade her position.

Another aspect of Dawson’s character development is ironically DI Burn’s resignation. He reveals his wife has been released from the hospital and his family needs him at home. The male colleagues are rather indifferent, and some even suppress a celebratory reaction, while Gina experiences the detachment from her unrealistic expectations of their romance. The removal of Burns, however, allows Dawson to focus on herself and her career without distraction.

In place of Burns, new DI Max Harper (Ben Turner) wastes no time undertaking the duties of his predecessor. While the Brinford police force is assigned to maintain order amongst the “gypsy community” during the fair, Harper and Sergeant Fenton (Charlie De’Ath) investigate the death of a town Councilor. Harper later learns from Dawson that a redheaded woman accompanied the Councilor at the fair. This sparks the beginning of a partnership between the two.

Overall “Cry, Cry, Cry” may have juggled more crime scenes and new character introductions than it could manage. Although the pilot’s ambitious storyline left little time to process the events, the highlights of the episode include brief comedic moments with the aid of characters seemingly ill-fitted for law enforcement. Notably, Police Constable Tommy Perkins (Liam Jeavons), an awkward, well-intentioned pushover of the team, ends up in predicaments while trying to fit in with his colleagues. With more subtle humorous gestures, Desk Sergeant Swift (James Barriscale) serves as a loyal yet shallow assistant to Chief Inspector Briggs (Mark Healy), whose nameplate misspelled as Biggs, forms the basis of multiple office jokes.

After a successful first series, the future of WPC 56 series two remains optimistic and the desire to vicariously solve crimes through a leading female officer will only continue to grow.

Series 2 of WPC 56 starts on 10 February 2014 at 1415 on BBC One

Manhunt / Lone Target

February 5, 2014 by  
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Man vs. Wild’s Bear Grylls meets Jason Bourne in this new series on the Discovery Channel.

‘Manhunt’, also titled ‘Lone Target,’ follows the adventures of Joel Lambert, a former Navy SEAL, as he works his way through a number of wild terrains to a set destination, or extraction point. As an added suspense-factor, he must not only survive the unpredictable conditions of his surroundings, but he’s also pursued by elite military trackers. Joel is given basic tools and must use the natural resources around him in an attempt to complete his mission within 48 hours, all the while testing the strengths and weaknesses of his pursuers as well as his own.

In the pilot episode of the series, “South Africa: Safari Survival,” Joel takes on the role of a poacher, crossing a wildlife reserve in South Africa while the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF) employs tactics to stop him in his tracks. Former Australian Commander Damien Mander leads the IAPF and works alongside a team of ex-poachers turned trackers, all of whom are well-versed in the area and more importantly, the methods of tracking.

The camera frame alternates between Joel and his trackers with both sides guiding the audience through their decisions. Although making more rash decisions, Joel simultaneously avoids the dangers of wildlife and stalls the trackers through his knowledge of diversion. The IAPF uses high-tech equipment and transportation, which serves to their advantage despite Joel’s efforts. Tracking Joel’s footprints, referred to as spoors, the trackers demonstrate the extent of their experience and meticulous inspection.

What constitutes a successful capture is quite ambiguous, at least in this first episode. On several occasions, Joel narrowly escapes captivity as the trackers are well within reach of him. At one point, an IAPF member sees him but chooses not to chase after him due to an apparent lion presence, which we see none of during his final stretch. Along with fortunate, or perhaps misleading external factors affecting the outcome of the game, Joel’s plans of action are blindly self-serving and often questionable. It is difficult to step in his shoes in the moments when it clearly appears his journey is cut short.

Questioning the authenticity of adventure-survivalist shows is unfortunately common, the main issue in Manhunt (as in others) is that the show seems to place excessive emphasis on entertainment value, and therefore suffers from obvious accuracy issues which reduce the show’s enjoyment.

Manhunt / Lone Target debuts on Discovery Channel on Thursday 13th February at 9.00pm

POIROT: The Films

January 21, 2014 by  
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David Suchet’s portrayal of the Agatha Christie character Hercule Poirot has so firmly been established in our minds that it now seems impossible to imagine another actor in the role. Yet back in 1989, just before he made his debut as the great Belgian detective, Suchet must have known that he was stepping into some very well-worn shoes: he was, of course, by no means the first actor to play Poirot.

When the ITV series first began, the character had already been appearing on the big screen since 1931. Austin Trevor played him originally in the film Alibi, a role he reprised twice, first with Black Coffee that same year and then again with Lord Edgware Dies in 1934. Decades later, Tony Randall assumed the part in The Alphabet Murders (1965), which was more of a straight-up satire of the Christie novels rather than a genuine adaptation.  

But perhaps much better remembered are Poirot’s later incarnations, especially Albert Finney’s performance in Murder on the Orient Express (1974), for which he received an Oscar nomination, and a series of Poirot films released shortly after starring Peter Ustinov. The final of these, Thirteen at Dinner (1985), is especially notable, for it featured a young David Suchet in the role of Inspector Japp—a performance he later described as possibly the worst of his career.

Included on this Blu-Ray release are three of the films mentioned above: Murder on the Orient Express and two of the Peter Ustinov films, Death on the Nile and Evil Under the Sun. Titled rather ambiguously as merely POIROT, this collection has presumably been complied to capitalise on the ITV series, which came to an end last year. But if the collection is to be judged fairly, then equivocal marketing shouldn’t spoil one’s appreciation of these perfectly decent films.

The premise of Murder on the Orient Express should be fairly obvious to even those unfamiliar with the ITV series, the Christie novel or even Graham Greene’s Stamboul Train, which deals with much the same themes. Aboard the Orient Express train, Poirot is tasked with investigating the murder of an American business tycoon, Mr. Ratchett (Richard Widmark), a case in which almost every passenger could be a suspect.

The story is told brilliantly in the ITV series, due to the great moral dilemmas that arise as Poirot slowly comes closer to solving this mystery. Yet here Poirot doesn’t seem especially tormented at all; the tone of the film is instead quite comical, and many of the jokes feel unmistakably 1970s. Star power is really the film’s biggest asset: suspects are played by Ingrid Bergman, Michael York, Sean Connery, Anthony Perkins and Jacqueline Bisset—five tremendous talents, who here seem disappointingly underused.

Albert Finney, on the other hand, receives plenty of screen time to demonstrate his take on his character. If David Suchet’s Poirot is eccentric and introverted, Finney’s portrayal is generally loud, brazenly dismissive and sometimes downright rude. If Suchet has taken his cues from either of these actors it is more likely to be Peter Ustinov; his Poirot is generally more likeable than Finney’s and chooses to solve his mysteries with an air of unconcerned nonchalance.

This is perhaps best exemplified in Death on the Nile when he advises one suspect not to let evil into her heart. “If love can’t live there,” she replies, “evil will do just as well.” And then solemnly Poiriot quips, in a way Finney’s character never could have, “How sad, mademoiselle.”

The Ustinov films in this collection are almost equally enjoyable, though Death on the Nile benefits considerably from a fine performance from Mia Farrow, whose character I quote above. The atmosphere of both films trumps Murder on the Orient Express, largely for the reason that so much of the Ustinov films have been filmed on location: they’re simply much more aesthetically interesting.

Of course, Finney is inimitably brilliant in almost any film he stars, and the same was more or less true of Ustinov; but by contrast, Suchet’s Poirot still remains the definitive portrayal. Only he it seems is able to truly bring out the subtle eccentrics of the detective’s character. Nevertheless, this collection shouldn’t be overlooked for this reason alone: it will no doubt appeal to fans of the ITV series, who will surely find these films intriguing, if not thoroughly enjoyable.


POIROT: The Films are available to own on DVD now

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