ITV’s Poirot and BBC’s Sherlock

It’s no great secret to Poirot fans that Agatha Christie’s most famous detective owes a lot in concept to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. Both authors created bachelor gentlemen “consulting detectives”; each had a sometimes-flatmate as their admiring, not-quite-as-intelligent chronicler of tales; each were conceited to the nines due to a nearly flawless track record of deduction wizardry; each foiled Scotland Yard’s best men; etc. Rather than go into too much detail with the books alone, this blog post takes a look at the screen translations of those two universes as portrayed in the Poirot series and the BBC Sherlock series. The biggest difference in interpretation is the fact that Poirot is a period drama, while Sherlock is a modernization. Yet, fans of both series may find a good deal in one to remind them of the other. For example…

Mark Gatiss. The multi-talented Gatiss is well known as a writer and producer of several series, including (of course) Sherlock, in which he also stars as Mycroft Holmes. As for Poirot, Gatiss was a scriptwriter for Hallowe’en Party, The Big Four, and Cat Among the Pigeons. A few of the similarities between the series may possibly be traced to him as a result. He also acted in a certain episode of Poirot…

Appointment With Death. In this episode, Gatiss plays Leonard Boynton, the insecure stepson of the murdered woman. Seeing Gatiss flex his sarcastic chops against Poirot, it’s hard for me not to think of his banter with the other great fictional detective. There’s something else about Appointment With Death that is significant for this side-by-side: the story line of the man who fled across the desert to Samarra, attempting in vain to cheat Death. Originally used by Christie in her novel, exactly the same story is trotted out as an important framing narrative in Sherlock episode The Six Thatchers (Season 4, Ep. 1).

The “death” and resurrection of the detective. In true Holmsian fashion, Christie had her detective undergoing a fake death and dramatic return, much to the shock of his “Watson.” Gatiss did the screenplay for The Big Four as well as working on The Reichenbach Fall and The Empty Hearse, and the episodes of the two series were released very close to the same time. Yet Gatiss has claimed no deliberate influence between the two scripts– apparently they were conceived quite independently and at different times. Nonetheless, you can spot a few things in production if you look– including an iconic shadow on the pane of each of these detectives when their resurrected selves emerge from hiding once more. (Book-Poirot’s elusive brother, the highly-intelligent but constitutionally indolent Achille, was Christie’s nod to Mycroft. He was not included in the TV adaptation of The Big Four.)

Other cast members. Here, I’ll just note certain major characters from Sherlock who play other roles in Poirot. Along with Mark Gatiss as Mycroft…

Amanda Abbington (a.k.a. Mary Watson) is one of the teachers in Poirot episode Cat Among the Pigeons.

Tom Brooke is also noticeable as Wiggins in Sherlock and Tysoe in The Big Four (the journalist following up shady leads). The characters are even a bit similar, in that Wiggins and Tysoe attempt to work alongside Sherlock and Poirot professionally to a certain extent.

An actor who stands out as an arch-villain in both series: Toby Jones, who plays the notorious Ratchett in Murder on the Orient Express, and the equally creepy, sinister, wealthy Culverton Smith in Sherlock’s The Lying Detective.

Lindsay Duncan, who has a recurring role as Lady Smallwood in Sherlock, is Lady Tamplin in Poirot’s The Mystery of the Blue Train.

Would you believe that Sherlock’s “Anderson” (Jonathan Aris) is a receptionist in Lord Edgware Dies?? That whole critical conversation about the pince-nez, Mrs Van Dusen, and the need to telephone to Donald Ross happens with him.

The judge in Sad Cypress who condemns Elinor to death is Benedict Cumberbatch’s dad (Timothy Carlton), who plays the elder Mr. Holmes in Sherlock!

Honorable mentions for being recognizable: Haydn Gwynn is a painting-forging museum curator in Sherlock, and Coco Courtney / Miss Battersby in Poirot. Russell Tovey is a young Lionel Marshall in Evil Under the Sun, and is later seen as the terrorized guy in The Hounds of Baskerville.

“The Yellow Face” (ala The Six Thatchers) and “The Chocolate Box.” I’m cheating on this one because I’m comparing an episode with a short story, but hey, it’s my blog. 😉 In the Holmes story “The Yellow Face,” the detective says to Watson: ‘If it should ever strike you that I am getting a little overconfident in my powers, kindly whisper “Norbury” in my ears.’ Christie spoofs this moment at the end of story “The Chocolate Box” with Poirot asking Hastings: ‘If you think at any time that I am growing conceited… you shall say to me “Chocolate box.” Is it agreed?’ These are both rare instances of recorded failures of Holmes and Poirot. In the TV series, Poirot ends up getting his solution correct at the end after all and his line to Hastings does not appear. In the Sherlock episode The Six Thatchers, the detective wearily issues his directive about Norbury to Mrs Hudson. I include this example because I still cannot watch the end of this Sherlock episode without thinking of Poirot.

The Lost Mine: Hastings attempts to set Poirot straight on the rules of Monopoly, but Poirot’s brain can’t handle the illogic inherent in some of the game details. So when Hastings protests: “But it’s not in the rules,” Poirot retorts, “Well then, Hastings, the rules are wrong!” Sherlock snaps almost the identical dialogue at John Watson in The Hounds of Baskerville. One can’t help but feel it was lifted wholesale from the Poirot script. 🙂

Holmes: It’s this or Cluedo.

Watson: Ah, no. We are never playing that again.

Holmes: Why not?

Watson: Because it’s not actually possible for the victim to have done it, Sherlock, that’s why!

Holmes: It’s the only possible solution.

Watson: It’s not in the rules.

Holmes: Well, then the rules are wrong!

Retirement references. Christie, as a nod to the concept of Holmes retiring to Sussex to look after beehives, mirrors that idea with Poirot retiring to the country to (unsuccessfully!) grow vegetable marrows. In the words of Christie’s Tuppence from the book Partners in Crime: “This is our last case. When they have laid the superspy by the heels, the great detectives intend to retire and take to beekeeping or vegetable marrow growing. It’s always done.” 🙂 We see Poirot’s futile attempts at retirement at the beginning of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. We don’t see Sherlock with beehives in the other series, but there is a passing reference to it in the episode His Last Vow.

Janine: So, we’re good, then?

Sherlock Holmes: Yeah, of course. Where’s the cottage?

Janine: Sussex Downs.

Sherlock Holmes: Mm, nice.

Janine: It’s gorgeous. There’s beehives, but I’m getting rid of those.

How the actors in the title roles portray a walking brain. Both Suchet and Cumberbatch made use of the classic “steeple hands” position throughout the series to indicate their detectives entering a spell of deep thought. Interestingly, they each employed other distinctive techniques to convey the cerebral aspect of their characters. Suchet manages this by setting his voice into a much higher register, the “head” voice suggesting that the brain dominates Poirot’s entire personality to the exclusion of everything below-neck. Cumberbatch also wanted to evoke a “mind over matter” aspect of Sherlock’s physicality, and he did this by losing a significant amount of weight for the role. Doyle, of course, does describe his detective as very thin.

Giraud. Sherlock Holmes gets several references in the Poirot stories, in book and on film. Some are by name; several are by allusion (written monographs, the parsley in the butter, etc). In The Murder on the Links, Christie invents the odious Giraud to provide a rival detective for Poirot. Giraud prides himself on his great observational skills, his collection of tiny clues, his attention to cigarette ash and tire marks, and– in the episode– his trademark pipe. He is clearly aspiring (and failing) to be a second Sherlock Holmes, a “human foxhound.” I include this in my catalogue of similarities because we do get to see some pipe-smoking in the flashback episode of Sherlock, The Abominable Bride. 🙂

Offhand, those are the most noticeable “overlaps” I see when watching one or the other series. One could possibly find some connections as to how Lestrade and Japp are played (perhaps in getting their respective sleuths out of jail?), or Countess Rossakoff and Irene Adler, or Miss Lemon and Miss Hudson. However, to my mind, those are more general similarities– they don’t make me think automatically of the other series.

Are there any others you’ve noticed?  🙂

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