The ghost that took over his life: Poirot’s handwriting in Curtain

“I am writing a letter to Hastings to explain all that has happened, and what makes it extraordinary is that the art department have discovered a way to create my handwriting so that I do not have to write every word myself time after time. It is as though a ghost has taken over my life.”

-David Suchet, Poirot and Me

This little detail about the final scenes of Curtain, mentioned in passing in Suchet’s book, intrigued me when I first read it. Art departments and handwriting are always of special interest! But it was only when I took a close look at what is shown on screen in this episode that his meaning became clear. (In advance: please understand that in this post, I’m not attempting any sort of “gotcha!” to said fine art department– I may have never noticed, had it not been obliquely pointed out by Suchet himself. I merely note this as something that interests me.)

It began simply by noticing that the letter that Poirot was writing to Hastings looked an awful lot, but not quite, like Suchet’s own handwriting. Curious, because the letters all looked like he wrote them, but something seemed a bit off about it. Then I remembered the quote from his book. Do you notice?

Font-lovers may notice what is so curious about the FIRST sentence of Poirot’s writing here: what we’re looking at is essentially a “David Suchet’s Poirot” font. Zoom in (click on the picture) and look at any single letter– try the lower-case “h,” “y,” “m,” for easy examples. Every one of those letters looks exactly the same as every other in that sentence! That’s what looks unusual– the first part of the page is uncommonly smooth and regularized. Now starting at “But really, my friend,” look at the rest of the words. Those are hand-written by Suchet himself, and contain variations on the letters rather than uniformity, appearing much looser that the words that came before. The camera had to show him actually writing with his own hand for these shots, but a font was made of his handwriting for the first part of a paragraph so he wouldn’t have to write it all out each time. Presumably print-outs were made to which he added. This is what his quote at the top of the post meant. If you look carefully, you may even notice that the color of the ink appears slightly different between the “font” and the true handwriting.

Once you see this pattern, you can’t un-see it in the other paragraphs of writing shown. I’ve highlighted the real handwriting in blue brackets; the rest is a printed font.

There are at least two possible reasons I can think of as to why the art department would go to the bother of creating this font in the first place. Either it really was merely to convenience their actor; or it might be that doing too much handwriting in those arthritis-heavy prosthetics does not-nice things to them. There may have been other reasons.

The font works perfectly well for the few moments it appears on screen. If, however, you really wish to forge someone’s writing successfully (or even to create a slightly more believable handwriting font for closer scrutiny, though it is far more expensive to do so), always remember to use multiple variants of letters.  Poirot himself knows enough about forgery to let you in on that.  😉

Black Coffee at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre

Last week, Alex and I took a spin up to Winnipeg’s Exchange District to see Black Coffee, Christie’s first play (and her only one with Poirot). The Royal MTC put on this play in contribution to the 17th annual Master Playwright Fest, which this year featured Agatha Christie (dubbed ChristieFest). Many Winnipeg theatre companies tried their hand at Christie plays, including The Mousetrap and The Hollow. Free events during ChristieFest included public viewings of the PBS documentary The Mystery of Agatha Christie (with David Suchet) and the films Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express.

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Now, I was very excited, as this was my own first Christie play. I’d read both the script of Black Coffee as well as Charles Osborne’s novelization– but of course, plays really do need to be seen! The reviews had been a bit lackluster, but their critique was more directed toward a perceived dullness in Christie’s play itself, not the performance. Well, knowing what to anticipate, I could live with that.  🙂

The cast included Lorne Kennedy as Poirot, Arne MacPherson as Hastings, Ross McMillan as Sir Claud Amory (and Japp), and Claire Armstrong as Lucia Amory. Kennedy gave an especially good performance of Poirot– sometimes, I swear, channeling Suchet. And MacPherson was a likeable, if highly excitable, Hastings. 🙂  One particularly noticeable deviation from the original play is that the secretary Raynor was changed to a woman– “Edwina,” played by Miriam Smith. This was perhaps to balance the male/female ratio.

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The pince-nez and lapel vase are distinctively Suchet’s Poirot. But Lorne Kennedy wore them well.

The set and lighting were really beautiful. Having myself specialized in trompe l’oeil in university and having done some set painting, I was particularly interested in the forced perspective garden scene beyond the French windows. For some reason, I was also mesmerized by the reproduction of a painting of Samuel Johnson high on the wall. It seemed to lend a comfortable, fitting, 18th-century “Sir Joshua Reynolds” sort of air to the distinguished country house set.

Christie herself was not particularly fond of this play, and by all accounts it’s not among her best. It’s a typical cozy mystery with conventional stock characters– the noted scientist, the misunderstood girl, the blackmailer, the vamp, etc. Anyone who is familiar with the story The Mysterious Affair at Styles will notice some pretty obvious plot-borrowing. Christie also borrowed the occasional quote from her own stories. This line in Black Coffee can be found almost verbatim in the story “The Chocolate Box.”

POIROT: Madame, it is sometimes difficult to set a dog on the scent. But once he has found it, nothing on earth will make him leave it. Not if he is a good dog. And I, madame, I, Hercule Poirot, am a very good dog!

Charles Osborne’s adaptation included even more lifting of dialog from Christie stories, including “The Adventure of the ‘Western Star'” and several others. C’est curieux! Also curious is Hastings’ apparent eagerness to be vamped, considering that he’s already been out in Argentina which means he’s already married at the time this play is set. Oh, Hastings…

It was an enjoyable evening and the audience seemed to have fun with the performance. The program was cute, too, including not only Christie facts but suggestions on how to make great coffee!

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My only real regret was not being able to get to more of ChristieFest this February. We didn’t learn of most of the events until it was too late, and being the self-professed greatest Poirot fan in at least Manitoba  😉  this was an embarrassing oversight on my part. But well done, Royal MTC, on an enjoyable interpretation of Black Coffee.  🙂

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The Double Clue, Marc Chagall, the elusive lovers’ dream, and guilt expiation

Well… that’s the direction that my convoluted brain wanders while watching this Poirot episode… (Note: associations are my own and are not intended to reflect genuine intent on the part of script writers or art departments.)  🙂

The only thing that comes as close to the awesomeness of the famously-moustachioed Dying Gaul as a focal statue in the chess tournament scene of The Big Four, is the use of Chagall’s “Feathers in Bloom” in The Double Clue.

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Before reaching the gallery interior, previous conversations with the Countess had emphasized certain points of commonality between the characters: the sad and lonely aspects of foreign exile. Despite the mutual appreciation of the painting and the reference to Chagall’s own “exile” from Russia, the gallery scene in general focuses more on the differences in personality and background between the pair. Poirot offers to take the Countess to the Tate to see the Turner landscapes– sublime, comparatively bourgeois,  and quintessentially English. She voices a preference for the more “exciting” and avant-garde continental Expressionists, which Poirot only appreciates “in part.” (At this point, he gently chides her for using his first name, maintaining a wholly formal address between them.) The scene concludes with Poirot demonstrating his cred as “the most famous detective in England” by hinting that he already knows of her guilt. This all resolves with Poirot maintaining himself on the side of England, as it were, while able (as a fellow foreign refugee) to grasp something of the psychology of the criminal.

That’s about as far as the episode goes with Chagall. But there are some other interesting things about it that come to bear on some of the story’s themes.

“Feathers in Bloom” features some of Chagall’s most commonly-used symbols. The moon is usually present at the meeting of lovers. The horse (in this case, with the legs of a man) represents ideas such as strength, virility, and freedom. The chicken or rooster is used throughout his work in two senses: first, in terms of fertility and also associated with lovers; secondly, as a Jewish symbol (along with the goat) for the expiation of guilt and sin, in connection with Yom Kippur. More on that later.

You can see typical examples of all of these symbols together in Chagall’s works, such as the following:

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…But of course, those Chagalls all share another iconic visual that is (perhaps sadly) lacking in the “Feathers in Bloom” painting encountered by Poirot and the Countess. Namely, this one:

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One could, perhaps, read “Feathers in Bloom” in this context as a meeting of love interests that will not result in that idyllic, dream-like state with bride and groom flying off into the sunset.

But speaking of goats and chickens…

Chagall’s Hasidic Jewish background is one of the preeminent influences of his artwork, and the goat (or, by more modern parallel, the chicken) as symbols of sacrifice and atonement happen to come to bear on some of the story’s themes, as well. In ancient times, the Day of Atonement would involve the sacrifice of a goat, and the binding of a second goat in scarlet which would then be driven away into the remote wilderness as a sign of the expiation of guilt. This is where we get the term scapegoat. The scapegoat appears throughout The Double Clue.

Japp: “The Commissioner’s come down on me. He wants action. If not, he’s going to have to give them a scapegoat.”
Poirot: “A goat?”
Japp: “Me.”

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In the episode, the propitiation takes the form of the Countess relinquishing her stolen goods, Poirot “covering” for her, and transferring the guilt onto the tramp as a scapegoat. However, like the scapegoat, the Countess herself must be driven away, never to return to the society.

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Yes, I know I’m reading a lot into it. Blame whoever thought to stick Marc Chagall into the script!!  🙂  🙂  🙂  Where there is Chagall, the symbols start flying!

Speaking of Chagall and all the random mental associations he seems to conjure up, we could finally note a few coincidences of his family history. Born and raised in Russia, of a Lithuanian Jewish family (Moishe Shagal russified to Mark Shagalov). Found his way to Paris and its creative epicenters, where the family name was rendered as the French-sounding Chagall. From Paris, moved on again into the English-speaking world, where he settled for good. If that doesn’t remind you of a certain unnamed actor’s family history, well…

Poirot’s favorite painting was swiped from his apartment building in Brussels.

A couple of months ago I blogged about some of the reused paintings in Poirot episodes, and noted specifically that painting that resides over the fruit bowl in the Whitehaven Mansions sitting room. It was notable because it seemed to travel with Poirot, from his first residence in England at Leastways Cottage in Styles St. Mary to the (first) Whitehaven Mansions flat to his temporary retirement home of The Larches in King’s Abbot in the Roger Ackroyd era. And I speculated whether he had merely taken it away from Leastways Cottage with him, or whether it was a particularly special item he had shipped over from Belgium which came with him when he emigrated.

Well, now I know. The painting was spotted in today’s re-watch of The Chocolate Box, hanging in the hallway of his apartment building in Brussels!

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He swiped it from the building!!! Ahahahaha…

Okay, maybe he bought it. Hardly seems likely, though.

Reused paintings in the Poirot series

There’s nothing particularly newsworthy about reused props in a television series, or in more than one series made by the same people. But it’s fun to point them out all the same.  In Poirot, you’ve got a good 25-year span to notice them in. I recount a sampling of these occurrences…

Possibly the single most obviously reused painting is this guy, because the picture is specifically focused on in the episodes The Mystery of the Spanish Chest, where the painting features prominently at the men’s club, and Dumb Witness, in which the painting at the Arundell house dramatically falls from the wall.

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Dumb Witness

Another fairly easy-to-spot painting of a mother and her sick child appears in at least three episodes: Dead Man’s Mirror, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and Third Girl. The painting functions as a major plot point in the first of the three, and this makes it easier for fans to spot the same painting appearing in Ackroyd’s home and in David Baker’s studio.

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Some recognizable paintings are not merely reused props so much as entire locations. The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly and Third Girl share a location, Wrotham Park, as shots like these indicate.

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But for me, the most interesting of all is this painting here. It is a fairly unremarkable little scene that took up residence behind the sitting room fruit bowl, so that we see it in several episodes.

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But when The Mysterious Affair at Styles is filmed, we might be astonished to discover that this very same painting hung in Poirot’s own room at Leastways Cottage, where he was living by the charity of Mrs. Inglethorp!

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More remarkable still: when Poirot retires (temporarily) to his little house in King’s Abbot in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, that painting is again in his residence! (Far left)

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I guess it may be that the art department was running out of paintings of a certain sort to shuffle around. I myself like to imagine that there’s an untold story here. Did Poirot take the painting away from Leastways Cottage when he left to remind him of his humble beginnings at Styles, his generous sponsor there, and the first major case he investigated in his new country? Did the picture have sufficient sentimental value from the past that he could have even had it sent over from Belgium when he first emigrated, and subsequently installed it in each new dwelling where he lived? Ah, the unsolved mysteries…

The theology of The A.B.C. Murders

In a previous post entitled “The theology of the Clapham Cook,” I discussed some interesting script choices in that first episode; namely, that a passage of Scripture is read by a background character which actually encapsulates the entire theme of the episode. Something similar happens in the television adaptation of The A.B.C. Murders, coupled with a few religious artifacts of note.

Those interested in fashion particularly notice the amazing wardrobe skills on display in a series like Poirot; car enthusiasts are apt to point out the vintage cars. Well, art and theology are two special hobbies of mine, and they inevitably jump out at me in viewings of the show. Sometimes this takes the form of vintage devotional items, which I always notice with great interest, and there happen to be some in this episode.

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There is a flashback scene in the denouement in which Cust is receiving his new typewriter. Sitting on his little table are a few personal objects and knick-knacks, including three devotional items: a Bible, a palm cross, and what looks like a little picture or prayer card.

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A Bible shows up at least twice more around Cust: in his Doncaster hotel room, and in the prison cell, where he is reading it. (More on that later.) The palm cross is an interesting prop choice– it is a simple, traditional Lenten and Easter craft made from a folded blade of palm frond, sometimes from the palms used on Palm Sunday. It is a symbol of suffering, martyrdom, and future glory. It initially stood out to me because the scene takes place at a different time of year than you’d usually see palm crosses about.

The prayer card or picture is just barely visible, but due to the universal iconography of the figure, I am about 99% sure that there is a picture of St. Jude on it. That particular apostle has for many years, and certainly by the 1930s, been depicted in a white robe with a green drape over one shoulder, holding a staff or club (referencing his martyrdom), having a small flame over his head, and holding an image of Christ. The last two objects are indeterminate in the shot, but the rest are clearly visible. Compare for yourself, intrepid blog reader, whether the card in the shot above is likely to be a picture of St. Jude…

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“Fine, well spotted, but who cares?” you say.

It’s merely the interesting coincidence that a glance through the hagiography of St. Jude happens to show some unusual points of connection with A.B. Cust. The Catholic Church represents him as the patron saint of lost causes, things despaired of, and hopeless cases. That association has to do with the fact that St. Jude (or Judas) shares the name of another apostle, Judas Iscariot, the traitor to Jesus. The unfortunate similarity of name, and the subsequent oft-mistaken identity, apparently resulted in a sort of neglect and forgetting of St. Jude by many in the Church, and so he is regarded as a beacon of hope for things despaired of and forgotten. Does that does not ring a bell with the pitiful, forgotten, hapless Mr. Cust– who is not, in fact, the A.B.C. letter-writer, but is presented as the murderer to the police in a case of mistaken identity?

But wait, there’s more.  😉

In his prison cell, just as Poirot enters, we can hear Cust reading from the Bible– to be specific, the Beatitudes, from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 5. “And He taught them, saying: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit–”

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The Beatitudes are a well-known Christian text that offer words of comfort and blessing by Christ to the suffering, wrongly oppressed and accused, and persecuted. Again, this fits Cust to a tee, and the reading here at least was certainly not coincidental, but chosen for that purpose.

But in other interesting details of chance: the staff or club held by St. Jude signifies that he was martyred by being bludgeoned to death, which is how the murderer commits two of his deeds, including the “main” murder of his brother. And also, take notice where Cust suddenly stops in his reading. “For they shall inherit…” Unknowingly, Cust utters the real motive for the crime of which he is unjustly accused– Franklin Clarke kills in order to inherit his brother’s fortune!

“’Course, it might be a coincidence.”

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Oh, who am I kidding, of course I do!   😉

I don’t pretend that the particular choice of devotional items was intentional, in those particulars, for the episode, but how very well it all hangs together, n’est-ce pas?

Hallowe’en: Steampunk Poirot

Feeling in a funny sort of mood this Halloween, I thought I’d do myself up with a sort of vaguely steampunk-Poirot motif, complete with pocket watch, blazer, corset, silver glitter (not showing up well in photos, but getting positively all over myself), ear fobs, and a stick moustache. The Remembrance Day poppy I’m wearing anyway due to time of year, but it seems sort of oddly appropriate in this context, too. That scarlet kimono in the background is also distinctly fitting. If only I had a cool hat…

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A word about making the stick moustache (it surely goes without saying that any store-bought moustache would be infinitely inadequate for my purpose). It’s a bamboo skewer with a bit of silver paint, cardboard, and black Velvet Paper. This is a flocked paper that has a fuzzy texture, not unlike the moustaches on the cover of that new little quote book, Little Grey Cells. (I used the same type of paper, in red, to line the little walnut shelf made to house my collection of miniature painted Poirot books.) Velvet Paper has the added advantage of adding a richer color to the project due to its texture, and of course this moustache needed to be as black as possible… and so it is, more so than if ordinary black paper had been used.

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If you look closely, you might notice that in spite of best efforts, the moustache is not really 100% perfectly symmetrical. (That ‘Tchah!’ sound you hear is not a sneezing cat, but Poirot in an alternate universe, refusing forever to forgive me for this slight.) I trimmed it and trimmed it with a small, sharp pair of scissors, and it dawned on me… this is why it takes Poirot such a blasted long time in grooming his own. Getting the thing symmetrical is a crazy tricky business!

That statue in The Big Four…

The episode The Big Four begins with Poirot’s “funeral,” then flashes back four weeks to the chess tournament arranged by Abe Ryland, an advocate of the Peace Party. The room in which the guests are congregated– location: Syon House, Brentford– is full of copies of famous ancient statuary, including the Apollo Belvedere (located at the opposite end of the room from the chess table). You may have seen these in other films shot at this location.

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There are 4 full-sized statues in the room (the Great Hall of Syon House) and the one that caught my attention was the one on the opposite side of the chess set, where the main action of the event is centered. We begin to get a good look at it when Poirot and Japp are having their little conversation about Madame Olivier.

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It is a copy of The Dying Gaul.

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In the ancient world, Gaul was the region of western Europe encompassing France, Belgium, and the surrounding area. The Gauls spread across Europe, with pockets reaching as far as Turkey (e.g. the Galatians). Of course, we still use the word “Gallic” to describe anything characteristically French, as in: “Poirot bowed with Gallic politeness.”

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But what’s really amusant about The Dying Gaul and its place in this story is… did you know… The Dying Gaul has one of the most famous MOUSTACHES in all of sculpture? In fact, the moustache is one of the reasons that he is usually assumed to be a Gaul in the first place.

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An interesting coincidence, n’est-ce pas? Beyond the fact that a man dies at that chess table… isn’t cutting from Poirot’s funeral to a room that prominently featured The Dying Gaul be a rather appropriate bit of foreshadowing?

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