The three readers who have read my reviews in the past will think that I only tend to witter on about science fiction and cult TV. Doctor Who, Blake's 7 and Buffy The Vampire Slayer have all been picked to pieces by me, but in fact, I'm also a big fan of another popular escapist genre: the murder mystery.
I think it's because my pea-sized brain needs all the exercise that it can get, and the murder mystery challenges viewers like me to work out the culprit of some fiendish deed – as well as how and why he or she committed the crime. British TV in particular is actually rather good at coming up with all kinds of murder mysteries. The snooty university backdrop of Lewis. The sunny climes in Death In Paradise (watch this space). I'll even digest the wildly ludicrous antics in Midsomer Murders, despite the facts that the show's murders get even more outrageous as time goes on (what next – death by giant pork pie?) and that the current David Cameron lookalike replacement for John Nettles has all the charisma of a carton of milk.
Sometimes though, it's the old classics that remain the best. Especially, the characters from the mind of Agatha Christie. Miss Marple recently enjoyed a renaissance in the Noughties, although Joan Hickson's portrayal from the 1980s and early 1990s remains the definitive one.
Which brings me to Poirot. Despite a gaggle of contenders such as Albert Finney, Peter Ustinov and... oh dear, Kenneth Branagh fighting for the crown, David Suchet is still, for me, the ultimate Hercule Poirot.
Everything about Suchet's portrayal of the Belgian brainbox is perfect. The attention to detail, such as his fussy precision spooning of jam (or whatever sauce it is) on his toast. The compelling end explanations of whodunnit are expertly delivered, and never once get boring (partly thanks to Suchet's sometime furious exclamations in his native language). In his later stories, there's a greater degree of poignancy in Suchet's performance as the years and experiences start to take their toll on the ageing sleuth. Mention the name of Poirot, and it's a fair bet that the actor they will instantly link with the role is that of David Suchet. No other actor really comes close.
I'll be looking at the feature-length ITV Poirots over the coming weeks, and I'm sure that in the future, I'll be revisiting some of the shorter 45-minute ones too. But it's those movie-length editions that got me hooked. For me, there's something very Sunday about those classic ITV Poirots. All lazy afternoons and roast dinners and boring old Antiques Roadshow on the other channel. Much as I despise period dramas, the quaint throwback to the early 20th century is a big draw for me. In particular, those early Poirots are all impeccable manners, cocktail parties and vintage cars. It's a massive contrast to the smog-filled, time-poor, obnoxious climate of today, and I think that's a key factor in my enjoyment of the programme.
Although Poirot had begun in January 1989, the feature-length Poirots began the following year as Peril At End House kicked off the second season in early 1990. The story was sliced into two chunks, but stitched together, it's a very strong first bid for Poirot, movie-style. While it possesses all the common Christie ingredients (doe eyed damsels in distress, picturesque locations and shifty subplot detours), Peril At End House is unusual in other ways.
Take the actual mystery itself. Normally, a Poirot begins with some hapless victim coming to grief at the hands of an unknown assailant. But in this case, one Nick Buckley is either very lucky or very unlucky (depending on your point of view) in that she's cheated death countless times. The woman's practically channelling Wile E Coyote in that she's survived falling rocks, out of control cars and now a stray bullet that conveniently slices though her fancy bonnet to miss her brain. On top of this, luck-draining Nick's fiancé cops it in a plane crash. Plus, she's facing the prospect of eviction, since she doesn't have enough cash to keep living at her swanky pad, End House. Even if they had lottery tickets in those days, the one bought by Nick would have probably blown away and into the path of an oncoming steam train.
That's the initial challenge for Poirot to solve as he and his good friend, Captain Hastings arrive in Cornwall for a relaxing holiday. Not that Poirot ever really gets the chance to enjoy himself anyway: as tales like Evil Under The Sun later show, the chap's incapable of relaxing. This time around though, the challenge for Poirot is to prevent Nick from coming to grief at the mitts of this mysterious grudge holder.
It's a notably different tack from many of the Poirot mysteries, although of course, a murder does inevitably take place. Poor old cousin Maggie – if only Poirot hadn't insisted that Nick invite her down for a spot of supper and some whizz-bang fireworks.
Mention of Maggie brings me to another oddity in Peril End House. Maybe it's me, but there seems to be less suspects to choose from this time around. Maggie herself is a blink 'n' miss her character, offering a maximum of perhaps two sentences over dinner, and then that's her offed. Outside of this, there's Nick's two chums, Freddie Rice, a frosty femme fatale type puffing away on fancy cigarettes, and the chap who has a thing for Freddie, Jim Lazarus. Elsewhere, we have Nick's uptight lawyer cousin Charles Vyse, and two brash Australian lodgers who occupy the abode close to End House. From the Poirots that I've seen, there tends to be about double this amount of suspects at least.
Despite this though, there are plenty of red herrings, detours and more twists than a plate of spaghetti. Which include some dodgy looking watches, a box of chocolates and a pile of love letters read with keen interest by Hercule. As with all of the Christie murder mysteries, sometimes the resolution comes as a surprise when seen or read the first time. Go back and visit the story again though, and you'll realise that all the clues were there for you to spot.
Peril At End House isn't the biggest scale Poirot murder mystery. Or the most dramatic. I'm sure a lot of modern day viewers will find the two-parter a tad talky and slow in places. Even in the late '80s, when this was filmed, drama was still more dialogue and character driven, as opposed to the crash-bang-wallop of modern day TV adventure, which requires instant impact in order to keep bums on seats.
Since I'm an old wreck though, I prefer this more leisurely approach to drama. The trouble with the modern, scattergun approach is that there's not so much time to get to know the characters, who end up being mere cyphers. In the Poirot stories, there's more emphasis on good characterisation – one of the best examples being Hercule's circle of friends who come to join him on his busman's holiday.
The cycle of Poirot can be divided into two parts. The latter day episodes which generally feature Poirot on his lonesome in a darker, crueller world. And then there are the earlier ones, which are a bit lighter in tone – partly thanks to his close buddies coming along for the ride. Hastings, Miss Lemon and Inspector Japp all add that extra bit of fun – whether it's Hastings eye say-ing up the local females around the swimming pool, Miss Lemon musing on abbreviated names or Japp slurping a stick of seaside rock. The performances from Hugh Fraser, Pauline Moran and Philip Jackson are just as superb as Suchet's, adding a flavour of good time camaraderie to those early adventures.
Out of the guest characters, a young Polly Walker is the best of the bunch as Nick – you never quite know what's going on behind those big doe eyes, and there's a neat spin on the traditional damsel in distress character in the later stages of the story. Alison Sterling does some good work too as the brittle Freddie, and for Doctor Who fans, all the way from the first ever story comes Jeremy Young as the Australian Bert Croft.
As with many a period drama of the time, Poirot's attention to detail is immaculate. The costumes. The designs. Those old-fashioned aeroplanes that give Poirot the shakes in the opening scenes. Director Renny Rye turns in some nice visuals – the location filming in Salcombe isn't quite the Cornish coastline, since it's a few miles away in Devon, but it still perfectly captures that lovely British Summer day with rippling tides and ice cream cones all the way.
Peril At End House is a class act all the way. It paved the way for more feature-length Poirot capers to come in the 1990s, and as an enjoyable 90-odd minute introduction to the little grey cells of Hercule, you won't go wrong with this one.