Have something to read, while we're all waiting for me to be brilliant. Or something.
First published in a private blog, some time ago.
I just opened up a vein and stuck a thermometer in. It's 102 degrees. It confirmed what I was already thinking. My blood is boiling.
When I was a teenager I had a troubled time. My life had plunged itself into darkness and I was lost, almost, it seemed at the time, irretrievably so, forever destined to a bleak and unworthy life, a life of unhappiness and misery. There was no light, just darkness, an all pervading darkness that infected every corner of my world. There was no one to help. I was helpless.
And then Agatha Christie happened. In the Autumn of 1988, at the height of my pain, David Suchet wandered across my television screen as the inimitable Hercule Poirot and somebody, somewhere found a light switch. In the depth of my darkness some light shone. I found something I didn't know I had been looking for. I found pleasure.
The following day I left the house, (a feat in itself, let me tell you,) and I searched our local library for something Christie related. I knew nothing about her then, absolutely nothing. I didn't know what I was looking for, or what treasures were waiting for me. I was still utterly lost (would be for years) but an unknown force seemed to have taken hold of my hand and was guiding me towards a new discovery. I discovered, firstly, Nurse Amy Leatheran dictating what is still one of my favourite Poirot's, ‘Murder in Mesopotamia’. My love affair with all things Christie had begun. It would never let go.
In the following quarter of a century I have read and re-read every word Agatha Christie has ever written. I have read everything ever written about her from the sublime biography’s by Laura Thompson and Janet Morgan to the ridiculously surreal and awful Jared Cade’s ‘Agatha Christie and the Missing Eleven Days’. I have watched and loved every movie adaptation ever filmed (and also hated some in equal measure), from the beautifully filmed star studded extravaganza ‘Murder on The Orient Express’, with the great Albert Finney, to the oddly like-able but equally silly Peter Ustinov versions in the 80s. I, like many others, believe that there will never be an Hercule Poirot to surpass that of David Suchet, nor a Miss Marple to surpass that of Joan Hickson. Although I admire the career of Margaret Rutherford and secretly enjoy her Miss Marple films of the 60s they are, quite simply, awful adaptations, and bear little similarity to the Miss Marple stories I love so much. I absolutely cannot bear the new Miss Marple on ITV, but I will explain why later.
I am, quite simply, a fan. A connoisseur. An enthusiast. I am an Agatha Christie trainspotter. A devotee. I love the stories, the settings, the characters, the plays, the age. I am the Agatha Christie version of a Trekkie. And I am passionately defensive of the works that gave me succour.
And I am not a happy bunny.
Many years ago I payed a pilgrimage to Devon on the trail of my hero. I wanted to see the places that inspired the stories, to stand on the Victorian pier at Torquay and breath in the air that gave life to my favourite characters. I wanted to journey on the steam train at Paignton that had carried Agatha Christie, in her later years, from the station at Churston (the third murder location in ‘The ABC Murders’), to the awaiting diesel monsters of the modern age at Torquay, which ferried the elderly novelist to her appointments in London. I got as close as was possible then to the great house at Greenway, and stood at the small quay on the river Dart where Hercule Poirot had mused during ‘Hallowe’en Party’. I wanted desperately to walk down the winding drive to the house, to step inside, to be a part, almost, of Agatha Christie’s world. But this was not possible then. The house was still privately owned by the Christie family, and Agatha Christie’s daughter Rosalind still lived there. I left Devon wanting more, my passion fed on the anticipation, on the unfulfilled desires that plagued my thoughts. They say you should never meet your heroes. That your desires, your anticipation, are always more enjoyable than the reality of finally meeting the fruits of your desires. They were right.
Something has changed. Agatha Christie has gone Disney.
I visited Greenway House last year and finally got to walk down the winding drive to the house. I got to step inside the house, now a National Trust property, and poke my nose in places it really shouldn’t have gone. I felt like I had betrayed the legacy that Agatha Christie had left. She was a painfully private and reserved lady who protected her privacy in the strongest possible way. She wanted the world to admire and respect her work, not the woman behind it all. And yet there I was, mingling with the great unwashed of the tacky tourist mecca that is the English Riviera, listening to the ridiculous conversations of American tourists merging with the banal banter of bored holiday-makers metaphorically placing a big X in the ‘Things to do and see in Torquay’ box. All I had wanted to do was to wander in quiet meditation among the corridors of a fine house that had an historical link to something that matters a great deal to me. I wanted to be left alone. I wanted to just exist, for one moment, in personal introspection. Instead I was assailed at every turn by a clip board wielding know-it-all who wanted to tell me how Agatha had holidayed here every summer; how Agatha had written some of her best known works sat at this very table; how Agatha had used this very letter opener to open her correspondence; how Agatha had used this very typewriter;…. ad infinitum. “Did you know her?” I wanted to scream? “Were you friends?” No? Then stop calling her Agatha. Try Agatha Christie. Mrs Christie. Mrs Mallowan. Mrs Christie Mallowan. Mrs Agatha Christie Mallowan. Actually, just go away.
No visitor to Torquay can escape the endless touts that line the boardwalk of this once great Victorian town. Or the 6ft licensed image of Agatha Christie that adorns the corner of every tourist box begging you to visit ‘Agatha’s home,’ or take a trip on ‘Agatha’s bus’, or “Take the Christie Tour,’ or the ‘Christie Cruise.’ It is all in very poor taste, and quite tacky, in almost total contradiction to everything that the Agatha Christie brand stands for.
There has, in recent years, been a step change in how Agatha Christie is portrayed to the unknowing public. David Suchet IS Hercule Poirot. There can never be another, and I take my hat off to the men and women who have toiled hard to do justice to this fine television show. It is a credit to Agatha Christie, and is as faithful to the original stories as television shows are able to get. The same cannot be said for the awful Miss Marple series currently being shown. I grant you Joan Hickson is an impossible act to follow, which begs the question: “Why try?”
In a recent episode of this programme ‘The Secret of Chimneys’, was adapted to feature Miss Marple, who never featured in the original story. They did it to ‘Towards Zero’, removing Superintendent Battle from his last case and replacing him with Miss Marple. Something Agatha Christie had complained about when MGM popped Miss Marple into a film version of ‘Mrs McGinty’s Dead’, a book specifically written for Hercule Poirot. It led to a falling out with MGM and almost scuppered all future film adaptations of her work. And yet the Trust that is charged today with protecting the legacy of Agatha Christie seem fit to ignore her own, well documented concerns. I suppose it’s all about money, and to Hell with it. How long before Hercule Poirot is re-invented and the brand ruined. Not long apparently.
Just last week Harper Collins (A News International Company. Relevant? Discuss), along with the Trustees of the Agatha Christie Estate, announced a new Poirot novel set in the 1920s to be written by crime writer and Agatha Christie enthusiast Sophie Hannah. Book sales down are they? Pension funds not looking so good?
This works for the likes of James Bond, who featured in only 12 novels, as the readers of the Bond stories have most likely never read an original Bond story, being introduced to the stories via the highly successful movie franchise. The purpose of writing new Bonds is to enhance the movies, not to introduce readers to the literary world of Ian Fleming. There are 66 detective novels in the Christie closet. We do no need a new one. I don’t want another one. I will never read it. There’s a plethora of Agatha Christie gems to discover. One just needs to point people in the right direction. To take them by the hand, as if an unknown force, and guide them towards new discoveries. I have come full circle.
What, exactly, are the trustees of the Agatha Christie estate trying to achieve? Who are they trying to appeal to? Agatha Christie is a quality brand that needs or, rather, deserves protecting. It is no coincidence that the most popular shows on television are ones set in a bygone age of yesteryear. A golden age of nostalgia. Shows like ‘Downton Abbey’, ‘Mad Men’, ‘Boardwalk Empire’. There’s a market there that the trustees have failed to spot in their desperate and ill thought out clamber towards profit. The Agatha Christie brand is in danger of destruction. The irony is that it is the brand now needs protection from the very people charged with its care.
But don’t take my word for it. Agatha Christie herself had much to say on the subject and was a fearsome protector of her legacy, as was her daughter Rosalind in the years following her death. Perhaps the trustees of the Christie estate would be wise to imagine these two women sat at the boardroom table the next time they discuss a ridiculous idea in their apparent rush towards further riches.
“I don’t suppose there could be any misery greater for an author than to see their characters completely distorted. After all, I have a reputation as an author… I really feel sick and ashamed of what I did when I joined up with MGM. It was my fault. One does things for money and one is wrong to do so (my italics)- since one parts with one’s literary integrity. Once one is in the trap one can’t get out.”