Tuesday, 10 June 2014

The Screenwriters: Kevin Elyot


In the coming weeks and months I will examine and discuss some of the key members of the Poirot production team, with particular focus on their work on Poirot, of course. My initial plan was to look at these crew members in chronological order, so to speak, but when I read about the sad passing of Kevin Elyot yesterday, it felt natural to start with him.

Kevin Elyot (1951-2014) was a British playwright and screenwriter. I won't attempt to discuss his career in detail. For that, I refer to this well-written obituary. The Guardian's Michael Coveney summed up his subject (as a writer) as 'the longing for love and remembrance of loves lost'. This is certainly true of some of his non-Poirot work that I've read or seen, like My Night with Reg, Clapham Junction and Christopher and His Kind. But it's also true of his Poirot (and Marple) adaptations. 

Elyot adapted three Poirot novels for the series: Five Little Pigs, Death on the Nile and Curtain: Poirot's Last Case. The tragic story of the Crale family, Jacqueline de Bellefort's vendetta, and the final hour of the friendship between Poirot and Hastings - all these adaptations could fall under that phrase in The Guardian. In an behind-the-scenes interview, Eylot explained the appeal of Poirot to him: 
'What appealed - appeals - to me about him is that he's a foreigner, and an outsider, a refugee, in a very class-ridden, and snobbish, and xenophobic society. That instantly gives any situation he's in an edge, and I find that very... full of potential.'
(Behind the Scenes: Death on the Nile, 2004)
I'm not in any way qualified to make assumptions based on Elyot's career, but that seems to fit in well with his record of writing 'gay stories', in lack of a better phrase, stories about outsiders, often faced with prejudices from the society around them. Poirot is a 'bloody little frog', as one character describes him, and he is frequently met with a substantial amount of scepticism, even in the three stories Elyot adapted. For instance, in Five Little Pigs:
'As he had often felt lately, things were not what they used to be. Dash it all, private detectives used to be private detectives - fellows you got to guard wedding presents at country receptions, fellows you went to - rather shame-facedly - when there was some dirty business afoot and you'd got to get the hang of it. But here was Lady Mary Lytton-Gore writing (...) And Lady Mary Lytton-Gore wasn't - no, decidedly she wasn't - the sort of woman tou associate with private detectives (...) And Admiral Cronshaw (...) And now here was the man himself. Really a most impossible person - the wrong clothes - button boots - an incredible moustache! Not his - Meredith Blake's - kind of fellow at all. Didn't look as though he'd ever hunted or shot - or even played a decent game. A foreigner.' 
(The War Years: Five Little Pigs, p. 222)
Personally, I cherish Elyot's adaptations, all three of them. Five Little Pigs, as a whole, is still my favourite Poirot episode. It's a difficult novel to adapt successfully, with internal monologues and observations, and I think the balance was just about right between flashbacks to the past and the present day. Curtain was faithfully and accurately adapted, with the right amount of sensitivity to its themes. An apt farewell with a beloved character.  Death on the Nile was possibly less successful, particularly with some of the changes to the minor characters, but nonetheless among the better episodes of the entire series. The scene, singled out by David Suchet in several interviews, between Jacqueline and Poirot, with dialogue borrowed from Dead Man's Folly, is a magnificent glimpse of that character trait that would blossom both in later novels and in later adaptations; Poirot's longing for love and remembrance of loves lost (think Vera Rossakoff, Verginie Mesnard and 'the mystery of love'). 

As such, I think Elyot brilliantly managed to move the character of Poirot on, to deepen, in collaboration with Suchet of course, the interpretation and add layers and dimensions. Regardless of what some fans might think of his more radical changes (mercifully fewer between on Poirot than on Marple), he deserves praise for that accomplishment. To me, he remains one of the best Poirot screenwriters. 

9 comments:

  1. Great article and so sad to hear about Kevin Elyot's passing. I agree that his scripts have been some of the best throughout the series, and in the Marple series. Curtain and 5 Little Pigs are 2 of my favourites, as well as Endless Night and The Mirror Crack'd for Marple.

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    1. Thank you. And yes, sad news indeed. Agreed, some of his scripts for Marple were equally good, both Endless Night and The Mirror Crack'd were well-written episodes.

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  2. This is a really nice tribute to Kevin Elyot– thank you for this. This is the first that I'd heard about his passing.

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  3. Someone said somewhere that Poirot doesn't show his emotions. I think he shows more emotion - not to say affection - than is considered normal in the society he is in. I don't see him as emotionally "cold" the way, say, Sherlock Holmes is. Albert Finney's Poirot asks Mary Debenham and Colonel Arbuthnot why the English "hide their impeccable emotions" (i.e., falling in love.) I can't recall an example from Suchet's series that parallels that exactly, but I think Poirot often quarrels with British standards of etiquette, particularly when they make his job harder, like "not speaking ill of the dead," and hiding shameful secrets.

    Poirot embraces (and even kisses) male friends. In the books, Hastings is always embarrassed when Poirot goes to embrace him. In the series, though, I think Hastings is more reciprocating, especially after a long period of not seeing each other.

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    1. Poirot tries to kiss Japp in The Big Four, and Japp really recoils!

      I think, too, that English people let Poirot "get away with it" in a way they might not if it was one of their own. And sometimes, I think, Poirot's not having the same snobberies, or whatever, helps him in his work. In The Double Clue, I find it odd that no one else has picked up that the Countess Rossakoff was at all of the events where thefts happened. Is the idea that anyone with a title is above suspicion to the English? She is also a foreigner, remember. And in the adaptation, this is played up as being a commonality that facilitates an emotional connection between her and Poirot (whereas, in the books, it was more frankly physical on Poirot's side, at least.)

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  4. Death on the Nile was possibly less successful, particularly with some of the changes to the minor characters, but nonetheless among the better episodes of the entire series.


    I don't think I can agree with the above comment. "Death on the Nile" wasn't bad, but I believe it could have been better.

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  6. Death on the Nile was possibly less successful, particularly with some of the changes to the minor characters, but nonetheless among the better episodes of the entire series.

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About Me

I'm a passionate fan of Poirot, Agatha Christie and the ITV series. If you have any questions, comments, suggestions or requests, please e-mail me at poirotchronology@gmail.com, post a comment on one of my blogs, or get in touch on Twitter @pchronology. (I used to call myself HickoryDickory)