Shiny Shelf

Poirot: Five Little Pigs

By Mags L Halliday on 17 December 2003

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

TV loves a detective and ITV love a flagship detective even more. With ‘Cracker’ having finally cracked and ‘Inspector Morse’ driven off to some celestial sleeping spires, they’ve shaken the dust off another old favourite, ‘Poirot’. The quality of work put into this new series is undeniable. Technically it is faultless but there’s one main problem. Agatha Christie can’t plot her way out of a railway carriage.

There are four female writers who, rather infatuated with Sherlock Holmes, created the set of detectives who tend to be known as the British Golden Age. Whilst Chandler was getting a man to walk through the door with a gun over in America, Dorothy L Sayers created Lord Peter Wimsy, gentleman sleuth. Allingham created Campion, adventurer. Ngaio Marsh created Roderick Alleyn, one of the first British police procedural series. And Christie gave us Poirot, smug Belgian. Television has given each of the characters beautiful casting – who else but Brian Glover could have been Campion’s thuggish yet loyal Lugg? – as it has done with Miss Marple, Morse and Sherlock Holmes. What it cannot do is redeem the plots of Christie’s novels. At least it saves us from the leaden prose. Er…yes…I have worked through the entire “classic crime” section at my local library.

‘Five Little Pigs’ concerns the desire of a woman to discover if her mother, who was convicted and executed, really did kill her father sixteen years before. Poirot visits the remaining five people who had been at the country house that murderous summer and takes their statements. He then gathers them all together in the lounge of the old house to reveal the whodunnit. The trouble is the stereotyping: the femme fatale, the embittered love rival, the ineffectual bookish man, the emotional girl and the lovelorn spinster. As ever, the revelation relies on Poirot pulling a fast one on the reader/viewer: he has some knowledge which has been witheld from us and which enables him to make a deductive leap. This actually goes against the grain: a good detective story should provide the reader/viewer with the necessary clues, but effectively distract you towards a red herring solution. Christie’s habit of privileging her detective is utterly irritating and a major failing of her work.

The worst thing about this is that the banality of the plot reminds you that Poirot is essentially heritage porn, eye candy for nostlagists. It revels in the mythical past of England and the camera lingers lovingly on shots of a land of Eden, the countryside impossibly beautiful and idyllic. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the long slow detective stories tend to be broadcast in the midst of winter, feeding into our idea of a sunnier time. This infatuation with a imaginary past is highlighted in this episode. Poirot’s investigation takes place in a muted mid-WW2 London, all murky grey-browns and locked cameras, whilst the flashback sequences are soft-focus, brightly lit, moving cameras and impossibly pretty. It is inescapably well-made.

The cast is spot on. David Suchet continues to shuffle forward and throw in the odd piece of French to remind us Poirot is Belgian. The casting seems deliberately to play with the idea of queering the text, by casting two people known for outraging ‘Daily Mail’ readers (Rachel Stirling and Aiden Gillen) but the moments suggesting this seem too loudly signalled and a bit too obvious for plausibility. Stirling (‘Tipping the Velvet’), of whom I have been scathing in the past, was much better in the role of the executed murderess – injecting emotion into her dark eyes at last. Gillen (‘Queer As Folk’) plays the caddish murdered husband with his usual sly sexual charm. Patrick Malahide (‘Inspector Alleyn Mysteries’), an actor who really should be utilised more often, and Marc Warren (‘State of Play’) support as two of the survivors.

‘Poirot: Five Little Pigs’ looks divine, is well acted and is a fine addition to the terribly slow-moving genre of classic British detective television. You can’t fault the production, except for the rigid adherence to a poor piece of storytelling.

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