Second only to Sherlock Holmes, the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is the world's most famous fictional sleuth... and when it comes to film or television adaptations of the character, as far as I'm concerned, David Suchet is Hercule Poirot. And if, like me, you're very fond of the quirky detective who puts his highly vaunted "little gray cells" to work to solve even the most baffling of crimes, you'll be glad to get your hands on The Classic Collection, with all 36 of the shorter (50-minute) episodes from Agatha Christie's Poirot.
In the role of the title character, Suchet has a lot of weight to carry, but he pulls it off in style, giving us a portrayal of Christie's famous detective that's complex and very human. We can laugh at his eccentricities, but at the same time we never lose sight of his keen interest in humanity and passion for justice (as well as his perfectionist's compulsion to figure everything out). What's perhaps most impressive is that Suchet makes Poirot's tremendous intellect entirely believable as well.
Suchet's spot-on performances are showcased to their best effect in Poirot. To start with, the series always looked stunning, with its lavish "Art Deco" period settings in everything from fashion to cars to architecture. While some mystery shows (including some adaptations of Poirot stories) take place in a vaguely timeless period, Poirot stakes out a well-defined territory in terms of setting, and the payoff is in a greater sense of depth as well as greater visual appeal.
The stories themselves are, of course, at the heart of the appeal of Poirot. While the feature-length Poirot mysteries focused on adapting Christie's novels, the 50-minute episodes used Christie's short stories. I'd say that these shorter episodes are almost always stronger than the feature-length ones; with a shorter running time to work with, we generally get tighter pacing, so that the stories pack more punch. The writers of the Poirot episodes – and by that I mean the writers who adapted Christie's original stories, of course – handle the material very well, and in many cases the scripts for the Poirot episodes are stronger than the original stories. (Heresy, perhaps, but it's true that in addition to the more polished, famous novels and stories, Christie also tossed off any number of quick or incomplete stories.)
One of the best decisions in the creation of Poirot was to add in a touch of continuity that was lacking in Christie's original stories. Captain Hastings was in a number of the original stories, but he wasn't the ongoing companion to Poirot that he is here. Similarly, Inspector Japp and Miss Lemon had incidental roles in the source material, but in Poirot they're given a consistent place in the series. These characters (ably played by Hugh Fraser, Philip Jackson, and Pauline Moran) help provide a more human context for Poirot, and allow for a nice ongoing touch of humor related to the various quirks of all the characters. There's also the fact – not to be overlooked – that Captain Hastings, Inspector Japp, and Miss Lemon are able to step into various roles necessary for the plot of any given mystery (the police liaison, the helpful assistant, and so on) that otherwise would need to be filled by a newly introduced character. Given that one of the challenges of any mystery series is to not overwhelm the viewer with too many new names and faces, it's very sensible to make use of established secondary characters to do some of the legwork. And it pays off: as a general rule, the Poirot episodes handle the cast of suspects and victims very nicely, so that the viewer is always able to keep track of who's who and who might have done something suspicious.
The icing on the cake is that viewers were treated to such a long run of Agatha Christie's Poirot: starting in 1989, the series would produce 36 50-minute episodes plus a generous number of "feature-length" episodes. While all the episodes had been previously released on DVD, the shorter episodes were spread across an unwieldy 12 separate volumes. The Classic Collection pulls all of the 50-minute episodes together into one gigantic (and much more convenient) set. Across the multiple seasons of Poirot, the quality is remarkably consistent; if you enjoy one set of Poirot episodes, chances are extremely high that you'll enjoy them all, so why not indulge in the whole set at once?
The only thing I'd have wished for in this set was for the episodes to be re-organized by original air date; as it is, the ordering of the 12 volumes shuffles up the episodes in peculiar ways. Granted, each Poirot episode stands perfectly well on its own, but it's still nice to see them in order. With that in mind, I've listed the episodes included here in air date order, with the volume number from the DVD set listed afterwards. (If you want to approximate air date order, but don't want to hop around in the middle of discs, you can get almost-perfect order by rearranging the discs in the set as follows: 10-12, then 1-9.)
Series 1: (1989)
Adventure of the Clapham Cook (Set 9)
Series 2: (1990)
Veiled Lady (Set 1)
Series 3: (1990-1991)
Does Your Garden Grow? (Set 3)
Series 5: (1993)
Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb (Set 7)
I'm delighted with the packaging for this set, as it's attractive, durable, and highly compact; it's certainly vastly better than the space-hogging individual keepcases of the previous, individually released sets. The 12 discs are packaged in a compact "book" of hard plastic pages, (with a hard plastic front and back cover as well) and is only 1 1/2 inches wide. What's more, the book is made with actual hinges rather than just having the pages attached to a cardboard backing, so no matter how often it's handled, it won't come apart. This book slides into a glossy paperboard slipcase as well.
The image quality here is never outstanding, but the episodes are all watchable (as long as you're willing to be a bit forgiving with some of them). There's always a fairly soft appearance to the episodes, and some grain is always present, but this isn't much of an issue. The episodes on Discs 3, 4, 5, 6, and 12 are on the not-so-good end of the spectrum, looking generally washed-out and faded, with some excessive contrast added to the mix in Disc 6. Discs 1 and 2 are more respectable, if not impressive. The set finishes up more competently with Discs 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11 all looking perfectly fine. Overall, I found myself always wishing that the episodes looked cleaner, but they're watchable. All are presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack gets the job done, with the dialogue presented cleanly and clearly. The catchy theme music is handled nicely as well.
There's not a whole lot of extra material on any of the discs. For the most part, they all have some text information on Agatha Christie and David Suchet, along with cast filmographies and a Christie bibliography. Disc 1 also has text information on the character of Poirot; Disc 2 has information on Captain Hastings; Disc 3 has information on Inspector Japp; and Disc 5 has some information about the Art Deco style.
Agatha Christie's Poirot is without a doubt one of the best and most memorable British mystery series. The Classic Collection brings together all 36 of the 50-minute episodes, which I consider to be the optimal length for the series, in one nicely compact set. While the image quality isn't great, it's watchable, and the quality of the stories themselves makes up for it in spades. Any mystery lover who hasn't already stocked the shelves with the Poirot episodes will definitely want to add this classy set to their collection. Highly recommended.