The Perils of Prime Time
About this time last year I was rooting round in bookshops for some reading matter to take into hospital with me, and came across David Suchet’s autobiography, ‘Poirot and Me.’ I met David Suchet at a party some years ago, and was able to say to him, ‘You’ve been in something of mine.’ The film was an adaptation I had written of the Agatha Christie short story ‘Triangle at Rhodes,’ and was in the first series of his forty or so outings as Poirot. I hadn’t been invited to the shoot so hadn’t met ‘my’ leading actor for once. I was used to single plays and films at the BBC and, indeed, having a say in the casting, so this was unusual. But this was ITV. It was Primetime, and I was a - dispensable - part of the machine. I also, incidentally, missed meeting Angela Down, a favourite actress of mine, cast (if I remember right) in the role of murderer.
Picking up Suchet’s book, I went to the index. There, indeed, was ‘Triangle at Rhodes’ and I looked up the pages. ‘Triangle at Rhodes,’ it told me, won the New York TV and Film Critics award for best drama – which, over twenty years on, was news to me. I hadn’t been told. I had fallen out with the producer, which probably partly explains my never meeting Suchet, Angela Down, or visiting the shoot, which would have been welcome– the Greek island of Rhodes off the Turkish Coast. I had sat in London for a month one winter, fleshing out the script with the help of a guidebook to the island. I submitted my first draft, and received a phone call back within a day or so – certainly pretty pronto:
‘Thank you for the material, Stephen.’ (‘Material?’) ‘But the murder has to come before the first advertising break.’
‘But in the story,’ I said, ‘the murder is right at the end of the tale, and the point is Poirot can’t prevent it.’
‘Nonetheless, the murder has to come much, much earlier. This isn’t BBC2 (my main previous stomping ground). This is ITV. This is Primetime.’
There was, of course, a format to these Poirots – though one that Agatha Christie herself hadn’t felt inhibited by. The original story may well have been the most cleverly plotted twenty pages I had ever come across, one in which she pulls the wool over our eyes as well, in that the murder and the victim aren’t what we are expecting. Poirot is on the ball all right: it’s we who have been fooled and allowed to draw our own – wrong – conclusions.
The producer and I settled, finally – he very reluctantly - for the murder coming before the second advertising break, which meant I had twenty minutes or so to make up: ‘to fill the stage with happy hours’ is the way I thought about it till recently. I had been on holiday to the Greek islands and concocted a strand about the poisoning element of the original story, bringing in a young girl, based on a very vital daughter of the house where I had stayed in Greece, to animate (nice Greek based word) things a bit. When the film went out – Sunday night ITV/Primetime – I couldn’t watch. I felt I had let Christie down and the piece lacked soul or integrity. (She thought, I learnt later, that ‘Triangle at Rhodes’ was her best work, and re-used the plot in a later novel). But that was it for me as a ‘commercial’ writer. I was offered an Inspector Morse shortly afterwards and turned it down, almost certainly mistakenly. I never saw the producer again, but happily accepted the considerable residuals that have accumulated over the years. A hell of a lot of money had been thrown at the episode, which may well explain its winning the Film Critics Award rather than my own script writing abilities.
Eighteen months ago, beginning to succumb to the problems that would lead me to hospital, I noticed Poirot was being re-shown on ITV4, a Friday evening – and I was tired. It was five minutes past the start time but I had the extraordinary intuition that this was my episode. It was, though it took me a few further minutes of viewing to safely establish the fact. And, as I settled to watch this near forgotten episode I realised I didn’t dislike it – as we used to say up North – even my 20 minute climax and coda. There is one rider to this sorry saga of me as !Primetime! writer. I wrote a play about five years ago about Shakespeare for Radio 3, ‘The Pattern of Painful Adventures’. Anthony Sher was a brilliant lead actor but the BBC obviously thought the play needed a further boost, and I heard, to my surprise, the announcer describe me in the introductory link, as ‘an award winning writer.’ Now, so far I knew, I hadn’t won a prize since Speech Day when I was School Captain. I rang up the director the following day. ‘What’s this about my being an award winning writer?’ ‘Oh, I thought you were,’ he said, adding, kindly ‘You ought to be.’ Well, I was. I am – just didn’t know it, that’s all.