Murder and management: Agatha Christie’s family business
Mathew Pritchard talks about his grandmother, her estate and the definitive Poirot
A young Mathew Pritchard with his grandmother Agatha Christie
Mathew Pritchard as he is now
Jason Durr as Poirot in ‘Black Coffee’
Hardy a week goes by that Mathew Pritchard does not think about his grandmother Agatha Christie, as he deals with the literary estate that she left behind.
For hundreds of millions, Christie is the woman who created the Jane Marple and Hercule Poirot detective novels, which still sell more than a million copies, in dozens of languages, around the world every year.
The Guinness Book of Records ranks Christie as the best-selling novelist of all time: her tally of two billion copies in 103 languages puts her behind only the Bible and William Shakespeare. One novel, And Then There Were None, has sold some 100 million copies.
Christie’s philosophy was simple, says Pritchard. “Her sole objective was to entertain. She didn’t want to educate, she didn’t want to change their lives. She just wanted to make people’s lives better for a short period, whether they were in hospital, travelling or just sitting at home.”
Next week, Black Coffee, the only Christie play to feature Hercule Poirot, comes to the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in Dublin for its first revival in 40 years. The production stars Jason Durr, probably best known for his role in TV’s Heartbeat.
Asked about his relationship with Christie, Pritchard, sitting in his office in London, momentarily forgets how long she has been dead. “Not 40 years, no 30. Hang on a minute, it is nearly 40. Good Lord.
“I hardly ever thought of her as anything other than a very lovely grandmother who was always more interested in what I was doing than what she was doing. I have always said to everybody that she was the best listener that I ever met,” he says.
The Christie estate
Pritchard is in charge of Christie’s estate, having taken over from his mother, Rosalind, who died in 2004. “I am a sort of glorified brand manager. I am the one to say whether something is good for the Agatha Christie brand.
“Sometimes it is uncomfortable, because 40 years ago the literature and entertainment world was very different to what it is now,” he says, pointing to the release soon of a new Poirot novel, The Monogram Murders, written by Sophie Hannah. “What would she have thought of that? In some ways it is a meaningless question, because she didn’t think that she would be achieving the popularity and success that she is nearly 40 years after she died,” he says.
Such “continuation” novels are commonplace today, even if Pritchard’s more conservative mother might have recoiled. “We were told that if we did one of these, the backlist would retain its popularity much longer,” he says.
Pritchard does not share some of his mother’s aversions to commercialisation, either: the official Agatha Christie website now sells games for PC and tablet based on Dead Man’s Folly, 4.50 from Paddington and Peril At End House.
The Monogram Murders, a novel in which Poirot’s enjoyment of a supper in a London coffee house is interrupted by a woman who tells him that she is about to be murdered, is “terrific”, he says. It will be published in September.
Suchet so good
Christie created Hercule Poirot in 1920. Although she tired of him, the character has remained popular, particularly on the back of David Suchet’s TV portrayal over the past 25 years, which ended recently.
Suchet is now synonymous with the role, although his selection at the beginning was “not quite so obvious”, says Pritchard. “I think he is the definitive Poirot,” he adds. “I don’t think anybody will ever reproduce what my grandmother meant by Poirot on the screen like David does.”
However, that does not mean that the character must remain in aspic.
Pritchard remembers a journey from the theatre with his grandmother in the early 1960s, after both had watched a Royal Shakespeare Company performance of King Lear. “Paul Scofield had played King Lear that night. I remember my grandmother saying to me on my way home, ‘You will never, ever see King Lear played better than that, but you will see it played by other people.’
“Jason Durr is doing Poirot now on stage. The big characters, like Poirot and Marple, will always attract people who want to put their stamp on it. I don’t think even David thinks that he has killed the market.”
If Suchet is responsible for the definitive TV portrayal of Poirot, then the 1974 film of Murder on the Orient Express is the definitive big-screen portrayal of the Belgian detective, although it almost didn’t happen. Producer John Brabourne had tried for years to get the rights, only to be fended off by Christie’s agent, who told him to look at lesser-known works in her canon before they would consider giving him the jewel in the crown.
In the end Brabourne sidestepped the agent. “He looked up [Christie’s] number in the book and rang her up. She went to tea with him and said, ‘Why do you want to do it?’ He looked at her rather pathetically and said, ‘Well, I like trains’.”
The film, which starred Albert Finney, “was a complete watershed”, says Pritchard. “Although my grandmother wrote wonderful books and wonderful plays, the big noises in Hollywood and London didn’t really rate her as somebody who would make people go to the cinema.”
In two years, Murder on the Orient Express will return to the big screen in an adaptation by Ridley Scott. The Christie estate will be hoping it attacts a new generation of fans.
Black Coffee is at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre until Saturday