A few weeks ago, I wrote about John Moffatt’s outstanding radio show, in which he played Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. I think it is, and will remain, unsurpassed. Today, we’re going to go back and look at the first radio series starring the fussy little Belgian detective.
By 1944, there had been a few radio appearances featuring Poirot. Including a production by Orson Welles, starring Orson Welles, for Orson Welles’ radio show. (It’s all about Orson). I’ll write about that one later. Sam Spade, Sherlock Holmes, Charlie Chan, Ellery Queen, Philip Marlowe, The Falcon: detectives were popular radio fare. And an American actor and entertainment entrepreneur by the name of Harold Huber, set out to add Agatha Christie’s famous creation as a regular attraction of the airwaves.
Huber obtained the rights to Poirot for an American radio show. Agatha Christie’s Poirot debuted on February 2, 1945, featuring a live introduction from Christie, across the sea. Except, after about thirty seconds of silence, the announcer for the Mutual Broadcasting System explained that atmospheric conditions prevented the connection. MBS did have the foresight to record a short-wave transmission from Christie earlier that day, and played that in place of her live appearance. Having Christie explain that Poirot was busy, so she would introduce the series, was a pretty neat move in those times LONG before cell phones and podcasts.
The weekly show ran for one year, with Huber starring in fifty-one, 30-minute programs. I am only aware of nineteen known titles. And sadly, I’ve only managed to find nine extant episodes. It would certainly be nice if at least half of the missing shows could be located somewhere.
There were two further versions of the series, but as those are among the missing episodes, I’ll mention those after we look at the initial show. The scripts were original stories and not based on Christie’s writings. Since the show was ‘Americanized’ that’s not terribly surprising. Of course, it’s possible rights to the stories would have cost Huber more money. Although, more on one ‘adaptation’ in a bit.
In the premiere, The Careless Victim, Poirot is looking for an apartment. An apartment in New York City, that is! Captain Hastings, Inspector Japp, Miss Lemon, and the other recurring characters in the stories didn’t make the ocean voyage, apparently. Inspector Stevens would serve as the police department’s primary character. Poirot makes the acquaintance of a Miss Abigail Thresher, at the same time he finds a body. He finds her intriguing, and she becomes his assistant at the end of the first show, filling the Hastings and Lemon roles. She’s kind of a feisty older lady, and she calls Poirot ‘chief.’
It’s not Canon, obviously. But it works. Poirot doesn’t go to Flatbush and fake a Brooklyn accent. Poirot still acts like Poirot. You don’t get Poirot at a country estate. Or walking through the mews. But I still feel like it’s Poirot while I listen to an episode. And that’s the point.
And what about Huber as Poirot? I’m a big Nero Wolfe fan. It took almost fifty years for a decent radio Wolfe. And that was a Canadian production starring Maver Moore. To this day, it’s not particularly well known. A few early attempts, including one starring Sidney Greenstreet (whose Wolfe was more Casper Gutman more than Rex Stout’s printed version), bore little resemblance to the character.
Such was not the case with Poirot. Huber’s impersonation would be the standard until the big screen productions of the seventies (and I think Huber is much better than Albert Finney). His accent is spot on, and he conveys well the detective’s mannerisms and amusing ego. Listening to Huber is listening to Poirot, for me.
Rendezvous With Death aired on July 12, 1945. Frankly, it’s Death on the Nile, relocated to a cruise boat on the Great Lakes! Linette is Linda, while Jackie and Simon retained their names. The trio are enmeshed in the same tangled skein as they are in one of Christie’s most famous novels. Jackie gets Simon a job at Linda’s estate, and she shortly thereafter is the woman scorned. Poirot makes some insightful observations that give a hint what’s coming.
They all end up on the cruise, and if you’ve seen Death on the Nile, you know how it plays out. Christie certainly deserved a writing credit on this one! The other existing episodes bear no resemblance to any of the original stories. I don’t know who played Jackie, but she had a real Kay Francis thing going on. She’s good.
One has to admire Huber, who secured the rights, created the show, produced it, and starred as Poirot. I’m certainly impressed. Unfortunately, while the series was going on, issues over writing credits and payments worked all the way up to the New York Supreme Court.
The show moved over to the CBS network, sponsored by Proctor & Gamble, as Mystery of the Week. It was only broadcast in limited distribution, and it switched to a fifteen minute, five days-a-week format, telling one story a week. It ran from April 1 through August 2, 1946, for eighteen stories. This I do not know the name of even one episode from this incarnation.
The third and final version of Huber’s first aired on August 19, 1946. It was still on CBS, and it was still Mystery of the Week; but this time, it played on the entire CBS network. Retaining the five days format, it ran until November 21, 1947.
The show was replaced by Beulah, starring Hattie McDaniel. So, Huber made 51 half-hour episodes, and 77 more hour-long episodes. That is a pretty impressive contribution to the Poirot legacy; and even more in that it marks the effective beginning of the detective’s radio catalog. I find the nine episodes quite enjoyable to listen to. They are not as good – and certainly nowhere near as authentic – as John Moffatt’s Poirot shows – but they’re fun, short, listens. I’d quite like to hear more.
Harold Huberman was born in the Bronx and graduated from NYU in 1929. He went to Columbia Law School, but gave up that pursuit to become an actor, shortening his last name. Huber played the shifty-looking Arthur Nunheim in The Thin Man, and had various roles in the Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto movies. He died during a surgery at the age of fifty.
The early Nero Wolfes starring Santos Ortego, Francis Bushman, and Sidney Greenstreet, are forgettable. In the nineteen forties, Poirot fans got over a hundred episodes of a good series, with a solid Poirot. Maybe not authentic stories, but they worked, and remained listenable over the years. With less than ten percent of the shows still around today, we can only hope that someone puts their little gray cells to work and discovers some more.
Prior Poirot Posts (PPP!)
Bob Byrne’s ‘A (Black) Gat in the Hand’ made it’s Black Gate debut in the summer of 2018 and returned in 2019 and 2020. Bet on a 2021 sighting.
His ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ column ran every Monday morning at Black Gate from March, 2014 through March, 2017. And he irregularly posts on Rex Stout’s gargantuan detective in ‘Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone.’
He organized ‘Hither Came Conan,’ as well as Black Gate’s award-nominated ‘Discovering Robert E. Howard’ series.
He is a member of the Praed Street Irregulars, founded www.SolarPons.com (the only website dedicated to the ‘Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street’) and blogs about Holmes and other mystery matters at Almost Holmes.
He has contributed stories to The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories – Parts III, IV, V, VI and XXI.
He has written introductions for Steeger Books, and appeared in several magazines, including Black Mask, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, The Strand Magazine, and Sherlock Magazine.