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Adieu to Two Super Sleuths

September 02, 1996|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Mon Dieu!

Good things don't have to end, but frequently do. So PBS says that this will be the final season for Hercule Poirot on "Mystery!"

The first-run finale for Agatha Christie's Belgian brain, played with such persnickety elegance by David Suchet, will come in two stages. New Poirot mysteries arrive Oct. 31 and Nov. 14, then come reruns of older Poirots through Christmas. Actually, London Weekend Television has already stopped making Poirot mysteries, and the new ones coming to PBS previously aired in Britain.

From those little waxed bat wings riding his upper lip to his gleaming shoe tops, Poirot has been spectacular fun, a stylish period triumph for Suchet. After eight years of mincing his steps as Poirot through 45 separate mysteries, though, Suchet couldn't be blamed for wanting to yank the plug, just as Christie herself ultimately did when dispatching her most famous creation (sorry, Miss Marple) to the great beyond for smug, infallible know-it-alls.

Was it Suchet who wanted out? A spokesperson for Boston's WGBH-TV, producer and host station for "Mystery!," couldn't say for sure, adding that Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of "Mystery!," would be unable to speak about it because she would be on the phone all day to London, as she was said to be the last time The Times called requesting a chat with her.

Does Eaton ever get off the phone from London to take even a coffee break? Ah, that's a mystery.

In any case, post-PBS reruns of Poirot are also available from time to time on cable's A&E network as part of its Monday night "Agatha Christie Mysteries" series.

When it comes to eulogies for Brit-bred sleuths who have raised the wattage of American TV, though, none deserves more praise than Granada Television's great oval blob, Eddie Fitzgerald, the utterly debauched but brilliant police psychologist of "Cracker," a series of programs whose own life in first run ends with Tuesday's exciting windup in A&E's weekly "Mystery Movie" slot.

It's a beaut, driven by another volcanic performance from superb Robbie Coltrane as Fitz, among the most flawed and troubled heroes ever to hit TV here. You'd have to be Beavis or Butt-head not to notice Coltrane's tormented Fitz melting the screen.

"Cracker" is the creation of Jimmy McGovern, who dug through more dark turf in writing the provocative 1994 film "Priest." But Coltrane has said that he was the one who wanted "Cracker" to end after its run of two seasons, even though he did recently complete a feature-length "Cracker" set in Hong Kong that A&E plans to air in 1997.

Fitz and Poirot occupy different solar systems as well as eras: passion versus discipline, hot circuitry versus detachment, rumpled versus creased pinstripes. Whereas Poirot is fanatically impeccable and operates within rigid, clearly defined contours of personal and professional conduct, Fitz and his life are an unmade bed. He's a blizzard of excesses--overdrinking, overeating, oversmoking and overgambling his way through a life of pandemonium that his wife, Judith (Barbara Flynn), despises but usually endures with amazing stoicism.

In one "Cracker," he stole from her to bet at the track. He loves his kids but is impatient and inattentive. He's also a tenacious philanderer, and in this final "Cracker" is bent on reconciling not with his wife but with his ex-lover, the alluring Det. Penhaligon (Geraldine Somerville).

Meanwhile, Judith, who deserves much better, appears to be finding it in the company of Fitz's warm and understanding brother.

In Britain, "cracker" describes someone exceptional as well as someone who is more than a bit daft. Both fit Fitz. There's never been a more interesting crime solver on TV. And through it all, he's somehow a sympathetic bloke you pull for, a tribute to Coltrane's ability to locate the tender spots deep within his nature.

The final act for "Cracker" the series finds Fitz typically rising formidably above his personal turmoil to nail a murderer, but not without suffering gaping wounds. This time he's getting anonymous love letters from a disturbed young woman (Emily Joyce) who is bumping off his male psychology students as a way of gaining his attention.

Often buckling somewhere along the line, "Cracker" scripts are rarely as good as "Cracker" performances. Yet thanks in part to its shaping by director Mark Fywell ("A Dark Adapted Eye"), this one from Paul Abbott is an exception, its cerebral intensity building to a suspenseful crescendo in which Joyce and Coltrane, finally face to face as predator and prey, are electrifying together.

Poirot has his loyal Hastings. On another level, Fitz has Judith, the resolution of murder cases on "Cracker" never eclipsing the volatile mingling of its protagonist's personal and professional lives.

Although it didn't figure that Abbott would be transforming Fitz and his wife into Robert Young and Jane Wyatt, it did seem possible that, in the manner of U.S. television, things would get tidied up just a bit at the end of this last go-round, that softness would somehow surface among the demons.

But the best of the Brits do things differently. So instead, "Cracker" bows out true to itself and its characters, aches still aching, loose ends still dangling--a human condition that Agatha Christie's fastidious Hercule Poirot would never tolerate.

* "Cracker" airs Tuesday at 6 and 10 p.m. on A&E.

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