Friday, 18 January 2019

Performers Wanted for Live Poetry Special

Want to perform your poetry on the radio?

On Saturday 23rd February, Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM will be hosting a live poetry special. I’d like to invite poets and spoken word performers to come along and perform their work on the show.

The Hannah’s Bookshelf Live Poetry Special will be going out live from the studio in Harpurhey, North Manchester at 2-4pm. It will be broadcast on 106.6FM (in the North Manchester area) and online (for the rest of the world). Performance slots are 6 minutes long.

Whether you’re a veteran performer or new to reading your work, I’d love to hear from you. Drop me a line via email, tweet me or message me on Facebook if you’d like to perform. Slots will be allocated on a first-come-first-served basis.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Game Review: Mystery Case Files: The Countess Collector’s Edition (first play)

Developer: Eipix Entertainment
Publisher: Big Fish Games
Original Release Date: 21st November 2018
Platform: PC

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I am a big fan of the Mystery Case Files series. Or rather, I’m a big fan of the Ravenhearst arc within the MCF series – though I enjoyed the two Dire Grove games, and I like going back to Huntsville occasionally for something lighter. I’m not quite at the stage of writing Charles Dalimar fan fic, but I will admit to getting really quite invested in the Ravenhearst story. My favourite Mystery Case Files games are Fate’s Carnival (for the mind-boggling detail and complexity of the gameplay) and Escape from Ravenhearst (which is a truly bizarre and disturbing experience, even if it does have some problems when it comes to gameplay). It’s fair to say that no HOPAs have come close to those two games for me, though I live in hope.

Nevertheless, Mystery Case Files has been something of a disappointment for me since Dire Grove, Sacred Grove – and since Eipix took over the development. I’m still hoping that we can just do a Highlander 2 on Key to Ravenhearst and Ravenhearst Unlocked, because these were just terrible (and inconsistent) instalments of the story. Broken Hour and The Black Veil (non-Ravenhearst games) were okay, but they lacked the magic of the earlier games. I decided to give Mystery Case Files: The Countess a try, since I can’t quite let go of my Master Detective badge yet. I knew it wasn’t going to be another Fate’s Carnival, but I thought it might at least be better than Ravenhearst Unlocked! And I was right… The Countess is somewhere in between.

You play – once again – as a Master Detective, though it’s not clear whether you’re the same detective who had the run-ins with Charles Dalimar and his dad. The game begins with a short intro scene, setting up a story about a creepy mirror and the thing that lives inside it. You then hear a message from the queen (on a tape recorder this time, not the phone) giving you your mission. Lady Eleanor Coddington has disappeared while renovating her ancestral estate, once the home of children’s author Gloria Coddington (Eleanor’s grandmother, you’re told). When you arrive at the estate, it’s closed off, crumbling and massively creepy (as with most of the Mystery Case Files games, this one goes for the Gothic aesthetic).

Early on in the game (and highlighted in the intro scene), you discover that a large black mirror has some significance, and that there is a supernatural creature residing within it who is most likely responsible for the dark goings-on. Your main objective is to find and rescue Eleanor, but this is wrapped up in a quest to uncover the truth about Gloria, the mirror and the sinister force at work in the manor. To be honest, it’s not the most original storyline for a HOPA, and there are few twists or surprises as things unfold. Rescue the girl, defeat the demon, leave the house.

This is a haunted house game, and it’s very much in the expected style. The colour palette is dark, though I didn’t find scenes too dark to identify objects. As with the other Eipix MCF games, there are some great bits of illustration here – the creature in the mirror is particularly well-done – but there are some fairly bland elements too. NPCs are illustrated but not always fully animated, though they are a big step up from the cartoonish characters in Key to Ravenhearst and Ravenhearst Unlocked. The cutscenes are well done and integrated into the gameplay without being too jarring. There’s also a nice scene in a ballroom that reminded me a bit of Escape from Ravenhearst – though it’s much less unsettling (obvs).

In terms of design though, there were a couple of things that frustrated me as a Mystery Case Files fan. I missed the visual nods to other games in the series (unless I didn’t spot them first time round) – a Madame Fate bobblehead here, a 13th Skull decoration there. The music also annoyed me. It’s almost the Mystery Case Files theme (I was going to say ‘iconic’ theme, but I’m not sure the games are well-enough known for me to make that claim), but the refrain is never quite finished. Key to Ravenhearst/Ravenhearst Unlocked played the same trick – the first few notes are played, but it’s not quite the full theme. If I wasn’t expecting my beloved MCF theme, I would’ve said that the music was good – it’s atmospheric and evocative, and it doesn’t loop too much. In a way, the music is illustrative of the game as a whole… it’s almost recognizable as Mystery Case Files, but stops just short of being satisfying.

This is a fairly straightforward HOPA – you move from room to room, putting stuff in your inventory, using stuff from your inventory, and finding mini-games and HOGs as you go. There are some ‘plus items’ (where you have to do something or add something to an item in your inventory), which some people like but I find a bit irritating to be honest. There’s also an interactive jump map in the game. I try and avoid using jump maps – it draws you out of the story if you start teleporting between rooms – but this means that I end up having a bit of back and forth at times. However, The Countess does have another feature that I do like, and that’s the closing off of rooms after you’ve finished a chapter. That’s done reasonably seamlessly here – something happens within the story that makes it plausibly impossible for you to return to your previous location.

There’s a range of mini-games here, some of which are really tricky. I played on Custom difficulty mode (and I do like games where you can customize difficulty), so I had a slow recharge on Hint and Skip. I did still have to use both though, as some of the mini-games were really hard (and some needed lots of fiddly clicking, which I don’t enjoy). There are some almost ‘Super Puzzles’ here – where you have to complete a series of small puzzles in order – but they’re a shadow of Fate’s Carnival’s Rube Goldberg games.

Puzzles aside, I found the gameplay a bit frustrating. The progression from one task to the next wasn’t always logical – I felt like I was mostly wandering in and out of rooms checking them out, rather than consistently searching for Eleanor (who I occasionally forgot all about). Items from the inventory weren’t always used in a logical way either. Often, the what, why and where were unclear, and I had to resort to guesswork and random tries. Towards the end of the game – and I don’t know if this was just because I was tired – I found it less and less obvious what I had to do next, and so I reluctantly resorted to Hint (I even used the jump map a couple of times – shock, horror!).

Obviously, I’m tempted to say that the characters are also a shadow of former instalments. That probably wouldn’t be fair though, as the Ravenhearst arc is a bit of an outlier when it comes to HOPA characters – no game is ever going to come close to creating a character like Charles Dalimar. The Countess gives us some standard fare: the first-person PC is an undifferentiated Master Detective, and the adversary is a demonic creature that we see, but don’t really interact with. There are a couple of other NPCs, with whom you have a little bit of interaction, but most of the characters’ backstory is revealed through cutscenes. An interesting storyline emerges about one of the characters (which isn’t too difficult to guess, but apparently comes as a surprise within the game), which does add a little bit of depth to the story. However, I found it difficult to get really invested in the characters.

I played the CE for this one, and there were a few extras with it. There’s a bonus chapter – which, to be honest, left me a little confused by its ending (you’ll know what I mean if you’ve played it). The CE also has collectibles – the now-ubiquitous but totally pointless morphing objects, and mirror shards – but there’s no endgame with these collectibles, so sadly nothing happens if you get all the pieces of the mirror. There are, however, achievements – and the CE has replays on the HOGs and mini-games, so you can make sure you’ve achieved all you want from a single play-through.

Overall, this is a decent game. On Custom difficulty (no sparkle-indicators, slow recharge on Hint and Skip, minimal black bar instructions), it took me just over six hours to play through. I did find the illogical progression frustrating towards the end, and the story didn’t massively enthuse me, but I probably will play this one again at some point. The big problem is that, while the game is alright if you treat it as a standalone, it is a Mystery Case Files game. But it’s just not Ravenhearst.

Saturday, 12 January 2019

Game Review: Abyss: The Wraiths of Eden Collector’s Edition (replay)

Developer: Artifex Mundi
Original Release Date: 29th October 2012
Platform: PC

I thought I’d try something new this year – let’s see how it goes. I’ve been playing Hidden Object Puzzle Adventure games for a while now, though admittedly I’m about as casual as a casual gamer can get (and I very rarely play other types of game). I really do love these games, and like everything I love I do tend to have a lot of thoughts about them. Last year, I wrote an academic paper on HOPAs for the 2018 IGA conference, and I’m intending to expand on that work later in the year. But I have a lot of (less academic, more fan) thoughts as well.

A couple of things I guess I should say… I really don’t play other types of games, so all these reviews will be of HOPAs. And I don’t get chance to play very often, so it might be that I’ll only write a couple of reviews this year. When I do play, I tend to get very immersed and focused (because I play these games when I need a complete distraction from everything), and so I usually play an entire game in one sitting. And I often get way more invested in the storyline and characters than is strictly warranted by a point-and-click hidden object puzzle. It’s quite possible that these will turn out to be ‘blog posts about games’ rather than ‘reviews of games’, to be honest.

That said, here are my thoughts about the first game I played this year: Abyss: The Wraiths of Eden Collector’s Edition. Artifex Mundi games were the first HOPAs I played, and the games that got me hooked on the format. I think Abyss was the second one I got, and I’ve played it through several times. (I do replay my favourites – sometimes a lot).

Robert Marceau is a famous diver who disappeared during an expedition. You play as his lover (also a diver), and you’ve undertaken to follow Robert’s tracks and bring him back safely. This background is told in the intro scene – the game begins when you discover the entrance to an underground city (and clues indicating that Robert may be inside). The city is Eden, a once-utopian underground settlement – now apparently abandoned and fallen into ruins. All the indications are that something bad has happened in Eden, and black wraith-like creatures float in and out of view at certain points. Other reviews tell me that this setting is very similar to the city of Rapture in Bioshock, but having not played that game I’ll happily take their word for it.

The wraiths are ‘Legates’, strange figures of evil that swarm around Eden and, it appears, have imprisoned or killed the human population. Something has happened to release or empower these creatures, and your interactions with a couple of members of the human resistance helps you to piece together the story behind the fall of Eden. Although your primary objective is to find and rescue Robert, this becomes entwined with a quest to uncover the truth about what’s going on and free the remaining survivors of the city.

I really like the storyline in this game – perhaps it’s helped by the fact that I’ve never played Bioshock? – as the dystopian vibe is definitely to my taste. The Legates are creepy, and I like the evidence you find of the resistance movement as well. Obviously, given the type of game this is, the story is only lightly sketched out – though Abyss does this better than many – and so much of the background about Eden’s utopian ambitions and failure is suggested rather than spelt out. Abyss is successful in its show-don’t-tell backstory, which is one of the reasons I like it so much.

The game is very much in the typical style of Artifex Mundi’s HOPAs. Scenes are detailed and beautifully illustrated (with some nice little incidental details here and there), and there’s a rich colour palette throughout. The HOGs themselves – though they are kind of the standard ‘junk piles’ – are designed in a way to seem vaguely plausible as the stuff left behind by fleeing inhabitants. NPCs are illustrated (but not cartoonish) and not fully animated, though there are voiceovers and mouth movements when you interact with them. The music is great and atmospheric, but it is quite a short loop so it gets a little repetitive (especially noticeable in the bonus chapter). Overall, it’s a stylish game with some nice effects and detail.

I’m not going to say much about the basic mechanisms of gameplay here, as it’s pretty standard HOPA stuff. You move from room to room, picking up stuff, using things from your inventory, and finding mini-games and HOGs along the way. There are three difficulty modes, but no custom option. I play on Expert, so I don’t have an interactive map or sparkle-indicators (these are available on the other modes though). The mini-games are all fairly straightforward puzzles (Hint and Skip are available with different recharge times depending on difficulty mode), and the HOGs include some interactive ones. The game does include an option to switch from a HOG to a domino game instead, which some players seem to like. I guess it makes a change if you’re tired of junk piles! Most importantly, the puzzles and progression are fairly logical – it’s usually pretty clear what you’re looking for, why you’re looking for it and where you go next. On the whole, the items in your inventory are used in a logical way (so if you find a glass-cutter, you’re likely to need it to cut some glass and not for another more obscure task).

I don’t really have a lot to say about the gameplay for this one, because I mostly want to talk about characters. In fact, there’s a small chance that I only decided to write this post in the first place so I could rant about one of the characters. Because, you see, although the story is great, the design is great, the gameplay is great… Abyss: The Wraiths of Eden has one of the worst characters ever in it. He’s just a bad person, and I need to tell you that. I need to tell you how much I hate Gregory Logain.

HOPAs have a bit of a problem when it comes to non-player characters. These are single-player, first-person games, which revolve around the player-character’s interaction with objects. Even this object interaction requires a bit of suspension of disbelief (easier in some games than others): we have to just accept that we have no equipment to begin with, and that we don’t keep hold of items after we’ve used them. Interaction with people is even trickier – these games just wouldn’t make sense if we were accompanied by a helpful NPC (animal companions notwithstanding), and there’s (almost) no mechanism for dispatching a hostile one (save the ‘kill the boss’ mini-games that usually involve clicking on swirling shapes to counter an attack). Some games get around this by only using NPCs in cutscenes, but others allow for limited interaction – usually cut short by the NPC running away, being abducted or dying before they can offer any material help. Essentially, HOPAs only really work if you’re wandering around an empty landscape on your own.

Abyss, like some other titles, attempts to create more meaningful interactions. And it’s here that it falls short. Most of the members of the resistance you encounter are dead (including one who, worryingly, looks exactly like the baddie in Artifex Mundi’s Enigmatis series), so that’s fine. You run into a couple of helpless children, who ask you to find things to help them, and that’s also fine. But then you meet Gregory Logain, a member of the resistance. Logain is clearly more than capable of looking after himself (since he’s survived this long), and he seems to know the location of various helpful items. But he doesn’t lift a finger to actually do anything. His niece and nephew are imprisoned and injured in a cage, but he insists that you should run around Eden looking for ways to free them, while he sits around in his bunker doing a big think. And there are various useful items in the bunker itself that he’s clearly never bothered to pick up. I’m not going to go through all the interactions you have with Logain (as some of these would be spoilers), but the guy is seriously a waste of space. After a while, it gets really annoying listening to this idiot saying ‘You go and find all the equipment we need, and I’ll wait in the bunker and do a big think.’ Sadly, the game does not allow you to hit him with any items from your inventory (and trust me – I’ve tried them all).

Seriously, he’s a terrible person and I’m surprised he survived as long as he did in Eden. I think the Legates just keep him around for a laugh.

I’ve got the Collector’s Edition of the game, which has some bonus content. However, I’m not sure how many of these extras are specific to the CE – I think most of them are also included in the Standard Edition. There are no collectibles in this game, but there are achievements. You have to play more than once to get all of these, as one requires the completion of all the HOGs and another requires the completion of all the domino games. There’s also a bonus chapter, but this is quite short and a little repetitive.

There is, of course, another massive problem with the bonus chapter. It’s a prequel chapter, which Artifex Mundi have used elsewhere (e.g. Enigmatis: The Ghosts of Maple Creek) and which I normally quite like. The problem here is – and I apologize if this is a bit of a spoiler – your character in the bonus chapter is… Gregory Logain. And I hate that guy. I really do.

Overall, Abyss: The Wraiths of Eden is still one of my favourites. It’s stylish and atmospheric, and it has a decent storyline. The HOGs and mini-games aren’t the most difficult or intricate I’ve played, but they are reasonably logical and intuitive. Even having played several times, I still get around five hours of gameplay each time (on Expert mode).

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

My Year in Books 2018: December

Well... I did it! I stuck to my New Year's Resolution for an entire year! I read loads more novels for pleasure (i.e. in addition to the ones that, while still very pleasurable, I had to read for work, review or my radio show), and I kept up with my short reviews for each one.

And I'll let you into a little secret... while I did say that my reviews were going to be a maximum of 250 words, in fact every single one was exactly 250 words. I didn't intend to do that, but the first one I wrote was dead on 250, and I thought it would be interesting to see how long I could keep that up. It was actually quite a fun exercise (well, my idea of fun anyway), and I might keep going into 2019 with it.

You can read the other Year in Books posts here: January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November

And here's the final list - the books I read in December.

Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon (2018)

Each year, we stay in a cottage in Cornwall for the week before Christmas. As in most holiday cottages, there’s a little shelf of paperbacks, and this book had been left by another guest since our last trip. It’s interesting that I started the year discovering Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey, and then ended it with Three Things About Elsie, as they have much in common. Cannon’s book is about Florence, a woman in her eighties who is having trouble remembering things (the ‘D’ word is mentioned a couple of times, but the book takes a broader view on memory, grief and ageing than simply a diagnosis). Florence spends her time talking to her best friend – the eponymous Elsie – and generally being a thorn in the side of the staff at Cherry Tree supported accommodation. One day, a new resident moves in, and Florence is sure it’s a man named Ronnie Butler – but Ronnie died in 1953, and Florence is forced to try and remember what happened sixty years ago (with a bit of help from Elsie). This is a book that deals with the terror that comes from having no one who will listen – or hear – what you’re trying to say to them, but it’s also much more than that. It’s a celebration of the ways in which we are all connected, and how one life can touch and change others (even if it’s not apparent at the time). Moving, thought-provoking, compassionate – but above all, charming. Highly recommended.

Bats in the Belfry by E.C.R. Lorac (1937)

My mother-in-law has bought me quite the collection of British Library Crime Classic books over the years. I like to save most of them for when we’re on our pre-Christmas getaway, as there’s something special about reading these Golden Age gems in an isolated cottage on a Cornish cliff-top. The first one I read this year was Lorac’s Bats in the Belfry – though it’s a London mystery rather than a country house one (which might have been more fitting). Lorac’s mystery revolves around Bruce Attleton, a once successful writer who is happily living off his actress wife’s income. Attleton’s friends – Neil Rockingham and Robert Grenville – become convinced their friend is being blackmailed by a sinister (possibly foreign) man named Debrette, and they decide to do a bit of investigating. Their search takes them to a bizarre and incongruous old building in Notting Hill. Known as the Belfry (or, sometimes, the Morgue) this decrepit old pile was once a religious house but is now a run-down studio favoured by artists. And it seems Debrette has been renting it. Things take a confusing turn when both Attleton and Debrette go missing, and so Rockingham and Grenville turn to C.I.D. (in the shape of Lorac’s regular detective Chief Inspector Macdonald) for assistance – but is everything as it seems? With an excellent (as always) introduction from Martin Edwards, Bats in the Belfry is everything I want from a BL Crime Classic: atmospheric, evocative, and with a strong sense of place and time. Loved it.

Murder at the Manor: Country House Mysteries, edited by Martin Edwards (2016)

And I continued my holiday foray into the BL Crime Classics with a collection of short stories. This anthology is a selection of country house mysteries, selected and edited by the excellent Martin Edwards, whose knowledge and affection for Golden Age detective fiction is evident in every title in the BL’s series. This collection is themed around setting – all of the stories take place in what is, to some degree or another, the country seat of a landed family, though (as Edwards points out in his introduction) Golden Age fiction often engages directly with the changing face of the country house through the various socio-political shifts of the twentieth century. Not all of the houses here are still ‘in the family’, and not all of them are as cosily domestic as they might once have been. Nevertheless, all the selected stories share the ‘closed circle’ of the house party mystery, in which a small but often diverse group of people are thrown together for a short time. The stories collected here vary from the ‘straight’ murder mystery (e.g. ‘The Problem of Dead Wood Hall’ by Dick Donovan) to the thriller (e.g. ‘An Unlocked Window’ by Ethel Lina White). There’s even a light-hearted parody of the subgenre from E.V. Knox (‘The Murder at the Towers’). Bookended by pre- and post-Golden Age stories (‘The Copper Beeches’ by Arthur Conan Doyle and ‘Weekend at Wapentake’ by Michael Gilbert), this anthology gives a great overview of the pleasures and perils of the country house.

Cuckoo by Sophie Draper (2018)

I picked this up in the supermarket on a whim while we were away – I don’t know why, as I’d packed enough books to keep me going for months. I had a bit of debate whether to read this or the Christmas-themed BL Crime Classic I’d been saving for the festive season, but in the end decided to go with Draper’s book – and it turned out to be a win-win, as a large part of Cuckoo is set at Christmas too! It’s also the perfect book for reading in a cottage in the middle of nowhere. The blurb intrigued me, but I was sort of expecting something along the lines of other psychological thrillers I’ve read this year: a woman goes back to clear her family home after the death of her stepmother (who hated her). Being back home brings back painful memories of her childhood, and she’s forced to confront the long-buried secrets from her past. Okay, okay – clearly I’m a sucker for this type of plot, as I’ve read at least two other books with that exact premise this year. But… Cuckoo blew me away. I genuinely stayed up for hours unable to put it down (clichéd as that may sound). It’s dark, unsettling and compelling – but it’s also incredibly well-written and just a really good story. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Cuckoo is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and this is totally down to Draper’s excellent storytelling. Loved it.

Portrait of a Murderer: A Christmas Crime Story by Anne Meredith (1933)

Time for another BL Crime Classic, and one that I was saving for the festive season. Although, as it turns out, it’s not wasn’t the most festive book I’ve ever read! Meredith’s novel is an unusual one. Its set-up is very much that of a Golden Age whodunit – an unpleasant man gathers his family together for Christmas at the country house, only to be murdered by one of the guests – but the book is actually a thriller, and a rather cynical and hard-edged one. This isn’t a whodunit, as the reader sees the murder taking place, and is then offered a first-person insight from the murderer as to the reasons and motives. What emerges is a book that almost works as a dissection of Golden Age detective fiction, which reveals the things that are never said in country house mysteries and the subtle obscurities that we fans take for granted. All of the characters in the book are given some backstory and explanation that allows us to see them as people, rather than simply characters in a well-trodden formulaic plot. Most fascinating, for me, is the detail given to one of the housemaids who, in any other book, would have been simply a felicitous plot device. Meredith does a great job of reminding us that all those oodles of undifferentiated servants bustling through Golden Age mysteries are really people with pasts, families, hopes and ambitions. This is not a cosy novel by any means, but it’s certainly an interesting one.

With Our Blessing by Jo Spain (2015)

Another impulse purchase from when we were on holiday – this time, a book I picked up in a charity shop in Truro. And would you believe it? It’s also set at Christmas (or at least the run-up to Christmas)! This is Jo Spain’s debut novel – she’s published (I think) three others since. I’ll admit, Spain’s wasn’t a name I’d come across. I picked the book up because it looked like a good atmospheric winter read, and I’m a sucker for ‘crimes of the past haunt the present’ storylines. And my instincts were right – I really enjoyed this one! The book begins with a prologue set in 1975 – a young woman gives birth in a Magdalene laundry, and her baby is taken from her by the nuns before she can even hold it. The book then moves us into 2010, and D.I. Tom Reynolds is called to investigate the murder of an unidentified elderly woman found mutilated and displayed in Phoenix Park, Dublin. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that the woman turns out to have been a nun, and that the investigation leads Reynolds and his team to a (very atmospheric – and snowed-in) convent. This is a chunky book (surprisingly long for a debut novel), but a real page-turner. The underlying motive for the crime didn’t come as much of a surprise, but Spain’s writing style is engaging and the setting is beautifully evoked. A solid contemporary crime novel – I’m glad I picked this one up.

Poirot Project: The Yellow Iris (review)

This post is part of my 2016 2016-17 2016-19 Poirot Project. You can read the full story of why I’m doing this in my Introduction post. The previous post was a review of ‘The Underdog’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The third episode of the fifth series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot – ‘The Yellow Iris’ – was first broadcast on 31st January 1993. It was based on the short story ‘Yellow Iris’ (aka ‘The Case of the Yellow Iris’), which was first published in the Strand in 1937. Christie’s original short story has Poirot flying solo, as there are no recurring characters (not even George) in this one.

I loved this episode when I first saw it. When I come to talk about the adaptation, I’ll try and put my finger on what it was that intrigued me so much. But first, I have to say something about Christie’s story – and its successor.

‘Yellow Iris’ begins with Poirot sitting home alone, admiring his electric radiator: ‘Its neat arrangement of red hot bars pleased his orderly mind.’ It’s clear that Hercule is a teeny bit bored tonight. When the phone goes at half eleven, he gets a bit excited and fondly imagines it might be some mad case that only he can solve:
‘“And it might,” he murmured to himself with a whimsical smile, “be a millionaire newspaper proprietor, found dead in the library of his country house, with a spotted orchid clasped in his left hand and a page torn from a cookbook pinned to his breast.”’
(This jokey idea for a case seems to ring a bell with me… I don’t know if it’s an allusion to an actual story, or if it crops up in the series as one of Ariadne Oliver’s plots. If you know why it seems familiar, do let me know in the comments.)

The phone call, though, is even more cryptic. A woman’s voice – ‘with a kind of desperate urgency about it’ – tells Poirot that she’s in danger, and asks him to go to the Jardin des Cygnes immediately. He is to find the table with the yellow irises. Poirot is intrigued, and he hurries along to the fancy French restaurant (which is owned by a man named ‘fat Luigi’).

The table with yellow irises has been booked by Barton Russell, a wealthy American, who has gathered a motley crew of friends around him for the evening: Pauline Weatherby (Russell’s sister-in-law), Anthony Chapell, Stephen Carter (a man is diplomatic service known as ‘Silent Stephen’) and Lola Valdez (a South American dancer). As it happens, Poirot has a prior acquaintance with Tony Chapell, and so he manages to get himself invited to the table. No one admits to being the mystery caller, and the party speculate as to what the great detective might be doing at the Jardin des Cygnes:
‘“He’s got an appointment with a body, I believe, or is it an absconding financier, or the Rajah of Borrioboolagah’s great ruby? […] The stolen plans must be found or war will be declared tomorrow!”’
(I know why these jokes all sound familiar – they all have echoes of actual cases Poirot has worked. The ‘appointment with a body’ could be anything, but the ‘absconding financier’ sounds like ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’, the ‘Rajah of Borrioboolagah’s great ruby’ could be ‘The Theft of the Royal Ruby’, and the final joke evokes ‘The Incredible Theft’.)

Poirot demurs and pretends to just be out for a standard night on the tiles, and the party open up and tell him what they’re doing at the Jardin des Cygnes.

Four years earlier, Barton Russell’s wife Iris died at a party in New York attended by the same guests. Although a verdict of suicide was returned, Russell believes it was murder. He has gathered the suspects together that night in order to uncover the ‘truth’.

Iris’s death occurred during a cabaret performance. The lights went down as the singer took the stage, and when they came up again Iris was slumped dead on the table. A packet of potassium cyanide was found in her handbag. Russell is determined to recreate the events of that night, and so after explaining the circumstances to Poirot, he hurries off to make an arrangement with the band.

The lights go down, and a singer takes the stage to perform the same song as that fateful night four years ago. When the song ends, Pauline drops down dead.

The story is quite a simple one and the puzzle has an elegance to it – Poirot is able to solve it without even leaving the restaurant. In fact, Pauline isn’t dead. The little Belgian warned her not to drink any champagne, but to simply pretend. He then reveals that it is Pauline’s brother-in-law himself who is responsible. Under the pretence of speaking to the band, Russell disguised himself as a waiter, topped up glasses at the table, and sneaked cyanide into Pauline’s glass. Since Iris’s death, Russell had been Pauline’s guardian, and Poirot surmises that the man had been dipping into her inheritance. He couldn’t allow her to reach her majority and uncover his embezzlement, and so he sets up the dinner at the restaurant to get rid of the problem. Poirot is unable to say for sure whether Russell killed Iris four years ago, but he knows that it was Pauline who telephoned and summoned him to the restaurant.

With that, Russell snarls a lot, Pauline decides not to press charges, and Poirot has a bit of a boogie with Lola Valdez.

‘Yellow Iris’ isn’t the most developed or intriguing Poirot story, but it has a couple of neat little features. Namely, the idea of the remembrance party (with the eponymous ‘Iris’ being present, but absent from the entire story), and the ‘no one notices the waiter’ trick to effect the murder. These features are the threads that hold together some quite disparate retellings of ‘Yellow Iris’ over the year, beginning with Christie’s own revision of the story in 1945.

A few years after the publication of ‘Yellow Iris’, Christie rewrote and revised her short story (as was her wont). She turned it into a novel, Sparkling Cyanide, and replaced Poirot with Colonel Race. Colonel Race is a recurring character in Christie’s work, who pops up in a couple of Poirot novels as well. I’ll be writing a separate post on Colonel Race later, so I won’t say much more about his appearances here.

Sparkling Cyanide is recognisably related to ‘Yellow Iris’, but it’s a quite different take on the story. I’ll admit I didn’t even know it existed until a number of years after I’d seen the ITV version of ‘The Yellow Iris’ (which, as I’ve said, was a firm favourite). I accidentally stumbled on the 1983 film version on telly one night. I didn’t know it was even an Agatha Christie adaptation, but it soon became clear that it shared certain important features with ‘The Yellow Iris’ – namely, the remembrance party, the poisoned champagne, and the waiter disguise. Later on, I saw the 2003 version of Sparkling Cyanide with Oliver Ford Davies and Pauline Collins, in which Colonel Race becomes Colonel Reece and acquires a co-investigating wife. The story gets an espionage subplot, and the whole thing has a Tommy-and-Tuppence feel to it. But those key features are retained, of course.

I don’t want to get into the respective merits of the adaptations of Sparkling Cyanide here, but I do want to admit that I hadn’t read the novel until I was preparing this post. I think I’d been put off by the adaptations, to be honest, as they both felt a need to ‘update’ Christie’s work and make it ‘glamorous’, whereas I always had a soft spot for the simplicity of the mystery plot in ‘The Yellow Iris’. Perhaps, also, I was quite loyal to the earlier story, and I didn’t want to cheat on it with the non-Poirot rewrite.

But, this blog is nothing if not completist, so I took the plunge and gave Sparkling Cyanide a go. (The academic in me insists I point out that all references to the book are from the 2017 Kindle edition, published by HarperCollins.)

It was… really not what I expected! I loved it!

Sparkling Cyanide really focuses on the remembrance aspect of the story. It’s divided into three books, and the first one is literally just the main characters remembering the events of nearly a year earlier (and preceding circumstances). In this version of the story, the dead woman is Rosemary Barton (though she still died of drinking poisoned champagne after a cabaret show). Her younger sister is Iris Marle, who has been under the guardianship of Rosemary’s widowed husband George Barton. Other characters include Ruth Lessing (Barton’s competent secretary), Anthony Browne (Iris’s kind of boyfriend, who was previously infatuated with Rosemary), and Stephen and Alexandra Farraday (friends – or are they? – of the Bartons).

As this is a novel, these characters are substantially fleshed out in a way that wouldn’t have been possible in the short story. It should be said, as well, that they are different characters to those in ‘Yellow Iris’. Most notably, George Barton is not Barton Russell. He’s a ‘kindly, pleasant, but definitely dull’ man who, while he does eventually become obsessed with the idea his wife was murdered, is nothing but kindness and compassion to his young sister-in-law.

Being familiar with ‘Yellow Iris’, I was expecting this all to be a ruse to throw you off the scent. But then Christie pulled the rug from under my feet… when the suspects get together for their remembrance party, one of their number drops dead from poisoned champagne… but it’s George Barton, not Iris Marle. Was not expecting that!

So that’s the big change between ‘Yellow Iris’ and Sparkling Cyanide (which clearly I hadn’t paid much attention to on my cursory viewings of the adaptations). The significant details remain the same though, with the memory element played up even more in the novel (hence the name changes: Rosemary, as we’re repeatedly reminded, is for remembrance) and the murder technique kept the same.

I did enjoy Christie’s Sparkling Cyanide, and it made for an interesting companion piece to ‘Yellow Iris’ (I’m always fascinated as to which bits of a story Christie retains, and which she changes in her rewrites). However, I will say… Colonel Race is almost entirely redundant in the novel. I can understand why Christie removed limelight-stealing Poirot from the mix, but she doesn’t exactly put his replacement to work. He only appears halfway through and, even then, he doesn’t do an awful lot of investigating.

Poor Colonel Race… hopefully his time will come in another novel.

Right… on to the ITV adaptation of ‘Yellow Iris’, which gains a definite article and becomes ‘The Yellow Iris’.

This episode was directed by Peter Barber Fleming and written by Anthony Horowitz. As I’ve said, it was always one of my favourites of the early series, so it does pain me a little that I’m going to point out historical inaccuracy and an icky race thing in this post – but rewatching the episode in the context of this project has sadly brought a couple of negative points to my attention.

Let’s start with the positives though, shall we?

Overall, as might be expected, Horowitz’s adaptation is a reasonably faithful adaptation of the plot of ‘Yellow Iris’ (though the setting and set-up have been changed). And it was this plot structure that I fell in love with all those years ago.

During a tetchy argument with Hastings about the failings of English cuisine, Poirot discovers that a restaurant called the Jardin des Cygnes is to open in London. This stirs up an unhappy memory for the detective, which is only exacerbated when Miss Lemon arrives bearing a yellow iris that has arrived with the post.

The remembrance element of the story, here, is all Poirot’s, and he decides to recount a painful story to his associates that took place during a disastrous trip to Argentina two years earlier. He tells them that, while staying in Buenos Aires, he came upon a party of people – Barton Russell (played by David Troughton), his sister-in-law Pauline Wetherby (Geraldine Somerville), his business partner Stephen Carter (Hugh Ross), journalist Anthony Chapell (Dorian Healy) and dancer Lola Valdez (Yolanda Vasquez). Also in the party, though Poirot saw little of her, was Russell’s wife Iris (Robin McCaffrey). One night, Poirot ended up at the same restaurant as the people who had attracted his attention – the Jardin des Cygnes, run by an Italian named Luigi (played by Joseph Long and not, as he is in Christie’s story, nicknamed ‘fat’). At dinner, the group watched a cabaret performance, raised their glasses in a toast to Iris, and then looked on in horror as the woman died from drinking poisoned champagne. Poirot wished to investigate, but he was arrested by a certain General Pereira (Stefan Gryff), accused of espionage, and unceremoniously deported. It was a shameful episode, and he decided never to speak of it again.

Now a new Jardin des Cygnes is opening, and a yellow iris has been sent to the detective. Poirot fears that history might be about to repeat itself.

Ultimately, that is the story of ‘The Yellow Iris’. While Poirot and Hastings do a little bit of investigating to find out the party’s backstory (which is a little different and much expanded from the source story), the main focus of the episode is on the tragedy in Buenos Aires and the remembrance party in London two years later. The denouement comes when Pauline drinks her champagne and falls down dead, only to reappear at the key moment when Poirot reveals how the murder/attempted murder was pulled off by Russell.

The plot elements that had me enthralled as a teenager are the ones that Christie obviously thought were the central points – since they’re the ones she retained in her otherwise much revised novel. They’re also the points that are common to all adaptations of ‘Yellow Iris’ and Sparkling Cyanide – the remembrance party, the poisoned champagne, the waiter disguise. The episode makes the latter even clearer, as it introduces a little trick on the part of the detective during his climactic reveal. While in Christie’s story, Pauline simply sits up at the right moment and says ‘Resurrection of Pauline’, the adaptation has the young woman disguise herself as a waitress and serve the suspects coffee to prove that no one notices the waiting staff (this was my favourite bit of the episode when I first watched it).

There are some other little details that are retained from Christie’s story – in the source, it’s Pauline who makes the panicked phone call to Poirot inviting him to the restaurant, and here it’s Pauline who sends the yellow iris as a cry for help. And the all-important cabaret song – ‘I’ve Forgotten You’ – is included in the episode with lyrics taken directly from Christie’s story (in fact, I think Christie wrote these lyrics specifically).

In addition to this, there are some added touches in-keeping with the rest of the TV series that are quite nice. In particular, I like Poirot’s classy art deco breakfast.

It is this slice of toast that leads to Poirot and Hastings falling out about food. It’s a grumpy little argument that is put to one side when Hastings spots the advert for the Jardin des Cygnes. But we come back to it nicely at the end when, having been deprived of a fancy French dinner by the machinations of Barton Russell, Poirot is treated to some fish and chips by his old pal.

Awww… sweet.

But now… Argentina. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

As I’ve said, the backstory – the murder of Iris – is transposed to Argentina from New York, and in this version Poirot was actually present at the first dinner. There are three reasons this really doesn’t work, and they all hinge on the fact that the episode’s opening scene pins the date of Iris Russell’s death to 1934.

Clearly, the ‘present day’ bit of the episode is meant, as other episodes in the series are, to be set in 1936. Characters keep referring to Iris’s death as happening ‘two years ago’, so we don’t really need the gravestone to tell us she died in 1934. But it’s there nevertheless, literally setting the date of the Argentina section in stone. Which causes the following problems:

1. Poirot is in Buenos Aires en route to visiting Hastings who is living in Argentina on a ranch in La Pampa. Is he?? Why hasn’t this been mentioned before? Does he still own the ranch? Why has he come back to mooch off Poirot if he owns a ranch in Argentina? Is someone running it for him in his absence? How did he afford it in the first place? How come, in August 1936, he spends ages telling Poirot and Japp about his six-month holiday in South America without mentioning anything at all about a ranch in La Pampa? Had he lost it by then? Does he buy another ranch after he gets married? Is Hastings some sort of mad ranch addict?

This does raise another question in my mind about Hastings’s ranch-o-philia. In Christie’s stories, Hastings makes the switch to Argentinian farming in the early 1920s. When he comes back for a visit in 1936 (in The A.B.C. Murders, he bemoans global and local economic circumstances that are making it hard for him to succeed. This isn’t surprising. The 1930s in Argentina are known as the ‘Infamous Decade’, during which time political unrest, corruption and the Great Depression caused huge economic upheaval in the country. It’s not surprising that Hastings’s ranch, which had seemed a sensible investment in the early 20s, is struggling by 1936.

And yet, in the TV series, Hastings actively chooses to start farming in Argentina in the middle of the Infamous Decade. I know he’s a bit daft, but surely this is an unwise decision even for him?

2. Now, this talk of the Infamous Decade reveals another potential problem with the episode, though I’m not 100% sure I heard the dialogue correctly here, so feel free to correct me if necessary.

When Poirot arrives in Buenos Aires, things are a bit hairy. There are regular power cuts, general strikes, and a foreboding military presence. Poirot quickly befriends Anthony Chapell, who gives him a bit of background as to the situation. Now, I’ve listened to the scene over and over again, and I’m convinced Chapell says:
‘The rumours are that President Yrigoyen can’t last much longer.’
This bugs me, as the series is normally so careful with historical detail. Hipólito Yrigoyen was deposed in a military coup in 1930 and died in 1933 (the year before this part is supposedly set).

I could have misheard – perhaps Chapell doesn’t say ‘Yrigoyen’ – but the episode certainly adds in an Argentinian coup d’etat that has no basis in historical fact. This just seems a bit disappointing given the eye for detail elsewhere in the series. Looking at the episode now, I really wonder why the story of Iris’s death was moved to Argentina in the first place. It doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense, and…

3. Isn’t it all a bit of a coincidence?

In Christie’s stories, Poirot and Race aren’t actually present at the first dinner. They are invited to the remembrance dinner in order to find out the truth about what happened to Iris/Rosemary. In the TV episode, however, Poirot was an eye witness to Iris’s death.

And then, two years later, not only does (not fat) Luigi decide to open an identical restaurant with an identical name down the road from Poirot’s house, but it also has its opening night on the anniversary of Iris’s death. And all the attendees from the first party are now living in London as well (while this is understandable in the case of Russell, Carter, Chapell and Pauline), is it not stretching it a bit to reveal that Lola Valdez also happens to be in town at just the right time?

Now, you might say that it’s not really a coincidence, that Russell took advantage of Luigi’s new restaurant to bump off Pauline. But the episode is at pains to remind us that Pauline is just one month off reaching her majority – and discovering that Russell has nicked her inheritance – and that Russell’s company is literally on the verge of financial ruin.

So Luigi opens a new restaurant and Lola moves to London and it’s the anniversary of Iris’s death at the exact moment that Russell needs to do something to cover his financial tracks? Suspicious… very suspicious.

I blame Luigi.

Anyway, as I’m nit-picking over an episode that I keep saying I love, I might as well raise one final uncomfortable point. It’s a bit of a strange one.

There is one final element that is common to Christie’s ‘Yellow Iris’, Sparkling Cyanide and ITV’s ‘The Yellow Iris’ – the race of the singer who performs at the cabaret.

In ‘Yellow Iris’, the singer of ‘I’ve Forgotten You’ is described thus:
‘A girl walked out into the middle of the floor, a coal black girl with rolling eyeballs and white glistening teeth. […] The sobbing tune, the deep golden Negro voice had a powerful effect. It hypnotized – cast a spell.’
In Sparkling Cyanide, the cabaret is described as ‘one of those negro shows’, a fact which is affirmed several times by different suspects.

In the TV episode, the singer at the Buenos Aires cabaret is played by Carol Kenyon (probably best known for her vocals on Heaven 17’s ‘Temptation’, which I’ve had stuck in my head for most of the time I’ve been writing this post). She is replaced by a white singer (played by Tracy Miller) for the second rendition of ‘I’ve Forgotten You’, which I’d suggest is performed in a much less ‘hypnotic’ way.

It was the insistent repetition of the description of a ‘negro show’ in Sparkling Cyanide that drew my attention to this detail, and I started to wonder why. Why does the race of the singer matter? It’s clearly not meant to denote a particular type of cabaret or venue, as it appears in both versions of the story (where the parties are otherwise quite different). The cabaret itself should be an irrelevance – it’s simply the thing that distracts everyone while the murderer is slipping cyanide into the champagne – so why give such specifics? And then to see Kenyon doing the ‘big’ performance in the TV episode, with Miller being simply the replica chosen for the rerun, really does make this detail stand out.

I suspect the answer is to be found in Christie’s original description in the original short story. ‘I’ve Forgotten You’ is meant to work like a spell – just as the figure of Iris/Rosemary will exert an almost supernatural power over those who saw her die. Its singer, then, functions almost as a ‘Magical Negro’ (or, at least, a ‘soulful’ singer), hypnotizing the dinner guests into a state of melancholic remembrance. Christie used this trope in 1937 and 1945 – and it was then replicated in 1993. Some things, perhaps, don’t change.

I feel like I’ve been way too critical of this episode. Sorry. I still really like it though. So let’s end with a picture of Poirot enjoying his fish and chips.

This post was way too long. And way too obsessed with Hastings’s ranches, Argentinian politics and dodgy racist tropes. It’s possible that this is the point where I start getting accused of overthinking Poirot.

Anyway, it’s the first day of 2019! Onwards and upwards! I reckon this is the year when I’m finally able to watch ‘Curtain’ – only a few more episodes to go (haha!).

Next up: ‘The Case of the Missing Will’

Monday, 31 December 2018

Poirot Project: The Underdog (review)

This post is part of my 2016 2016-17 2016-19 Poirot Project. You can read the full story of why I’m doing this in my Introduction post. The previous post was a review of ‘The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The second episode of the fifth (-ish) series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was ‘The Underdog’, and it was first broadcast on 24th January 1993. This episode was based on the short story ‘The Under Dog’ (note the slightly different spelling), which was first published in April 1926 in Mystery Magazine (and then in the UK later that year in London Magazine).

‘The Under Dog’ is one of the non-series Poirot short stories that appeared periodically in between the publication of novels. As such, it doesn’t feature Hastings as the narrator – like ‘Wasps’ Nest’ and ‘Problem at Sea’ – Hastings doesn’t appear in the story in person. (However, as in some of the other stories, Hastings isn’t entirely absent… but I’ll come to that shortly.)

The story begins with Poirot being consulted by a young woman called Lily Margrave. Lily is the paid companion of Lady Astwell, who has sent her to visit the famous detective and ask for his help. Lady Astwell’s husband – Sir Reuben Astwell – has been murdered, and his nephew Charles Leverson is accused of the crime. Lady Astwell is convinced that Charles is innocent, and so wishes Poirot to investigate and exonerate him.

The story’s set-up is charmingly comical. As Lily Margrave attempts to tell her story, the great detective appears not to take her very seriously:
‘His occupation at the moment struck her as particularly childish. He was piling small blocks of coloured wood one upon the other, and seemed far more interested in the result than in the story she was telling.’
There’s no real explanation for why Poirot is doing this – I think we’re just supposed to take it as one of his little eccentricities. It’s not really relevant to the story.

In outlining the circumstances of Sir Reuben Astwell’s death, Lily gives a brief sketch of his household – including his wife and nephew, his butler Parsons and his secretary Owen Trefusis. She eventually admits to Poirot that Lady Astwell is stubbornly sticking to her conviction that Charles is innocent, having developed an apparently irrational belief that Owen Trefusis is the guilty party. Lily Margrave believes this is all nonsense, and she tried to persuade her employer against asking Poirot to get involved.

This last point piques Poirot’s interest, and he instantly decides to go and visit the late Reuben Astwell’s home (named ‘Mon Repos’ in the story). And he’s taking steadfast valet George along for the ride.

Although this story doesn’t feature any of ‘the gang’, there are two familiar faces. As I’ve said, George plays his part in this case (more on that shortly). The story also sees the return of Detective-Inspector Miller (who appears in ‘The Lost Mine’, ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’ and ‘The Mystery of the Spanish Chest’). Miller’s schtick is that basically he doesn’t like Poirot – and Poirot doesn’t rate him much either. He’s like the anti-Japp.

In ‘The Under Dog’, Poirot hears that Miller is in charge of the case, and he makes a couple of snarky asides to remind readers of their animosity. However, he eventually has to make a trip to Scotland Yard to actually speak to the policeman, which he does with a certain degree of reluctance. I quite like Christie’s description of Poirot’s arrival at the Yard:
‘Detective-Inspector Miller was not particularly fond of M. Hercule Poirot. He did not belong to that small band of inspectors at the Yard who welcomed the little Belgian’s co-operation. He was wont to say that Hercule Poirot was much over-rated.’
While we do see the odd police officer respond negatively to Poirot in other stories, this suggests that, actually, detectives like Miller are the majority – it’s Japp (and the rest of the ‘small band of inspectors’) who are unusual in their collaboration with the little Belgian. Interestingly, I’m writing this post just after watching this Christmas’s prestige BBC Christie production – the somewhat controversial adaptation of The A.B.C. Murders by Sarah Phelps. In this version (to much hand-wringing from so-called purists), Poirot is presented as a now-discredited charlatan, with Inspector Crome painfully reminding him that it was only Japp (and, presumably, a ‘small band of inspectors’) who ever trusted the unexpectedly tall Belgian’s co-operation.

In this year’s A.B.C. Murders, Poirot has to prove himself to Inspector Crome (or, rather, he has to honour his own personal vow to bring justice for the dead – distractingly this Poirot has a similar catchphrase to Logan Nelson in Jigsaw… but I digress). However, in ‘The Under Dog’, Poirot simply plays Inspector Miller like a fiddle, using some of the least subtle flattery in his arsenal, and getting the detective to share certain details of his investigation. And then he completely blows Miller out of the water with a theatrical gather-the-suspects denouement that reveals the idiot police had it all totally wrong. No wonder most of the Yard hates him.

Poirot’s investigation isn’t just missing Japp, though. He’s also missing Hastings. In the first non-Hastings story Christie wrote – ‘The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding’, Poirot missed his friend with a deep melancholy that was really sad to read. Time seems to heal Poirot’s wounds, and he talks less about his friend’s absence in later stories (even – shock, horror! – not mentioning him at all in some stories). ‘The Under Dog’ is somewhere in between. Although Poirot seems to be coping with his friend’s departure, he can’t help but slip his name randomly into conversation. It’s not quite as cheeky as his Arthur-the-Dummy joke in ‘Problem at Sea’, but his meandering comment about hunting in this story seems like an excuse just to get nostalgic:
‘To catch the fox you ride hard with the dogs. You shout, you run, it is a matter of speed. I have not shot the stag myself, but I understand that to do so you crawl for many long, long hours upon your stomach. My friend Hastings has recounted the affair to me.’
Sorry, Poirot… what’s that got to do with the murder again?

In place of Hastings, Poirot is accompanied by his valet George. As always, he finds George wanting as a sidekick, but there’s some good Poirot-and-George interactions in ‘The Under Dog’, and there’s just a slight glimmer of the valet starting to step up to his role as New-Hastings.

At first glance, it seems that the ‘[t]all, cadaverous and unemotional’ George is just going to depress Poirot. When the detective starts to get excited about heading down to Mon Repos to hunt a murderer, George is unmoved:
‘“Shall I pack dress clothes, sir?”’
Poirot looked at him sadly.
“Always the concentration, the attention to your own job. You are very good for me, George.”’
But as things unfold, George finds himself caught up in the chase. In response to a comment from Poirot about a man with a ‘tropical temper’, George can’t help but correct his employer with an uncharacteristic anecdote about his Aunt Jemima (‘a most shrewish tongue she had’). Emboldened, he then directly asks – or, as directly as a gentleman’s gentleman can ask – to play a role in the case:
‘“Is there anything I can do in any way,” he inquired delicately, “to – er – assist you, sir?”’
It’s a short step from inquiring delicately to keeping nix while Poirot rifles through a suspect’s underwear drawer. A short step indeed.

I need to turn my attention to the ITV adaptation in a minute, so just a few other things to say about the short story. It’s quite a long short story (over three times as long as the Sketch stories), so I’ll have to control myself.

One of the things I like about this story is the focus on the servants – particularly the butler Parsons and housemaid Gladys – as valuable witnesses. Nevertheless, in order to get their statements, Poirot has to exercise his talent for making people feel at ease. His first assessment of Parsons is, pretty much, a comment on fictional butlers in general:
‘This Parsons, then, he will have the characteristics of his class, he will object very strongly to the police, he will tell them as little as possible. Above all, he will say nothing that might seem to incriminate a member of the household.’
This quote comes from early in the story, and it introduces the theme of psychology – and Poirot’s understanding of psychology – that runs throughout the story. Each time he is called upon to interview someone, he instinctively weighs up their personality and employs the best approach to make them trust him. With Parsons, Poirot is respectful and understanding of the man’s position. With Miller, he flatters the man’s intelligence and perspicacity. With Lily Margrave, he adopts the avuncular persona he often uses with young women (‘You will tell old Papa Poirot?’), and with Lady Astwell he validates her belief in her intuition. With Gladys, he allows her to think he is French (quelle horreur!), so that she’s willing to show him one of Lily Margrave’s dresses (‘We all know that Frenchmen are interested in ladies’ dresses.’)

It makes sense that Christie focuses on Poirot’s ability to read people here, as this is a case that hinges on an understanding of personality, rather than any hard evidence. In fact, Poirot fakes a clue (the blood-soaked chiffon), lies to most of the suspects, and eventually goads the murderer into making a misstep by pretending to find something of interest on the staircase. The story’s title turns out to refer to this study of personality. As Poirot reminds us repeatedly – and, as George’s Aunt Jemima story affirms – people with bad tempers aren’t the most dangerous. ‘Those who bark do not bite.’

And so… on to the adaptation. Not the most memorable episode of the series, and, by the standards of the series so far, not the most faithful adaptation either. However, the changes it makes to the story are certainly interesting.

‘The Underdog’ (all one word) was written by Bill Craig and directed by John Bruce. I believe this was Craig’s only Poirot script, though Bruce also directed ‘The Case of the Missing Will’ (speaking of unfaithful adaptations… but we’re not there quite yet!).

From the episode’s opening moments, it’s clear that the setting has been altered. Obviously, it’s now set ten years later – as with almost all the early series, the episode is set in the mid-30s – but it’s also now got a bit of an industrial backdrop, as the episode opens in a laboratory. Chief Chemist (not secretary) Horace (not Owen) Trefusis (played by Bill Wallis) is reading a letter from a German. Of course, this is intended to get our hindsight tingling. A chemist? Reading a letter from Germany? In 1936? Dodgy stuff. But before we can really take that in, the scene is interrupted by a dubious-looking chap (come on… he’s wearing a polo neck and a flat cap!) bursting in and setting fire to the lab.

This opener is quite far removed from the background to Christie’s story. In the source text, Poirot (and the reader) discovers the ol’ leave-your-partner-for-dead-and-steal-the-mine trick (seriously – is there anyone in Golden Age detective fiction who owns a diamond/gold mine and didn’t swindle their partner and leave them for dead in the bush?). Reuben Astwell is the mine-swindler, and Humphrey Naylor is the disgruntled former colleague (‘It was assumed that he and the expedition had perished.’ Obvs.).

Craig’s adaptation drops the mine, and replaces it with a storyline about synthetic rubber. Humphrey Naylor (played by Andrew Seear) is a research chemist, who had previously approached Astwell’s Chemicals with a formula for a new product, for which he needed commercial backing. Reuben Astwell told him that the formula didn’t work. Imagine his surprise when he found that, not only had Astwell’s nicked his work, they were planning to licence it under the name Astoprene to German chemical giant I.G. Farben. In a way, that’s worse than being left for dead in the Mpala Gold Fields.

I’m quite fascinated by the I.G. Farben subplot in this episode. It serves as both a red herring and the genuine motive for the murder. But it also allows for a return to the perennial background to the series – the impending (but never breaking) war with Germany. And, as in other episodes, we get some pontifications from unlikeable men about the probable impact. Reuben Astwell (Denis Lill) gives a lecture on the inevitability of war, given the ‘remilitarisation of the Rhineland’ (he’s also seen reading a copy of the Evening Standard bearing the headline ‘Hitler’s Pledge to Britain’), before concluding that such an event would have ‘economic benefits’ and stop people ‘scrounging on the dole’. During his rant, it’s clear that Astwell hates the Germans and thinks their warmongering is despicable. And yet, he’s still happy to do business with I.G. Farben, suggesting that – if war’s coming – Astwell wants a big piece of the economic benefit pie.

More sinister, in a way, is Horace Trefusis’s enthusiastic response to this. He positively salivates at the thought of the scientific advances that can be made in a time of war (‘New fuels! New alloys!’). I don’t know if it’s just me, but Trefusis’s fervour for upcoming scientific developments, coupled with the impending contract with I.G. Farben, has a really uncomfortable undercurrent. Hindsight, again, tells us what role I.G. Farben played in the Nazi regime, and I find it difficult not to be reminded of the ‘scientific developments’ pursued by subsidiaries of the company. In reality, I.G. Farben would indeed produce synthetic rubber, and they would do so at the Monowitz Buna-Werke factory, part of the Auschwitz complex. The Buna factory used prisoners from Auschwitz camps as slave labour in the production of rubber.

So, in ‘The Underdog’, I’d suggest that we have more than the now-standard reference to impending war with Germany. In this episode, the shadow of the Holocaust is just discernible. Poirot is uncomfortable with the conversation – and with Astwell’s tasteless ‘joke’ about an imminent invasion of Belgium – and sombrely states: ‘I myself have experienced first-hand the horror and destruction of war with Germany.’* Later on, we see Victor Astwell (Ian Gelder) tearing up his late brother’s contract with I.G. Farben in distaste.

Cheery stuff, eh? But that’s just the Underdog’s undercurrent. Let’s turn our attention to its… erm… overcurrent(?) now, shall we?

I get why the gold mine storyline is changed to the synthetic rubber one. For one thing, the mine story would seem a little old-hat for 1936 (were there any mines left in the 30s that hadn’t already been swindled away by cantankerous Golden Age millionaires?), and the rubber subplot allows for more of a comment on the series’ period backdrop. But there are other changes to the story that seem less clearly thought-out.

I’m okay with the change to the house – Christie’s Mon Repos (‘a big, solidly built red-brick mansion, with no pretensions to beauty’) is replaced by the obligatory modern art deco house (not sure if a real house was used for the exterior shots in this episode, sorry) – but the changes to the characters make less sense.

In Christie’s story, most people in Mon Repos are pretty fiery characters. Reuben Astwell loves a good barney; his wife is an ex-actress who still enjoys her histrionics; brother Victor has the ‘tropical temper’ and makes his appearance by yelling at his chauffeur. The only person who doesn’t lose it is Owen Trefusis, who is described thus:
‘At a big desk at the farther end of [the library] sat a thin, pale young man busily writing. He had a receding chin, and wore pince-nez. […] Mr Owen Trefusis was a prim, proper young man, disarmingly meek, the type of man who can be, and is, systematically bullied. One could feel quite sure that he would never display resentment.’
So… an underdog type then?

In the adaptation, the only person who really has a bad temper is Reuben Astwell. Lady Nancy Astwell (Ann Bell)’s past career as an actress is only mentioned once in passing by her husband – though we do see a couple of framed pictures of her in her heyday… looking a little like a young Gladys Cooper in one of them.

Gladys Cooper

Lady Astwell’s acting career (and resemblance to Gladys Cooper) is irrelevant to the plot here. It’s barely even a red herring. She’s the model of a sensible and level-headed wife, weighed down by the peculiar rages of her husband. Similarly, Victor Astwell is transformed from a chauffeur-roasting hothead to a mild-mannered ‘junior partner’, forced to endure the mad wrath of his unhinged older brother. Nancy and Victor appear to be cowed by Reuben, weathering the storm and – I think it’s implied – turning to each other for comfort. (It’s Victor who snaps the knife in the table in this version of the story, not Trefusis.)

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Isn’t Victor Astwell supposed to fancy Lily? Well not here. In another inexplicable change, Lily (Adie Allen) is now head-over-heels for Charles Leverson (Jonathan Phillips), Astwell’s golf-loving nephew. Charles is also under the thumb of his uncle, and only plucks up the courage to stand up for himself on the night of the murder (bad timing, really). Lily is a demure lady’s companion, behaving with decorum and modesty, and only slightly raising her voice when Astwell sacks her for rooting through his office.

In the end, the only person who actually seems to stand up to Astwell is… Horace Trefusis, who is more than happy to openly disagree with his employer on a couple of occasions. Although Poirot declares Trefusis to be an ‘underdog’ in the denouement – and Trefusis spits back that Astwell was ‘a bully’ – in fact he’s the only character that isn’t bullied. And, it turns out, he murdered Astwell for cold hard cash, as he knew he wasn’t going to get a penny from the I.G. Farben contract.

These changes don’t make for a bad story per se, but they do leave you wondering why the episode is called ‘The Underdog’. ‘The Reasonably Assertive Murder Chemist’ would have been a better title, but I guess that would’ve constituted a spoiler.

(I don’t really have anything to say about the picture above, except that I love the bit where Gladys (Lucy Davidson) discovers Astwell’s body. It’s pitch-perfect servant-discovers-a-corpse acting, complete with a dropped breakfast tray.)

Now, on to the character changes that we kind of expect from this series: the introduction of ‘the gang’. It’s just two-thirds of the gang this time though, as, despite the opportunity, Japp hasn’t been added to replace Miller in this episode. Instead, Miller is simply dropped, and the police are represented by a nameless local sergeant (played by Michael Vaughan).

However, we do have Miss Lemon, who replaces the minor character of Dr Cazalet of Harley Street. You see, along with séance, I Ching, tarot and automatic writing, Miss Lemon has an interest in hypnosis. She tries her technique out on Poirot early in the episode – with no success – but is later called on to reveal the secret clue lurking in Lady Astwell’s subconscious. This is a nice touch, as it fits with Poirot’s reliance on a hypnotist in Christie’s story, but also links to the TV character of Miss Lemon that the series has created.

Naturally, along with Miss Lemon, we also have Hastings. Sadly, though, I don’t think Hastings works in this episode. He’s not simply there as a replacement for George, but nor is he quite… Hastings enough. While he serves the purpose of getting the detective embroiled in the case in the first place (Hastings here is an old friend of Charles Leverson, who has invited him down to Abbott’s Cross for a golf tournament), the rest of the time he’s a bit too… dynamic for my tastes. He jumps straight into being a co-investigator, surveilling guests at their hotel, witnessing Lily’s delivery to Naylor, initiating a chase down to London and – inexplicably – knowing the train timetable off by heart. Shouldn’t Hastings be a bit less… you know… competent?

And on that note, I need to wrap this post up, as it’s ended up a lot longer than I intended (don’t they always?). Two final things:

Sadly, the loss of George from the adaptation means that my favourite scene from the story had to go. When Poirot decides to fabricate a bit of evidence proving that Lily went to Astwell’s study on the night of the murder, he tricks Gladys into letting him see her chiffon dress. He tears a tiny bit of fabric off, but in order to make it incriminating, he needs to make it blood-stained. Ever the martyr, he decides to use his own blood – and asks George to sterilize a needle and stab him in the finger. I don’t know which bit is weirder – Poirot’s screaming in pain at a tiny pin prick, or George’s unquestioning acquiescence. It’s a shame that couldn’t have been included in the episode.

On the plus side, we do get a welcome return of one of my favourite of Poirot’s accessories: the walking stick telescope! The perfect way to watch Hastings score a hypnosis-induced hole-in-one!

Time to move on to an episode I adored when I first saw it… ‘The Yellow Iris’

* Ironically, this was another aspect of the BBC’s A.B.C. Murders that pearl-clutching critics raged about – Phelps’s version of Poirot is explicitly shown to have ‘experienced first-hand the horror and destruction of war with Germany’.

Saturday, 22 December 2018

Review: Abertoir: The International Horror Festival of Wales 2018 (Saturday and Sunday)

13th-18th November 2018
Aberystwyth Arts Centre, Wales

And so... here's the final part of my three-part review of this year's Abertoir horror film festival, with reviews of the films (and events) we saw on Saturday and Sunday.

You can read the other two parts of my review here: Part 1 (Tuesday and Wednesday), Part 2 (Thursday and Friday)

Saturday, 17th November

Nicko and Joe’s Bad Film Club

I’ll be honest – I wasn’t looking forward to the first half of today. The first two things on the programme seemed like they wouldn’t be my cup of tea. First, there was something that was described to me as ‘a bit like Mystery Science Theater 3000’, and then we had something that a reviewer has called ‘the best zombie film since Shaun of the Dead’. I don’t really like MST3000 or Shaun of the Dead (seriously, don’t @ me), so I was expecting to spend the first half of the day watching other people laugh with a slightly baffled look on my face. How wrong can you be??? Turns out, these were two of my favourite screenings of the festival. First up: Nicko and Joe’s Bad Film Club… comedians Nicko and Joe put on a gaspingly awful film, and then give a commentary on why it’s so awful. They encourage audience participation, talking (jeering) and sweet-eating throughout. I suspect the reason I enjoyed this so much was that, unlike MST3000, Nicko and Joe’s style of comedy is much more my sense of humour (it’s a subjective thing, after all), and so their commentary had me laughing my head off. However, there’s more to it than that: their double act has a pitch and rhythm to it that makes what I’m sure is a carefully-honed comic routine feel like you’ve just wandered into an off-the-cuff chat between tetchy friends. The film screened was Demons of Ludlow – which is so very bad it’s almost impossible to describe (suffice to say a lot revolves around a haunted piano, and there are some… interesting directorial decisions). It’s tempting to say that the film was the real star here, but that would do a disservice to the comedians who presented it. I absolutely loved this!

One Cut of the Dead (dir. Shinichirou Ueda, 2017)

And so next it was the ‘best zombie film since Shaun of the Dead’. I’m not sure how to review this one, as One Cut of the Dead is a film that is best seen without any expectations. Even a hint of a spoiler would be massively unfair. Before the film began, we had an introduction from one of the festival organizers, who gave a bit of context. One Cut of the Dead is a (very) low-budget indie Japanese film. It initially opened on just two small screens in Japan, and the filmmakers had zero marketing budget. However, the film quickly garnered word-of-mouth publicity, and it went on to become a surprise hit. And I really do mean hit – I checked listings after the screening, and it’s in the Top 10 highest grossing films of 2018 in Japan (beating some really big studio productions). Gaz’s introduction also pointed out that the ‘one cut’ of the title refers to a single shot take – the first 38 minutes of the film is a one-shot take. And that was all the explanation we got – the only other thing Gaz said was that, no matter how we felt about that first opening take, we should just stick with it. Trust me, he said, something will happen after the first 38 minutes that will change everything. And so we did trust him. And we watched the first 38 minutes with no idea of where it was going… and then something happened that changed everything. And by the end, we’d fallen completely in love with this utterly unexpected, very funny, clever and audacious little film, and it was clear why it was such a runaway hit in Japan. I’m not going to say anything more about it, but you should definitely see this film. Trust me.

Assassination Nation (dir. Sam Levinson, 2018)

Well, what a contrast with the next film. Assassination Nation is quite a different beast to One Cut of the Dead – and my feelings towards it were rather different too. I didn’t enjoy Assassination Nation much, and to be honest the more I’ve thought about since, the more it’s annoyed me. It’s a flashy, garish and exploitative film that screams its (ultimately shallow) political message from the very first shot. In the town of Salem (yes, Salem), a hacker is set on revealing the town’s deepest secrets to the world (based on the premise that everyone’s secrets are stored on sim cards, and that the world would be the slightest bit interested in the mundane peccadillos of a small Massachusetts town). Things descend from here into Purge-like violence, and four young women are caught up in a cycle of accusation and retribution (because… Salem… do you see?). Assassination Nation falls flat in several ways. The main characters are unlikable and implausible. Given that we’d already seen Blue My Mind, the film’s depiction of teen girls and their friendships rang hollow – imagine Regina George’s Plastics with guns. The film’s attempts to signal its wokeness are also flimsy at best, and offensive at worst (a ‘lynching’ sequence, clearly evoking historic acts of violence, has a rich white trans girl as its victim and heroic survivor… while the film’s two black women spend most of their much shorter screen time simply screaming and crying). This feels like a film written by 40-somethings about how they imagine teens see the world – the ‘hacking’ plot mostly involves Gen Zs using technology like they’re Gen X (do kids today really say ‘for the lulz’?). The film then ends with the main character literally delivering the socio-political message direct to camera. Definitely not a recommendation from me.

Prom Night (dir. Paul Lynch, 1980)

After the rollercoaster of the previous two films, it was quite a relief to get back to a classic. The screenings finished a little earlier tonight, as there was a bit of a disco on. In-keeping with the festival theme, it was a Valentine’s/Prom Night affair… so there was really only one option for the pre-disco screening. During the Q and A with Sean S. Cunningham, I was struck by one of the inspirations he listed for Friday the 13th… Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. With the post-84 rise of the big-name supernatural slasher (Freddy has a lot to answer for), it’s easy to forget the And Then There Were None-ness of the pre-franchise slasher, but Prom Night is one of the films that really makes the template clear. The film opens in 1974, with a group of kids playing in an abandoned convent. A young girl tries to join in the game, but things go horribly wrong and she dies. The kids swear never to speak of it again. Jump to: 1980, and the preparations for prom. The kids are teenagers now, but it seems someone knows what they did last summer (okay, six summers ago). Strange pictures appear in lockers, stabbed with shards of glass. It’s only a matter of time before a masked killer arrives to follow through on the threats. Admittedly not the most well-loved slasher – and certainly far from the most violent – Prom Night has a charm and style all of its own. For me, it’s interesting in the way it plays up the ‘past crimes back to haunt them’ element over the expected hack-and-slash aspect (there are no gratuitous deaths here – though a couple are accidental). It’s an enjoyable bit of fun, and a great way to end another day of screenings.

Sunday, 18th November

Abrakadabra (dir. Luciano Onetti and Nicolás Onetti, 2018)

Abrakadabra is a mystery thriller in the giallo style, which pays homage to films of the 60s and 70s. It’s painstaking in its period detail – not just in terms of set dressing and costume, but also cinematography, sound design and direction. The film begins with the accidental death of magician Dante the Great during a difficult trick (you may be able to guess which trick he’s attempting – it’s a standard reference in pop culture films about magicians now). We then move forward 35 years, and Dante’s son Lorenzo (now also a magician) arrives in town for a show. Not long after this, of course, the murders begin. True to the giallo mode, the murderer is a shadowy, secretive figure who seems to haunt the protagonist (though he may also just be an innocent pawn in the killer’s game – or a patsy set up to take the fall). The murders are brutal, and all seem to revolve around the world of magic. Lorenzo is forced to investigate the deaths – and the death of his father – to work out how (if at all) he is involved in this twisted plot. I’m in two minds about Abrakadabra. I loved the film’s opening, and the denouement and reveal were really good too. Plot-wise, it was a lot of fun. However, the middle section did seem to drag a little, and I struggled with the stylized characterization (though this was somewhat redeemed by the ending). It’s a brave – interesting? – choice to make a film in a mode that, some would argue, ended its heyday over forty years ago, and there were times when the film threatened to tip into style-over-substance territory. This isn’t a satire or pastiche – it is a giallo film, but I’m not sure it really does much to update or interrogate that.

Silent Shorts Vol IV

Something a bit different next – the first time we’d seen it, but the fourth time Silent Shorts had been featured on the Abertoir programme. This was a selection of – surprisingly enough – silent short films, all of a horror (or comedy-horror) bent. The shorts were soundtracked by fantastic original compositions by pianist Paul Shallcross. Shallcross also provided some introduction, background and context for each of the selected films. The striking thing for me at this screening was the variety in the films. I was also impressed by the way each of them made use of techniques and technologies that were highly innovative for the time – a reminder of just how creative a genre horror can be. We began with Georges Méliès’ 1903 The Monster (and who doesn’t want to see a Méliès film on the big screen?), which makes use of practical effects, superimposition and stop tricks to create an illusion of magical transformation that almost makes you forget that cinematography was only eight years old at the time. Next, it was Suspense, a 1913 short written and directed by Lois Weber. Again, this film has some notable new technologies on display – it has an early example of a split screen and an ambitious chase sequence. The third film was a bit different – not least because it was made in the era of sound (and Technicolor), and so its existence as a silent black-and-white short is stylistic, rather than circumstantial. Meshes of the Afternoon is a 1943 experimental film that uses repetition of motifs, slow motion and non-naturalistic camera angles to create a study of the subconscious, evoking both surrealism and film noir. Finally, we had Dr Pyckle and Mr Pryde, a 1925 parody of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, starring Stan Laurel. You can probably imagine how that one went!

Scala Forever! A Presentation by Jane Giles

Next on the programme was another talk, and about something I know little about. Jane Giles is the author of Scala Cinema 1978-1993, a new book from FAB Press about the Scala Cinema in King’s Cross. Giles was a programmer at the cinema – which has variously been described as infamous, influential and iconic – and she talked us through the cinema’s history (from its predecessor sites to the King’s Cross venue) and what came to be its signature style. She also talked about Scala’s relationship with horror cinema, with some great anecdotes about some of the notable screenings. While the history of the cinema itself was really absorbing, I was also quite taken with one of the details about the venue – prior to its becoming the ‘legendary’ Scala Cinema, the venue had a short life as Cyril Rosen’s Primatarium, an educative ‘experience’ designed to raise awareness of primates and their habitat.

Anna and the Apocalypse (dir. John McPhail, 2018)

The final film screening of the festival! I can hardly believe it! The last film to be shown on this year’s programme was the British Christmas zombie musical Anna and the Apocalypse. Anna is coming to the end of her time at school and dreaming of going travelling (though her dad wants her to go to university instead) – but all that is about to change when the zombie apocalypse hits. Instead, she’s going to be battling for her life along with a band of other survivors – and breaking into song at various points. Sadly, this film did not work for me. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t think it really succeeded at any of the things it attempted. It’s a British film, but it has no clear sense of place. The accents are a mishmash of North-East and Scottish, and the town of Little Haven doesn’t quite feel like it’s in the UK. It’s a Christmas film, but it seriously lacks the promised ‘feel-good’ element that you want from a festive film. No one learns the true meaning of Christmas, and no one discovers that love and joy are more important than material things. (Mostly because of the zombies, to be fair.) It’s a zombie film, but it’s zombies-by-numbers. There’s nothing interesting or different about its undead. And while there’s a ‘don’t fear the zombies, fear the other survivors’ element, it involves the arbitrary and implausible madness of an individual (played at the highest possible pitch by Paul Kaye). There’s no real fear or angst here – just excuses for Anna (played by Ella Hunt) to stab zombies with a giant candy cane. Finally, it’s a musical (in the High School Musical fully-integrated mode), but the songs aren’t catchy or memorable. Sigh. Just call me the Christmas zombie musical Grinch.

Rob Kemp's The Elvis Dead

Although Anna and the Apocalypse was the final film screening, there was one last event on the schedule… a performance of The Elvis Dead by Rob Kemp. The Elvis Dead is Kemp’s award-winning comedy stage show in which he reimagines Evil Dead II through the songs of Elvis Presley. Now, I like Evil Dead II and I like the music of Elvis, so this seemed okay to me. Ironically, I found myself seated between one guy who likes Evil Dead but hates Elvis, and another guy who loves the King but hates Evil Dead. I felt like the middle of a Venn diagram. Anyway, Kemp’s performance is an energetic romp through Raimi’s film – with scenes projected behind him throughout the show – in which he plays both a version of Ash and a version of Elvis. The King’s hit songs are rewritten to capture the action and OTT emotion of the cult horror film. Kemp’s solo performance is exhausting just to watch, as he uses props, make-up and hairspray (fans of the film might guess when that last one is used) to mimic Ash’s various traumatic experiences. And then, he bursts into song. The rewritten lyrics are often very funny – and I can’t have been the only person eagerly waiting to find out which song would be used for the ol’ chainsaw/hand scene (and I wasn’t disappointed there!) – but it’s the interplay between Kemp’s on-stage performance and the film screening that I enjoyed most. It’s a very well put-together show, which oozes affection for and understanding of both its sources. I loved the show… but so did both the other people in our little Venn diagram, and that seems like a success to me. A great laugh, and a fun way to round off the festival. Hail to the King, baby.

And so, our first ever visit to Abertoir came to an end. We thoroughly enjoyed our week in Aberystwyth, and I'm really pleased we were finally able to make it to the festival. Work commitments allowing, we're really hoping to be able to make it to Abertoir 14 next year. Fingers crossed!