Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Poirot Project: Problem at Sea (review)

This post is part of my 2016 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 ‘Triangle at Rhodes’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The seventh episode of the first series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 19th February 1989. It was based on the short story of the same name, which was first published in This Week in January 1936. The story was first published in the UK in The Strand in February 1936, under the title ‘Poirot and the Crime in Cabin 66’.

Thanks to Liam Adler for providing this image.

The short story is set during a cruise around Egypt, and begins with Miss Ellie Henderson in conversation with General Forbes. As Miss Henderson gently probes the general for information about a fellow guest – Colonel Clapperton – we become aware that another traveller is present: Hercule Poirot. So, once again, we find Poirot enjoying a bit of female company on his holidays – this theme is going to come up several more times, by the way.

Ellie’s interest in Colonel Clapperton has been inspired by his seemingly mismatched marriage. The colonel is a pleasant, quietly spoken man; his wife is a domineering woman, disliked by all the other occupants of the boat. General Forbes is the only person who voices any criticism of the poor browbeaten husband – but this is presented as old-fashioned snobbishness. The general is disdainful of the fact that Clapperton was once a music hall performer; he believes the man is socially beneath his wife (the former Lady Carrington). Nevertheless, the general’s blustery haughtiness is the only voice of dissent – Colonel Clapperton is liked (even loved) by everyone else.

When the boat arrives at Alexandria, two cheeky young women (Kitty Mooney and Pamela Cregan) attempt to lure Colonel Clapperton off the boat for a day of fun. In front of a small audience, the henpecked Clapperton asks his wife’s permission and is angrily dismissed through a locked door. However, he quickly gets over his embarrassment and joins his female friends for the trip.

Clapperton returns from the trip and discovers… shock! horror!… his obnoxious wife has been murdered! The only clue is a string of beads found on the floor of Mrs Clapperton’s cabin, implicating a local vendor. Poirot, of course, isn’t fooled.

I love this short story. In fact, I love it so much that I sort of ‘borrowed’ the solution for a murder mystery game I wrote for Hic Dragones. This means that I know from experience how hard a trick it is to pull off. One whiff of ventriloquism and the whole things falls to pieces. I handled this by slipping in a reference to a ‘vent act’ when no one was paying attention; Christie did it by never actually saying what Clapperton did on stage, allowing the other characters (and the readers) to jump to the wrong conclusion. The ‘wrong conclusion’ here is that Clapperton was a conjuror – an error that Clapperton perpetuates by performing card tricks. Even Poirot is briefly fooled, noting that the ‘conjuror had shown himself through the mask of the pukka sahib’. (I’m going to come back to the idea of the conjuror in another blog post.)

Another reason why I like ‘Problem at Sea’ is the character of Ellie Henderson. According to the Wikipedia page for the series (hmmm…), the TV programme often made changes to ‘present female characters in a more sympathetic or heroic light, at odds with Christie’s characteristic gender neutrality’. Though this might be true for some major characters in the later feature-length episodes, it obscures some of the fascinating minor characters in the short stories, who are often written with subtle depth and sympathy. Ellie Henderson is one such character – a beautifully tragic woman, whose initial good humour belies an aching loneliness. The most poignant example of this is when Clapperton leaves the boat with Kitty and Pam. Miss Henderson watches the three disembark, and is asked by Poirot whether she will also be going ashore. The detective notes that Miss Henderson is wearing a sun hat and smart clothes, but she quietly insists that she was planning to stay on board. Poirot, naturally, is too much of a gentleman to question this.

The TV adaptation was written by Clive Exton and directed by Renny Rye. As with most of Exton’s other scripts, it stays close to its source material, and so given how much I love the short story the episode is one of my favourites (one of my many favourites). If I had to say what stuck with me the most after I first watched it (and remember, I was only ten at the time), it would undoubtedly be the bonkers denouement – and more on that shortly.

As with most of the episodes in the first series, the biggest change comes with the insertion of characters who weren’t in the original story. Hastings is now accompanying Poirot on his cruise, and is strangely wrapped up in organizing a clay pigeon tournament. While this little subplot is rather silly, it does nothing to distract from or alter the main mystery. It’s a classic ‘give Hastings something to do’ plot, of which there are several in the early series. The TV adaptation also adds a few other passengers to the cruise: the Morgan sisters and their young niece (played by Dorothea Phillips, Sheri Shepstone and Louisa Janes), and the Tollivers (played by Geoffrey Beevers and Caroline John).

Additionally, there are a few changes to characterization, though, again, this doesn’t deviate too dramatically from the source story. Colonel Clapperton (John Normington) is a little less reserved than his literary counterpart. In Christie’s story, Clapperton is a ‘distinguished grey-haired’ gentleman who is difficult to reconcile with ‘with a red-nosed comedian singing mirth-provoking songs’. In the TV episode, it is much easier to imagine Clapperton on the stage, even before his mask ostensibly slips during the card trick.

Mrs Clapperton (played by Sheila Allen) is also slightly different. In the short story, Christie describes the woman thus:
‘Mrs Clapperton, her carefully waved platinum head protected with a net, her massaged and dieted form dressed in a smart sports suit, came through the door from the bar with the purposeful air of a woman who has always been able to pay top price for anything she needed.’
This is followed up with a wonderfully cutting statement:
‘From the distance she had looked a possible twenty-eight. Now, in spite of her exquisitely made-up face, her delicately plucked eyebrows, she looked not her actual forty-nine years, but a possible fifty-five.’
Despite this, I must admit to feeling a bit of sympathy for Christie’s Adeline Clapperton. Colonel Clapperton is a bit of an arse, to be honest. He spends half the cruise openly flirting with two girls young enough to be his daughters, and the rest batting his eyelids at Miss Henderson. He refuses to play bridge with his wife, meaning that, unless there’s a single person present, she’ll be unable to play. I’ve always felt that Clapperton seems to be deliberately trying to humiliate his wife (before bumping her off). So I’m just going to say it: Mrs Clapperton has funded her husband’s entire lifestyle since he came out of the army and – do you know what? – she’s absolutely right to point out that the car she paid for isn’t actually his car.

Perhaps because of this, the TV episode exaggerates Mrs Clapperton’s ‘odious’ nature, making it easier for viewers to sympathize with her husband (though not me, I’m afraid). Adeline’s appearance is no longer deceptive – she is clearly a woman in her late forties/early fifties – but her vanity is retained (even heightened). We first see her gazing into a mirror, plucking her eyebrows (in a nod to the description in Christie’s story). As she plucks and preens, she sings ‘Stay as Sweet as You Are’ (by Harry Revel and Mack Gordon), which is not only an awfully vain song to sing to oneself, but also an incongruously modern song (it was first performed in 1934) for an older woman to croon. (Now, I’m not going to go on about this too much, but I can’t help but feel that Adeline’s desperate attempts at ‘youth’ here could maybe, just maybe, have something to do with the fact that her husband makes no secret of his infatuation with two eighteen-year-olds. ‘Stay as Sweet as You Are’ is a song usually sung by a man to a woman – Adeline singing it to herself is rather sad.)

Interestingly, although Exton’s Mrs Clapperton is more dramatically ‘odious’, this is tempered by a slight expansion of General Forbes’s character (played by Roger Hume). As in the short story, it is the general who questions Clapperton’s military record and reveals his music hall past. However, in the adaptation, Forbes is more clearly fond of Mrs Clapperton (who he calls ‘Adeline’), and there are definite hints of unrequited affection here.

But, as in the short story, any glimpses of Adeline’s softer side are overshadowed by the presentation of Miss Henderson – Colonel Clapperton’s other victim. Played by Ann Firbank, the TV Miss Henderson captures the dignified sadness of Christie’s character perfectly. In a slight change to the story, Miss Henderson (in her sun hat and smart clothes) does go ashore at Alexandria; however, when she runs into Poirot, she says that she thought she would be part of Colonel Clapperton’s party (i.e. the arse has stood her up). Poirot, with careful tact, prevaricates on the subject, before admitting that Clapperton came ashore with ‘the two little girls’. Miss Henderson sighs and says, ‘They’re not children, Monsieur Poirot.’ And then adds, ‘Nor am I.’

Oh! Miss Henderson – I love you.

Of course, during all this, Hastings hasn’t had much to do. The clay pigeon storyline has been flogged to death – and it’s never really clear (either to the viewers or, indeed, to Poirot) why Hastings is taking it so seriously. Time for a change of pace… Cut to: Hastings posing for a photo on a wooden camel.

As I said above, when I first watched this episode it was the denouement that really stuck in my mind. And it is an absolute cracker. Unlike many of the other early episodes, there’s no chase scene, but there is a truly grand gather-the-suspects reveal, which allows David Suchet to revel in Poirot’s taste for the dramatic. The thing is though… for once, the TV denouement is actually less crazy than that of the short story.

In the adaptation, the passengers are enjoying a bit of post-prandial, post-homicidal entertainment. Mr Russell (the old man known only by the disrespectful nickname ‘the Grandfather of All the Tea Planters’ in the short story, here played by James Ottaway) is reciting a bit of Kipling, when he is interrupted by the ship’s captain (Ben Aris). Poirot is to have centre-stage, and he arrives dramatically carrying a suitcase under a cloth. He whips the cloth away, revealing a suitcase. After working his audience for a short time, he opens the suitcase and produces a doll. This doll, he says (with pure showmanship), can speak – but only if no one is looking. He places her back inside the suitcase, and an eerie voice begins to recite the words Mrs Clapperton ostensibly spoke through her bedroom door on the morning of the murder. The ventriloquism is revealed, and all eyes are on Colonel Clapperton.

Now, much as this might seem like an embellishment written for the TV episode (along the lines of the theatrical capture of George Lorrimer in ‘Four and Twenty Blackbirds’), it’s actually taken from Christie’s short story. However, Christie’s version is – believe it or not – even stranger. In the source text, the passengers find handwritten notes by their dinner plates, instructing them to go to the lounge at 8.30. There, the captain stands on the orchestra stage and announces Poirot as though he were the evening’s star turn. The little Belgian detective arrives with a bulky object covered with a sheet – he removes the sheet to reveal ‘an almost life-sized wooden doll, dressed in a velvet suit and lace collar’. Poirot then performs what appears to be a ventriloquist act (though the doll’s voice is actually provided by a stewardess concealed behind the stage) and implicates Clapperton.

Erm… where did Poirot get this almost life-sized wooden doll? In the TV adaptation, his prop is clearly explained: we see Poirot approaching the Misses Morgan’s niece, who we have previously seen playing with dolls, and requesting ‘a favour’. But at no point in Christie’s story do we see anyone playing with a large wooden mannequin – meaning Poirot fortuitously discovered that there was an almost life-sized doll just kicking around on the boat waiting to be put into action. Or he went out and bought a ventriloquist’s dummy (from one of the many ventriloquism emporia at Alexandria harbour, no doubt) for the sole purpose of giving a murderer a heart attack.

That’s right, did I forget to mention? Poirot’s little show gives Colonel Clapperton a fatal heart attack. And Poirot did this intentionally. As he explains to Miss Henderson, he’d found a prescription for digitalin in the Clappertons’ cabin, and he deduced it belonged to the colonel. Unlike in the TV version, where Poirot’s performance is intended to provoke a confession, in the short story the detective is trying to literally scare the man to death. Come on, Poirot, I know he was an arse, but isn’t that a bit too far?*

And as if this wasn’t enough weirdness, let’s not forget that Poirot puts on a special voice to do his little show. I don’t mean the dummy’s voice (that’s done by the hidden stewardess), but rather Poirot’s own voice changes when he talks to the doll: ‘it was no longer foreign – it had instead a confident English, a slightly Cockney inflection’. WTF? Why does he do that?? (As with the bizarre disguised-as-an-Irishman subplot in ‘The Third Floor Flat’, I can sort of see why Exton chose to drop this bit from his adaptation. It just raises too many questions.)

But there’s one final little flourish in Poirot’s Cockney ventriloquism routine that is absolutely golden. When he presents his ‘witness’ to the crime, he gives the doll a name. The dummy, apparently, is named ‘Arthur’. As in, Arthur Hastings (who doesn’t actually appear in the short story). I’ve mentioned my love of Hastings’s snark in reviews of previous episodes, but it’s just lovely to see Poirot take a light-hearted swipe at his companion here. It’s this sort of thing that really differentiates Poirot and Hastings from Holmes and Watson.

Okay, I’ve gone on too long about this episode now – and there are lots more to go before I get to Curtain. It’s just that this really is a fantastic adaptation of a great short story, and I love talking about it. Two final little gems before I finish…

Although we’ve had a glimpse of Poirot’s moustache-care kit, this is the first episode in which we get to see a really classy Poirot travel accessory. In this case, it’s his walking stick telescope. Nice.

And, while the dialogue is pitch-perfect throughout, the story has one standout exchange between Poirot and Mrs Clapperton (retained verbatim from the short story):
‘“‘You’re so alive, Adeline,’ they say to me. But really, Monsieur Poirot, what would one be if one wasn’t alive?”
“Dead,” said Poirot.’
Can’t argue with that. Next up: ‘The Incredible Theft’

*Actually, Poirot’s causing Colonel Clapperton’s heart attack isn’t quite as sinister as it might sound. Most of the Poirot stories were written before the abolition of the death penalty in the UK, and Christie’s detective frequently offers murderers a way to ‘avoid the rope’ – if he feels some sympathy towards them, that is. Moreover, Poirot is sometimes reluctant to let British killers face foreign courts (as we’ll see in Death on the Nile), which may have been the case had Clapperton lived. Nevertheless, ‘avoiding the rope’ is more commonly achieved by a discreet dose of poison or the concealing of a gun – this is the only story in which it’s effected through a ventriloquism-induced heart attack.


  1. Really liked seeing the original magazine cover. It's so stylish! Thanks for another great review!

    1. Thanks again Valentine. Glad you're still enjoying my reviews! And I was really happy to find an image of that cover. I love it too. :-)

  2. Love the post and agree with you pretty much all the way. I rather liked Kitty Mooney and Pamela Cregan as young women unconstrained by social mores. And Hastings' line that ladies may commit murder, but they don't get found out.

    Have you any idea what Miss Henderson meant by "Unfortunately, my religion forbids it at this time of year"? The only thing I can think of is that it's a weird way to say she has her period, but it seems very clumsy.

    Finally, I'm surprised you didn't mention Miss Henderson's rebuke of Poirot at the end. Frankly, I think she had a point.

    1. Hiya, glad you liked the post. I always understood Miss Henderson's line as simply a polite way of extricating herself from the situation. It's one of those things polite company can't question, so she's safe from being further pestered. :-)

  3. I guess you're right. When I first watched that scene, I thought that General Forbes initially looked blank until his face showed a dawning, slightly embarrassed realisation of what Miss Henderson was implying. But I just watched it again and now I think he simply looks befuddled all the way through!

  4. I just found out about your blog today and I'm voraciously going through the posts as I proceed with watching the show. Your interpretation of Adeline Clapperton strikes me as an interesting one. I wrote her off as having a narcissistic personality disorder and that was that (gotta say that the actress artfully infused the character with this "nails on a chalkboard" quality. It's so easy to hate her!) Although the husbando doesn't rise any sympathy in me either. It all goes to Miss Henderson, the poor idealist.

    1. I think Christie quite often encourages us *not* to sympathize with the victim, but this is one where I think it's a bit unfair. The husband is (arguably) way more manipulative and narcissistic than she is. Or maybe I'm just biased because I *really* don't like him. ;-)