Friday, 25 March 2016

Poirot Project: The Veiled Lady (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 'Peril at End House'.

Beware: Here be Spoilers (including a Sherlock Holmes one this time)

The third episode of the second series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 14th January 1990. It was written by Clive Exton and directed by Edward Bennett. The episode was based on the short story ‘The Case of the Veiled Lady’, which was first published in The Sketch in 1923.

‘The Case of the Veiled Lady’ is one of the original Sketch short stories and so it’s narrated by Hastings. It begins with a bored Poirot bemoaning his lack of cases and claiming that, because he’s so famous, London’s criminal classes have curtailed their activities. He refers to a recent newspaper report of a jewel theft, which he claims is ‘not badly imagined’ (but ‘not in [his] line’). What happens next is a frequent occurrence in the early Poirot stories: Hastings reads some newspaper headlines out loud. This happens a lot. It happens in ‘The Adventure of the Clapham Cook’, for instance, and in Christie’s version of ‘The King of Clubs’. In Peril at End House, Hastings describes this activity as his ‘perusal of the morning news’, and this seems like a nice name for the trope. Here, as in every other insistence, Hastings’s Perusal of the Morning News includes a seemingly trivial detail that will turn out to be important and, we find out, Poirot was listening to every word, despite appearing to ignore his friend.

The two men are interrupted in their chit-chat by a visitor – a ‘heavily veiled lady’ (a description which Poirot places in inverted commas, noting the way this woman ‘mounts the steps’, ‘rings the bell’ and ‘comes to consult us’). I’ve often wondered how deliberately this is meant to evoke the opening of Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Speckled Band’* – in Doyle’s story, Helen Stoner is described as being ‘heavily veiled’, so I wonder if Poirot is specifically quoting the Sherlock Holmes story in his description.

The woman in the veil reveals herself to be Lady Millicent Castle Vaughan, the Duke of Southshire’s new fiancée. Millicent is being blackmailed by a ne’er-do-well named Lavington, and she needs Poirot’s help to retrieve a compromising letter. On hearing this story, Poirot (apparently) switches into full avuncular mode: ‘Have faith in Papa Poirot. I will find a way.’

Poirot is then visited by a man who calls himself Lavington, who ‘accidentally’ lets slip that he will shortly be leaving for Paris. Naturally, Poirot decides to burgle the man’s house while he’s out of the country, and is able to retrieve the Chinese puzzle box in which the letter is stowed. All is not what it seems, however, and his final confrontation with ‘Millicent’ reveals that Poirot isn’t the mug she took him for.

The episode is a pretty faithful adaptation of the short story. ‘Millicent’ is played by Frances Barber (her first of two appearances in the series), and she’s pretty convincing as both Millicent and Gertie. When she’s finally caught by Japp, the TV Gertie utters a similar ‘Nabbed!’ line to that of the short story, and does indeed look at Poirot ‘with almost affectionate awe’ when she realizes the game is up.

As in other episodes, Miss Lemon is added to the story – though sadly Pauline Moran doesn’t have a lot to do here aside from looking like she’s going to lamp ‘Lavington’ (Terence Harvey) when he calls to see her employer. Japp does appear in the short story, but his role is expanded in the TV adaptation – and he gets a wonderful final line (more on that shortly).

The beginning of the story is moved to a picturesque lake, where Poirot, Hastings and Japp are just chilling out, watching kids sail toy boats. Poirot, again, bemoans the lack of good cases, and Japp tells him about the jewellery theft. Hastings does his Perusal of the Morning News later in the episode, in between the meetings with ‘Millicent’ and ‘Lavington’. Millicent’s entrance into Poirot’s flat is removed, with the woman requesting a meeting at her hotel instead, though the content of their conversation remains the same. (The Athena Hotel in this episode is being played beautifully by Senate House, University of London.)

However, while much of the plot and dialogue is retained from the short story, there are two very memorable changes made. Firstly, the TV episode expands the brief description of Poirot’s burglary into a comic set-piece. In the story, Poirot and Hastings set out ‘just on midnight’ to enter Lavington’s house. Hastings has dressed in ‘a dark suit, and a soft dark hat’, which Poirot finds amusing: ‘You have dressed the part, I see’. They are able to open the window sash with ease, and Poirot confesses that earlier that day he went to the house, convinced the housekeeper that he was there to fit ‘burglar-proof fastenings’, and sawed through the catch. This little exchange has some comic elements – not least that Poirot gained entrance by using an ‘official’ card from Japp, but never explains how he came by this card (I like to imagine that he swiped a pile of them at some point, just in case).

The TV episode takes this little vignette and runs with it with a quite adorable little sequence (at least, I think it’s adorable – maybe not everyone will agree). After ‘Lavington’ leaves the flat, Hastings realizes that Poirot has a sneaky plan. Cut to: Poirot disguised as a Swiss locksmith, tootling through Wimbledon on a bike as a jaunty version of Gunning’s theme tune plays.

Poirot is such a method actor, he’s even dewaxed his moustache for the part. (When my husband Rob saw that for the first time, he said, ‘Oh no! Look at his moustache! That must be killing him.’) He presents himself to the suspicious housekeeper Mrs Godber (Carole Hayman), who doesn’t understand his talk of mountains and cantons: ‘You’re never Chinese!’

Poirot and Hastings return that night – both dressed for the part this time – and search Lavington’s house. They discover the Chinese box (which disappoints Hastings, as you ‘can buy them for tuppence in Limehouse’ – a little nod to the setting of the next episode), but before they can take another step… the police show up. The TV Mrs Godber is cannier than her literary counterpart; she knew Poirot was lying and so set a trap for him. Hastings panics and – wildly – throws himself out the window. Poor Poirot is taken down the nick.

I like Poirot’s disguise, but I like Japp’s arrival at Wimbledon police station even more. Alerted by Hastings, he’s come to get his friend out of trouble – but not before he’s had a bit of fun at Poirot’s expense. Looking through the window on Poirot’s cell, Japp tells the desk sergeant (Tony Stephens) that he’s been after this ‘vicious looking character’ for a while: ‘Nobody knows his real name. But everyone calls him Mad Dog.’ Poirot angrily exclaims, ‘This is not funny, Japp.’ But Japp, and the viewer, has to disagree.

The second major change in the story comes at the end. In ‘The Case of the Veiled Lady’, Poirot confronts ‘Millicent’ in his own flat. After revealing the stowed jewels in the puzzle box’s second compartment, Poirot says that Japp will be able to confirm that they are the jewels stolen in the Bond Street robbery. And as if by magic, ‘Japp himself stepped out from Poirot’s bedroom’. The policeman reveals the woman’s true identity, and Poirot reveals that he’d suspected her all along, because ‘the shoes were wrong’.

In the adaptation, the final meeting is switched to the second dramatic location of the episode – London’s Natural History Museum. Poirot meets ‘Millicent’, reveals the jewels, but they are joined by ‘Lavington’ (real name Joey Wetherley) who tries to take the jewels back and make his getaway. This leads to a classic Poirot chase scene around various museum galleries, before the two wrong ’uns are finally nabbed.

While it is lovely to see the Natural History Museum here – and I particularly like the museum cat who gives away Gertie and Joey’s hiding place – there is a stonking anachronism in this episode. Funnily enough, the programme probably got away with this for years, but events in 2015 mean that it’s a bit more obvious now. When Poirot and Hastings arrive at the museum, there, standing in the Grand Foyer in all his glory, is Dippy the Diplodocus.

But as anyone who paid attention to the 2015 ‘Save Dippy’ campaign will undoubtedly know, Dippy was only moved to the Grand Foyer in 1979. Prior to that, the foyer was home to African elephants and a series of display cases – check out the second photo in the slideshow on this page to see what the foyer should have looked like.

This is a bit of a shame, really, as the museum was only ‘window dressing’ after all. I suspect this was a simple mistake on the part of the programme-makers, as they’re quite careful with historical detail elsewhere in the series.

Diplodocus notwithstanding, this is a very enjoyable episode. It’s a close adaptation of the short story, with the nice punchline that criminals are so in awe of Poirot, they’re actually hiring him themselves. Frances Barber puts in a really fantastic performance, and the scenes with Japp, Hastings and Poirot are as charming as ever.

So I’ll end with a couple of ‘miscellaneous gems’…

Interestingly, there are two points at which this episode contradicts details found in Christie’s Peril at End House. In the 1932 novel, Poirot definitively tells Japp: ‘I do not disguise myself, Japp. Never have I disguised myself.’ (Of course, this in itself contradicts a detail from the 1929 short story ‘The Third Floor Flat’, in which Poirot appears to have disguised himself as an Irishman named O’Connor.) Also in Peril at End House, Poirot suggests that Hastings’s patriotic pride in the feats of Michael Seton ‘consoles for the defeats at Wimbledon’ (in 1932, there’d been no British winners of the Gentleman’s Singles for twenty-two years) – in the TV version of ‘The Veiled Lady’, Mrs Godber notes that there’s been more crime in Wimbledon since ‘they started the tennis up the road’, and that it’s ‘been beyond all since that Fred Perry won again this year’. I assume her comments about the tennis starting ‘up the road’ refers to when the All England Club venue moved to Church Road in 1922 (Mrs Godber definitely looks old enough to make this comparison), but her mention of Fred Perry sets the story in 1935 – Perry won Wimbledon in ’34, ’35 and ’36, and Mrs Godber seems to be referring to his second victory. It makes sense, then, that Exton dropped the ‘defeats at Wimbledon’ line from his version of ‘Peril at End House’, as this wouldn’t make sense given that the series is set at the peak of Perry’s success. What I like here is the subtle intertextuality that only makes sense if you’ve read Christie’s texts: not only does Exton remove the now-anachronistic Wimbledon line in ‘Peril at End House’, he cheekily explains why he took it out in the next episode. Quite clever, really.

The episode ends with Poirot, Hastings and Japp back at the boating lake – only this time Hastings has a giant model boat to play with. As Poirot and Japp condescendingly watch their friend compete with the children’s boats, they share a beautiful little exchange that gives an insight into Japp’s more romantic side (which Christie hinted at the ‘The Market Basing Mystery’):
‘Did you ever think to go to sea, Poirot?’
‘No, no, my friend. This is as close as I like to get.’ [Fibber!]
‘I used to dream about the sea.’
Awww… Japp!

Next up… ‘The Lost Mine’.

* Much as I love the Sherlock Holmes stories – and have an abiding love of the Granada adaptations starring Jeremy Brett (not as deep as my love for Suchet’s Poirot, of course) – ‘The Speckled Band’ always makes me angry. There are three reasons for this: (1) You can’t train a snake. (2) Julia Stoner lived surrounded by exotic animals – she would’ve recognized a snake when she saw it. (3) You can’t train a snake.


  1. This did make me laugh. The episode is a really funny one, but your line about 'The Speckled Band' made me spit out my tea. Thanks for the giggle. :)

    1. It's such a bugbear of mine! But glad it made you laugh. The episode has definitely got some lovely humour in it. It's a classic of the early series, in my opinion.

  2. I would think the most obvious Sherlock Holmes comparison here is to the Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton.

    1. I agree, they're virtually identical. Only the end is different, even the villains have similar names! I always thought it was a tribute.

    2. It's sort of a tribute or homage, but also (as in many of the other original Sketch stories), it's Christie having a bit of fun with Doyle's stories. Given the story's title, it's The Speckled Band that's being immediately referenced, but then the plot itself references The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton. It's interesting that it's the TV episode, not Christie's short story itself, that shows Poirot in disguise (like Holmes). :-)

  3. "No one knows his real name, but he's called MAD DOG." Hilarious.

    And that line really stuck in my head earlier this week, when I was watching something else. A point no other reviewer has mentioned is that-- apparently-- this story was yet another instance of Agatha Christe paying tribute to Arthur Conan Doyle. The story in point: "CHARLES AUGUSTUS MILVERTON".

    A woman about to be married is being blackmailed because of a spritely letter she sent to a former lover, and after attempts to haggle and take the letter by force, Holmes & Watson BREAK into his house to STEAL it. Holmes muses what a criminal he would have made, The parallels are unmistakable!

    Of course... there's more differences than similarities... but it seems clear to me Christie decided to use Doyle's story as a starting point, from which to then craft her own VERY different variation on it. (See the 1965 Douglas Wilmer version with Barry Jones as Milverton. The Jeremy Brett version, stretched horribly out to 2 hours, is unwatchable.)

    1. I think you're right about that, and I'm sorry I missed that connection out. The early Poirot stories have so many cheeky references to Doyle's stories that I don't always catch them all!