Saturday, 21 December 2019

Poirot Project: Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan (review)


This post is part of my 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 ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

Okay, so once again I’ve had a bit of a gap between posts, and it’s taken me a while to get to this one. However, I’m planning on writing a few posts in quick succession now. I don’t think I’m going to get to Curtain by Christmas, but I think I might actually get to Dumb Witness!

The eighth (and final) episode of the fifth series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 7th March 1993. This was to be the last hour-long episode, and so the last of the short stories to get the individual treatment. It’s a curiously anti-climactic finale for the original format of the series, as it’s not a particularly notable episode (or, indeed, a particularly notable short story). If the programme-makers had known that it would be the last of the short format episodes, perhaps they might have changed the running order of the series – who knows?

There are a couple of things worth mentioning before I start the post properly. Firstly, although this is the last of the short-format episodes, there are still a number of Christie’s short stories that have yet to be adapted. The programme-makers would return to those stories in the end – and I’ll talk about how this works at a later date – but, for now, they are unadapted and (as would become apparent) shelved indefinitely.

The second thing to mention about this episode is that, not only does it mark a turning-point in the series (no more hour-long episodes), it’s also a bit of a watershed moment in my own personal relationship with the ITV series and with Christie’s fiction. As will become clear in the next post, some big stuff changed in my life between the airing of ‘Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan’ and the next episode of the series. In some ways, it’s the coincidence of timing that has made me feel a very strong personal connection to the series. I was fourteen when ‘Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan’ was first broadcast, and so just coming to the end of my childhood. I’ll write more about that when I tackle the next episode though (and I’ll warn you now, it’ll be a bit sad).

For now…

‘Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan’ was based on Christie’s short story of almost the same name (aka ‘The Curious Disappearance of the Opalsen Pearls’), which was first published in The Sketch in March 1993. It isn’t the most memorable (or the longest) story, but it has a nice bit of locked room action for fans of impossible crimes.

Poirot and Hastings are off to the seaside! Apropos of absolutely nothing, Hastings announces that a change of air would do Poirot good, and that he’d like to take him off for a weekend in Brighton. This largesse on Hastings’s part is the result of him coming into a bit of money from ‘a very good thing’ – though whether this is an investment or a gamble is left up to our imagination. He tells Poirot that he has ‘money to burn’ and, instead of offering to pay his mate back for the rent-free accommodation he’s been mooching, he splashes out on a trip to the Grand Metropolitan. Poirot is touched by his friend’s generosity, but somehow manages to combine this with a dig at his intelligence: ‘the good heart, it is in the end worth all the little grey cells’.

Anyway, off they go to the seaside together, and wouldn’t you know it? no sooner are they there than they run into a mystery. Almost the second they arrive at the hotel, they run into Mrs Opalsen, a woman that Hastings knows ‘slightly’ due to the fact that her husband is a ‘rich stockbroker’ and, for the purposes of this story, Hastings hangs around with rich stockbrokers in his spare time.

Mrs Opalsen loves jewellery, and so Poirot regales her with tales of jewel thefts he has known. She then tells him that she has ‘one of the finest necklaces in the world’ that she’d love to show him. Mrs Opalsen runs off to fetch the pearls, but…

(If you can’t guess what happens next, I’m not sure why you’re even reading Agatha Christie tbh.)

So, while the Opalsens were at dinner, they left their valuable pearl necklace locked in a jewellery box in their hotel room. The box was left in a drawer (not locked), but their maid Célestine was in the bedroom the entire time. She was joined at one point by the chambermaid, and so the only conceivable suspicion falls on either the lady’s maid or the chambermaid. The former seems more likely, as the chambermaid was only left alone in the room twice – for less than 20 seconds each time – during the course of the evening. She wouldn’t have had time to open the drawer, retrieve the jewellery box, unlock the box with a duplicate key (which she would have had to somehow source prior to the theft), remove the necklace, relock the box, place it back in the drawer, and then sit back down as if nothing had happened.

No, that’s not plausible. Célestine must be the thief. And this is proven to be the case when the pearls are discovered in her room. Case closed.

I’m not sure what it is that makes us, as readers, refuse to believe that Célestine is guilty. Because we obviously don’t believe she’s guilty, or we wouldn’t bother reading the story. Every single bit of evidences points to her. She has ample opportunity to take the pearls – surely it would be far easier for her to get hold of a duplicate key to the jewellery box than it would for the chambermaid – and they’re actually found in her room. And yet, we instantly assume that this can’t be what happened. Yes – the pearls found in Célestine’s room turn out to be fake, but surely we’ve already discounted her guilt before that’s revealed?

Célestine does vehemently protest her innocence to Poirot, in French. She believes Poirot is French, and so will be on her side, and ignores his assertion that he’s Belgian (as most people seem to do). He’s Gallic enough to be a potential ally. But that’s not really the reason that we discount her guilt – after all, plenty of culprits protest their innocence, and even though Christie’s culprits are rarely anything other than born and bred English, Célestine’s nationality isn’t quite the perfect defence. No, the reason why don’t think Célestine did it is that she obviously did do it. There are no other suspects, so therefore it can’t have been her. We’re reading an Agatha Christie short story, so we just happily assume (with absolutely no grounds for it) that the patently guilty party must be innocent. It would have been impossible for the chambermaid to commit the crime, but we don’t rule out her guilt. The puzzle is simply how the chambermaid effected an impossible theft, because in this sort of story the impossible is always possible.

In the end, we find out that she did it with the help of an accomplice, some French chalk, an adjoining door, and that pesky duplicate key. The big clue (which, let’s be honest, we probably didn’t spot, despite Poirot clearly mentioning it a couple of times) was that Célestine left the room twice. The first time gave the chambermaid time to take the locked box from the drawer and pass it to her accomplice through the adjoining door to the next room. The accomplice could then use the spare key to unlock the box, take the pearls, and then relock the box. The second time Célestine left the room, the chambermaid could take back the box and replace it in the drawer.

And the accomplice? Literally the only other character in the story that isn’t Poirot, Hastings or one of the Opalsens. It’s the valet.

Who? You know, the valet who was briefly mentioned in one tiny paragraph. Turns out he and the chambermaid are in cahoots and are notorious jewel thieves in London.

Really? Yeah, I think Agatha was phoning this one in. She doesn’t even give the culprits names.

Despite the lacklustre mystery, there are a couple of nice bits in the story. It’s an early Sketch story, so Hastings is our narrator (which is always fun). My favourite bit about this story is that Hastings misses almost the entire investigation. Shortly after Poirot has investigated the scene and announced that he has to go to London to check things out, Hastings decides this case is a bit boring – ‘I thought you were working up to something exciting.’ – and goes to hang out with his mates instead.

When he gets back, Poirot has everything wrapped up and Japp has come to Brighton, arrested the thieves, and gone back to London. Poirot feels guilty about his friend missing all the fun, so offers to use his payment from Mr Opalsen to shout his friend another weekend in Brighton the following week. (An offer which Hastings, the old mooch, doesn’t turn down.)

Otherwise, the story is only notable for another outing for Poirot’s ‘large turnip of a watch’ – a detail from Christie’s characterization that I always enjoy. In this story, we find out that it’s ‘a family heirloom’.

And so, rather thin material for the adaptation. Especially as the adaptation would be the climax of the original run of hour-long episodes. Let’s see how the programme-makers played the hand they were dealt…


‘Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan’ was directed by Ken Grieve and written by Anthony Horowitz. As you might expect from his previous episodes, Horowitz attempts to stay as close as he can to Christie’s material, but isn’t averse to making changes in order to fit the story to the format of the show. And, here, he has to make quite a few changes.

The first major one is the alter the reason for the Opalsens’ visit to Brighton. Perhaps he was inspired by a line in Christie’s story: when Mrs Opalsen hears Poirot’s tales of jewel thefts he has investigated, she exclaims, ‘If it isn’t just like a play!’ And, in Horowitz’s adaptation, the Opalsens are actually in Brighton for a play. The TV Mr Opalsen is no longer a rich stockbroker, but rather a (slightly tawdry) stage producer, who is putting on a production of ‘Pearls Before Swine’, in which he will showcase an infamous set of pearls once given to an actress by a Czar.

(Guess what happens to the pearls after the first night of the play…)

The shift in backstory allows for a couple of other necessary changes. There are now more suspects, which is obviously important for the format of the episode. The Opalsens (played by Trevor Cooper and Sorcha Cusack) themselves are under the spotlight more: Poirot dislikes Mr Opalsen from the off, and the man is no longer one of Hastings’s ‘rich stockbroker’ chums. And there’s a playwright by the name of Andrew Hall (Simon Shepherd, in the first of his two appearances in Agatha Christie’s Poirot) with some dodgy secrets of his own. Hall is in a relationship with the (now only half-French) Célestine (played by Hermione Norris), and everyone – everyone – saw him outside the maid’s room on the night of the theft.

The introduction of Hall to the story is quite a clever change. On the one hand, it seems to introduce a whole new subplot to the admittedly thin story. On the other, it changes nothing. Célestine looks as guilty as ever, though now with the addition of an accomplice, so we still discount her (and Hall’s) guilt as easily as we did when reading the story.

Ultimately, for all the theatrical costuming, Horowitz doesn’t make any changes to the basic explanation for the theft. It’s still the chambermaid (played by Elizabeth Rider) whodunnit, though her accomplice is now a chauffeur rather than a valet (played by Karl Johnson), and he’s been masquerading as an American gent called Worthing in order to book the empty room next to the Opalsens’ suite.

Still… at least they get names this time, and a teeny little bit of backstory too. They’re Grace and Saunders in this version, and Grace used to work in a pub.

Backstory done.


Even with Horowitz’s treatment, the theft storyline in ‘Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan’ is pretty flimsy. There’s just not enough of a mystery here, even when you add in Andrew Hall’s debt and ‘Mr Worthing’. So, the adaptation distracts us with some ‘Poirot and friends go to the seaside’ misdirection (‘It is as a magical trick!’).

This episode near enough screams ‘Pay no attention to the rubbish necklace theft story – look at Poirot in a deckchair!’


At the beginning of Christie’s short story, Hastings comments that a ‘change of air’ would be good for Poirot. It isn’t clear whether this is because his vrai ami is under the weather, or because Hastings is feeling flush and wants a little getaway of his own (which, apparently, he can’t do without Poirot).

In the TV adaptation, this casual comment from Hastings is worked up into a more definite plot point. Poirot is sick, and his doctor advises that he’s rundown and in need of a holiday. He suggests that it would be good for Poirot to get out of London for a while, and to put all thoughts of investigating stuff out of his head. Naturally, this translates into a weekend away at the seaside and, for some reason, he needs Hastings to accompany him.


As in the short story, Poirot’s supposed break brings him into contact with the Opalsens, which leads him to investigate the inevitable theft of the necklace. This time, however, Hastings doesn’t miss the action, but rather spends a bit of time trying to convince Poirot himself to skip this one.

After the theft, Japp arrives, and we get a rare Japp-and-Hastings-boys-night-out, as the pair of them hit the funfair for no other reason than that we want to see Japp and Hastings at a funfair.


But wait! The gang’s not all here yet!

Poirot calls in Miss Lemon for assistance. She arrives quickly, but she’s absolutely fuming at Hastings for allowing Poirot to take on the case. Thank goodness she’s now on the scene to relieve the detective of some of his duties from Christie’s short story. In the source material, it is Poirot himself who goes to London to gather some vital information to crack the case. In the TV version, Miss Lemon takes this on, visiting jewellers and a pub to nose out the facts.

That’s right – it’s another outing for Miss Lemon Investigates! (I love Miss Lemon Investigates!)


There’s one final bit of the seaside storyline that’s worth a quick comment. When Poirot first arrives in Brighton, a man runs after him and claims to recognize him. Poirot nods and agrees that the man may well recognize him from the newspapers, to which the man replies, ‘You are Lucky Len, and I claim my ten guineas!’

This is a gag throughout the episode, culminating with Poirot himself having an encounter with Lucky Len.

Silly as it seems to be, I quite like this little addition to the story. ‘Lucky Len’ (of the Daily Echo) is a fictional version of a recurrent newspaper competition from the twentieth century (which occasionally makes a reappearance). ‘Lobby Lud’ first made his appearance in August 1927, in a competition run by the Westminster Gazette. The paper would give its readers a description of seaside town, a description of ‘Lobby Lud’ and a special passphrase to use. Anyone who spotted ‘Lobby Lud’ in the correct town could speak the passphrase to him and win a cash prize (£5 – not to be sniffed at in 1927).

The competition was madly popular, and it led to all sorts of imitations and variations over the years. Apparently, it was devised to boost newspaper circulation during wakes weeks – with working class communities often taking their annual fortnight’s holidays at the same time, and being far less likely to buy a newspaper while on their jollies, the papers offered an incentive for people to continuing buying – you had to be holding a copy of the newspaper when you confronted Lobby, otherwise he wouldn’t pay out.

The phrase ‘You are X, and I claim my X pounds,’ was apparently coined for a post-war Daily Mail competition (making it slightly anachronistic in its appearance in the episode). The Daily Mirror ran similar competitions, with their character of choice being Chalkie White. In an article first published in The Guardian in 1980, a ‘Chalkie White’ talked about the perils of taking on such a role:
‘[S]ometimes I hate it. You get this terrible sense of paranoia. Everywhere you go, you think everyone's looking at you.’
Tiddly om pom pom.



I like the ‘Lucky Len’ side-line, as it’s a nice piece of British seaside ephemera. However, outside of that – and Japp winning a teddy bear on the shooting range – there’s not much else going on in this one.

The denouement takes place in the theatre, with a culprit-in-the-spotlight moment that echoes ‘Four and Twenty Blackbirds’. The over-friendly bellboy is played by Tim Stern, in the first of two appearances in the series (he’ll be back in ‘Third Girl’). And Hastings is absolutely hopeless when they stumble upon the playwright being beaten up by a couple of wrong ’uns (bet Watson would’ve dealt with them).

And that’s it. That’s the end of the hour-long episodes. That’s all of Christie’s original Sketch stories adapted for television.

What about ‘The Lemesurier Inheritance’?

Shhh… don’t mention ‘The Lemesurier Inheritance’.

Time to wrap this post up, as we’re moving on to the run of feature-length episodes now. As I said at the beginning of this post, ‘Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan’ is a watershed moment for the series, but also for me and my own relationship with Poirot. It’s the end of the original format, and the end of my childhood.

La merde, as they say, est sur le point de devenir réel.

Next up… ‘Hercule Poirot’s Christmas’

1 comment:

  1. Fairly entertaining episode, very weak crime - hard to consider this a satisfying "locked room" mystery when the solution simply involves opening a door to an adjoining room.

    Great to have you back on the Poirot project! I thoroughly enjoy your recaps.

    ReplyDelete