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.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Call for Submissions: Nothing (anthology)

Bleak landscapes, empty hearts, insignificant lives, dystopian futures, extinction, limbo, uncertainty, death. A beautiful void or a horrific state of being. The simple complexity of nothingness.

Submissions wanted for a new anthology of short stories based on the theme of nothing.

What we want: Edgy, dark and weird fiction. Any interpretation of the theme is welcome – and we have no preconceptions about what ‘nothing’ might mean. Any genre considered: dark fantasy, urban fantasy, Gothic, horror, sci fi, steampunk, cyberpunk, biopunk, dystopian, slipstream. We’re looking for original and fresh voices that challenge and unsettle. (And, please remember, we do not publish misogyny, misandry, homophobia, transphobia or racism.)

Editor: Hannah Kate

Publisher: Hic Dragones

Word Count: 3000-7000

Submission Guidelines: Electronic submissions as .doc, .docx or .rtf attachments only. 12pt font, 1.5 or double spaced. Please ensure name, story title and email address are included on the attachment. Email submissions to Hic Dragones. Submissions are welcome from anywhere, but must be in English.

Submission Deadline: Monday 5th September 2016

Payment: Contributor copy (1 copy of paperback plus eBook in ePub and/or mobi format); permanent 25% discount on paperback (resale permitted); 1 free eBook from our catalogue.

For more information: email or visit the Hic Dragones website

Monday, 29 February 2016

Poirot Project: Triangle at Rhodes (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 ‘The Third Floor Flat’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

Two phrases always spring to mind when I think of this episode: ‘unnecessary snake’ and ‘awesome drink’. To explain the first, I have a very visceral, physical phobia of snakes – even thinking about them makes me feel a bit nauseous and weak at the knees – and am slightly annoyed by the fact that TV shows and films aren’t required to warn you about snake appearances. I put this phobia down to the fact that, when I was eight, we moved to an area near a nature reserve that had adders, and so suddenly I was confronted by (what seemed like) terrifying signs everywhere warning me about the forest of snakes that lay on the other side of our garden fence. I haven’t been able to look at snakes since. Fortunately, I’ve seen this episode enough times now to know exactly when to look away from the screen, and simply listen to Poirot deliver a portentous comment on human nature, inspired by the discovery of a viper. And more on the awesome drink shortly…

‘Triangle at Rhodes’ was first broadcast on 12th February 1989; it was directed by Renny Rye and written by Stephen Wakelam. As with ‘Four and Twenty Blackbirds’, Clive Exton acted as script consultant – there’s a great blog post about Exton’s contribution to the Poirot series here, by the way. The episode was based on the short story of the same name, which was first published in This Week in February 1936. It also appeared in The Strand, published as ‘Poirot and the Triangle at Rhodes’ in May 1936. In the story, Poirot has taken a holiday to the ‘white sand’ and ‘sparkling blue water’ of Rhodes. And just to note, in the story and adaptation, Rhodes is still part of the Isole Italiane dell’Egeo (so, an Italian island rather than a Greek one): there’s a little joke about this in the episode, when Douglas Gold (played by Peter Settelen) proclaims that he hadn’t known where Rhodes was before they arrived, noting that it ‘turns out it’s Itai’. Back to the short story though, befriended by the bubbly Pamela Lyall and Sarah Blake, Poirot engages in a gentle bit of people-watching, observing the ostentatious Valentine Chantry and the mousy Marjorie Gold (and the women’s respective husbands). He quickly recognizes the pattern that he sees in his fellow holiday-makers’ interactions, sketching the shape of a triangle into the sand.

Despite giving a stern warning to Marjorie Gold – ‘Leave this place at once – before it is too late’ – Poirot is unable to prevent the inevitable tragedy from occurring. Valentine Chantry is murdered, just as (it transpires) Poirot had feared. In a quirky deviation from the usual formula, Poirot has already noted all the significant clues prior to the murder taking place, so the ‘reveal’ comes quite quickly after Valentine’s demise. He is asked by a shocked Pamela why he did nothing to stop events transpiring, and makes a typically Hercule pronouncement:
‘And say what? What is there to say – before the event? That someone has murder in their heart? I tell you, mon enfant, if one human being is determined to kill another human being –’
In a lot of ways, ‘Triangle at Rhodes’ has much in common with Evil Under the Sun (first published in 1941), and some people have seen the later novel as an expansion of the short story. There are certainly a couple of recycled features (as well as a plot point that had previously been used in Lord Edgware Dies), but personally I prefer to think of the two as discrete texts. Perhaps this is because I really like both of them, and because the characters in both are rather distinctive.

On to the adaptation (because it’s starting to look unlikely that I’m going to get to Curtain by Christmas unless I get a wriggle on)… the episode begins with an overcast shot of Whitehaven Mansions. A postman arrives with mail for 56B (the address used for Poirot’s flat in the TV series – I’ll return to the question of Poirot’s address in a later post), concierge Dicker (portrayed by George Little, in his second appearance in the role) tells him not to bother: ‘they’re all on holiday’. Thus, we’re set up for the first episode that doesn’t feature Japp, Hastings or Miss Lemon, and also the first episode to take place overseas. While Hastings has ‘gone off shooting things’ and Miss Lemon is visiting her sister in Folkestone, we follow Poirot to the ‘white sand’ and ‘sparkling blue water’ of the Mediterranean.

As with the previous episode, the central mystery follows the short story quite closely. The means, motive and perpetrator of the murder are almost identical to those in the source text – though the nature of the poison used is different, which leads to some additional post-murder investigation that is not found in the short story. A number of other changes have been made; some of these are rather superficial, but some are more substantial.

The characters of Pamela and Sarah are conflated into one, Pamela Lyall (played by Frances Low). The TV version of Pamela latches on to Poirot when he rescues her from the over-attentive Major Barnes (Timothy Kightley). Poirot appears here as a sort of avuncular figure, a role he’ll reprise again in other stories, and it’s in-keeping with the show’s repeated suggestion that Poirot is very comfortable in the company of women. In the short story, Poirot seems somewhat less avuncular and even more comfortable in the women’s company. The story gives no indication of how or why Pamela and Sarah have befriended the detective, but simply opens with a ‘dandified’ Poirot (in ‘white flannels and a large panama hat’) happily sitting on the beach with a young woman who is ‘wearing the barest minimum of clothing on her sun-browned person’. He’s a bit of player, is Poirot.

In fact, one thing I did notice on rereading the short story is that the TV episode is far coyer about the opening/early sunbathing scene. In Christie’s text, Pamela is scantily dressed and Valentine has ‘slip[ped] the straps of the white bathing-dress from her shoulders’ in order to tan more completely. In the adaptation, Pamela (presented as a borderline spinster, rather than a flirtatious young girl) is more modestly dressed and Valentine’s straps stay resolutely in place. Given that a number of the later episodes introduce sex scenes that aren’t present in Christie’s books, this coyness in an early episode is quite charming.

As I say, other alterations are a bit more substantial. Christie’s General Barnes, ‘a veteran’ who serves as little more than an additional guest with whom Poirot passes a little time, becomes Major Barnes, a suspiciously overfamiliar man who claims to be in Rhodes for the fishing. I’m not a huge fan of the Major Barnes subplot in ‘Triangle at Rhodes’ – it feels too much like padding and doesn’t really add anything apart from a red herring and a silly maritime chase scene. There is also a deviation involving Poirot’s abortive attempt to leave the island. As his holiday has come to an end, Poirot tries to board a boat at the harbour; however, he is detained by customs officials and accused of being a spy.

While the Major Barnes subplot is a bit pointless, the customs incident does serve some purpose other than padding, and it needs a little explaining. Chronology in Agatha Christie’s Poirot stories is a tricky thing, and it doesn’t always run smoothly. The stories and novels have shifting settings, with contemporary mores and references often making it hard to pinpoint the timeline of Poirot’s life (and making the detective, who had already had a full and successful police career in Belgium by the outbreak of World War I, very very old by the time of his death). Moreover, mores and styles shift with time, and this is reflected through the course of the books, making the decades that divide ‘The Third Floor Flat’ from Third Girl (for instance) very apparent. The makers of the TV show, therefore, had a difficult decision to make about chronology and setting. Do they adapt the stories in the order they were written? Or in a reflection of the stages of Poirot’s career? And should the timeline follow a logical aging of Poirot starting at his arrival in England during WWI? Or set each book at the time of writing, making Poirot’s implausible longevity more obvious?

The programme makers decided to take a different approach, which results in a rather trippy experience of time in the series. With the exception of The Mysterious Affair at Styles (set during WWI), ‘The Chocolate Box’ (set, partially, in flashback to Poirot’s career in Belgium) and Curtain (to be set in the 1940s), the producers set out with the intention of setting all episodes in 1935-36 (or thereabouts). This doesn’t hold strictly true, and some of the later feature-length episodes deviate a little from this, but the majority of episodes are indeed set at some point between about 1935 and 1939. Some fans have found this to be rather frustrating, and at least one person has gone to some lengths to divine a more detailed chronology for the cases featured in the series. I’m happier to simply accept that – like Heartbeat – this is a show pretty much permanently set in one particular year, with a coherent aesthetic inspired by this setting.

This perma-35 setting has a significant result. The world of Agatha Christie’s Poirot is always on the brink of World War II, but never quite there. Fascism is always on the rise; international relations are always unstable; political beliefs and allegiances are always under suspicion. There will be other episodes that deal more directly with the threat of Nazism, invasion and trauma, but ‘Triangle at Rhodes’ gives us our first taste of this recurrent theme. Rhodes is peppered with Italian blackshirts; Major Barnes gives a stark warning about the world being ‘on the brink of war’; and Poirot’s apprehension at customs has sinister overtones. All this serves to heighten Poirot’s role as an embodiment of (perhaps futile) order in a world about to descend into chaos.

There’s probably a lot more I could say about ‘Triangle at Rhodes’. It’s always been an episode that’s fascinated me, but I don’t want to risk turning this review into a full-blown essay. So I’ll end with a comment on that ‘awesome drink’.

As I’ve mentioned before, I was only ten when this first series aired, so my memories of watching individual episodes for the first time are a little patchy. What seems to have happened is that certain details stuck in my mind, even if the plot and solution faded away. Like the ‘white slavers’ in ‘The Adventure of the Clapham Cook’ and the bowl of cherries song in ‘The Third Floor Flat’, the means used to deliver the poison in ‘Triangle at Rhodes’ lodged itself firmly in my young mind.

In both the TV episode and the original short story, Valentine Chantry is killed by a poisoned pink gin. As a child, I was intrigued by this drink, which Valentine (played by Annie Lambert) repeatedly demands throughout the episode, and it seemed to fit with the glamourous 1930s Mediterranean setting. Then, when I was an older teenager, the drink took on an added layer of allure, as I realized that I’d never heard a reference to pink gin in anything other than Poirot. It wasn’t a drink that you could get in the pub; it wasn’t something that my friends or family drank. Pink gin started to take on something of a mythical quality for me, and I was sure that I would one day discover the secret. (This was in the 1990s, by the way, so I couldn’t just Google it.) Finally, when I was about twenty, I worked in a pub that had an old cocktail book gathering dust under the bar, and I finally discovered the elusive ingredients of a pink gin: it’s just Plymouth gin with a dash of Angostura bitters. While this discovery might sound a bit anti-climactic, I was delighted. I immediately embarked on a night of celebration with my new-found tipple.

Probably best to gloss over the details of that night, but suffice to say, come the next morning, I did not look as glamourous as Valentine Chantry.

To bring this review to a close, then, ‘Triangle at Rhodes’ has its problems as an adaptation, but it’s always been an episode that’s close to my heart. For me, it was one of the more memorable episodes of the first series, and it introduces Poirot as the international traveller with an eye for the wickedness in human nature. It’s also the first episode of the series to rely on a really really important ‘rule’ of Agatha Christie’s fiction… but I’m not sure I want to say what that is, as once you know the rule an awful lot of detective fiction is spoilt (so let’s just call it the Peril at End House rule).

Time to move on, though. Next up, it’s ‘Problem at Sea’.

Poirot Project: The Third Floor Flat (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 ‘Four and Twenty Blackbirds’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The fifth episode of the first series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 5th February 1989. It was directed by Edward Bennett and written by Michael Baker. The episode was based on the short story of the same name, which was first published in Hutchinson’s Story Magazine in 1929.

Christie’s short story opens with a group of fashionable young things returning to Friars Mansions from a night out, only to discover their hostess, Patricia Garnett, has lost her latchkey. The two men of the party decide to use the service lift to get into Pat’s kitchen (she lives in a flat on the fourth floor of the apartment block), but they miscount the floors and stumble into a third floor flat instead. And something in that third floor flat isn’t right…

Poirot enters the story in a rather odd way, which serves to raise more questions than it answers. When Pat’s friends, Donovan and Jimmy, return to the third floor flat and discover the body of its resident (Mrs Ernestine Grant), they realize they have to call the police; as they discuss this, a man appears behind them:
‘They stood staring at the little man with a very fierce moustache and an egg-shaped head. He wore a resplendent dressing-gown and embroidered slippers. He bowed gallantly to Patricia.’
This is, of course, our Belgian detective – but his next statement is, to say the least, a little baffling:
‘I am, as perhaps you know, the tenant of the flat above. I like to be up high – in the air – the view over London. I take the flat in the name of Mr O’Connor. But I am not an Irishman. I have another name.’
Why has Poirot been living in this apartment block under the name of Mr O’Connor? Why has he been pretending to be an Irishman? We never find out – but the image is rather charming. Having revealed his true identity, he proceeds to investigate the scene of the crime, partake of an omelette cooked by Pat, put together the clues he discovers, and reveal the murderer of Mrs Grant.

It’s a neat story, with a nice little piece of misdirection at its heart. And the TV episode is a fairly close adaptation, which retains much more subtlety to its clueing than some of the previous episodes.

The TV version moves the location to Whitehaven Mansions (Poirot’s home), thus removing the bizarre Friars Mansions/O’Connor subplot, and adds the usual ‘family’ of Japp, Hastings and Miss Lemon. In this version of the story, Poirot is suffering from a cold (something he merely pretends to in the short story), and Hastings takes him out to the theatre to cheer him up. The play that they go to see, The Deadly Shroud, is a murder mystery, and the two men make a £10 wager that Poirot can solve the mystery by the end of the first act. This is quite a charming touch – a bit more of the Poirot-and-Hastings bonding that is such a key feature of the early series – made even better by the fact that Poirot loses the bet (he believes the butler did it). When the men return from the theatre, they find Pat (Suzanne Burden) and Mildred (Amanda Elwes) locked out of their flat; Donovan (Nicholas Pritchard) and Jimmy (Robert Hines) soon arrive to announce their gruesome discovery.

As a little anecdotal note, I do remember watching and enjoying this episode when it was first broadcast (I was ten at the time). In particular, I remember being quite taken by the service lift the men use to get into the apartment – and, of course, I wasn’t the only person to fall in love with the Whitehaven Mansion sets used in the series – but also by the song Pat and Mildred sing on the stairs as they wait for Donovan and Jimmy. When I was older, I found out that this is quite a well-known song: ‘Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries’ by Ray Henderson and Lew Brown. The song was first performed by Ethel Merman in 1931, so its use here is a nice way of presenting Pat and Mildred as bright young modern things.

Unlike in the previous episode, the details of the mystery are unchanged in the adaptation. Some scenes that are described very briefly in the story are shown visually (and a little differently) in the episode. For instance, Pat mentions that she thinks Mrs Grant has requested a meeting with her because she wants to complain about the noise of Pat’s piano; in the TV episode, we see Pat and Mildred dancing to music from a gramophone, which appears to lead Mrs Grant (played by a rather underused Josie Lawrence) to post a note through her door. However, these little changes do nothing to alter the overall arc or the subtlety of the clues.

Much of the characterization also remains the same in the adaptation. One lovely detail is to be found when Pat cooks Poirot an omelette. In both the story and the episode, this leads Poirot to wistfully comment that, once, he fell in love with an English girl who was very like Pat – except that she couldn’t cook, so he knew it wasn’t meant to be. This is the first of several references to Poirot’s thwarted love life that add a slightly sad air to his character: unlike for Sherlock Holmes, it seems there was more than just ‘one woman’ for Hercule. (Alternatively, perhaps, he is making up the beautiful English girl who couldn’t cook in order to charm and flatter Pat. In which case, and this is a distinct possibility, Poirot is an incorrigible flirt!)

When I wrote about ‘The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly’, I mentioned the ‘car porn’ that is used in these early episodes – and this episode has plenty of shots of Hastings’s gleaming Lagonda. Unfortunately, the Lagonda gets caught up in the episode’s obligatory chase scene, leading to heartbreak for Hastings. While the climactic chases are usually faintly silly in these early episodes, I always find this one to be a bit different. Hastings’s response to the destruction of his beloved car is genuinely moving, and Poirot’s sympathetic response is very sweet.

There are a couple of other points to note about this episode. It is the first of four (well, technically five) episodes to feature George Little as minor recurring character Dicker, the concierge of Whitehaven Mansions. We also have a couple of good Miss Lemon and Inspector Japp moments that expand on their relationship with Poirot. For the former, this comes when Poirot is laid low with a cold, and she is tasked with ensuring (or takes it upon herself to ensure) that the Belgian sleuth is well-dosed with Friar’s Balsam. For the latter, it’s in a little scene where Poirot attempts to persuade the policeman to let him search the murder victim’s flat – Poirot does this entirely via facial expressions, and Japp’s resigned acceptance of this manipulation is endearing.

Ultimately, this is a very good episode. For me, it strikes the perfect balance of recreating the original story and sticking to the format of the early TV series. And, like quite a few episodes, it has a classic Japp line delivered perfectly by Philip Jackson. When he arrives to investigate the murder at Whitehaven Mansions, our long-suffering policeman shoots his friend a mischievous look: ‘You’ll be having murders in your back bedroom next, Poirot.’

Next episode: ‘Triangle at Rhodes’

Poirot Project: Four and Twenty Blackbirds (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 ‘The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

Episode 4 of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 29th January 1989. It was dramatized by Russell Murray (with Clive Exton as script consultant) and directed by Renny Rye. The episode was based on the short story of the same name (aka ‘Poirot and the Regular Customer’), which was first published in Collier’s Magazine in November 1940.

UPDATE: I have been reliably informed that 'Four and Twenty Blackbirds' was in fact first published in The Mystery Magazine in 1926, but didn't see its first UK publication until 1941 (in The Strand).

I don’t clearly remember watching this episode when it was first broadcast, though I’ve seen it a few times since. I do remember reading the short story for the first time though, and it remains one of my favourites. The adaptation is interesting, as it removes some of my favourite features of the short story (boo!) but adds some extra details that I really love (yay!).

Christie’s short story begins with Hercule Poirot having dinner with his friend Henry Bonnington at the Gallant Endeavour. While the two are enjoying their meal, the waitress tells them a curious story. She points out an old man who has been dining regularly at the restaurant for nearly ten years, and says that, like all ‘gentlemen’, he always orders the same thing. However, the week before, the old man had not only varied the day on which he came to the restaurant (he went on a Monday, as well as his usual Tuesday and Thursday), but he also ordered something quite different from the menu – thick tomato soup (despite never having ordered a thick soup before), steak and kidney pudding (despite hating suet pudding), and blackberry tart (despite hating blackberries). Poirot finds this occurrence fascinating, and his little grey cells begin to tingle.

This is what I love about ‘Four and Twenty Blackbirds’. It begins with this simple little curiosity and the reader, like Poirot, is invited to start thinking about explanations. Why would a man who has been so fixed in his eating habits for nearly a decade suddenly deviate so dramatically from habit? When I first read the story, I remember pausing at the section break after Poirot and Bonnington’s meal, running through possible scenarios that might explain the weird occurrence. And I’m quite proud of myself for actually working it out, too. Although this opening section of the story doesn’t give any information as to whodunit – in fact, at this point in the story, no one has actually ‘dun’ anything – I did work out the puzzle of the old man’s dining habits…

… but the fun of ‘Four and Twenty Blackbirds’ lies in its ‘double puzzle’ structure. Three weeks after their meal together, Poirot runs into Bonnington and learns that the old man hasn’t been to the Gallant Endeavour for over a week. Poirot is now completely hooked, and begins to investigate. He estimates the old man’s age and searches for reports of deaths that might match. With luck, the first death he finds (that of Henry Gascoigne) turns out to be the right one, and away he goes. But even if you (like Poirot) solved the first puzzle – that the ‘Henry Gascoigne’ who ordered the blackberry tart was an imposter – this only serves to make the second puzzle – who killed Henry Gascoigne, and why? – more confusing. The man was a poor artist, with only a nephew and an estranged twin brother, and there seems no reason for his death. Stranger still, Poirot discovers that the twin brother himself has died earlier the same day. All that remains is for Poirot (and the reader) to put the various pieces together and work out what has happened. There’s some nice clueing, and a little red herring, in the story to lead you on your way.

The TV adaptation makes quite a few alterations to the source story, some good, some not so good. Let’s begin with the not so good…

As with several of the early episodes, key details and clues are made much more obvious in the adaptation than in the short story. I’ve forgiven this in some previous episodes, but I find it a bit more frustrating here. Perhaps this is just because I’m fonder of the short story, I’m not sure.

The episode begins with a short disconnected scene (the same technique is used in ‘The Adventure of the Clapham Cook’), showing the death of Anthony Gascoigne, and mentioning his brother Henry and nephew George Lorrimer. We also quickly learn that George (played by Richard Howard) works in the theatre, and is devoted to both his uncles.

Poirot enters the story, as in the source text, at dinner with Bonnington (Denys Hawthorne). Bonnington is now Poirot’s dentist – allowing for further development of a recurrent joke about Poirot’s fear of the dentist – and the restaurant is now called the Bishop’s Chop House. Molly the waitress (Cheryl Hall) tells the men about the regular customer, but in this version there’s no mystery about his identity. She then interrupts the men’s meal to tell them that Henry Gascoigne has, for a second time, ordered thick soup, suet pudding and blackberry crumble. This conflates the events of the short story into one meal, and removes the need for a later chance meeting of Bonnington and Poirot. To be honest, I can understand why this meeting would have to be changed for the TV adaptation – it’s quite hard to imagine Suchet’s version of Poirot travelling on the tube – but I feel that this collapsing of events into one strange dinner weakens the mystery somewhat. The clues, which were handled quite neatly in the short story, are being presented a bit too heavy-handedly.

In addition to this, the plot has undergone some changes. The TV version of Henry Gascoigne is now a successful artist, who prevented sales of his highly-prized paintings during his lifetime. Two new suspects are introduced as a result of this change: Henry’s model Dulcie Lang (played by Holly De Jong) and his agent Peter Makinson (Clifford Rose), who both own paintings that have become highly valuable with Gascoigne’s death. Furthermore, a specific cause for the Gascoigne brothers’ feud is introduced: Anthony’s wife, Charlotte, was previously Henry’s model and muse. As Hastings comments, it now seems like ‘everyone stands to benefit from the old man’s death’. These changes turn out to be something of a red herring, however, as the final motive (and murderer) is revealed to be the same as that of the short story.

The episode’s slightly altered plot leads to a different denouement. This is the case with a number of the shorter episodes, as the short stories don’t all feature a confrontation with (or apprehension of) the perpetrator. As a result, these endings are often inserted into the TV episodes. As well as this, the change in George Lorrimer’s profession (from doctor in the story to theatre manager/performer in the adaptation) – and the inclusion of Japp and a team from Scotland Yard (see below) – leads to a very theatrical denouement indeed (which looks ahead, in a way, to The Big Four). It’s a bit over-the-top but, as I’ve mentioned before, the early TV episodes are known for their dramatic endings – and at least it’s not a chase scene this time.

While the puzzle is a little less subtle in the TV adaptation, there are some changes that I do like. As in other episodes, these relate to the inclusion of the ‘family’. Hastings, Miss Lemon and Japp are included in the story, despite not being in the original short story, and George is removed, despite being mentioned briefly (we’ll have to wait a while longer to meet George). And just like in other early episodes, these ‘family’ scenes are a complete joy.

Highlights of the episode include the revelation that Miss Lemon adores Raffles, the gentleman thief, and tunes in religiously to a radio adaptation of E.W. Hornung’s stories (much to Poirot’s affectionate amusement); the first hint in the series of Hastings’ predilection for redheaded women, and Poirot’s love of Surrealist art; Poirot’s cooking of a traditional Belgian rabbit dish for Hastings, which the latter says ‘tastes more... well... rabbity than any rabbit I’ve ever tasted’. By far my favourite addition, though, is a little scene with Japp, in which the policeman shows Poirot around Scotland Yard’s brand new forensics lab. As specialists pore over microscopes and samples, Japp explains that this is the future of policing and that, very soon, men like himself and Poirot will be obsolete. Poirot counters this by asking for a favour and, when Japp agrees, the little Belgian detective happily notes that no amount of forensic science could ever replace their ‘camaraderie’. It’s a lovely moment.

All in all, this is a good solid episode, though it isn’t a favourite of mine. There’s lots of good character moments – and it’s worth watching just for the cricket joke that runs throughout the episode (with a brilliant punchline right at the end) – but the storyline doesn’t quite live up to the excellent source story.

Time to move on to the next episode… ‘The Third Floor Flat’.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Poirot Project: The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly (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 ‘Murder in the Mews’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

I think this review will be shorter and a little less effusive than the two that have come before, as the third episode in the first series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot is one of the less memorable (apart from two bits, that is). And I can't remember if I’d ever read the original short story before today.

‘The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly’ was first broadcast on 22nd January 1989, and was based on the short story (aka ‘The Kidnapping of Johnny Waverly’) published in The Sketch in 1923. The original story is narrated by Hastings; Poirot has been engaged by Mr and Mrs Waverly, whose young son has been kidnapped. The couple received a series of letters threatening to abduct Johnnie if a ransom of £50,000 was not paid by a specific deadline. They didn’t pay the money, and their young son was taken – despite all their attempts to prevent this. Poirot questions the couple, and then travels to Waverly Court, where an examination of the property and interviews with the staff allow him to unravel the kidnapping plot.

I’m not sure this is the most exciting of the Poirot stories – the detective dismisses kidnapping as ‘easy’, and even Hastings admits that he is ‘frankly bored’ during one of the interviews. Nevertheless, there are some nice clues and a neat ‘hidden in plain sight’ perpetrator. As it is one of the early stories, there is still something of the Watson about Hastings’ narration – he is faithfully recording the deeds of his illustrious associate – but his confession that he is ‘bored’ prepares us for some of the excellent Hastings snark that is to be found in the later novels (e.g. Peril at End House).

The adaptation was dramatized by Clive Exton and directed by Renny Rye. The plot and characters are retained from the source material, but there are some changes that don’t quite work as well as in other Exton adaptations. Firstly, the alteration of the third co-conspirator and the resulting requirement that Tredwell’s niece (played by Carol Frazer) could pass for a young version of Tredwell (Patrick Jordan) doesn’t work as well as the revelation in the original story. Also, inexplicably, the adaptation has Mr Waverly (Geoffrey Bateman) meet with Poirot alone – it would make a lot more sense if (as in the original story) Mrs Waverly was responsible for engaging the detective. Why on earth would Mr Waverly want a famous detective poking his nose in? Finally, as in other episodes, some of the clues have been stripped down and removed entirely. The dust-free priest hole of the short story is replaced with a secret tunnel, and the clue of the dog paw prints is absent. I think this is a bit of a shame, as these were nice little clues (they even make Poirot chuckle).

As with the rest of the series, the regular ‘family’ of characters are inserted into the adaptation, despite not being present in the short story. And I’m absolutely fine with this!

Miss Lemon is added to the story, though she is only present in the early scenes before Poirot goes to Waverly Court. These brief scenes do have two points of note, though. We see the first of several silent exchanges between Moran's Miss Lemon and Fraser's Hastings – it’s just a little bit of eye contact between the two after Poirot has left the room, but it speaks volumes. And we get our first taste of Miss Lemon’s incredible filing system (which, I believe, is mentioned in Christie’s work, but appears more frequently in the early adaptations). I adore Miss Lemon’s filing system – it’s long been my ambition to have an office (or a mind) that is so efficiently organized.

Inspector Japp is also added ito the episode; here, he replaces Inspector McNeil as the Scotland Yard detective who doesn’t have time to take the threatening letters seriously at first, and then fails to prevent the kidnapping when he finally goes to Waverly Court. This isn’t a big change, to be honest, and I don’t have a problem with Japp being used instead of the various detectives who appear in Christie’s fiction. And, let’s be honest, the central group of characters at the heart of the early series are why we fell in love with it in the first place. Much better to have Japp here than the arbitrary ‘McNeil’ that we’ll probably never see again.

But it’s the added Poirot-and-Hastings scenes that are really memorable in this episode. The two travel to Waverly Court in Hastings’ Lagonda, giving us our first taste of the ‘car porn’ that will recur throughout the early series. After spending the night at Waverly Court, Poirot is dismayed to find that the frugal Mrs Waverly serves a less than substantial breakfast (she appears to not even put fish in the kedgeree). Hastings takes him to a pub for a full English (something that Christie’s Poirot disdains in ‘The Market Basing Mystery’, and that the ITV character will later wrinkle his nose at) – and this includes a couple of pints of ale. Fed and watered, the two travel back in Hastings’ car, giving a rousing rendition of ‘One Man Went to Mow’. It’s not in the source material, and it’s not quite in character, but I do love that bit.

And bonus points for another gorgeous steam train (this time pulling into a station), as Poirot declines Hastings’ offer of driving him back to London.

And so ends the third review in my Poirot Project. On to ‘Four and Twenty Blackbirds’

Poirot Project: Murder in the Mews (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 ‘The Adventure of the Clapham Cook’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

I should probably carry on now with less anecdote and more focus, otherwise I’ll never get to Curtain by Christmas.

Episode 2 of Agatha Christie’s Poirot is ‘Murder in the Mews’, and was first broadcast on 15th January 1989. Again, it was dramatized by Clive Exton and directed by Edward Bennett. It was based on the short story of the same name (first published in 1936 under the title ‘Mystery of the Dressing Case’), which was itself a reworking of ‘The Market Basing Mystery’ (published in 1923).

‘The Market Basing Mystery’ begins with Poirot, Hastings and Japp taking breakfast one summer’s morning at a pub in Market Basing, before being interrupted by a Constable Pollard who urgently needs assistance with a suspicious death. Walter Protheroe has been found shot dead in a locked room, the key to which is missing. Although Protheroe was found with a gun in his hand, various indications at the scene suggest that he did not commit suicide (such as the gun being in his right hand, but the bullet wound being to his left temple). Poirot eventually deduces that, rather than being a murder made to look like a suicide, this is in fact a suicide made to look like a murder. Protheroe’s housekeeper, on discovering her beloved employer has taken his own life, alters the scene to disguise the truth. As she is the only person to know that Protheroe is left-handed, she moves the gun to his right hand to make it look like he was shot by someone else. In the original story, narrated by Hastings, Poirot confronts Miss Clegg, who confesses that Protheroe was being blackmailed and that she wanted to implicate the blackmailers in his death.

The 1936 reworking of the story replicates the means, method and motive, but replaces Walter Protheroe with a young widow named Mrs Allen, and the housekeeper Miss Clegg with the flatmate Miss Plenderleith. Hastings’ narration is removed – indeed, Hastings is removed from the story completely – and the setting is altered to London, with the story opening on Bonfire Night. The revised story is substantially longer, with additional clues thrown in (including an attaché case and a blotting pad), a further suspect added (Mrs Allen’s fiancé), and various interrogations and searches carried out by Poirot and Japp. The later story is a more satisfying read – the early version feels rather rushed – but I love the opening of ‘Market Basing’, in which we discover that, when not on duty, Inspector Japp is an ‘ardent botanist’ who knows the Latin names (‘somewhat strangely pronounced’) of flowers.

The TV adaptation was based on the later version of the story, but altered it to include Hastings. While the setting is still Bonfire Night, the episode’s opening is, in some ways, closer to that of ‘Market Basing’, as we get all three men (rather than just Poirot and Japp) out enjoying themselves on a night off. Nevertheless, the story is otherwise reasonably faithful to the 1936 text – with a comment about fireworks being a good disguise for gunshot (made by Hastings in the adaptation, Japp in the story) proving to be grimly prescient on the discovery of Mrs Allen’s body the following morning.

As with ‘The Adventure of the Clapham Cook’, there are some minor changes to the source material. Miss Lemon is again added to the story, and George (Poirot’s ‘immaculate man-servant’) is removed – this character doesn’t make an appearance until much later in the series, despite his presence in a number of the short stories. Weirdly though, Mrs Allen’s fiancé Laverton West is played by David Yelland, who would eventually return to the series in Taken at the Flood as George. So I guess George is sort of in ‘Murder in the Mews’ after all!

Other changes made are similar to those found in the first episode. Some of the subtler elements of the original story are underlined more clearly – specifically the question of whether the victim was right- or left-handed. Instead of being hinted at, as in the story, this question is repeated several times and is more directly presented as a source of confusion/interest for Poirot. A red herring from the story is also removed: the character of Mrs Pierce (Gabrielle Blunt), the woman who keeps house for the flatmates, is reduced, and the question of her being ‘an old liar’ is omitted. Finally, as in other episodes, events that are briefly narrated in the text are dramatized in the adaptation. Notably, this includes a trip to the golf course for Poirot and Hastings (allowing for further development of the dynamic between them and more of the twinkly humour Suchet brings to the role in these early outings).

Again, this early episode sets up things that will become recurring features of the show. Hastings’ love of cars – and his prized Lagonda – is introduced. And we get our first taste of the dramatic sets (other than Poirot’s apartment, of course) that characterize the show’s aesthetic. 14 Bardsley Gardens Mews (pictured above) is a far cry from 88 Prince Albert Road, Clapham, and the swimming pool used as the location of Laverton West’s second interrogation is very beautiful. The interview with Major Eustace is also moved from his ‘mere pied à terre’ to a nightclub. Presumably this is the ‘Far East Club’ that Eustace mentions in Christie’s story, as the viewer’s languorous introduction to this establishment reveals hostesses dressed in ‘Oriental’ costumes and a striking (though utterly un-PC) performance of ‘Hindustan’ (a song written in 1918 by Oliver Wallace and Harold Weeks) by Moya Ruskin. I don’t know if Ruskin was actually singing or just miming, but she is really stunning here – though the hand gestures that accompany the song are thoroughly inappropriate. The ‘Far East Club’ is our first taste of the colonial aesthetic that surfaces throughout the series. It is undoubtedly glamourized – look at the band! look at that gorgeous singer! – but it is also very subtly criticized, as the man who inhabits the ‘Far East Club’ is a decidedly a wrong ’un.

‘Murder in the Mews’ is another cracking adaptation. Once again, although there are some changes made, Exton’s dialogue manages to keep some of my favourite lines from Christie’s text. These are: Eustace’s comment that he had heard Mr Allen was ‘by way of being a bad hat’, and Japp’s assessment of Laverton West (with Philip Jackson’s marvellous delivery) as ‘bit of a stuffed fish […] And a boiled owl!’ You just don’t hear ‘boiled owl’ enough these days.

Next episode: ‘The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly’

Poirot Project: The Adventure of the Clapham Cook (review)

This is the first proper post of my 2016 Poirot Project. You can read the full story in my Introduction post, but basically I realized in 2014 that I am inordinately attached to David Suchet’s portrayal of Hercule Poirot in the long-running ITV series, and I’m incapable of watching Curtain. I’ve decided to rewatch and reread the entire series this year so that, by Christmas, I’ll be ready to watch the final episode and say goodbye.

So, this post is about the first episode of the first series. I won’t labour the point too much, but these aren’t academic reviews. I’m not a Christie expert or particularly knowledgeable about the production of the ITV series. This is just a personal response to a TV show that I’ve loved since I was ten.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The first ever episode of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was broadcast on the 8th January 1989 – it’s very weird to think that this is the exact date that I learnt who Hercule Poirot was. I knew who Miss Marple was from the BBC adaptations of the 1980s, and I’d already been permanently traumatized by Sleeping Murder (still can’t look over a set of banisters without getting the creeps) and A Pocketful of Rye (the clothes peg! oh God, the clothes peg!) As a side note, I was about to find out who Albert Campion was, as the BBC’s underrated Campion, starring Peter Davison and Brian Glover, would air a few weeks later. (Oh wow, I’ve only just thought, was this a competition between ITV and BBC? Two shows about dapper Golden Age detectives with ridiculously catchy theme tunes and natty Lagonda cars making their appearances on rival channels within weeks of each other? Hmmm…) In fact, I remember watching the first episode of Campion a lot more clearly than watching the first episode of Poirot, because my little brother loved Campion too. I don’t know if this is an embarrassing or endearing story, but me and my little bro were quite enamoured with Campion and used to insist on wearing white shirts and bowties when it was on (and repeatedly singing the theme song). I have no idea where we got the bowties from (I was ten, he was nine), but we clearly felt the show deserved a sense of occasion. All I remember from my first viewing of ‘The Adventure of the Clapham Cook’ was being quite fascinated by the concept of ‘white slavers’ (as I had no idea what on earth this might mean – if only I’d seen into the future and Appointment with Death, hee hee). But I digress…

‘The Adventure of the Clapham Cook’ was based on Agatha Christie’s short story of the same name, which was first published in 1923. The story was part of the ‘original’ series of Poirot stories (though it wasn’t the first to appear), published in The Sketch magazine and written at the request of Sketch editor Bruce Ingram. Hercule Poirot had made his debut three years earlier in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and Ingram approached Christie about the possibility of publishing further Poirot adventures. These stories are often quite short, and Christie would go on to rework several of them into longer stories (more on that in my next post!), and they are narrated by Poirot’s associate Captain Hastings (undoubtedly inspired by Watson’s narration of Sherlock Holmes’s cases).

In Christie’s ‘The Adventure of the Clapham Cook’, we meet a bored Poirot. The intrigues of the newspaper headlines – as read aloud by Hastings – do nothing to excite him, and he decides to focus his meticulous attention on attending to his wardrobe and his moustache. These plans are interrupted by the arrival of a Mrs Todd, who wishes to engage Poirot to find an absconding servant (the ‘Clapham Cook’ of the title). Poirot decides to take the case – on a whim, more than anything – but soon discovers that there is more going on at 88 Prince Albert Road than first suspected. It turns out to be, as he announces in the final sentence, ‘one of [his] more interesting cases’.

The episode was written by the late Clive Exton and directed by Edward Bennett, and it is a reasonably faithful adaptation. Much of the dialogue is retained from the short story, including (and I am very fond of this), Poirot’s conversation with Annie the maid (played by Katy Murphy) about white slavers and stewed peaches. But, for me, the most interesting moment comes not when something is said, but when something is not said. In the short story, when Poirot initially rejects Mrs Todd’s case as being beneath him, she remonstrates with him that, for someone in her position, a missing cook is ‘as much to you as her pearls are to some fine lady’. Poirot pauses at this, and Hastings notes:
‘For a moment or two it appeared to be a toss up between Poirot’s dignity and his sense of humour.’
The adaptation retains this exchange, almost word-for-word. When Mrs Todd (Brigit Forsyth) finishes, Poirot is standing facing her and Hastings (Hugh Fraser). For me, this moment illustrates David Suchet’s approach to playing Poirot beautifully, as he simply captures the words of Christie’s text in his facial expression. We can see, like Hastings, the ‘toss up’ between his dignity and his sense of humour flicker across his face, before he laughs, apologizes and agrees to take the case. It’s a lovely moment.

While the story and much of the dialogue in ‘The Adventure of the Clapham Cook’ stays close to its source material, the adaptation makes some important changes that introduce the overall ‘shape’ that the early series will take. The characters of Miss Lemon (Pauline Moran) and Inspector Japp (Philip Jackson) are added, as they will be to further episodes. (While not present as such, Japp is mentioned in the original short story, as Poirot insists that ‘our friend Inspector Japp’ must never get to hear of their search for a missing domestic.) I will say up front that I have no problem with Japp, Miss Lemon and Hastings being added to stories – I love the dynamic between the characters, and the central group makes for a more coherent TV series. I should note, Moran’s Miss Lemon is quite different to the character that appears in Christie’s books – but I’ll cover that in a future post.

Other changes work in a similar way. Scenes that are (briefly) narrated in the short story – such as the discovery of Davis’s body – are (understandably) dramatized on screen. A scene in which Poirot and Hastings question a railway porter (played by Danny Webb, in the first of his two appearances in the series) about Eliza’s trunk is added, and this includes an additional clue about Simpson’s possible escape plan. In order to avoid the ‘static’ feel of the short story, Poirot and Hastings travel to meet Eliza Dunn (Freda Dowie) in Cumbria rather than the other way round. This allows for a comical insight into Poirot’s feelings about the English countryside, which will recur in other early episodes, and the first of many gorgeous, gorgeous steam trains. Finally, Poirot, Hastings and Japp race to the docks together to apprehend Simpson (in the short story he is caught ‘by the aid of wireless’ while on board a ship to America); this is the first of the classic Poirot ‘chase scenes’, which will become a staple (and faintly silly) feature of the early episodes. All of these changes are completely understandable, though, as they reveal an attempt to translate a short story into a TV drama – and to create a recognizable template for future episodes.

A more significant change, however, is to be found in the clueing of the story – and I have mixed feelings about this. In my opinion, one of Agatha Christie’s greatest strengths as a crime writer lay in her ability to obscure clues and present red herrings, so that she gave readers everything they needed to solve the puzzle without them realizing it. Consider the chatty, fussy opening to The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side or the blatant explanation of Ratchett’s death on the first page of Murder on the Orient Express – Christie was the queen of telling you everything when she appeared to be telling you nothing. And ‘The Adventure of the Clapham Cook’ has shades of this (though less developed than in her later novels) – one of the ‘throwaway’ headlines that Hastings reads to Poirot turns out (of course) to be the key to the mystery.

The adaptation dilutes this somewhat, by drawing the viewer’s attention to key plot elements right away. Instead of opening with a bored Poirot in his apartment, the first tense little scene shows us Simpson (Dermot Crowley) tying up Eliza Dunn’s box (to dramatic music). When reading the headlines to Poirot, Hastings names the bank from which the clerk has absconded (with £90,000 rather than the £50,000 of the short story – that’s inflation for you). When Poirot and Hastings arrive at Prince Albert Road, we see Simpson acting shifty and are quickly told that he works at the Belgravia and Overseas Bank. In a detail added to the original story, Poirot asks Simpson if he ever takes part in ‘musical theatre or amateur dramatics’, before shortly afterwards explaining that he had spotted a dab of Gum Arabic in the suspect’s sideburn. Once you’ve read the short story, these changes are disappointing, as you feel your attention is being drawn to the bank theft and to Simpson too quickly. Poirot describes Simpson as ‘inconspicuous’ in his summing-up in Christie’s story, but he is in no way so in the adaptation. However, I’m pretty sure I didn’t work out the mystery when I first watched the episode, and I know my husband (who watched it for the first time yesterday) was baffled until Poirot’s explanation. So maybe the rejigging of the clues isn’t a giveaway, but rather a necessity of creating appropriate tension and suspense. This is a question I think I’ll be coming back to a lot as I rewatch the series.

Overall, ‘The Adventure of the Clapham Cook’ is a brilliant opening to the series. It introduces us to the main characters, it cements the setting and aesthetic, and it’s a ‘classic’ Poirot puzzle. Highlights for me are Katy Murphy and Brigit Forsyth (who are just perfect as Annie and Mrs Todd), and the subtlety of Suchet’s performance. Minor negative point: the change to the interview with Eliza Dunn results in the omission of one of my favourite lines in the short story (‘Do not forget how to cook.’).

Next up… ‘Murder in the Mews’

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Poirot Project: Introduction

Spoiler alert: some vague Curtain spoilers towards the end

In 2013, ITV’s long-running adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot novels and short stories came to an end. For nearly 25 years, David Suchet played Christie’s famous Belgian sleuth on screen, performing in versions of (almost) all the original source stories. And I watched (almost) all of these performances. But not all of them… because I still haven’t been able to watch Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case.

The first episode of Agatha Christie’s Poirot (‘The Adventure of the Clapham Cook’) aired on the 8th January 1989. I was ten, and I watched it with my mum. As it was shown on a Sunday, my English grandma will have phoned us at some point (either before or after the episode was shown – I can’t remember exactly for the first series, but I know she rang afterwards for some later episodes). My grandma had read a lot of Agatha Christie novels – when the BBC broadcast their adaptations of the Miss Marple novels (1984-1992), I remember being very impressed that she already knew whodunit before the episodes even aired (though she would never ever tell me).

I read my first Agatha Christie novel when I was about 12 – I’m pretty sure it was Dead Man’s Folly, and I’m pretty sure I borrowed it while I was staying with my grandparents. By then, I’d have watched at least the entire first series of the ITV (or, more accurately, LWT) Poirot, probably the second one as well. So, in my young mind, Poirot was David Suchet, and that’s how I pictured him as I read (ditto Miss Marple and Joan Hickson when I read A Murder is Announced a year or so later). I continued to watch new episodes of Poirot with my mum, and to talk to my grandma about the stories – I have a vague memory that once, during a particularly tricky mystery, she rang during the last advert break to see if I’d worked it out. And she wouldn’t tell me if I was right or not either.

My grandma died in 1993, and I inherited her collection of Agatha Christie novels. In 1995, I started working in Oxfam shops and topped up my grandma’s Christie library with paperback editions of many of the remaining titles. At the time, I was working at Oxfam during the day and then shelf-stacking at Wilkinson’s in the evening; I had an hour and a half in between one job finishing and the next starting – not enough time to go home, but more than enough time to read a big chunk of an Agatha Christie novel. There are certain books – The Big Four, Endless Night, Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, among others – that never fail to take me back to that period of my life. (To be fair, I also read a lot of Dorothy L. Sayers at this time as well.) I read Curtain for the first time when I was about 16 – I was quite a weird teenager, so the darkness of the story really appealed to me. It still does, to be honest (I’m quite a weird adult).

When I was an undergraduate, I took one module on Crime Fiction, which included writing an essay on the function/presentation of the detective in the work of a Golden Age writer (I chose Agatha Christie, and wrote a lot about Poirot). But other than this, I wouldn’t have thought I was a particularly ‘full-on’ Christie fan. In fact, for a while, I would’ve said I liked Margery Allingham more (and I do really love Albert Campion). After Poirot’s hiatus in the late 90s (when the short story adaptations were finished and the show switched to feature-length adaptations of novels), I carried on watching Suchet as the little Belgian detective. There was a bit of nostalgia by then, though. Christopher Gunning’s iconic theme tune (like Ken Howard and Alan Blaikley’s Miss Marple theme) took me back to my childhood with its opening notes, and there was something comfy and reassuring about that. I remember watching The Murder of Roger Ackroyd with my flatmate – the episode first aired on 2nd January 2000, and we were recovering from having seriously partied like it was 1999 – and the pair of us cheering like idiots when Inspector Japp appeared on screen. Because it was Inspector Japp, and that meant everything was probably going to be okay (in our defence – we were really hungover). I remember watching Sad Cypress on Boxing Day 2003 (while I was going through some horrible personal stuff), and it was like wrapping myself up in a comfort blanket (albeit a rather sombre, murdery one).

But I would never have described myself as a massive Poirot fan. It was just something that was there, in the background, whenever you fancied it. After the advent of catch-up TV, I didn’t always watch new episodes when they were broadcast, and I missed some of the ones based on books I’m not as keen on (The Clocks, Taken at the Flood) completely the first time round. I was aware (from interviews as early as 2007) that it was David Suchet’s ambition to film all of Christie’s Poirot stories – and the completist in me saluted this ambition – but I lost track of how many were left to go. In 2011, it was announced that ITV were to film the last five stories, and that this would include Curtain. Again, I saluted Suchet as a fellow completist and was impressed by his commitment to tackle Curtain (it’s one of my favourite Agatha Christie novels, but a bold step for a beloved ITV drama).

And then came 2014. Because I didn’t consider myself a die-hard fan, I didn’t actually watch the final five episodes when they were broadcast in 2013. Instead, I bought them as downloads and saved them for later as a treat (in retrospect… maybe that’s even more fannish than watching them when they were broadcast?). I watched Elephants Can Remember and Dead Man’s Folly (both based on books I love) with a growing sadness that I was getting towards the end of a programme that I’d been fond of since I was a child. Suddenly, it felt like this might be a bit more momentous than I’d previously thought. And then I put The Big Four on…

… and I burst into tears during the opening scenes and switched it off. I can’t explain what happened – and I know I confused my husband a bit – but the idea that I would soon have to say goodbye to Poirot made me ridiculously emotional. To be clear: it wasn’t the idea of Poirot’s death that upset me – I’ve read Curtain several times and I love it – it was the idea of watching David Suchet’s Poirot die that I couldn’t handle. Sorry for sounding over-the-top, but I actually got a lump in my throat just writing that sentence.

I finally steeled myself to watch The Big Four and The Labours of Hercules, and then I cued up Curtain: Poirot's Last Case ready to play. But I didn't press play. And I still haven’t. This is a programme that has been a cosy, comfortable, reassuring background to my life since I was ten, something that I associate with my grandma and my childhood and my first job and various other ups-and-downs of my life… and I don’t know how to say goodbye. I’ve tried again (twice), and I’ve reread Curtain to prepare myself, but I just haven’t felt ready to watch that episode. I know this all sounds ridiculous, and I’m really not normally this sentimental, but here we are.

But Suchet has been completist, so I feel like I should be too. I feel like Poirot has been more significant to my life than I’d previously thought, so I owe it to the show to watch the final episode. Given that my earlier attempts failed, I’ve decided to try a different approach for 2016.

I asked myself: what would Poirot do? Order and method, that’s what. I will take a methodical approach to this and, by the end of 2016, I will be ready to watch Curtain and say goodbye to what is (apparently) my favourite ever television show.

And so begins the Poirot Project. I am going to reread and then rewatch each episode of Poirot, reviewing each one as I go. I’ll watch them in the order that they were broadcast in, and reread the source story/novel just before watching (and I have a spreadsheet to keep track – Miss Lemon would’ve liked my spreadsheet). Then, having completely done justice to the show, I’ll finally be ready to let go and watch Curtain. My plan is foolproof.

My next post will be a review of the first episode of Series 1, and it would be great if you followed my (slightly overthought) project as it develops. Here are a couple of general points if you do want to keep reading:
  • After today, most of my posts will contain spoilers. I thought about keeping them spoiler-free, but I’d like to talk about the relationship between the books and the adaptations, and that’s really hard to do without mentioning key plot points.
  • For the short stories, I’ll mostly be referring to the HarperCollins 1999 edition of The Complete Short Stories. Occasionally, I might refer to other versions of the story, in which case I’ll say which publication I’ve used. Novels will be whichever edition I happen to have on my shelf.
  • I’m not a Christie expert by any means. If I get any publication dates and details wrong, please correct me!
  • I’m also not an expert in the production details of the ITV show. I don’t know much about the production of each episode or (except in a few cases) the filming locations. Other bloggers have reviewed the series episode-by-episode and have a lot more information about this. This fascinating blog, for instance, has some great background info for each episode. I’m just writing my posts as a personal project, because I want to acknowledge my love of the show and its star.
Bon. Let us begin with 'The Adventure of the Clapham Cook'.