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’.