Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Poirot Project: The Cornish Mystery (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 Lost Mine’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The fifth episode of the second series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 28th January 1990. It was written by Clive Exton and directed by Edward Bennett. The episode was based on the short story of the same name, which was first published in The Sketch in November 1923.

The short story is narrated by Hastings, and begins with a new client being shown into Poirot’s apartment. As happens in a few of these early stories, Hastings makes a passing reference to ‘our landlady’, indicating that, at this point in their story, he is living with Poirot. The landlady isn't given a name here, and (in the short stories) does little more than show guests in, but she’s clearly a descendant of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Mrs Hudson (I'm going to come back to her in later posts). Rereading these short stories in quick succession, I’m becoming more and more sensitive to the references to Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, and I’m really enjoying the way Christie both pays homage to and lightly mocks her predecessor. I’ve lost count of the number of times someone is referred to as playing ‘Watson’ to Poirot, for instance. I suggested that two other stories in this series – ‘The Veiled Lady’ and ‘The Lost Mine’ – made playful reference to specific Sherlock Holmes stories. I’ll return to this in a later review; for now, we simply have Poirot and Hastings living in comfortable bachelorhood, as their landlady ushers in a series of visitors, just as Holmes and Watson did before them.

In this case, the visitor is a Mrs Pengelley. I really like Hastings’s introduction of this character, so I think it deserves to be quoted in full:
‘Many unlikely people came to consult Poirot, but to my mind, the woman who stood nervously just inside the door, fingering her feather neck-piece, was the most unlikely of all. She was so extraordinarily commonplace – a thin, faded woman of about fifty, dressed in a braided coat and skirt, some gold jewellery at her neck, and with her grey hair surmounted by a singularly unbecoming hat. In a country town you pass a hundred Mrs Pengelleys in the street every day.’
It’s part of the charm of Hercule that, while Hastings finds this visitor ‘unlikely’, the little Belgian detective finds her fascinating.

Mrs Pengelley has become convinced that her husband is trying to poison her. She explains that he has recently taken on a ‘yellow-haired hussy’ to work as his receptionist (Mr Pengelley is a dentist), and that there’s a suspicious bottle of weed-killer that the gardener can’t explain. Poor Mrs Pengelley has been suffering from stomach pain and sickness, but her doctor has written it off as gastritis. Poirot is hooked – the case interests him ‘enormously’.

Poirot and Hastings travel to Polgarwith to investigate… but they’re too late! By the time they reach Cornwall, their client is already dead. Poirot is furious (with himself, with the murderer, with all those who ignored Mrs Pengelley’s cries for help) and is determined to reveal the truth. In this, the story has some similarities with Dumb Witness: Poirot refuses to relinquish responsibility for a client he has failed to protect, and steps into the roles of avenger as well as detective. In fact, when he eventually confronts the murderer he makes this role clear: ‘I represent – not the law, but Mrs Pengelley.’

Poirot’s investigation in ‘The Cornish Mystery’ is interesting. There is no physical examination of the crime scene; the only physical ‘clue’ (the bottle of weed-killer) is ignored. Instead, Poirot works out the nature of the crime through an observation of human behaviour. He knows that Mr Pengelley is innocent, for instance, because only an innocent man would behave in such a guilty manner. In the final denouement, Poirot has to resort to tricking the murderer into a signing a confession as, he admits, they have ‘no shadow of proof against him’. This method of resolving the mystery is a far cry from Holmes-like ratiocination foreshadows the methods of another of Christie’s famous creations: ‘The Cornish Mystery’ actually feels like it could have been a case for Miss Marple.

The TV adaptation begins, like the short story, in Poirot’s flat. We join our detective in a somewhat glum mood (a state that recurs throughout this series), bemoaning a lack of interesting cases and complaining about boredom. Behind him, Hastings performs a series of yoga exercises designed to keep his pancreas healthy. This leads to a characteristically bonkers exchange, in which Poirot criticizes his friend’s love of curry and Hastings extols the health-giving benefits of rice. They are interrupted in their chit-chat by Miss Lemon, who tells them that Mrs Pengelley (played by Amanda Walker) would like to consult with Poirot, but she is too embarrassed to come into the flat.

The adaptation follows the short story fairly faithfully, with only a couple of additional plot elements added. Mrs Pengelley’s blustering doctor (played by Derek Benfield) still insists that the woman suffered from gastritis. Mr Pengelley (Jerome Willis) is still infatuated with his ‘yellow-haired hussy’ (Laura Girling) – though there is a brief comical exchange added in which Hastings has to explain the word ‘hussy’ to Poirot – and the maid (played by Tilly Vosburgh) still insists under oath that she saw her master hanging around the weed-killer. The question of Mrs Pengelley’s will is the most significant addition to the plot, with a will reading scene revealing possible motives for the murder. This doesn’t really alter the story, though, but rather underlines things that were implied in Christie’s text.

The final confrontation with the murderer is, in spirit, the same as in the short story; however, there are a couple of little alterations. Firstly, in the short story, Poirot talks to Radnor for a time and then produces a pre-written confession ‘with the suddenness of a conjuror’ (another reference to conjuring… and there will be more). In the adaptation, we have a scene in which Poirot casually chats to Radnor (played by John Bowler), all the while writing away at a desk. Radnor becomes increasingly ill-at-ease with this eccentric behaviour, until Poirot blows on the ink and presents the confession to be signed. I can’t decide whether this makes the confrontation more ominous or more humorous – I think it’s probably both.

The other change in the confrontation scene comes when Radnor is warned about the two men who are watching the room. In Christie’s story, it is Poirot who draws attention to the men, warning Radnor that they will apprehend him if given the right signal. When Radnor signs the confession, Poirot asks Hastings to move the blind, to signal that Radnor is to be allowed to pass. Afterwards, Poirot explains to an oblivious Hastings that ‘those two loafers that I noticed outside came in very useful’. The episode flips this last detail – while it’s still Poirot who presents the ‘twenty-four hour head start’ deal to Radnor, it’s Hastings who points out the two men surveilling the room. After Radnor leaves, Poirot asks about the men and Hastings replies, ‘I haven’t the foggiest idea. I just saw them standing there when we came in.’ I like this change, as it reminds me of the séance in Peril at End House. He might not always be the sharpest, but Hastings can be relied on to improvise if necessary.

Miss Lemon and Japp are, of course, added to the story. In addition to replacing the unnamed ‘Mrs Hudson’ character from the short story, Miss Lemon gets a nice comical scene in which she reads the I Ching for Hastings (Poirot’s hexagram is, apparently, ‘modesty’). This continues the theme of Hastings’s fascination with the East that runs throughout the episode, but also shows off Miss Lemon’s interest in spiritual matters. This is a sharp departure from the character’s presentation in Christie’s fiction – where she is described as a ‘machine’, rather than a person – but it’s something that will be developed further in future episodes. (Can I just also say, there’s another big departure from Christie’s fiction here… look at this picture… Pauline Moran is gorgeous as Miss Lemon, which is not how Christie imagined the character at all.)

Like in other adaptations, Japp steps in to the role filled by an anonymous police inspector in the source text. This is done quite neatly – there’s no attempt to shoehorn him in to the early stages of Poirot’s investigation, but he makes an appearance when (months after her death) Mrs Pengelley’s body is exhumed and an official murder investigation is launched. Japp is called in to oversee this investigation (because, apparently, he has the biggest patch of any Scotland Yard detective ever).

Japp is convinced that Mr Pengelley is guilty, and produces some of the evidence that sees the hapless dentist put on trial for murder. The policeman treats Poirot’s objections with a sort of light-hearted condescension, treating his friend like a harmless eccentric until the very last moment. In return, Poirot keeps Japp in the dark about his suspicions, even to the point of trying to make a quick getaway before Japp discovers that Pengelley’s trial has been dramatically halted. For fans of the ‘gang’, the final moments of the episode – when Japp is told about Radnor’s confession – is a real treat.

Before this, though, we get another little Japp scene – and it’s always nice to see the policeman enjoying a little trip to the seaside. While he availed himself of a stick of rock last time he visited Cornwall, this time Japp takes a fancy to a Cornish pasty. I love watching Japp wandering around the market, lost in the simple joy of things you don’t see in Peckham.

Unlike in some of the other episodes in this series, there’s very little direct reference to the 1935 setting. Hastings reads a story in the newspaper about ‘Herr Hitler’s speech’, but there are no more details about this to allow us to pin it down to a specific date. However, there is a weird little detail that reminds us we’re stuck in an odd time warp: Mrs Pengelley dies in July (the date is clear on the coffin plate during the exhumation scene), and her husband’s trial takes place in the run-up to the August Bank Holiday. Given that the events of ‘The Veiled Lady’ took place in July (the reason given as to why Lavington could be sure no one would use the logs for a fire), time is moving rather slowly in Poirot’s world. Of course, it’s possible that Mrs Pengelley calls on Poirot immediately after the events of ‘The Veiled Lady’ – but if that was the case, why is Poirot so bored at the beginning of the episode? He seems more like a man who hasn’t had a good case in ages. I’ve got a feeling that this is going to be a long year.

Finally… Christie’s short story has a couple of moments where Poirot’s foreignness is played up, but neither of these are included in the adaptation. The first comes when the detective contemplates another night in an English inn:
‘A return to the inn, and a night of horror upon one of your English provincial beds, mon ami. It is a thing to make pity, the cheap English bed!’
This isn’t something I’ve seen Poirot complain about before, but he can be a bit inconsistent with his criticisms of England (cf. the extremity of his aversion to a full English breakfast and to the countryside). I like this though – Poirot has something of a love-hate relationship with his adopted home. When he’s feeling grumpy (or when Hastings is being too English), every little thing irritates him. At other times, he is much happier to indulge in the various provincial pleasures his adventures offer.

And if Poirot doesn’t always love England, then England doesn’t always love him back. A number of Christie’s stories draw attention to the suspicion Poirot’s Belgian ways provoke in (usually provincial) English people. In ‘The Cornish Mystery’, it’s the detective’s choice of beverage that raises eyebrows. When Radnor is summoned to the inn, Hastings is charged with the drink order:
‘I ordered two whiskies and sodas and a cup of chocolate. The last order caused consternation, and I much doubted whether it would ever put in an appearance.’
Clearly feeling that the good innkeepers of Cornwall deserved vindication, the programme-makers drop this scene from the adaptation. But watch carefully… when Poirot and Hastings are first shown in their lodgings, Poirot is clearly enjoying a nice cup of hot chocolate. Obviously, in the TV version of Polgarwith, his request caused much less consternation.

All in all, a lovely little short story transformed into an enjoyable TV episode. I still believe it could’ve been a Miss Marple story – but that’s the beauty of Poirot. He’s one part Holmes, but the other part Marple. It’s why we love him.

Next up: ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’

Friday, 25 March 2016

Poirot Project: The Lost Mine (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 Veiled Lady’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The fourth episode of the second series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 21st January 1990. It was directed by Edward Bennett and written by Michael Baker and David Renwick. The episode was based on the short story of the same name, which was first published in The Sketch in 1923.

The short story is possibly the weakest of the original Sketch stories – it feels a lot like Agatha Christie was just phoning this one in. In attempt to assert the moral/intellectual high ground, Poirot criticizes Hastings for making speculative investments, and derides his friend’s advice to speculate in the ‘Porcupine oil-fields’ (foreshadowing the ‘doubtful oil fields’ mentioned in Peril at End House). Poirot explains that the only shares he owns are in the Burma Mines Ltd., and they were the reward for his services in a case of theft and murder:
‘You would like to hear the story? Yes?’
The rest of the story is made up of Poirot narrating this past exploit to Hastings. And it’s not the most exciting past exploit.

Poirot was called upon by Mr Pearson, one of the directors of ‘an important company’, to solve the murder of a Chinese man named Wu Ling, who was killed shortly after arriving in England with papers relating to a valuable ‘lost’ mine in Burma. Pearson had intended to meet Wu Ling at Southampton, but found his visitor had already disembarked from his ship and travelled to London before he got there. The following day, Wu Ling’s body was found in the Thames, and the papers were nowhere to be found.

There’s a bit of back-and-forth as Poirot carries out his investigation, with a ‘broken-down European named Dyer’ and a ‘young bank clerk named Charles Lester’ falling under suspicion. Eventually, Poirot and Pearson travel to Limehouse, ‘right in the heart of Chinatown’, visit an opium den, and Poirot reveals Pearson was behind the murder all along. He whips the papers out of Pearson’s pocket, explains the truth of the mystery to the police, and is given shares by the company as a reward. The story ends with Poirot using this as a lesson to Hastings not to invest in companies, lest their directors turn out to be ‘so many Mr Pearsons’.

There aren’t many notable features to the short story, except an appearance by Inspector Miller (who crops up in a few other Christie texts). Miller is like the anti-Japp: Poirot thinks he’s ‘obstinate and imbecile’, and the policeman vehemently distrusts the little egg-shaped Belgian. When Poirot explains to Hastings that he had to work with Miller, he says the policeman is ‘a man altogether different from our friend Japp, conceited, ill-mannered and quite insufferable’. While this sets us up for a somewhat antagonistic associate in this story, it also reveals how much affection Poirot has for Japp, which is rather sweet.

The story also has Poirot going undercover in an opium den, which I feel might be another jokey nod to Sherlock Holmes and ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip’. In Doyle’s story, Holmes has been gathering information in an opium den, disguised as an old man. In Christie’s story, Poirot also enters an opium den, but disdains Pearson’s suggestion that they adopt a disguise (which would involve Poirot shaving off his moustache):
‘I pointed out to him that that was an idea ridiculous and absurd. One destroys not a thing of beauty wantonly. Besides, shall not a Belgian gentleman with a moustache desire to see life and smoke opium just as readily as one without a moustache?’
Aside from this, though, there isn’t much going on in the short story, and it’s not very memorable.

And now… the adaptation. Hmmm… I think I’ll split this into The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.

The Good

Like the short story, the episode begins with Poirot and Hastings just hanging out, talking about financial matters. However, in the TV version, the financial matters they are discussing are part of a mammoth game of Monopoly that is being played throughout the episode.

Obviously, this is enjoyable simply for the rapport between our two leading men. Hastings appears to be teaching Poirot how to play, and the Belgian detective disdains the game as one of mere chance – until he starts to win, that is. But there’s another reason why I like this detail – it’s another subtle little reference to the series’ setting. Monopoly was first licensed in the UK in 1935, so Hastings is actually introducing his friend to the ‘latest craze’.

The question of whether or not to speculate on the stock exchange is retained, but in the adaptation it is Miss Lemon, rather than Poirot, who is the recipient of Hastings’s advice. It seems Miss Lemon is quite a keen speculator, and is buying and selling shares with some success. It’s quite nice to see this side of Miss Lemon, and it’s good to know her quick brain is used for more than just maintaining Poirot’s files.

There’s also a nice Christie-esque clue added to the episode, which wasn’t present in the original story. As Poirot and Hastings are now on hand to investigate Wu Ling’s possessions (conducting a search that wasn’t included in the source), Poirot is able to discover an anomalous box of matches that makes for rather a nice puzzle.

Oh… and continuing my love affair with Poirot’s accessories, he shows off a natty smoking/playing Monopoly jacket in this episode.

Aside from these details – and the reappearance of Inspector Jameson (played by John Cording), who previously appeared in ‘Murder in the Mews’ (and is an even more minor recurring character than Dicker) – there isn’t much more ‘good’ to talk about. The writers had a rather dull story to contend with, and their reasonably faithful adaptation results in a rather dull episode, to be honest.

The Bad

Added to this, the only good bits of the original story are removed! Inspector Miller is absent, so Poirot doesn’t get chance to make his comparison with Japp. Poirot’s incognito trip to the opium den is also altered, replaced by a co-ordinated police raid on a premises in Limehouse. In my opinion, this is no more engaging than the source material – in fact, it feels a lot like padding.

The Ugly

Christie’s short story – like Doyle’s ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip’ – is set in a very particular version of Limehouse. It’s the Chinatown of Thomas Burke’s Limehouse Nights, Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu stories, and WWI Sinophobia. It’s a world of opium dens, gambling and murder.

Of course, Christie subverts the expectation of the ‘evil’ lurking in Limehouse. While Wu Ling was indeed murdered by Chinese men, these killers were merely acting at the behest of the true villain – the respectable (and English) Mr Pearson. As I said in my review of ‘Peril at End House’ though, this subversion of expectations isn’t necessarily being used to interrogate racist stereotypes, but rather to reinforce them: Pearson is the last person you’d suspect because he’s so English, the Chinese characters are much more obvious suspects because… well… they’re Chinese.

Now, this racist stereotyping of the inhabitants of Chinatown as murderous villains was actually criticized in the ‘rules’ of Golden Age detective fiction, and Christie’s bait-and-switch of revealing Pearson to be the true villain reflects an edict by one of her contemporaries (and colleagues). When Ronald Knox, one of the founding members (along with Christie) of the Detection Club, wrote his Detective Story Decalogue in 1929, his fifth rule stated: ‘No Chinaman must figure in the story.’ The reason for this interdiction has often been misinterpreted, but Knox made his thinking very clear. The ‘sinister Chinaman’ belonged in the realm of the thriller (like Sax Rohmer’s work, for instance), not the whodunit – using this figure is a lazy way to resolve a well-crafted puzzle. As Knox goes on to say:
‘Why this should be so I do not know, unless we can find a reason for it in our western habit of assuming that the Celestial [Chinese person] is over-equipped in the matter of brains, and under-equipped in the matter of morals. I only offer it as a fact of observation that, if you are turning over the pages of a book and come across some mention of “the slit-like eyes of Chin Loo”, you had best put it down at once; it is bad.’
While she does set her story in Chinatown, Christie sails just the right side of Knox’s prohibition: it is the Englishman who is ‘over-equipped in the matter of brains, and under-equipped in the matter of morals’, and there are no ‘Chin Loo’-type characters stalking the pages…

… but that’s not true of the adaptation.

In padding out the story with a number of forays into Limehouse, the episode necessarily introduces more individuated Chinese characters than were present in Christie’s short story – and these are all handled badly. In particular, the only named character aside from Wu Ling – Chow Feng (played by Hi Ching) – is very much of the ‘Chin Loo’ school of characterization. The owner of the Red Dragon club is sinister, effete and criminal – he might not have been behind the murder, but he’s certainly guilty of something.

But at least this character gets a name! The only other Chinese characters listed in the credits – and, remember, the ‘Wu Ling’ we see on screen isn’t really Wu Ling, so doesn’t get listed – are ‘Chinaman’, ‘Restaurant Manager’, ‘Oriental Gentleman’ and ‘Chinese Tart’. To make matters worse, one of these characters – ‘Restaurant Manager’ (played by Ozzie Yue) – is given a name (Mr Ho) in the episode, but this doesn’t seem important enough to add to the credits.

Ozzie Yue as Mr Ho, Hi Ching as Chow Feng, Susan Leong as ‘Chinese Tart’

It does break my heart to heap such criticism on a show I love, but sadly this episode (from 1990) actually heightens the problematic ‘Yellow Peril’ undercurrent of the short story (published in 1923), and it doesn’t seem appropriate to gloss over this – no matter how much I love the show.

To end, I will just add that the Limehouse sequences do allow for one (more positive) addition to the story. We get to see a hint of what Japp does when he’s not helping Poirot solves genteel whodunits. As in ‘Four and Twenty Blackbirds’, Japp introduces Poirot and Hastings to an aspect of modern policing. In the first series, it was a forensics lab; in this episode, it’s a state-of-the-art radio control room, complete with a dynamic map to be used in co-ordinating surveillance and raids.

Cool as this room is, we’re returned to ‘Yellow Peril’ territory quite quickly, as it’s revealed that Japp is using this resource to co-ordinate his investigations into the activities of ‘the Tongs’, a Chinese crime organization. Indeed, Japp is barely interested in the lost mine; he is completely focused on bringing down the crime syndicate, and his interrogation of Mr Ho and Reggie Dyer (played by James Saxon) are to this end, rather than to assist in Poirot’s case. The two investigations come together at the Red Dragon Club, as Japp believes it’s a hub of organized crime and Poirot believes it’s the scene of Wu Ling’s murder. (It’s both.)

Ultimately, despite his state-of-the-art control room, and an investigation that’s lasted seven years, Japp fails to nab a single Tong. All that time and effort has been for nothing, and Japp almost looks dejected as all he gets to do is arrest another of Poirot’s English murderers. He walks away with the slumped shoulders of a man who’s just realized that, while he might be an admirable associate to a Golden Age detective, he’ll never be the hero who roots out the corruption at the heart of Limehouse.

Forget it, Japp. It’s Chinatown.

And now for something completely different… the next episode is ‘The Cornish Mystery’.

Poirot Project: The Veiled Lady (review)

This post is part of my 2016 Poirot Project. You can read the full story of why I’m doing this in my Introduction post. The previous post was a review of 'Peril at End House'.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next up… ‘The Lost Mine’.

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

Poirot Project: Peril at End House (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 Dream’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

Now we reach Series 2 – and a couple of changes. Firstly, this has now become ‘our’ project, rather than just ‘my’ project. My husband Rob was a bit reluctant to watch along with me at the start, because he said he didn’t like the series. As it turns out, this was because of a lingering negative association from his teens: the early episodes were always broadcast on a Sunday night, and so became associated with the end of the weekend and the start of another week at school. Once I persuaded him that he wouldn’t have to go back to school after each episode, he decided to give it a go. After a couple of episodes of Series 1, he was hooked and is now even planning to read some of Christie’s novels in preparation for later episodes.

Which brings me to the next change: Series 2 of Agatha Christie’s Poirot included the first adaptation of a Poirot novel, as well as more of the short stories. The series began on 7th January 1990 with a double-episode adaptation of Peril at End House. (The four series of short story adaptations were all broadcast in January-March, each beginning shortly after Christmas – perhaps another reason why Rob associated the first series with going back to school. I’m a little younger, so had not long started secondary school when ‘Peril at End House’ aired – I hadn’t yet come to loathe going to school. But that would come.) Future adaptations of novels would be feature-length standalone episodes, but ‘Peril at End House’ is very much part of the second series – the story ran across two one-hour slots, each one bookended by the opening and closing credits. There were eight other episodes in the series, making this run of stories the same size as Series 1.

Now, I am aware that my posts for this pet project have been getting longer and longer. Given that I’m now going to be delving back into Christie’s novels as well as her short stories, this is probably not going to change. Peril at End House is one of my favourite Poirot novels (one of my many favourites), and I’ve read it numerous times – the last time was last August, when I was recovering from a serious infection (comfort reading), but I still reread it before watching the episode(s) again – so there’s a lot I want to say about this one!

The academic side of me needs to note which edition I’m referring to. I’m using The Complete Battles of Hastings, Vol. 1 (HarperCollins, 2003), which was a Christmas present from my little brother (along with The Complete Short Stories that I’ve been referring to in other posts).

Peril at End House was first published in 1932. It was Christie’s sixth Poirot novel, following The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), The Murder on the Links (1923), The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), The Big Four (1927) and The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928) as well as numerous short stories and the play Black Coffee (1930). I don’t know for sure why Peril at End House was chosen as the first novel to adapt, but I can make a guess. Given the style of the early series, it makes sense that the programme-makers decided to go with one of the early Poirot novels, as these are perhaps closer in overall ‘feel’ to the short stories. The Big Four is a bit anomalous and was widely held to be unadaptable (until 2013, but more on that much later); The Mystery of the Blue Train has a bit more of a ‘thriller’ feel (again, more on that in a bit). The Mysterious Affair at Styles would have to be told in flashback, so I can understand the decision to save it until the characters are more well-established. And I don’t think I need to say anything on why it took a while longer for anyone to work out how on earth to adapt The Murder of Roger Ackroyd! I’ll say a bit more about The Murder on the Links in a moment…

As I’ve said, Peril at End House feels closer to the short stories of the 1920s than many of the later novels, not least because it is narrated by the good Captain Hastings. The story begins with Hastings and his illustrious associate on holiday in St Loo, Cornwall (a fictional seaside town – which I’ll return to when I get to Evil Under the Sun). They’re on holiday, and Poirot is absolutely insistent that he has retired. They meet a young woman, Nick Buckley, and Poirot quickly becomes convinced that someone is trying to kill their new friend – and, naturally, he is compelled to investigate. When an attempt on Nick’s life appears to go wrong, and her cousin Maggie dies, Poirot (assisted by Hastings and Japp) steps up his game and solves the case.

What do I love about Peril at End House? Firstly, it’s narrated by Hastings, and I have a real soft spot for his narration. Like the early short stories, Hastings’s narration is differentiated from Watson’s narration of the Sherlock Holmes stories by a (mostly) light-hearted to-and-fro between detective and sidekick. Hastings is far less reverential than Watson, and his critique of his friend’s methods and demeanour is always enjoyable. In the novels, however, there seems to be more space for Poirot to get his own back (though he does do this in the short stories, especially ‘Problem at Sea’). This is evident from the first page: Poirot reminisces about his last case (more on this shortly) and tells Hastings that his friend’s involvement would have been ‘invaluable’. Hastings reflects on this: ‘As a result of long habit, I distrust his compliments, but he appeared perfectly serious.’ Poirot then explains that George, his valet (who accompanied him on that last case) has ‘no imagination whatever’, and he would have been glad of Hastings for ‘a certain amount of light relief’. This line is particularly amusing in light of the first series of the TV show, where ‘light relief’ was exactly the role in which Hastings was cast.

Elsewhere, we have Poirot claiming that, for a married man, Hastings has ‘very little appreciation of feminine psychology’, and mocking his friend’s ‘out of date’ shock at the details of a divorce case. Hastings comments a couple of times on Poirot’s arrogance, and in return Poirot teases his friend about his staid ‘Victorian’ ways.

Unlike in the short stories, though, this snarkiness occasionally tips over into bickering. At one point, Poirot’s highhanded criticism of his friend threatens to become almost hurtful:
‘You are the type of man who invests in doubtful oil fields, and non-existent gold mines. From hundreds like you, the swindler makes his daily bread.’
To which Hastings makes an impassioned defence:
‘Do you suppose I’d have made a success of my ranch out in the Argentine if I were the kind of credulous fool you make out?’
As this little example shows, there’s a big difference in the men’s relationship here to that in the original run of short stories – Hastings is now a married man, living overseas, and this distance has slightly altered the dynamic of their friendship. Nevertheless, this is redeemed in the novel’s denouement, which subtly relies on the close working relationship the two men have built over the years. Poirot doesn’t inform Hastings of his plans, but assembles the suspects and announces to the room that his friend Hastings has ‘pronounced mediumistic powers’. ‘Why fix on me,’ Hastings thinks to himself, but then seamlessly (and convincingly) enters into the role. I really like this bit, as it shows how well Hastings knows and trusts the methods of his strange little companion.

The other thing I love about Peril at End House is the mystery itself. As with all the classic Christie novels, the clues are presented from the very start – you just don’t always know what you’re looking at. In the second chapter, Freddie Rice actually says the solution outright and unequivocally – but, like Poirot and Hastings, the reader glosses over this and goes back to trying to solve what they think is the puzzle. I do like it when Christie sticks the solution right under your nose, and Freddie’s statement is a brilliant example of just how audacious this can be.

I need to get on to the TV episode, so just a couple of other highlights briefly… although his role is not as significant as in the adaptation, the novel features a welcome appearance from Japp. Poirot involves his ‘good friend Inspector Japp of Scotland Yard’ after the murder has occurred. Poirot and Hastings travel to London and meet Japp for dinner at the ‘Cheshire Cheese’ (presumably Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street). There are some nice Japp moments here, including his awkward explanation of ‘nerve doctors’ (‘talk to you about your libido, whatever that is’) and his casual description of Poirot’s moustache as ‘face fungus’. I like the social scenes with Japp, Hastings and Poirot, though there are fewer of them in the source stories than in the TV show (‘The Market Basing Mystery’ is a good example).

There are also a few other nice bits of characterization that will crop up in the TV show – though not necessarily in the ‘Peril at End House’ episode(s). I’ve mentioned the earlier series’ ‘car porn’ in previous posts, but Peril at End House has a nice example too. On spotting Jim Lazarus’s car, Hastings notes:
‘It seemed longer and redder than any car could be. It had a long gleaming bonnet of polished metal. A super car!’
(This car will appear – as a Chevrolet Phantom – in the adaptation, with Hastings’s narration represented in Hugh Fraser’s lingering appreciative gaze.)

Later on, Hastings will comment on Poirot’s loathing of the full English breakfast, his habit of building card houses to soothe his nerves, and his insistence on square toast – details which all feed into the presentation of the character on screen (although… Suchet’s Poirot does eat a full English in ‘The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly’). Some details will also be incorporated quite neatly into the episode – rather than pointing out Poirot’s ‘objection to golf’, the episode simply shows him dismissing Hastings’s desire to play ‘a quick nine holes’ with ‘Stiffy Bentham’ (it’s not clear whether this dismissal is because they are in the middle of a case, or if it’s because of the game itself – after all, Suchet’s Poirot has already showed himself to be quite proficient at golf). Similarly, rather than have his friend point out Poirot’s insistence on eggs that are the same size, the TV episode takes a ‘show, don’t tell’ approach and adds a little breakfast scene (complete with gorgeous egg cups) to illustrate.

Before moving on, I should really mention the lowlights of the book. Like many of Agatha Christie’s books, Peril at End House includes a couple of comments that reveal the less pleasant side of contemporary mores. In this case, it’s insidious anti-Semitism and classism. The character of Jim Lazarus is first described by Nick Buckley thus: ‘He’s a Jew, of course, but a frightfully decent one.’ And there are several other comments of this sort throughout the book, including Poirot’s casual mention of ‘the long-nosed M. Lazarus’. Poirot’s working notes on the mystery also contain a less-than-flattering characterization of the working class, as he notes the housekeeper Ellen’s apparent enjoyment of the murder: ‘But that might be due to natural pleasurable excitement of her class over deaths.’ However, as is also the case in many of Christie’s novels, these derogatory suspicions turn out to be misguided: Lazarus is revealed to be one of the only ‘decent’ characters in the book, and Ellen’s ‘satisfaction’ turns out to be relief at the vindication of her own suspicions about Nick. While it’s possible to interpret this as Christie attacking contemporary racist and classist views, I’m afraid I believe that it’s quite the opposite. Having Lazarus and Ellen turn out to be ‘goodies’ is meant to be a twist – suggesting that the Jewish man and the servant in Peril at End House are actually going against type (I’ll come back to this idea in my review of ‘The Lost Mine’).

Right, that said, I need to move on the TV adaptation!

The episode was written by Clive Exton and directed by Renny Rye. As I’ve said, it was first broadcast on 7th January 1990, and it’s a two-part story (the first half ends after Nick’s ‘engagement’ to Michael Seton is revealed and Poirot explains that there is now a more significant motive for her murder). The episode is, like all of Exton’s adaptations, fairly faithful to Christie’s novel, though there are some interesting alterations made.

The first of these is a fairly obvious choice. Christie’s novel makes a number of passing references to other stories – including The Mysterious Affair at Styles, The Mystery of the Blue Train, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and ‘The Chocolate Box’ (though Christie avoids giving any spoilers… an etiquette she notoriously dispenses with in Cards on the Table) – which hadn’t yet been adapted for the series. All these references are, naturally, dropped – though they could’ve kept the cryptic mention of ‘the famous case which Poirot solved by his habit of straightening ornaments on the mantelpiece’, in my opinion). More significantly though, Peril at End House follows on from the earlier novels in terms of the development of Poirot’s career and of Hastings’s personal life. So, Poirot has already retired to King’s Abbott to grow vegetable marrows (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd) and travelled on the Blue Train with his valet George (The Mystery of the Blue Train), before he arrives in St Loo. More importantly, the events of The Murder on the Links have already taken place and Hastings is now married (though he appears to have forgotten his wife’s real name and refers to her as ‘Bella’ in Peril at End House… oops) and running a ranch in Argentina. While we will get to this in the ITV series, we’re not there yet, and so ‘Peril at End House’ is altered to situate it more neatly into the early series. There is no sense of reunion with Hastings or Japp – Poirot is still working (and living) alongside his associates.

The episode begins, then, with Poirot and Hastings simply taking a holiday in Cornwall (St Looe, now, rather than St Loo). They arrive – inexplicably – by plane, and settle into the Majestic Hotel. This Poirot is more crochetty than his literary counterpart, unhappy with both the flight and the accommodation. One of the more light-hearted lines from the book’s first chapter – when Hastings reads a newspaper report on Michael Seton, Poirot mischievously asks, ‘The Solomon islanders are still cannibals, are they not?’ – turns into a grumpy bark of ‘Cannibals!’ to signal his lack of interest. The detective’s interest in Nick’s hat – the first indication of any wrongdoing – is also a lot more abrupt than in the novel.

Nevertheless, Poirot’s interest in Nick is the same as in the novel. Polly Walker’s portrayal of Nick is very close to the character from the book, and she charmingly leads Poirot up the garden path. The plot also remains the same, though the red herring subplot featuring Freddie’s husband is dropped, and many of the clues are also retained (though, as elsewhere some of the subtlety – particularly regarding the wristwatches – is diminished). The solution to the mystery – and to the side mystery of the missing will – is the same as in the novel.

As a little side note, there are a couple of things that are played down in the episode. For instance, while the Crofts appear as over-the-top Australians, just as they are in the novel, Mr Croft (Jeremy Young) doesn’t describe Poirot as a ‘bonza detective’ – perhaps Exton thought modern viewers would think this word was an anachronism more suited to Neighbours than the 1930s setting of the show? As in ‘Triangle at Rhodes’, there’s also evidence of a certain coyness in the adaptation. In the novel, when Hastings objects to Poirot going through Nick’s underwear, the detective exclaims:
‘The camisole, the camiknicker, it is no longer a shameful secret. Every day, on the beach, all these garments will be discarded within a few feet of you. And why not?’
In the episode, Poirot calls Hastings ‘Victorian’ but doesn’t follow this up with more comment. I think this change is completely justified – it’s really weird to imagine Suchet’s Poirot talking about knickers.

Other changes… as with most of the early series, Miss Lemon has been added to the story. This is done quite neatly, as Miss Lemon takes on some of the background work that Japp carries out in the novel (investigating Dr MacAllister, for instance). The episode also rewrites Hastings’s casual comment on the number of nicknames for ‘Margaret’ into a comical conversation between Hastings and Miss Lemon, in which they not only drop the ‘Margaret’ clue, but also consider the nicknames ‘Herc’ and ‘Jimmy’ for Poirot and Japp. Finally, Miss Lemon switches roles with Hastings in the denouement – it is now Miss Lemon who must play the role of the medium (without warning), with Hastings jovially egging her on (just as the literary Poirot did to his counterpart). Reading the novel’s séance immediately before watching the TV version actually adds a really nice extra layer of humour to this scene.

As I’ve said, Japp does appear in the novel, but his role is expanded in the TV episode. He’s called in at the death of Maggie Buckley, and assists with the rest of the case. This means that we get to see Japp having a stick of rock at the seaside – which is an absolute pleasure – as well as the first of many ‘social’ scenes between the three men (joined here by Miss Lemon), which will recur throughout Series 2.

The episode does have a bigger deviation from the source material, which I’m a bit less enthusiastic about. I love the character of Freddie Rice in Christie’s novel, but I’m less enamoured with her TV counterpart.

In the novel, an uncharacteristically poetic Hastings describes Freddie as a ‘weary Madonna’: ‘She impressed me, I think, as the most tired person I had ever met.’ This doesn’t really fit with Alison Sterling’s portrayal of the character.

Sterling’s Freddie is quite vibrant – first seen dancing around Nick’s sitting-room, singing along to ‘Red Sails in the Sunset’. We do get to see a more run-down Freddie, after she believes Nick has died, but I still don’t think ‘weary Madonna’ quite captures it.

Christie’s Freddie is a misleading character, and Hastings’s initial assessment is revealed to be a hint of the sympathy the reader will eventually feel towards her. Freddie has been dragged into drug abuse by her no-good ex-husband. She’s desperate to be free of this negative influence, and has been growing apart from Nick (a girl who, it’s revealed, loves a good ‘dope party’) as a result. The ‘pukka sahib’ Commander Challenger is revealed to be Nick and Freddie’s dealer – thus, another negative influence in Freddie’s life – and the suspicious Jim Lazarus is actually a good guy, trying (and succeeding) to help his friend shake her addiction. At the end of the novel, Freddie admits to Poirot that she’s almost clean and ready to move on with her life.

Much of this is removed from the TV episode. Freddie’s husband is mentioned, but not in any detail, making it appear almost as though she is the guilty party, running around with Jim (Paul Geoffrey) after abandoning her husband. She isn’t attempting to kick her habit, but enjoys partying (and snorting coke) with her friends. The TV Freddie is revealed not to be a murderer, but she’s still an unrepentant drug user at the end. I much prefer the version in the novel, to be honest.

This review has turned into an essay, I’m afraid. Not surprising, really, as this is the first of the novel adaptations and it’s based on one of my favourite books. I should try and wrap things up… even though there are so many more things I could say (I haven’t even mentioned all the references to conjuring and stage performance in the book, or the fact that Hastings has a fever dream in which Poirot appears as ‘a kind of fantastic clown, making a periodic appearance in a circus’.)

Instead, here are two final thoughts on the TV episode(s)…

This story sees the first appearance of Carol MacReady in the series (she’ll be back in Cat Among the Pigeons), playing Mrs Croft. While the character is pretty much the same as in the novel, the bit where Japp recognizes her as the forger Milly Merton (‘Hello-ello-ello…’) has been dropped. Perhaps this is because overcomplicating the Crofts’ backstory would weigh down the episode’s denouement, but I’ve often wondered if it’s not because Japp will make a similar pronouncement in the next episode (‘The Veiled Lady’). Given that Japp’s recognition of Gertie is completely integral to the plot of that story, it makes sense that Exton decided to drop the similar (but less important) scene in ‘Peril at End House’.

And finally, a comment should be made on Elizabeth Downes’s portrayal of Maggie Buckley. The point of Maggie’s character is that the reader/viewer shouldn’t pay much attention to her – she has to be near enough invisible or the jig is up. In the novel, just before the fireworks, the characters have dinner and conversation turns to the fate of Michael Seton. As is necessary (and, at that point in the story, appropriate), everyone’s attention is focused on Nick, and Maggie’s only involvement is to politely ask Hastings if he’s ever done any flying. Now… rewatch that scene in the TV episode, ignoring all other characters and just watching Maggie’s face. It’s wonderfully done.

Time to bring this very long review to an end. Peril at End House remains one of my favourite Poirot novels, and the TV episode(s) is an excellent and (mostly) faithful adaptation. Exton’s small alterations allow the programme-makers to slot ‘Peril at End House’ neatly into the early series, drawing out its similarities to the early short stories but saving the big changes for later. For now, at least, the gang are still together.

Time to press on with the second series… the next episode is ‘The Veiled Lady’.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Baking Cakes and Puddings – 1833 Style

For the past few months, I’ve been doing some research into the history of the Chorlton-on-Medlock area of South Manchester for a couple of organizations. I’m sure I’ll be writing up more about this research at a later date, but this post is about a little bit of fun my mum and I had with some of the stuff I’ve found.

Last month, we decided to follow some of the recipes in Betsy Westhead’s household book (from 1833).


Betsy Westhead was born in 1805, the daughter of George Royle Chappell, fustian manufacturer. At the turn of the 19th century, Chappell owned land in Chorlton Row (later Chorlton-on-Medlock), on the newly created ‘Nelson Street’. The family lived in Nelson House (now the site of Grafton Street car park), and also owned a pair of semi-detached villas next door (now the Pankhurst Centre). Chappell had six daughters, and each of them married into neighbouring families – who, like them, were influential in local politics, the industrial explosion of Manchester, and the Methodist church.

In 1828, Betsy Chappell married Joshua Proctor Westhead, and the two of them lived in Chorlton-on-Medlock for a time. Joshua adopted the surname ‘Brown-Westhead’ and inherited Lea Castle in 1848. He was elected Liberal MP for Knaresborough in 1847, and was later MP for the City of York (1857-65, 1868-71). Betsy and Joshua has a daughter, Adelaide, who married John Constantine de Courcy, 22nd Lord Kingsale in 1855.

My own research has focused so far on George Royle Chappell and the property he owned in Chorlton-on-Medlock – but this has involved finding out more about Chappell’s ‘fine family of daughters’ (as they were described in one source). During the course of this research, I discovered that the University of Manchester has a small notebook belonging to Betsy Westhead (née Chappell) in its archives. Described as ‘Betsy Westhead’s Receipt Book’, this is a handwritten household book, started in 1833 and recording various household tips and recipes collected from other women of her acquaintance.

Betsy appears to have started this receipt book with the best of intentions, neatly writing out recipes and patterns and adding little comments (‘very nice cake’, ‘a cake made this way with dripping is beautiful for children’). But this only goes on for a few pages, sadly. Most of the notebook is blank. I don’t know if Betsy got bored or lost the notebook (it’s also possible that her daughter was born around this time, and so her attention was elsewhere). What remains is a brief little glimpse into a few months in the life of a woman from nineteenth-century Manchester.

Obviously, I couldn’t resist this… so my mum and I decided we’d try out some of the recipes. After ruling out the intriguingly name ‘Mrs Tootal’s Calves Foot Jelly’ (not the best recipe for a vegetarian), preserved cucumbers (not sure we’d have much need of these) and Rhubarb Wine (rhubarb… urgh), we settled on Almond Pudding and Corporation Cakes. And here’s how we got on…

Almond Pudding

This recipe looked pretty tasty, so we started here. First up, we mixed grated bread, suet and brown sugar together.

And… almost immediately, we realized that historical baking isn’t as straightforward as finding a recipe in an old book. I know nothing about what sort of bread, suet or sugar Betsy would have used, but since we just wanted to get a ‘flavour’ of these 1833 recipes, we decided to accept that there would be some anachronisms. So we used supermarket-bought soft brown sugar and grated up a stale white loaf. And we used shredded vegetable suet (because I’m vegetarian).

The next problem was the bitter almonds. I was tempted to try these, but I would’ve had to order them online (and they’re quite expensive). I also got a bit squeamish about all the warnings bitter almonds carry – they contain cyanide in raw form and as few as 10 nuts might be enough to kill an adult, and as a result they’re illegal in the US. As far as I can tell, cooking bitter almonds destroys the poison, but I chickened out (because I've read too much Agatha Christie) and decided to substitute sweet almonds instead.

We used ground almonds, mixed with a little rosewater. (Side note: I thought it’d be good if we pounded the almonds ourselves, but it turns out my mum hasn’t got a mortar and pestle. She used to have one – but apparently she got rid of it years ago, so we had to use pre-ground nuts instead.)

Betsy’s recipe didn’t give any instructions about the sweet almonds, so we decided to roughly chop them.

Next, we beat together 5 eggs and a glass of brandy. I don’t know whether we used the right size of glass (we used a small wine glass), but the mixture smelt right so that was good enough for us.

Then we mixed the wet and dry ingredients together, spooned the mixture into a pudding basin, and tied it up ready for boiling.

The pudding needed to be steamed for six hours (give or take), so into the pan it went.

After just over six hours, the pudding was cooked through (slightly springy to the touch) and ready to be turned out of the basin…

… strewed with white sugar…

… and served (we didn’t make the wine sauce, as Betsy didn’t provide a recipe for that.)

It was delicious. The texture was close, but not stodgy, and you could really taste the almonds and brandy. The only change I would make in future would be to reduce the amount of rosewater, as there was just a little too much rose in it. The rosewater is really only intended to take the edge off the bitterness of the almonds, so if you’re using sweet almonds you only need a drop or two. (I’m also wondering about substituting the brandy for amaretto, for the ultimate almond pudding.)

Corporation Cakes

The next recipe was a bit of a mystery. I’d never heard of corporation cakes before, and an internet search revealed very little. All I found was another recipe, in The Young Ladies’ Guide in the Art of Cookery (1777) by Elizabeth Marshall, but no information about the history or popularity of this type of cake. (As you can see, Elizabeth’s recipe differs from Betsy’s, as it has no yeast and the ratio of flour to sugar is different.)

Curious about corporation cakes, I asked people on Twitter if they could shed any light on the matter. I got some nice responses (and some advice) from food historians, but no one had actually heard of the cake before. Fortunately, I know a baker! The mum of one of the kids I tutor works for Park Cakes in Oldham, and I had a vague memory of her being knowledgeable about the history of baking. Sure enough, Ann-Marie turned out to have heard of corporation cakes – in fact, she recognized the name as soon as I said it – and she advised me that they’re a bit like rock cakes. (Sadly, she didn’t know anything about the history of the name – so I’m yet to discover why they’re called ‘corporation’ cakes.)

At least I now knew what the end product should look like… but there was a new problem. One of the historians I spoke to on Twitter, David Fouser, warned me that I’d have to think carefully about the type of yeast being used. Modern baker’s yeast didn’t exist in 1833, so I’d have to work out what sort of yeast Betsy was using before I could calculate the measurements for a modern substitute. With a bit of reading around the subject, I came to the conclusion that Betsy’s household would probably have used a homemade yeast (along the lines of a modern sourdough starter) or leftovers bought from a local brewer. My mum and I quickly decided that making a homemade yeast was out of the question (not least because we were both doing this on our only day off!) and it was unlikely that we’d find a local brewer willing to sell us some leftovers. Instead, I found a website to convert measurements of brewer’s yeast into modern baker’s yeast (dried) – though I had no idea how big Betsy’s ‘spoonsful’ were – and, working on the basis that we were making something along the lines of a rock cake, decided on using two teaspoons of dried yeast for 1lb of flour.

To this, we added the currants, sugar (anachronistic caster sugar, I’m afraid) and nutmeg.

We melted the butter over the fire – well, okay, in a pan on the cooker – and stirred in the egg white (without the homemade yeast, of course, as we’d added our dried yeast directly to the flour). Then we put the butter and egg to the flour mixture.

The mix was a little dry, and we couldn’t work it into a dough. This might have been because the yeast should’ve added some extra liquid to the mixture, so we compensated for this as best we could with a little warm milk. Eventually, the mix bound together into a dough.

Of course, I don’t know if this dough was right, as Betsy only told us to ‘lightly make it into little cakes’. Perhaps it was meant to be a sloppier than this… but without any evidence of what corporation cakes are supposed to look like, we just went with what we had. We made the mixture into small buns, and then ‘threw’ some powdered sugar onto them.

Betsy just told us to bake them in a ‘slow oven’, so, again, we had to just go with what seemed right. We decided to bake them at Gas Mark 4 ‘until they look right’ (in my mum’s very scientific language).

Ta da…

I was a bit disappointed, after all the research I did, to discover that the yeast was near enough pointless. The cakes didn’t rise at all, and we’re fairly convinced that we could have achieved the same result without the yeast. Maybe we should’ve added more, or maybe we should’ve avoided the preactivated dried stuff – or, given the fact that Elizabeth Marshall’s recipe didn’t include it, maybe the yeast was always pointless. I don’t know enough about the history of baking to say for sure. But never mind… onto the taste test…

The conclusion we reached (and which was agreed by my dad and my husband) is that Betsy Westhead’s Corporation Cakes (or, at least, our version of them) are amazing. They’re like the sweetest, butteriest rock cake you’ll ever taste. I think you could probably die from eating more than two of them in one sitting though, which is a problem because they’re really morish. The taste of nutmeg came through nicely as well. All in all, I think Betsy’s recipe might be a bit more decadent than Elizabeth Marshall’s, but that’s no bad thing.

(If you can shed any light on the history of ‘corporation cakes’, please do leave a comment!)

So that was our little foray into baking 1833-style. What have I learnt? That Mrs Tootal made a mean calves foot jelly, the people of Chorlton-on-Medlock had a sweet tooth, and puddings in the nineteenth century were a bit more cyanidey than modern ones.