Showing posts with label Pauline Moran. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Pauline Moran. Show all posts

Saturday, 21 December 2019

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

This post is part of my 2016-19 Poirot Project. You can read the full story of why I’m doing this in my Introduction post. The previous post was a review of ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

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

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

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

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

For now…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Backstory done.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about ‘The Lemesurier Inheritance’?

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

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

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

Next up… ‘Hercule Poirot’s Christmas’

Sunday, 17 February 2019

Poirot Project: The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman (review)

This post is part of my 2016-19 Poirot Project. You can read the full story of why I’m doing this in my Introduction post. The previous post was a review of ‘The Case of the Missing Will’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The fifth episode of the fifth series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 14th February 1993… almost exactly 26 years ago… how time flies! The episode was based on the short story of the same name, which was first published in The Sketch on 24th October 1923. And it’s a corker of an episode.

But let’s talk about Christie’s short story first…

Have you ever thought that Poirot and Hastings’s relationship is a bit too… well… close? Or rather, a bit closed off? While they’re obviously very good friends, and each has the occasional acquaintance who pops up in a story, they don’t really do much socializing with people outside their little duo. Almost all the people they spend time with are clients or suspects. The only person they repeatedly refer to as a friend is Japp, and he’s more a work colleague. They just don’t seem to have any relationships that aren’t formal or professional.
‘Poirot and I had many friends and acquaintances of an informal nature.’
Oops… sorry, Hastings. My bad.

I can’t decide whether this abrupt opening is defensive or lazy. It’s a pretty heavy-handed way to set the scene, either way. The point is, Hastings and Poirot are hanging out with one of the many, many friends – a Dr Hawker – when their evening party (yes, the pair are definitely living together in this one) is interrupted by a ‘distracted female’:
‘Oh, doctor, you’re wanted! Such a terrible voice. It gave me a turn, it did indeed.’
The distracted female is Dr Hawker, and the terrible voice was that of Hawker’s patient, one Count Foscatini, who was calling to beg for help after an attack. Hawker, Poirot and Hastings hurry to Foscatini’s flat and discover the man has been murdered. They investigate, and then call in their ‘Scotland Yard friend, Inspector Japp’ to wrap things up. (Japp proceeds to arrest the wrong guy, by the way.)

‘The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman’ is an interesting story for two reasons (in addition to Hastings’s weird compulsion to point out how many friends he and Poirot have). Firstly, it continues Christie’s minor fascination with fancy new-build and serviced apartments. This was first seen in ‘The Adventure of the Cheap Flat’ and would be seen again in ‘The Third Floor Flat’. (Don’t be confused here… the order of publication is different to the order of adaptation.)

In ‘The Adventure of the Cheap Flat’ and ‘The Third Floor Flat’ the stories include details of modern design features, particularly fancy-pants dustbin storage and service staircases. In ‘The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman’, Foscatini lives in a full-blown new-fangled serviced apartment:
‘Regent’s Court was a new block of flats, situated just off St John’s Wood Road. They had only recently been built, and contained the latest service devices.’
Christie’s mild fascination with serviced apartments and their thoroughly modern mechanisms for murder inspired a bit of a mild fascination in me when I first saw these episodes. However, I’ll admit I don’t know a huge amount about the history of this type of building. Wikipedia tells me that ‘Regent’s Court’ in this story was fictional, so I have to assume it isn’t related to the current ‘Regent Court’ portered apartment building near St John’s Road – the proximity to Regent’s Park explains the similarity of names between the fictional and real-life buildings. Nevertheless, Christie didn’t invent the concept of a ‘new block of flats’ with ‘the latest service devices’.

Doing internet searches for the history of ‘serviced apartments in London’ is a bit tricky, as we seem to be going through a bit of a serviced apartments renaissance (flats like those in Regent Court, which have a porter service and function as a sort of vertical gated community). But I have found a few little interesting nuggets of information…

The type of apartment inhabited by Count Foscatini experience a brief boom in popularity in the 1920s and 30s. I can’t remember where I read this (so no footnote I’m afraid), but some have put this popularity down to the changing fortunes of the upper classes. After WWI, it became increasingly difficult for rich men to staff a house with live-in servants – and, in some cases, to run a large house at all – and so a smaller, more modern residence with a permanent staff must have appealed. While some residents of these apartment blocks might have a single live-in (e.g. Mrs Grant in ‘The Third Floor Flat’ has a maid, and Poirot himself will take valet George with him when he moves to Whitehaven Mansions), the main work of the building is done by a shared staff who look after the needs of all residents.

One of the earliest examples of this arrangement I’ve been able to find is St James’s Court (now St James’s Hotel) on Park Place. This building – it is claimed – open in 1892 as a block of 44 serviced flats. It described itself as a ‘gentleman’s chamber’, suggesting it was somewhere between a pied-à-terre and a gentleman’s club. Presumably, many of the impossibly posh blokes who owned/rented the flats (like David Cameron’s great-great-grandfather-in-law, for example) would have a ‘primary’ or ‘country’ residence elsewhere.

I don’t think St James’s Court is quite indicative of the type of flats Christie is using in her stories, though. Her apartment blocks tend to be inhabited by wealthy professionals and bright young things, rather than the landed gentry. Prospective tenants are young married couples, single women, consulting detectives and blackmailers, and the flats will be the primary residence for the inhabitants. By the 20s and 30s, these new apartment blocks were accommodating a wave of fashionable city centre living, where the wealthy urbanistas increasingly rely on staff rather than servants (note that Regent’s Court in this story employs a ‘chef’ and not a ‘cook’). Guy Morgan’s Florin Court (built in 1936) and William Bryce Binnie’s Addisland Court (also 1936) are surviving examples of later art deco-designed blocks. Claire Bennie makes this comment on her website London Deco Flats:
‘What these wonderful 1930s buildings remind us is that there used to be a particular kind of tenant, on a medium income, who demanded porterage, parking, perhaps a maid, and sometimes dining and sports facilities.’
The descriptions of city flats in Christie’s earlier stories suggests that the ‘particular kind of tenant’ was also in the market for rented housing in the 1920s. That’s as much as I know about serviced apartments, and I’m sure I’ve probably made some horrible errors in my summary. Please – please – if you have more info on this specific bit of British housing history, let me know. I’ve been interested in this type of flat since February 1993, so I’d love a reading list!

Now… back to the story… and the second reason ‘The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman’ is interesting. I’ve gone on a bit already, but I reckon I can sum this one up a bit more quickly…

When Poirot and Hastings arrive at Regent’s Court, they discover Count Foscatini’s valet-butler Graves, who, like many a helpful and deferential servant in Golden Age fiction, gives the detective a careful and thorough outline of his employer’s movements and visitors. He describes the gentlemen who called to see his master the previous day, the dinner that was served on the evening of the murder, and a simple overview of his master’s entertaining habits. Graves explains that he served a meal to his master and guests, and then was given the evening off. He went out at 8.30pm and returned just in time to find Poirot poring over the body of his erstwhile employer.

Graves’s evidence is standard. This is how servants are used in so much Golden Age detective fiction – they’re essentially depersonalised narrators of the ‘background’ events of the case. They give neutral evidence of the household’s comings and goings, the timings of meals, the layout and security arrangements of the building. In these cases, the word of the servant is taken as a matter of fact, because the staff are simply plot devices to convey the material situation in which the murder has taken place. At times, a detective like Poirot might be able to push a servant to speculate, gossip or reveal a secret they are not supposed to know but, again, this almost always taken as a matter of fact.

Now, sometimes, a servant might have a secret of their own. They may be guilty of a crime – fiddling the household accounts, for instance, or colluding with some wrong ’un from outside the household. They may not be who they claim to be, or they may have falsified their references, but they are never seriously in the frame for the murder.

The whole point of Golden Age detective fiction is that the murderer represents the dark heart of the domestic set-up. It’s the spouse, the child, the parent, the family doctor. The call is coming from inside the house.

Agatha Christie does love playing tricks though. In ‘The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman’, she assumes that we assume that the valet-butler’s evidence is neutral evidence, a statement of fact. It’s enough for Hastings and Japp, who take everything Graves says at face value, leading to the hunt for Foscatini’s dinner guest and the erroneous arrest of Ascanio.

It’s not enough for Poirot (naturally):
‘What evidence have we that Ascanio and his friend, or two men posing as them, ever came to the flat that night? Nobody saw them go in; nobody saw them go out. We have the evidence of one man and a host of inanimate objects.’
The characteristic Christie misdirection in this story was making us think we were listening to a butler, when really we were listening to a man.

(As a sidenote, I now wonder if my two ‘interesting points’ are actually related. The standard country house mystery has the murderer at the heart of the family/household, then how can this be updated to reflect the new fashionable urban living arrangements of the middle classes? For unattached men like Foscatini – well-to-do city renters – their household is their valet.)

(As a more pressing sidenote… OMG! What’s the deal with 1920s speed-eating??

To recap… Graves claims that two men came to visitor his master. A dinner (for three) is ordered and served at 8pm. This is a fact corroborated by the Regent’s Court chef. The meal consists of the following:
‘Soup julienne, filet de sole normande, tournedos of beef, and a rice soufflé.’

Okay, looks like a perfectly fine dinner. Apparently the men casually conversed about ‘politics, the weather, and the theatrical world’ while dining. Graves then placed the port on the table, served them coffee, and headed out to meet a friend.

Graves left the apartment at around 8.30pm.


So, these men managed to put away soup, sole normande, beef tournedos, a little bit of rice soufflé (admittedly most of it was left) and some coffee, all the while conversing merrily… in half an hour? Seriously??

This gets even more indigestion-inducing when we discover the truth: in fact, there were no visitors, Foscatini was dead before 8 o’clock, and Graves himself consumed all of the ordered food. And then smoked a cigar and two cigarettes.

And then left the apartment at around 8.30pm.

Is it even possible to eat that much food in half an hour? He ate three quarters of a fish, for god’s sake! And around 15-21oz of steak! No wonder he bursts back into the flat later ‘with every appearance of grief and agitation’.)

Anyway… that’s enough beef for this vegetarian; I’ve spent enough time Googling what ‘sole’ and ‘tournedos’ actually are and asking my husband cryptic questions about how much fish he could eat in a single sitting. Let’s move on to the adaptation…

The episode was directed by Brian Farnham and written by Clive Exton. And it’s just excellent.

The beauty of this episode is that Christie’s story is retained faithfully, but the episode is fleshed out with the expansion of subplots and some lovely storylines for ‘the gang’. While this is true for a number of other early episodes of Poirot, the Poirot, Hastings and Miss Lemon storylines here are just beautiful.

Ironically, given that Christie’s story begins with Hastings curtly announcing that he and Poirot do have other friends, you know, the TV episode begins with him being utterly baffled by the concept of Miss Lemon having a social life. He enters Poirot’s office in a tizzy, because he’s discovered that Miss Lemon… isn’t there. Poirot tells him calmly that Miss Lemon is out with a gentleman friend.

I love this storyline – it belongs completely and utterly to the TV show and has absolutely no basis in any of Christie’s fiction. I love what it reveals about the ‘family’ dynamic of Poirot, Hastings and Miss Lemon, with Hastings assuming the role of protective older brother and Poirot that of affectionate pater. I love that Poirot insists Miss Lemon’s friend comes to tea, and that both men appear to be sizing him up in their different ways. I love Miss Lemon’s comments on the class system (‘the way we were all brought up to think’) when she discovers Edwin is a butler and not a private secretary. And I love the fact that this is (I think) the first time we hear someone call Miss Lemon ‘Felicity’.

But, more importantly, I love the way the gang react when Edwin Graves’s (Leonard Preston) crimes are revealed. After apprehending the murdering, cheating butler (more on that shortly), Hastings gives him a proper punch in the chops:
‘You swine! That’s for Miss Lemon!’
Avuncular Poirot, however, has to break the news to Miss Lemon. And I love this too. The little Belgian tiptoes into Miss Lemon’s office, prepared to gently explain that her boyfriend was (a) married and (b) a murderer. It’s such a sweet scene, and I love the way Suchet conveys Poirot’s palpable concern and pain on Miss Lemon’s behalf.

But I also love the fact that Miss Lemon doesn’t care. She has to ask Poirot who ‘Edwin’ is, because Mr Graves is dead to her. Not because he killed his employer. Not because he stole a load of money. Not because he had a secret wife. Not because he was weirdly proficient at speed-eating beef. But because he was planning to have Foscatini’s cat put to sleep. For Felicity Lemon, that is the ultimate crime.

The Miss Lemon storyline is probably my favourite bit of this episode, but the Hastings bit comes a very close second. As cats are to Miss Lemon, cars are to Captain Hastings. And oh boy! There’s a car and a half here.

In this episode, Hastings has decided to ditch his beloved Lagonda and purchase a swanky Eliso Freccia (a fictional Italian make). In bare plot terms, this is done to allow an expansion of the ‘sinister Italian’ red herring of Christie’s story. In the original, Foscatini is not a count, but rather a blackmailer. Ascanio – presumed to be a political assassin – is actually Foscatini’s victim, and his earlier visit to the man’s flat was for the purpose of paying him off. (In the story, as in the TV version, Foscatini is revealed to be a very reasonable blackmailer.)

In the adaptation, Foscatini’s web of blackmail goes further, involving Bruno Vizzini (David Neal) and Margherita Fabbri (Anna Mazzotti) of the Eliso Freccia firm. This allows for two further expansions: (1) the obligatory reference to the brewing conflict in Europe, as Vizzini’s ‘crime’ is to have supported anti-fascist groups in Italy; and (2) a somewhat underwhelming subplot for Japp, where he’s on the trail of the ‘Maznada’, an Italian organized crime family that’s ‘older than the Mafia’. But while these are perfectly sensible reasons for including the Italian car firm in the episode, I think we all know the real reason for including it… it’s an excuse for some Hastings car porn!

There’s a bit of a joke among some fans of the series that early episodes shoehorned in car chases at the drop of a hat. Hastings does tend to jump behind the wheel with ease in the first couple of series, but ‘The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman’ gives us the ne plus ultra of car chases.

When the police descend on Chichester to apprehend the absconding Mr Graves, the murderous valet spins his car round and floors it. Hastings spots an opportunity, jumps into a waiting Eliso Freccia car (apparently played by an Alfa Romeo 2900A with its understandably protective owner body-doubling for Hugh Fraser, in case you’re interested) and goes in pursuit. What follows is a brilliant sequence, in which the two men wheel their rather cumbersome cars through increasingly narrow streets, at a speed that could hardly be called ‘breakneck’. A passer-by shrieks and drops her crockery; the chase is held up by a wandering flock of geese; holiday-makers in an open-top bus point in amazement. It’s pure magic.

Fun as the car chase is, I do have some concerns about the Eliso Freccia car. You see, I paused the episode at the moment Hastings signs the purchase contract…

Woah… how much? £1900? So, about £130,000 in today’s money? Where on earth did Hastings get that much money from? Why is he still mooching off Poirot if he’s got £1900 burning a hole in his pocket? Once again, the finances of Captain Hastings baffle me.

Argh… it’s the early hours of the morning and I’m in danger of getting sidetracked by Hastings’s bank balance again. Time to wrap this one up, I think. Just a couple of additional points of interest with this one…

1. I like that Hastings employs the same visualisation techniques as Miss Lemon used in ‘Double Sin’ when she lost the flat keys. Here, Hastings has to cast his mind back to seeing a postcard of Graves’s boat in order to remember where it was docked.

2. The (fictional) Regent’s Court of Christie’s story is replaced by a real building – Addisland Court. The scenes at Foscatini’s flat were actually filmed on location at Addisland Court, which makes this block of flats one of the few buildings to actually play itself in the series.

3. The gut-busting reality of what Graves actually does clearly bothered Exton as much as it bothers me, as he makes some subtle changes to ease the strain on Graves’s digestive tract. While the menu is identical to that in Christie’s short story (the interview with the chef is one of the scenes adapted almost verbatim from the source), the TV Graves only pretends there is one guest coming. Thus, he only has to Man-versus-Food two full dinners, instead of three. Exton also makes a minor adjustment to the timings: the dinner is served at 8pm, but Graves doesn’t go out until just before nine, giving him a little bit longer to finish the steaks.

4. Poirot doesn’t respond well to the arrival of Count Foscatini’s cat.

And with that, it’s time to move on. The next episode is ‘The Chocolate Box’

Monday, 11 February 2019

Poirot Project: The Case of the Missing Will (review)

This post is part of my 2016-19 Poirot Project. You can read the full story of why I’m doing this in my Introduction post. The previous post was a review of ‘The Yellow Iris’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The fourth episode of the fifth series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 7th February 1993. It was based on the short story of the same name, which was published in The Sketch on October 1923 – though the closeness of this adaptation is something I’m going to come back to shortly.

Christie’s short story is a neat – but rather straightforward – little puzzle for the great detective. It begins with Poirot and Hastings receiving a new client, which Hastings says is ‘rather a pleasant change from [their] routine work’ (though he doesn’t say what, exactly, he counts as ‘routine work’). Hastings’s happiness is short-lived, however, as it transpires that the client, Violet Marsh, is… shock, horror!... a New Woman:
‘I am not a great admirer of the so-called New Woman myself, and, in spite of her good looks, I was not particularly prepossessed in her favour.’
Poirot seems to quite like Violet, though, so the reader is prepossessed in her favour. Is this fair? Hastings can be a pretty bad judge of women… but then again, so can Poirot. After all, it’s Poirot who is taken in by Nick Buckley and Jane Wilkinson, and he’s got a definite soft spot for Jacqueline de Bellefort and (obviously) Vera Rossakoff. Fortunately, we don’t have to worry too much about these murderers and jewel thieves, as Violet Wilson has come with quite a different sort of puzzle.

Violet was the niece (and only relative) of rich businessman Andrew Marsh. During his lifetime, her uncle held ‘peculiar and deeply-rooted ideas as to the upbringing of women’, and was not happy when his niece decided to go to Girton. To teach her that her new-fangled ‘book learning’ is no match for his masculine brains, he uses his will as a final posthumous battle of wits: Marsh leaves all his property to Violet for one year, during which time she must ‘prove her wits’ or the fortune will pass to charities.

After Marsh died, Violet made a quick search of the house, couldn’t find anything obvious, and so immediately came to hire Poirot to solve the puzzle for her. Which he does.

It really is as simple as that.

Poirot visits Crabtree Manor, Marsh’s former home, spots a couple of inconsistencies, and then uses these to ascertain the whereabouts of a second will (dated shortly after the first), which leaves everything unconditionally to Violet. To be brutally honest, it’s a bit of a waste of his excellent little grey cells.

Hastings is thoroughly disappointed by the whole business. He seems bored as he narrates Poirot’s forensic search of the house, unimpressed by Poirot’s discovery of a label that doesn’t match the others, and confused by a last-minute epiphany on a train. As Poirot makes a dash back to Crabtree Manor for the big reveal, Hastings is grumpy and complains that Poirot isn’t paying him enough attention.

Despite his friend’s strop, Poirot is delighted by the case and sums it all up with ‘triumph’. He’s worked out the puzzle, and his client has won the battle of wits. He suggests that this means she has ‘justified her choice of life and elaborate education’, and also that her uncle’s trick was always intended to vindicate his niece’s academic career (assuming she was successful, of course).

Cranky Hastings sees things differently. ‘The old man really won,’ he grumbles.
‘“But no, Hastings. It is your wits that go astray. Miss Marsh proved the astuteness of her wits and the value of the higher education for women by at once putting the matter in my hands. Always employ the expert. She has amply proved her rights to the money.”
“It’s not fair! You never listen to me! I wish I’d never been born!” I shouted, as I ran out of the room and slammed the door.’
Okay. I made that last bit up.

‘The Case of the Missing Will’ is probably not on many Top 10 Poirot Stories lists. It’s a little bit of fun for both Poirot and the reader (not Hastings though), but it’s not the most memorable case. Nevertheless, Christie was clearly quite happy with the central conceit, as it’s one of the plots she reused later on.

The Miss Marple story ‘Strange Jest’ was first published in the US in 1941 and then in the Strand Magazine in 1944 (under the title ‘A Case of Buried Treasure’).* In this little tale, Miss Marple is introduced to kissing-(third)-cousins Edward Rossiter and Charmian Stroud, the sole heirs to their shared Great-Great-Uncle Mathew. Edward and Charmian are convinced that their Uncle Mathew was in possession of a large fortune in gold bullion, but when he died there was no sign of any fortune. Their friend Jane Helier convinces the lovebirds to enlist Miss Marple’s assistance to get their hands on the loot.

As in ‘The Case of the Missing Will’, the detective here accompanies the putative heirs to the dead man’s house, rifles through his property, and then produce the booty with a flourish. But it’s the differences between the stories that are most interesting.

What I really like about this pair of stories is the way that Christie fitted each of the ‘missing will’ pranks to the idiosyncrasies of the respective sleuths. So, in the earlier story, the clue comes in the form of a label that doesn’t match the others; in the later one, the hints come in sly uses of outdated slang (‘gammon and spinach’, ‘all my eye and Betty Martin’). In ‘Missing Will’, Poirot pores over an account of the day of the will’s writing and finds an interesting item in the schedule; in ‘Strange Jest’, Miss Marple sees a possible parallel with her own Uncle Henry.

It’s lucky that Charmian, Edward and Violet picked their detectives so carefully. I wonder if Miss Marple would’ve guessed Andrew Marsh’s invisible ink – and what would Poirot have made of Uncle Mathew?

I must admit, I really warmed towards ‘The Case of the Missing Will’ after I read ‘Strange Jest’. I thoroughly recommend reading them as companion pieces to remind you of the important differences between Christie’s two famous sleuths.

And now… controversy! It’s time to look at the ITV adaptation of ‘The Case of the Missing Will’, and the first Poirot episode to veer substantively away from its source story. Dun dun dunnnnnn…

‘The Case of the Missing Will’ was directed by John Bruce and written by Douglas Watkinson. It does not follow the plot of Christie’s short story, though it makes some allusions to it.

I’m just going to get this out of the way up front: I don’t think this is a problem. Christie’s short story would not have made a good episode of the TV show – or, at least, not one that would have fit with the rest of the series. I know the 90s was a simpler time, but I just can’t imagine us all curling up in front of the TV to watch David Suchet meticulously looking through drawers for an hour while Hugh Fraser stropped about in the background. I mean, obviously I’d watch that now. But I probably wouldn’t have liked it so much when I was fourteen. I would’ve probably changed over to… *checks 1993 TV listings*… So Haunt Me?? Urgh. Only one thing for it…

Picture Credit: TV Whirl

Fortunately, Douglas Watkinson stopped teenage me from having to make the choice between So Haunt Me and Bamboozle, as the TV version of ‘The Case of the Missing Will’ is a pretty standard Poirot episode. It’s also, in my opinion, very well done – I only realized that it’s not actually a Christie story years later when I started reading the early Poirot short stories.

So, let’s talk about the episode…

We begin with a flashback to 1926. A man named Andrew Marsh (played by Mark Kingston) is seeing in the New Year with friends. As the clock strikes twelve, he announces that he has made a will leaving most of his fortune to a medical foundation, with some to be held in trust for his ward (Violet Wilson)’s education. Violet (played as a child by Stephanie Thwaites) excitedly watches through the bannisters with the sons of Marsh’s friends, Robert Siddaway (Simon Owen) and Peter Baker (Glen Mead), but is dismayed to hear that her guardian imagines that her future lies in marriage, possibly to one of her young companions. Marsh’s friend Phyllida Campion (Susan Tracy) remonstrates, but it is clear that Marsh has rather fixed views on the role of women.

Thus, the stage is set for an episode that alludes to, but doesn’t follow, Christie’s story. We have a rich man named Andrew Marsh, who made his money farming in Australia (as Christie’s character had done), a young (sort of) heir named Violet, and some eyebrow-raising at the idea of women’s education. However, we also have a gang of Siddaways and Bakers (the Bakers here are not quite the household servants of the same names from the short story), a Miss Campion and Dr Pritchard who are not found in the source text. And, most important, Marsh’s will is definitely not missing.

The episode then jumps ahead to the present day. The present day being 1936, of course. Poirot and Hastings are attending a Cambridge University debate in the company of Violet Wilson. (As a side note, the adult Violet is played by Beth Goddard, in the first of her two Poirot appearances. Her second appearance will be in Appointment with Death ¬– another rather loose adaptation of Christie’s work. But we’ll talk about that one later.)

The debate is on women’s education – and women’s rights generally. Marsh is speaking against, and Robert Siddaway (played as an adult by Edward Atterton) is speaking for. Robert makes an unsurprisingly prescient speech, arguing that – when the inevitable war in Europe comes – women will be expected to work in factories, munitions works, and even the armed forces. The guffawing idiots in the audience (clearly oblivious to the roles women played during the war that ended less that twenty years earlier) shout him down with derogatory comments about the W.I. Overcome with outrage at the sexist nonsense she’s hearing, Violet interjects and the meeting descends into boorish chaos.

Robert’s invocation of an upcoming war is interesting here. I’ve said several times in these posts that the TV series conjures up a world that is permanently on the brink of WWII, but never actually fighting it. This episode comes closer than many to accepting that a war will happen: Robert makes specific reference to an alliance between Hitler and Mussolini, and – unexpectedly – we actually see a young British man in army uniform, as the Bakers’ son Peter (now played by Neil Stuke) is home on leave for the duration of the episode.

All this is perfectly in-keeping with the rest of the series, but it just feels a little bit heavy-handed in these opening scenes. That probably doesn’t mean anything though. It’s not like Britain’s relationship with other European nations was a particularly hot topic in early 1993 or anything.

Picture Credit: TV Whirl

Anyway… as I’ve said above, Christie’s short story is simply a treasure hunt for our little Belgian detective. The TV episode has to add a few extra twists and turns to keep us away from Bamboozle. Those twists include… Andrew Marsh decides to change his will! Then he gets murdered! Japp turns up to investigate! And he recognizes shifty Dr Pritchard (Richard Durden)! The will goes missing! Hastings rides a horse! Dr Pritchard says he thinks Andrew has a secret son! Miss Campion gets pushed down a moving staircase! Poirot questions Margaret Baker (Gillian Hanna) about her son Peter! Sarah Siddaway (Rowena Cooper) hints that Robert in Marsh’s son! Miss Lemon investigates!
‘What’s going on? What on earth is happening?’
(Violet has obviously read Christie’s short story.)

Joking aside, the story plays out in a typically Poirot way. A man is murdered shortly after making a new will (which goes missing), and there is a small circle of suspects. A red herring is dismissed (Japp recognized Dr Pritchard from an earlier case), and a misunderstanding is revealed (Marsh’s comments about parenthood meant that he had a daughter, not a son). And in typical Christie fashion (though not actually written by Christie), the case hinges on the question of who has specific medical knowledge (were you listening carefully?).

I have kinda mixed feelings about the episode’s ending. On the one hand, I like that Watkinson brings us back to Christie’s short story at the end. It’s revealed that Violet is, in fact, Marsh’s daughter (her mother is Miss Campion). After the pesky business of the murder has been cleared up, Poirot assures Violet that Marsh wanted to change his will to leave everything to her: ‘As proof that she was his daughter!... And his equal.’ This is a nice echo of Poirot’s assertion in the short story that Violet has ‘proved the astuteness of her wits and the value of the higher education for women’. At least the TV version of Marsh saw the error of his assessment before he died.

On the other hand, the revelation that Violet is Marsh and Miss Campion’s daughter leaves a couple of question marks. Violet grows up believing that she is the daughter of Marsh’s late business partner in Australia. When this unnamed partner – and, presumably, his wife/girlfriend – died, Marsh benevolently assumed guardianship of the orphan and employed Australian Margaret Baker as a nanny. When Marsh moved back to England, he was ‘called away to fight in France’, and Margaret married a policeman (played by Jon Laurimore) and had Peter.

The problem is… this isn’t true. Violet was born in 1913 to Phyllida Campion, while the woman was a student at Cambridge. Her birth was registered in England. So how did the baby end up in Australia? (Presumably she did end up in Australia, as Margaret Baker gives no indication that the nanny story was a lie.) Did Miss Campion send her straight over? Did she go with her? What exactly was the relationship between Phyllida and Andrew? Did no one spot that Andrew made a quick jaunt to Cambridge from Australia in 1912, and then miraculously produced his dead business partner’s child nine months later? Did Andrew falsely register Violet’s birth in Australia – giving her the surname ‘Wilson’? Did no one question why a single man, with apparently no blood relationship to the child, was registering the birth of a baby at least two weeks old (and that’s assuming Miss Campion gave birth and then immediately shoved the baby on a boat), with the implausible claim that both the child’s parents had died. The more you look at it, the harder to swallow it seems.

Quick! Let’s distract ourselves with Hastings on a horse!

Despite my concern about Baby Violet’s ocean voyage, I still really like this episode. There are some great little details to enjoy. Hastings’s horse ride, for instance… This is the moment when our intrepid sidekick discovers Marsh’s body. As he rides across the countryside with Violet, he looks up and exclaims:
‘What a charming folly!’
This always makes me smile – follies are never good news in Agatha Christie stories.

But by far my favourite bit of the episode is the return of Miss Lemon’s investigative skills. Obviously, I enjoy seeing her peering over card catalogues and registers with her acute eye for the detail of a filing system. But I also like the fact that it is specifically Miss Lemon who spots a slip from the doctor – he refers to ‘Mrs Campion’, rather than ‘Miss Campion’ – and, from the way she questions this, it seems she guesses the reason for the slip before any of the men. For this reason, Poirot entrusts the task of hunting down Miss Campion’s records to her, leaving poor old Hastings kicking his heels on his own in the car park (at least he doesn’t have a strop this time).

And so, ‘The Case of the Missing Will’ might not follow Christie’s original story, but it’s still a great episode. Watkinson does a good job of riffing on Christie’s story to create a script that is convincing as an adaptation (for viewers unfamiliar with the original). There are just enough allusions to reassure fans of Christie’s stories that the writer had read the original as well.

Oh, and we get to see Poirot in his pyjamas again. I’m building up a collection of these pictures, because I have a theory that the detective’s bedtime attire gets distinctly fussier as the series progresses. As you can see, he is not wearing a hairnet or moustache protector in this episode. I doubt anyone apart from me cares.

Right, onto the next episode (and a real favourite of mine) – ‘The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman’

* Academic footnote ahoy! Just to say, I have the version of ‘Strange Jest’ that appears in the eBook edition of the Miss Marple and Mystery: The Complete Short Stories collection, published by HarperCollins in 2011 (2008).

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Poirot Project: The Yellow Iris (review)

This post is part of my 2016 2016-17 2016-19 Poirot Project. You can read the full story of why I’m doing this in my Introduction post. The previous post was a review of ‘The Underdog’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The third episode of the fifth series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot – ‘The Yellow Iris’ – was first broadcast on 31st January 1993. It was based on the short story ‘Yellow Iris’ (aka ‘The Case of the Yellow Iris’), which was first published in the Strand in 1937. Christie’s original short story has Poirot flying solo, as there are no recurring characters (not even George) in this one.

I loved this episode when I first saw it. When I come to talk about the adaptation, I’ll try and put my finger on what it was that intrigued me so much. But first, I have to say something about Christie’s story – and its successor.

‘Yellow Iris’ begins with Poirot sitting home alone, admiring his electric radiator: ‘Its neat arrangement of red hot bars pleased his orderly mind.’ It’s clear that Hercule is a teeny bit bored tonight. When the phone goes at half eleven, he gets a bit excited and fondly imagines it might be some mad case that only he can solve:
‘“And it might,” he murmured to himself with a whimsical smile, “be a millionaire newspaper proprietor, found dead in the library of his country house, with a spotted orchid clasped in his left hand and a page torn from a cookbook pinned to his breast.”’
(This jokey idea for a case seems to ring a bell with me… I don’t know if it’s an allusion to an actual story, or if it crops up in the series as one of Ariadne Oliver’s plots. If you know why it seems familiar, do let me know in the comments.)

The phone call, though, is even more cryptic. A woman’s voice – ‘with a kind of desperate urgency about it’ – tells Poirot that she’s in danger, and asks him to go to the Jardin des Cygnes immediately. He is to find the table with the yellow irises. Poirot is intrigued, and he hurries along to the fancy French restaurant (which is owned by a man named ‘fat Luigi’).

The table with yellow irises has been booked by Barton Russell, a wealthy American, who has gathered a motley crew of friends around him for the evening: Pauline Weatherby (Russell’s sister-in-law), Anthony Chapell, Stephen Carter (a man is diplomatic service known as ‘Silent Stephen’) and Lola Valdez (a South American dancer). As it happens, Poirot has a prior acquaintance with Tony Chapell, and so he manages to get himself invited to the table. No one admits to being the mystery caller, and the party speculate as to what the great detective might be doing at the Jardin des Cygnes:
‘“He’s got an appointment with a body, I believe, or is it an absconding financier, or the Rajah of Borrioboolagah’s great ruby? […] The stolen plans must be found or war will be declared tomorrow!”’
(I know why these jokes all sound familiar – they all have echoes of actual cases Poirot has worked. The ‘appointment with a body’ could be anything, but the ‘absconding financier’ sounds like ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’, the ‘Rajah of Borrioboolagah’s great ruby’ could be ‘The Theft of the Royal Ruby’, and the final joke evokes ‘The Incredible Theft’.)

Poirot demurs and pretends to just be out for a standard night on the tiles, and the party open up and tell him what they’re doing at the Jardin des Cygnes.

Four years earlier, Barton Russell’s wife Iris died at a party in New York attended by the same guests. Although a verdict of suicide was returned, Russell believes it was murder. He has gathered the suspects together that night in order to uncover the ‘truth’.

Iris’s death occurred during a cabaret performance. The lights went down as the singer took the stage, and when they came up again Iris was slumped dead on the table. A packet of potassium cyanide was found in her handbag. Russell is determined to recreate the events of that night, and so after explaining the circumstances to Poirot, he hurries off to make an arrangement with the band.

The lights go down, and a singer takes the stage to perform the same song as that fateful night four years ago. When the song ends, Pauline drops down dead.

The story is quite a simple one and the puzzle has an elegance to it – Poirot is able to solve it without even leaving the restaurant. In fact, Pauline isn’t dead. The little Belgian warned her not to drink any champagne, but to simply pretend. He then reveals that it is Pauline’s brother-in-law himself who is responsible. Under the pretence of speaking to the band, Russell disguised himself as a waiter, topped up glasses at the table, and sneaked cyanide into Pauline’s glass. Since Iris’s death, Russell had been Pauline’s guardian, and Poirot surmises that the man had been dipping into her inheritance. He couldn’t allow her to reach her majority and uncover his embezzlement, and so he sets up the dinner at the restaurant to get rid of the problem. Poirot is unable to say for sure whether Russell killed Iris four years ago, but he knows that it was Pauline who telephoned and summoned him to the restaurant.

With that, Russell snarls a lot, Pauline decides not to press charges, and Poirot has a bit of a boogie with Lola Valdez.

‘Yellow Iris’ isn’t the most developed or intriguing Poirot story, but it has a couple of neat little features. Namely, the idea of the remembrance party (with the eponymous ‘Iris’ being present, but absent from the entire story), and the ‘no one notices the waiter’ trick to effect the murder. These features are the threads that hold together some quite disparate retellings of ‘Yellow Iris’ over the year, beginning with Christie’s own revision of the story in 1945.

A few years after the publication of ‘Yellow Iris’, Christie rewrote and revised her short story (as was her wont). She turned it into a novel, Sparkling Cyanide, and replaced Poirot with Colonel Race. Colonel Race is a recurring character in Christie’s work, who pops up in a couple of Poirot novels as well. I’ll be writing a separate post on Colonel Race later, so I won’t say much more about his appearances here.

Sparkling Cyanide is recognisably related to ‘Yellow Iris’, but it’s a quite different take on the story. I’ll admit I didn’t even know it existed until a number of years after I’d seen the ITV version of ‘The Yellow Iris’ (which, as I’ve said, was a firm favourite). I accidentally stumbled on the 1983 film version on telly one night. I didn’t know it was even an Agatha Christie adaptation, but it soon became clear that it shared certain important features with ‘The Yellow Iris’ – namely, the remembrance party, the poisoned champagne, and the waiter disguise. Later on, I saw the 2003 version of Sparkling Cyanide with Oliver Ford Davies and Pauline Collins, in which Colonel Race becomes Colonel Reece and acquires a co-investigating wife. The story gets an espionage subplot, and the whole thing has a Tommy-and-Tuppence feel to it. But those key features are retained, of course.

I don’t want to get into the respective merits of the adaptations of Sparkling Cyanide here, but I do want to admit that I hadn’t read the novel until I was preparing this post. I think I’d been put off by the adaptations, to be honest, as they both felt a need to ‘update’ Christie’s work and make it ‘glamorous’, whereas I always had a soft spot for the simplicity of the mystery plot in ‘The Yellow Iris’. Perhaps, also, I was quite loyal to the earlier story, and I didn’t want to cheat on it with the non-Poirot rewrite.

But, this blog is nothing if not completist, so I took the plunge and gave Sparkling Cyanide a go. (The academic in me insists I point out that all references to the book are from the 2017 Kindle edition, published by HarperCollins.)

It was… really not what I expected! I loved it!

Sparkling Cyanide really focuses on the remembrance aspect of the story. It’s divided into three books, and the first one is literally just the main characters remembering the events of nearly a year earlier (and preceding circumstances). In this version of the story, the dead woman is Rosemary Barton (though she still died of drinking poisoned champagne after a cabaret show). Her younger sister is Iris Marle, who has been under the guardianship of Rosemary’s widowed husband George Barton. Other characters include Ruth Lessing (Barton’s competent secretary), Anthony Browne (Iris’s kind of boyfriend, who was previously infatuated with Rosemary), and Stephen and Alexandra Farraday (friends – or are they? – of the Bartons).

As this is a novel, these characters are substantially fleshed out in a way that wouldn’t have been possible in the short story. It should be said, as well, that they are different characters to those in ‘Yellow Iris’. Most notably, George Barton is not Barton Russell. He’s a ‘kindly, pleasant, but definitely dull’ man who, while he does eventually become obsessed with the idea his wife was murdered, is nothing but kindness and compassion to his young sister-in-law.

Being familiar with ‘Yellow Iris’, I was expecting this all to be a ruse to throw you off the scent. But then Christie pulled the rug from under my feet… when the suspects get together for their remembrance party, one of their number drops dead from poisoned champagne… but it’s George Barton, not Iris Marle. Was not expecting that!

So that’s the big change between ‘Yellow Iris’ and Sparkling Cyanide (which clearly I hadn’t paid much attention to on my cursory viewings of the adaptations). The significant details remain the same though, with the memory element played up even more in the novel (hence the name changes: Rosemary, as we’re repeatedly reminded, is for remembrance) and the murder technique kept the same.

I did enjoy Christie’s Sparkling Cyanide, and it made for an interesting companion piece to ‘Yellow Iris’ (I’m always fascinated as to which bits of a story Christie retains, and which she changes in her rewrites). However, I will say… Colonel Race is almost entirely redundant in the novel. I can understand why Christie removed limelight-stealing Poirot from the mix, but she doesn’t exactly put his replacement to work. He only appears halfway through and, even then, he doesn’t do an awful lot of investigating.

Poor Colonel Race… hopefully his time will come in another novel.

Right… on to the ITV adaptation of ‘Yellow Iris’, which gains a definite article and becomes ‘The Yellow Iris’.

This episode was directed by Peter Barber Fleming and written by Anthony Horowitz. As I’ve said, it was always one of my favourites of the early series, so it does pain me a little that I’m going to point out historical inaccuracy and an icky race thing in this post – but rewatching the episode in the context of this project has sadly brought a couple of negative points to my attention.

Let’s start with the positives though, shall we?

Overall, as might be expected, Horowitz’s adaptation is a reasonably faithful adaptation of the plot of ‘Yellow Iris’ (though the setting and set-up have been changed). And it was this plot structure that I fell in love with all those years ago.

During a tetchy argument with Hastings about the failings of English cuisine, Poirot discovers that a restaurant called the Jardin des Cygnes is to open in London. This stirs up an unhappy memory for the detective, which is only exacerbated when Miss Lemon arrives bearing a yellow iris that has arrived with the post.

The remembrance element of the story, here, is all Poirot’s, and he decides to recount a painful story to his associates that took place during a disastrous trip to Argentina two years earlier. He tells them that, while staying in Buenos Aires, he came upon a party of people – Barton Russell (played by David Troughton), his sister-in-law Pauline Wetherby (Geraldine Somerville), his business partner Stephen Carter (Hugh Ross), journalist Anthony Chapell (Dorian Healy) and dancer Lola Valdez (Yolanda Vasquez). Also in the party, though Poirot saw little of her, was Russell’s wife Iris (Robin McCaffrey). One night, Poirot ended up at the same restaurant as the people who had attracted his attention – the Jardin des Cygnes, run by an Italian named Luigi (played by Joseph Long and not, as he is in Christie’s story, nicknamed ‘fat’). At dinner, the group watched a cabaret performance, raised their glasses in a toast to Iris, and then looked on in horror as the woman died from drinking poisoned champagne. Poirot wished to investigate, but he was arrested by a certain General Pereira (Stefan Gryff), accused of espionage, and unceremoniously deported. It was a shameful episode, and he decided never to speak of it again.

Now a new Jardin des Cygnes is opening, and a yellow iris has been sent to the detective. Poirot fears that history might be about to repeat itself.

Ultimately, that is the story of ‘The Yellow Iris’. While Poirot and Hastings do a little bit of investigating to find out the party’s backstory (which is a little different and much expanded from the source story), the main focus of the episode is on the tragedy in Buenos Aires and the remembrance party in London two years later. The denouement comes when Pauline drinks her champagne and falls down dead, only to reappear at the key moment when Poirot reveals how the murder/attempted murder was pulled off by Russell.

The plot elements that had me enthralled as a teenager are the ones that Christie obviously thought were the central points – since they’re the ones she retained in her otherwise much revised novel. They’re also the points that are common to all adaptations of ‘Yellow Iris’ and Sparkling Cyanide – the remembrance party, the poisoned champagne, the waiter disguise. The episode makes the latter even clearer, as it introduces a little trick on the part of the detective during his climactic reveal. While in Christie’s story, Pauline simply sits up at the right moment and says ‘Resurrection of Pauline’, the adaptation has the young woman disguise herself as a waitress and serve the suspects coffee to prove that no one notices the waiting staff (this was my favourite bit of the episode when I first watched it).

There are some other little details that are retained from Christie’s story – in the source, it’s Pauline who makes the panicked phone call to Poirot inviting him to the restaurant, and here it’s Pauline who sends the yellow iris as a cry for help. And the all-important cabaret song – ‘I’ve Forgotten You’ – is included in the episode with lyrics taken directly from Christie’s story (in fact, I think Christie wrote these lyrics specifically).

In addition to this, there are some added touches in-keeping with the rest of the TV series that are quite nice. In particular, I like Poirot’s classy art deco breakfast.

It is this slice of toast that leads to Poirot and Hastings falling out about food. It’s a grumpy little argument that is put to one side when Hastings spots the advert for the Jardin des Cygnes. But we come back to it nicely at the end when, having been deprived of a fancy French dinner by the machinations of Barton Russell, Poirot is treated to some fish and chips by his old pal.

Awww… sweet.

But now… Argentina. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

As I’ve said, the backstory – the murder of Iris – is transposed to Argentina from New York, and in this version Poirot was actually present at the first dinner. There are three reasons this really doesn’t work, and they all hinge on the fact that the episode’s opening scene pins the date of Iris Russell’s death to 1934.

Clearly, the ‘present day’ bit of the episode is meant, as other episodes in the series are, to be set in 1936. Characters keep referring to Iris’s death as happening ‘two years ago’, so we don’t really need the gravestone to tell us she died in 1934. But it’s there nevertheless, literally setting the date of the Argentina section in stone. Which causes the following problems:

1. Poirot is in Buenos Aires en route to visiting Hastings who is living in Argentina on a ranch in La Pampa. Is he?? Why hasn’t this been mentioned before? Does he still own the ranch? Why has he come back to mooch off Poirot if he owns a ranch in Argentina? Is someone running it for him in his absence? How did he afford it in the first place? How come, in August 1936, he spends ages telling Poirot and Japp about his six-month holiday in South America without mentioning anything at all about a ranch in La Pampa? Had he lost it by then? Does he buy another ranch after he gets married? Is Hastings some sort of mad ranch addict?

This does raise another question in my mind about Hastings’s ranch-o-philia. In Christie’s stories, Hastings makes the switch to Argentinian farming in the early 1920s. When he comes back for a visit in 1936 (in The A.B.C. Murders, he bemoans global and local economic circumstances that are making it hard for him to succeed. This isn’t surprising. The 1930s in Argentina are known as the ‘Infamous Decade’, during which time political unrest, corruption and the Great Depression caused huge economic upheaval in the country. It’s not surprising that Hastings’s ranch, which had seemed a sensible investment in the early 20s, is struggling by 1936.

And yet, in the TV series, Hastings actively chooses to start farming in Argentina in the middle of the Infamous Decade. I know he’s a bit daft, but surely this is an unwise decision even for him?

2. Now, this talk of the Infamous Decade reveals another potential problem with the episode, though I’m not 100% sure I heard the dialogue correctly here, so feel free to correct me if necessary.

When Poirot arrives in Buenos Aires, things are a bit hairy. There are regular power cuts, general strikes, and a foreboding military presence. Poirot quickly befriends Anthony Chapell, who gives him a bit of background as to the situation. Now, I’ve listened to the scene over and over again, and I’m convinced Chapell says:
‘The rumours are that President Yrigoyen can’t last much longer.’
This bugs me, as the series is normally so careful with historical detail. Hipólito Yrigoyen was deposed in a military coup in 1930 and died in 1933 (the year before this part is supposedly set).

I could have misheard – perhaps Chapell doesn’t say ‘Yrigoyen’ – but the episode certainly adds in an Argentinian coup d’etat that has no basis in historical fact. This just seems a bit disappointing given the eye for detail elsewhere in the series. Looking at the episode now, I really wonder why the story of Iris’s death was moved to Argentina in the first place. It doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense, and…

3. Isn’t it all a bit of a coincidence?

In Christie’s stories, Poirot and Race aren’t actually present at the first dinner. They are invited to the remembrance dinner in order to find out the truth about what happened to Iris/Rosemary. In the TV episode, however, Poirot was an eye witness to Iris’s death.

And then, two years later, not only does (not fat) Luigi decide to open an identical restaurant with an identical name down the road from Poirot’s house, but it also has its opening night on the anniversary of Iris’s death. And all the attendees from the first party are now living in London as well (while this is understandable in the case of Russell, Carter, Chapell and Pauline), is it not stretching it a bit to reveal that Lola Valdez also happens to be in town at just the right time?

Now, you might say that it’s not really a coincidence, that Russell took advantage of Luigi’s new restaurant to bump off Pauline. But the episode is at pains to remind us that Pauline is just one month off reaching her majority – and discovering that Russell has nicked her inheritance – and that Russell’s company is literally on the verge of financial ruin.

So Luigi opens a new restaurant and Lola moves to London and it’s the anniversary of Iris’s death at the exact moment that Russell needs to do something to cover his financial tracks? Suspicious… very suspicious.

I blame Luigi.

Anyway, as I’m nit-picking over an episode that I keep saying I love, I might as well raise one final uncomfortable point. It’s a bit of a strange one.

There is one final element that is common to Christie’s ‘Yellow Iris’, Sparkling Cyanide and ITV’s ‘The Yellow Iris’ – the race of the singer who performs at the cabaret.

In ‘Yellow Iris’, the singer of ‘I’ve Forgotten You’ is described thus:
‘A girl walked out into the middle of the floor, a coal black girl with rolling eyeballs and white glistening teeth. […] The sobbing tune, the deep golden Negro voice had a powerful effect. It hypnotized – cast a spell.’
In Sparkling Cyanide, the cabaret is described as ‘one of those negro shows’, a fact which is affirmed several times by different suspects.

In the TV episode, the singer at the Buenos Aires cabaret is played by Carol Kenyon (probably best known for her vocals on Heaven 17’s ‘Temptation’, which I’ve had stuck in my head for most of the time I’ve been writing this post). She is replaced by a white singer (played by Tracy Miller) for the second rendition of ‘I’ve Forgotten You’, which I’d suggest is performed in a much less ‘hypnotic’ way.

It was the insistent repetition of the description of a ‘negro show’ in Sparkling Cyanide that drew my attention to this detail, and I started to wonder why. Why does the race of the singer matter? It’s clearly not meant to denote a particular type of cabaret or venue, as it appears in both versions of the story (where the parties are otherwise quite different). The cabaret itself should be an irrelevance – it’s simply the thing that distracts everyone while the murderer is slipping cyanide into the champagne – so why give such specifics? And then to see Kenyon doing the ‘big’ performance in the TV episode, with Miller being simply the replica chosen for the rerun, really does make this detail stand out.

I suspect the answer is to be found in Christie’s original description in the original short story. ‘I’ve Forgotten You’ is meant to work like a spell – just as the figure of Iris/Rosemary will exert an almost supernatural power over those who saw her die. Its singer, then, functions almost as a ‘Magical Negro’ (or, at least, a ‘soulful’ singer), hypnotizing the dinner guests into a state of melancholic remembrance. Christie used this trope in 1937 and 1945 – and it was then replicated in 1993. Some things, perhaps, don’t change.

I feel like I’ve been way too critical of this episode. Sorry. I still really like it though. So let’s end with a picture of Poirot enjoying his fish and chips.

This post was way too long. And way too obsessed with Hastings’s ranches, Argentinian politics and dodgy racist tropes. It’s possible that this is the point where I start getting accused of overthinking Poirot.

Anyway, it’s the first day of 2019! Onwards and upwards! I reckon this is the year when I’m finally able to watch ‘Curtain’ – only a few more episodes to go (haha!).

Next up: ‘The Case of the Missing Will’