Thursday, 30 May 2013

Episode-by-episode: Four and Twenty Blackbirds

We've now come to the fourth episode of Series One, Four and Twenty Blackbirds, adapted from the short story published in 1940. The script is by Russell Murray (in his first of two Poirot adaptations), with Clive Exton as a script consultant. The episode was directed by Renny Rye (who also directed the previous episode). 

Script versus short story
Since this is the first script of the series that was not written by Clive Exton, I was curious to see if there were any noticeable differences in style and method of adaptation. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, there is little difference. This might partly be due to the fact that Exton acted as a script consultant on this and several other episodes to come, but as we shall see in later adaptations, several of the scriptwriters would take more liberties than Murray has taken here. Still, he has made some significant changes. I'll try and summarise them briefly and to the point. First, the opening sequence shows Anthony Gascoigne at his deathbed, attended by his housekeeper Mrs. Hill, as well as her telephone call to Mr. Lorrimer to inform him that his uncle is dying. Lorrimer is not a doctor in this adaptation. Instead, Murray assigns him the somewhat more sensible profession of theatre producer (which would possibly explain his easy access to costumes, make-up, wigs - and some theatrical skill). Second, Murray turns Poirot's friend Henry Bonnington into Poirot's dentist, the very same that was mentioned in the previous episode of Murder in the Mews. Not only does this enable some dialogue for Miss Lemon and Hastings (who are added to the story), pointing out that Poirot is trying to avoid his dental appointments (again, a reference to the previous episode and the future episode of One, Two, Buckle My Shoe), it also partly explains some of Bonnington's guesswork at the dinner table with Poirot, where he suggests that Gascoigne has changed his diet on doctor's orders (which seems a sensible suggestion, coming from a dentist). Moreover, it enables a more plausible meeting between Bonnington and Poirot only a day or two later, since Bonnington points out that Poirot's teeth are still sensitive and need a check-up. In the short story, the two meet accidentally on the tube (Would Poirot take the tube? I know Christie made him take it in several stories, but the Poirot we've grown accustomed to doesn't seem the type of person who would. Mind you, the coming adaptation of Labours of Hercules might prove me wrong - if they decide to depict the meeting between Poirot and Countess Rossakoff literally!). 

Third, Murray cleverly does away with the unknown identity of Henry Gascoigne and has Molly the waitress know his name (If he had his dinner there twice a week the waitresses would eventually get hold of his name, I'd imagine). This somewhat simplifies Poirot's investigations, as he doesn't have to search the newspapers for recent deaths and can easily obtain the address and observe the scene of the crime. Fourth, the discovery of the body is itself expanded from a reference in the short story, and a landlady with a strong distrust in "foreigners" like Poirot is added to the mix. Fourth, Murray adds two further "suspects" to the investigation; a model, Dulcie Lang, and an art agent, Peter Makinson. This expands the art angle of the story, only referred to in the source material. Henry Gascoigne is made into a successful artist who refused to sell his paintings. Instead, he gave several to his agent and his model. Now that Gascoigne is dead, the paintings can be sold, and the two naturally become suspects. Also, along the same art storyline, the late wife of Anthony Gascoigne used to model for Henry before his twin brother "stole" her from him (adding a sibling rivalry and a possible motive for murder - at least in Hastings's opinion). 

Fifth, the characters of Dr. MacAndrew and the unnamed coroner are deleted in favour of our old friend Chief Inspector Japp, Scotland Yard's new Forensic Division and a pathologist. Japp and the police are referred to in the short story ('Armed with introductions from a certain influential quarter, Hercule Poirot found no difficulty at all in dealing with the coroner'), so this addition makes sense. Apart from highlighting the advances of modern detecitve work, the introduction of the Forensic department adds a competition of sorts between Poirot and the modern methods (I love the little magnifying glass Poirot uses to examine the flat of Henry Gascoigne, by the way. A nice reference to all the stuff Christie equips him with in different cases that are rarely seen on screen). The letter referred to in the story is from Mr. Makinson's art gallery in this adaptation, not from Mr. Lorrimer. (A somewhat curious change, as it is difficult to believe that Lorrimer would leave it up to chance whether Gascoigne would receive a letter or not. But anyway.) Sixth, a scene at a lavatory (mentioned implicitly in the short story) explains Lorrimer's disposal of the disguise.

Finally, Murray adds some scenes that are obviously intended to fill out the one-hour slot. For instance, Poirot cooks dinner for Hastings (a funny scene, but completely unnecessary - even if it continues to convey their friendship and "off-duty" life), and they both witness a musical hall performance (as well as backstage theatre life) before interviewing Mr. Lorrimer. We also get to witness the funeral of Anthony Gascoigne - set in Brighton - but this serves a purpose, as Poirot gets to extract information from Mr. Lorrimer (who has come down for the funeral) and interview Mrs. Hill. The addition of a cricket subplot is perhaps excusable, since Hastings has to be given something to do (other than ask Poirot the stupid questions). The cricket subplot is resolved quite amusingly in the final scene with Poirot demonstrating his expert knowledge ... of cricket! All in all, then, the adaptation stays close to its source with only some minor alterations - and the few additions generally make complete sense.

Directing, production design, locations, soundtrack
There's not much to say about the directing of the episode. Rye is more than competent, and he makes good use of the excellent locations and sets at hand (I particularly like the zoom out in the opening shot from Brighton Pier to Anthony Gascoigne's window, as well as the camera shot that follows Poirot, Hastings and Mr. Makinson up the stairs of the art gallery. Both shots wonderfully capture the extravagance of these sets). Again, it's quite amazing to examine the wide range of sets they build for this series. We have the restaurant in which Poirot and Bonnington dine, complete with lots of extras, the theatre with all its backstage passages, the magnificent Art Deco art gallery, the artist's studio, and even the 1930s men's room. Location-wise, we have the Wilkins Building of the University College London, in Gower Street, and the Brighton Bandstand in West Sussex. See Joan Street's location website for photos. In terms of soundtrack, I can't really say this was one of the most memorable, and it has not been released on any of Gunning's albums.

Actors and characters
In terms of main character development, I'm delighted to see two Poirot character traits that will be referred to in later episodes. First, the small Russian cigarettes he smokes (see any of the post-2003 episodes). Second, his habit of putting on a performance to fool suspects (here, he presents himself as 'an acquaintance' of the late Anthony Gascoigne in order to extract information from Lorrimer). Miss Lemon's "detective skills" are allowed to develop in some small way, as she is given the task of tracking down the theatre of Mr. Lorrimer. As to Hastings, he gets to drive his beloved Lagonda to Brighton (seen on screen for a few seconds), and, of course, be smitten by a suspect, Miss Dulcie Lang. A nice meta-reference in the fact that she's called Dulcie, I must say. Probably not an intended reference, but this reminds me of the two twins, Dulcie and Bella Duveen, whom Hastings meets in the novel of Murder on the Links. Of course, Dulcie is deleted for the adaptation and Hastings falls in love with Bella, but it's quite fun to have the name mentioned all the same. Also, Dulcie Lang has auburn hair, and as Poirot points out, this is Hastings's great weakness - a character trait we will see a lot more of in the episodes to come.

In terms of secondary characters, all of them do a decent job, but it is Hilary Mason (Mrs. Hill) that stands out, I would say. Quite impressively, given the little amount of screen time she is given, she conveys just the right amount of sadness to a character that was so much of that time - the hard-working servants who got nothing when their wealthy masters died. 

(Picture copyright ITV)


  1. As I embark on my Poirot re-watch, I am delighted to be able to preface each viewing with these thoughtful, well-researched and extremely detailed analyses. Thank you very much indeed!

  2. This episode is a strong example of a pattern I am noticing with the series: while still set in the 1920s or 1930s, it caters more to the viewers of the 1990s and later, in terms of social norms. In posting about Big Four I referred to the airbrushing of some of the more egregious racism of the original. But the series is also more explicit about matters that had to be only obliquely referred to in the 30s: for example, couples like Elinor and Roddy or Elsa and Amyas are shown in bed together.

    And here, the nude modelling seems to be treated casually. In a Christie book, such a person might have existed or been referred to, but there would have been more dialogue about how scandalous it was.

    Recall that Hastings is shocked that Poirot goes through Nick's underwear drawer in Peril at End House, and he spends most of Links denying his feelings for "Cinderella" because she smokes, swears, and isn't freaked out by the murders. Here, we see him "enjoying" watching the model, without professing disapproval. And Poirot, too! Poirot in the books disliked when women dressed skimpily because he thought leaving more to the imagination was more titillating (there is a discussion about this in Evil Under the Sun.) And even elsewhere in this series (i.e., Double Clue) the woman he actually found attractive and courted was a very far cry from this Dulcie!

    1. Nude models were used in Art colleges all through the last century and certainly not considered as objects of 'disapproval'. In around 1954 my mother,sister and I came across a model that my artist father was painting. She and he were perfectly comfortable with her nakedness but on our arrival she slipped on a robe for propriety and made us a cup of tea. A pity that we have lost that innocence!

  3. Based on the statistics of the cricket matches, it appears that this episode was set June 22-25, 1934 during the Second Test of the Ashes Series at Lord's.

  4. I'm not sure if I missed it, but did anyone identify the beautiful nude painting used in this episode?

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  6. Dear Native English Speakers,
    Would you be so kind, please, as to explain to me how the title is related to the story? Why "Four and Twenty Blackbirds"? No blackbird was mentioned in the film. Nor the number "24" had any special role in it. Did I miss something? And why the phrasing: "four and Twenty" and not simply: "twenty four"? Thank You in advance.
    A foreign fan

    1. I'd guess it's referencing the nursery rhyme "Sing a Song of Sixpence," which has the line - see

    2. I think the rhyme is specifically referenced in the short story, but I can't remember exactly how. I think it might be a similarity in sound in Poiriot's head between blackbird pie and blackberry pie.

  7. A bit predictable for a modern audience unfortunately, however it probably was much more innovative when originally written.

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About Me

I'm a passionate fan of Poirot, Agatha Christie and the ITV series. If you have any questions, comments, suggestions or requests, please e-mail me at, post a comment on one of my blogs, or get in touch on Twitter @pchronology. (I used to call myself HickoryDickory)