Friday, 31 May 2013

Episode-by-episode: Problem at Sea

Based on the short story 'Problem at Sea', first published in the UK in 1936, this is the second outing to a foreign location in this first series of episodes. The screenplay is by Clive Exton (the first script since The Adventure of Johnny Waverly of which he is sole writer and not a consultant), and the director is once again Renny Rye.

Script versus short story
Exton maintains almost the entire short story in the adaptation process, but he makes some significant additions. First, Hastings is added to the mix and is given a subplot about a clay-pigeon shooting tournament (!). I must admit I find this subplot quite ridiculous, but it's nice to have him on board. Second, there's a rather long list of extra passengers added to the ship; two middle-aged theatrical women (Nelly and Emily Morgan) and their niece Ismene; Mr. and Mrs.Tolliver (who are mentioned in the short story only as "a hawk-eyed couple"); Bates (who, I think, is "the ship's doctor" mentioned in the final scenes of the short story); Mr. Russel, an elderly gentleman with a passion for poetry; and a mysterious steward, Mr. Skinner. All except the two last characters mentioned can be reasonably extracted from the source material. The two aunts add a more plausible reason for Poirot's little performance, as they put on little evening soirees on the ship. Their niece provides Poirot with the doll and is given the task of saying the important line behind the screen (a plausible scenario to what is never properly explained in the short story - where did that doll come from, and why would Poirot attempt to change his accent?). Mr. and Mrs. Tolliver are, as I've already explained, sort of present in the short story, and in the adaptation they accompany Poirot to a restaurant in Alexandria (so it is not as if they are added as suspects). Bates is presumably the ship's doctor mentioned in the short story, and in the adaptation he is given an extra function as well - he seems to have served under Captain Hastings in the war ("We are all civilians now, Bates"), which could even explain why Poirot and Hastings are on the cruise and why Hastings is allowed to attempt clay pigeon shooting on board - he's an old friend of the crew. Mr. Skinner, who was not in the short story, seems to provide a typical "red herring" in the adaptation, complete with his scary eye-patch and everything!

A third set of changes Exton makes to the story is to give more of the passengers a motive for murder. This is a sensible change, since the original plot in itself has a very limited number of suspects (essentially just Clapperton, who seems to have an alibi, and the local bead sellers). The additional suspects are General Forbes (who knew Mrs. Clapperton before the war and has been in love with her for years), Miss Henderson (who bought a necklace from the bead sellers and could possibly have  dropped it at the scene of the crime) and the mysterious Mr. Skinner (who stole Mrs. Clapperton's jewellery).

Finally, there are some minor changes to the plot. Poirot (and Hastings) leave the ship for a day in Alexandria, like the rest of the passengers. This allows for some atmospheric location scenes and a humourous scene with Hastings on a cardboard camel (!). Also, Miss Henderson's affection for Clapperton is somewhat more obvious from the beginning, which in turn makes her anger towards Poirot in the final scene more believable.

All in all, the adaptation works much better than its source material, and the additions made are largely sensible and an improvement on the text. In fact, by adding further suspects and making more use of the location, Exton's version brings to mind a mini-version both of the novel and adaptation of Death on the Nile. Also, the scene in which the captain of the ship begs Poirot to investigate so that they don't have to involve the Egyptian police brings a similar scene in Murder on the Orient Express to mind. Most importantly, however, is the fact that the final scene between Poirot and Miss Henderson is kept almost verbatim from the short story (with the famous quote "I do not approve of murder" in a very serious voice - a hint, perhaps, of his anger towards certain culprits in more recent adaptations). Exton certainly knows his Christie, and that makes these adaptations such a joy to watch.

Directing, production design, locations, soundtrack
Renny Rye's directing is as competent as ever. He exploits the location for all it's worth, with some wonderful opening shots of the ship at sea, great overview shots of the Egyptian market and the city in itself. The boat itself looks magnificent, and if I hadn't seen the "filmed at Twickenham Studios" in the end credits, I would wholeheartedly believe that all the scenes on board the ship were filmed on a ship. This episode, like the previous Triangle at Rhodes, must have  been an absolute joy to watch in 1989, when viewers still hadn't seen some of the wonderful locations in later episodes, and I am not at all surprised that this was a ratings success. They are really spending time, effort and money on these adaptations, and it shows from day one. In terms of location, I haven't been able to track down any exact description, but the end credits refer to a "Greek Unit" (the same team that worked on the previous episode), so my guess would be that the two episodes were shot almost simultaneously at almost the same location in Greece. The soundtrack isn't particularly memorable, but as I've said before, I certainly wouldn't mind a complete score release from Gunning.

Actors and characters
This is a fairly large cast of fairly well carved-out characters. However, Sheila Allen stands out as Mrs. Clapperton, and so does Ann Firbank as Ellie Henderson.

As to Poirot, Exton (or the director?) adds some lovely elements that showcase Poirot's personality. Again, we have his matchmaking trait (in this adaptation aimed towards Hastings and Miss Henderson!) and his care for young women in distress (Kitty and Pamela). Also, there's his fantastic monocular walking stick (the very same, I think, that was later to be used in the adaptations of Death on the Nile and Appointment with Death - and in press photos for Mystery on the Blue Train. There's also an added scene in the captain's office in which Poirot sits down and 'puts his hands in a cathedral' to think, as Suchet described it in an interview. Finally, of course, there's the denouement scene (for the first time in the series!), which was in the short story, but is depicted essentially as a theatrical performance, what Suchet describes as 'Poirot's piece of theatre'.


  1. I'm in love with your blog. I've been nursing a cold and this is great reading material :D I love Agatha Christie and Suchet's Poirot is fantastic!

  2. Shouldn't Poirot have been seasick during an outing / case like this?

    I wondered if, at the times, it shouldn't have been considered improper for Poirot to enter the cabin where the two young ladies were staying?

    I have to admit, I laughed out loud at, "You may think the little Belgian has taken leave of his rocker." I always love those mangled idioms (Balki of Perfect Strangers is another character famous for them) though there are some hints that it's all an act on Poirot's part to throw people off guard.

    1. "though there are some hints that it's all an act on Poirot's part to throw people off guard."

      He says as much in one of the stories. Can't remember which.

    2. As far as seasickness goes, an early scene has Poirot in dialogue with the murdered woman. It is morning, in the salon. She mentions that Poirot was missed at dinner the night before, but then acknowledges that his absence was understandable, since the sea was rough the night before.

  3. Impressive they had the budget to go to Greece for their first series.

    Geoffrey Beevers and Caroline John were married in real life too.

    The telescope walking stick appears in other episodes too. Death in the Clouds comes to mind, and I'm sure there were others besides those you mention.

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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)