Saturday, 7 September 2013

Episode-by-episode: Cat Among the Pigeons

This episode was based on the novel Cat Among the Pigeons, first published in 1959. It was adapted for television by Mark Gatiss (co-creator of Sherlock) and directed by James Kent.

Script versus novel
Gatiss makes quite a number of changes to the source material without making them feel too 'added' (and that - as we will see in Appointment With Death - is not always an easy task!). His job is not an easy one, particularly because this is one of Christie's more incredible plots (like The Big Four and The Clocks, this story brings Poirot into contact with the world of espionage and secret agents!). The most important (and I'm tempted to say the most essential) change he makes is to add Poirot to the proceedings much earlier than in the novel (where it takes almost two-thirds of the story before his name is even mentioned). Instead of having Julia Upjohn introduce him, he arrives with the other students at the beginning of term, and we are told that he is an old friend of Miss Bulstrode's (a very sensible change). In fact, he is there as a guest of honour to present a Pemberton Lacrosse Shield award. Later, he is persuaded to stay on and help Miss Bulstrode find the right successor to the school (again, a sensible change). I love his cover story, posing as a representative for King Leopold of Belgium (of whom he is a friend in the Christie novels). Moreover, Gatiss deletes several of Christie's characters, including Col. Pikeaway, Mr. Robinson (a very wise decision), Briggs the gardener, Denis (Ann's boyfriend, whose role is partly given to Adam), Henry Sutcliffe - and Eleanor Vansittart (the third candidate for new headmistress). The latter character's characteristics and fate are partly inherited by Miss Rich. He also adds two students to the proceedings; Patricia Forbes (presumably added to showcase Miss Springer's temperament) and Hsui Tai (who gets to discover an effigy of Miss Springer, which is also added to the plot). Further changes include making Shaista Ali Yusuf's fiancé, changing the murder weapon used to kill Miss Springer from a gun to a javelin (a much more satisfying, almost horror-film inspired death), deleting Mlle. Blanche's identity theft (but keeping her blackmailing scheme) and the question of the ownership of the jewels. The script also changes the nature of a significant witness in Ramat from peeping-tom neighbour to one-time lover, (needlessly). Furthermore, the death of Rawlinson and his associate is changed from an airplane accident to a brave shoot-out in Ramat, and the robbery/search of the Upjohn's hotel room is removed (but referenced in the dialogue). Finally, some sections from the novel are removed, including the letters from the students to their parents, the mysterious American woman / the culprit in disguise, and the end scenes, and some scenes are added, including Poirot observing the teachers at the school, Poirot pretending to lose a map on the floor to look at Shaista's knees, Miss Bulstrode's visit to Ann's insane mother (rather than a countess), and a new end scene with Poirot, Julia and her mother. All in all, Gatiss's adaptation succeeds in streamlining a very untraditional Christie story and making the changes feel both natural and necessary.

Directing, production design, locations, soundtrack
James Kent's direction is wonderful to watch. I particularly like the many transitions between scenes. For instance, in the well-directed opening sequence, the tennis rackets in the sports pavilion are compared to the guns of the rioters in Ramat, and the boy in the car, playing with his toy gun is compared to the shoot-out scene in Ramat. Also, the scenes in which Poirot observes the teachers are well done, and so are the different murder scenes. The direction goes well with Stephen McKeon's music, locations and production design, all contributing to the (dear I say it) Harry Potter / boarding school atmosphere. The main location used is the Sue Ryder Home in Nettlebed, Oxfordshire (previously seen in the adaptation of Sad Cypress), doubling as Meadowbank School.

Characters and actors
It's always nice to see Poirot reacquainted with old friends (even if the friend wasn't a friend in the novel). Also, I like the small touch of Poirot's phone call to George (keeping his presence in Poirot's life - much like his calls to Miss Lemon in earlier episodes). Also, the mention of his meeting at the Foreign Office to return the rubies almost feels like a homage to the short story (and adaptation) 'The Theft of the Royal Ruby'. Of the guest actors, Harriet Walter (Miss Bulstrode) is the main standout, perfectly balancing the strict headmistress aspect and the humanity of the character, but most of the actors feel perfect for their roles and do a great job.


  1. I continue to really enjoy your reviews. After the series ends, have you considered refining these posts and turning them into a book or e-book: "The Agatha Christie's Poirot Companion" or something like that?

    1. Thank you, Christopher! I'm pleased to hear that you are still enjoying the reviews! I have considered the book option, but I suppose I would need the consent of both ITV and Agatha Christie Ltd. to do so. Not to mention funding from a publishing agency. But if someone gets in touch and that could be sorted out, I won't say no :)

  2. On first watch, Poirot's initial reasons for being at the school - presenting and award and helping choose the new head - struck me as among the series' weaker (and I think ALWAYS having him on the scene for other reasons puts him in a strange light - you can't help get the feeling that having him around causes murders!)

    But I realize now (having seen more of the later adaptations) that having him help choose a successor is somewhat in keeping with the character Suchet is building: advisor; "Father Confessor," everyone's mentor.

  3. Fangirl, It also helps shorten the introductions if he already knows people, The same thing happened with taken at the flood.

  4. Stuart Farquhar11 May 2015 at 23:25

    Another sensible change is that the adaptation doesn't give everything away so early. In the book we know about the jewels and Adam from the outset, and so many hints are dropped about the location of the jewels their hiding place is obvious. On this occasion I think Gattiss improves on what's already an enjoyable book (even if Poirot's hardly in it).

  5. I can't help feeling that Poirot is somewhat responsible of Chadwicks' death. Accusing the culprit with such excitement, surrounded by lots of innocent people is kinda careless; he seems to forget the character of the murderer when developing these sensational denouement scenes (which we all love, I know).

    1. I'd say that's one of his overall weaknesses, to get lost in his own brilliance! He puts other people at risk, simply because he has to have his piece of theatre (which we all love, yes). The Blue Train is another example. Katherine could just as easily have died too. And then there's the times when he gets it wrong ('I am an imbecile' etc), and innocent people end up dead (Peril at End House).

  6. well made entertaining episode, though a bit far fetched and romanticized, as you noted.

    poirot, far from being brilliant, only contribute to solving the rather unbelievable impersonation and "kidnapping".
    rubies are solved/found by julia upjohn.
    primary murder by her mother and miss bulstrode's memory of her words. if mrs upjohn was reached/informed right after the 1st murder there would have been no mystery to solve.
    his explanation of murder of miss blanche (though almost certainly correct)is not supported by any evidence. if attempted murder of miss rich has no connection with 1st one, it is possible murder of blanche can be similarity unrelated.
    attempted murder was rather obvious and would have resulted in confession anyway (poirot certainly did not find any evidence to convict).

    btw about character building of poirot, you forget he is shown praying at night using a breviary. rather interesting fact.

  7. Hi, new to this page. It's awesome glad I found it. Quick questions. Where in France is Mlle. Blanche supposed to be from? I can't understand what she says.

    1. Chécy, according to Cc on the DVD.

    2. Thank you! I think it's Crecy, as in Battle of...that I was interested in.

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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)