Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Episode-by-episode: The Big Four

(c) ITV
This episode was based on the novel The Big Four, first published in 1927. It was adapted for television by Mark Gatiss and Ian Hallard, and directed by Peter Lydon.

Script versus novel
The Big Four is generally considered to be one of Christie's most controversial (and least successful) novels. She finished the novel in 1926, in the wake of her traumatic divorce and the death of her mother. The story is based on a series of short stories that she worked into a novel in order to earn some much-needed money. The plot is quite ridiculous at times, with exploding mountains, caricature villains, racist Chinese manservants and global conspiracies. Unsurprisingly, the novel has been considered unfilmable. The wide range of locations (England, France, Italy, America etc) probably didn't help in that respect either. All in all, I'm not surprised this novel was left until the final series. It's as if the production team have been waiting for it conveniently disappear. (I don't usually go into aspects like the background of the novel and the context of the adaptation, but I think it's absolutely necessary here. It demonstrates what a complete challenge Gatiss and Hallard were facing.)

(READ MORE AFTER THE JUMP)

The scriptwriters had to come up with a way to streamline the narrative. This is an incredibly busy story that has Poirot travelling far more than he ever did in the early years, and now he’s even approaching retirement. They also had to include Hastings and Japp, who both appear in the novel. Ideally, they needed to find a way to include Miss Lemon as well. The Poirot fans (me included) would be very upset had Hastings and Japp been deleted from the adaptation. Since they last appeared in 2002, the Christie estate have repeatedly stated that the characters would only appear in the novels that they were originally in; they would not be added. So it naturally follows that they would return for the remaining stories that did include them. Finally, Gatiss and Hallard had to find a way to make the plot believable. I, for one, could never bring myself to believe in Christie's plot. It was too out-of-character for Poirot. Multinational villains fighting for world domination? Twin brothers? (Okay, that one could have worked! More on that later) Radium thieves? A faked death? A mountain explosion and a miraculous escape? You get the point. How could this really be the same character who solves quiet, psychological puzzles in English country houses? (I know some fans will disagree with me here).

Gatiss and Hallard decided to open the episode with the return of Poirot's three friends, thus reassuring the fans. Personally, I think the opening scenes with Hastings and Miss Lemon are absolute perfection. Hastings exclaims the (by now compulsory) 'Good Lord!' and Miss Lemon (who is added to the story) complains about the late arrival of the mail. Both lines perfectly encapsulate those two characters. Japp is in Poirot's flat writing letters to Poirot's friends (we get a glimpse of the letter to Miss Bulstrode, a lovely references to Cat Among the Pigeons, also scripted by Gatiss). These scenes culminate in Poirot's funeral. This event doesn't occur until much later in the novel, but it makes sense to introduce it here. Poirot's funeral is perhaps the only event that would believably bring Hastings, Japp and Miss Lemon back after such a long absence. Of course, Hastings could always be back on business or on holiday, Miss Lemon could be living somewhere in London and Japp could have an interesting case to discuss with Poirot. But remember that it's been 17 (18) episodes since we last saw them! If they simply returned for an everyday event, then viewers would ask themselves why they hadn't visited him before. The wake scene that follows wasn't in the novel, but it's been perfectly scripted (with Hastings' overwhelming grief and the toast to their old friend). By the way, I think it's a very sensible decision not to be too specific about why or how long they have been absent (Poirot simply says to Japp in a later scene: 'It's been too long. Far too long!').

Now, some fans have reacted negatively to the reduced role of Hastings in this episode. Japp and a new character, Tysoe, replace him through most of the novel. This is partly because of the restructured plot (i.e. Hastings returning for Poirot's funeral, just one day before Poirot's big denouement) and partly because the press (i.e. Tysoe) is integral to the new solution, which I will come back to later. As much I would love to see Hastings and Poirot investigate together, I think it's a sensible decision to emphasise the chemistry between Japp and Poirot here (giving Philip Jackson an appropriate swan song). As mentioned, the funeral is the best plot device to bring both Hastings and Miss Lemon back, and this means Hastings can't be present in the earlier investigation (oh, and he does, after all, return from Argentina, so that element from the novel is there). Also, bear in mind that Hugh Fraser gets an emotional swan song with Curtain.

Several of the 'cases' Poirot investigates in the novel have been deleted. These include 'The Unexpected Guest', 'The Man from the Asylum', 'Disappearance of a Scientist', 'The Woman on the Stairs', 'The Radium Thieves', 'In the House of the Enemy', 'The Baited Trap', 'The Mouse Walks In', 'The Terrible Catastrophe' (apart from the 'fatal' explosion), 'The Dying Chinaman' (apart from the funeral description), 'Number Four Wins a Trick', and 'In the Felsenlabyrinth' (replaced by a new denouement). The incidents that are deleted (the radium plot, the events at Abe Ryland's estate, the secret Chinese hide-away) are all fairly far-fetched, placing Poirot in situations that can hardly be described as 'typical Christie'. More significantly, though, they mainly serve one purpose; to reveal the different members of the Big Four. Now, Gatiss and Hallard manage to maintain the essence of this in the three remaining 'cases'; Leg of Mutton is linked to Li Chang Yen, Yellow Jasmine to Madame Olivier, and Chess Problem to Abe Ryland (I'll get back to how they do this later). With this in mind, I'm not too upset about the deleted chapters.

As to the characters that are deleted, most fans will be disappointed not to see Countess Vera Rosakoff and Achille Poirot. To be honest, I always thought Rossakoff's connection with the 'Big Four' was a bit too much. A jewel thief? Yes. An adversary to villains seeking world dominance? Probably not. Similarly, Achille always seemed completely unbelievable to me. It's a great twist, and it would have been fun to see it brought to life, but I find it difficult to believe that anyone (let alone master criminals) could be fooled into thinking that someone as unique and distinctive-looking as Hercule Poirot could have a twin. Christie seems to dismiss the idea, too, in the final pages of the novel, and in The Labours of Hercules:
‘Brother Achille has gone home again – to the land of the myths. It was I all the time. It is not only Number Four who can act a part.’ (The Big Four) 'If I remember rightly - though my memory isn't what it was - you had a brother called Achille, did you not?'Poirot's mind raced back over the details of Achille Poirot's career. Had all that really happened? 'Only for a short space of time', he replied. (The Labours of Hercules)
The remaining 'cases' (Mutton, Jasmine, Chess), and two characters that appeared in sections of the novel that have been deleted, i.e. Ingles and Flossie Monro, are tied together to make a more or less believable plot. I'll try to outline the plot in the next couple of paragraphs before I add my final thoughts. (You can skip the next six paragraphs if you already know the plot).

After Poirot's funeral, the narrative jumps four weeks back in time. Tysoe, who is a journalist, visits Ingles to inquire about the 'Big Four'. Ingles was a 'retired Civil Servant of mediocre intellect' in the novel, but here he is a senior official at the Foreign Office. Unlike in the novel, he dismisses the idea of the Big Four as 'Bulldog Drummond', complete nonsense. 'The world-wide unrest, the labour troubles that beset every nation, and the revolutions that broke out in some' that he attributed to Li Chang Yen in the novel are here presented by Tysoe, who thinks his unnamed 'correspondent' might be right. This is the first sign that Gatiss and Hallard are taking the adaptation in a different direction. The change is perfectly understandable. If they are attempting to make the story more believable, then the first step on the way would be to have the authorities (i.e. Ingles) dismiss the rather ludicrous idea that there is a group of master criminals seeking world domination.

Next up is the Chess Problem. The set-up is essentially the same as in the novel, but we get to witness the actual chess match. Japp, who has become Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard (how he managed to climb the career ladder that quickly, from 1936 to 1939, is beyond me), is in charge of security at a society event. The event is hosted by Abe Ryland, who has become a respected member of a ‘Peace Party’ (founded by Li Chang Yen) that is working for world peace at the brink of war. This was not in the novel, but it links the story to the coming war and provides a somewhat believable cover for a (supposed) 'Big Four'. Poirot is also present, possibly because of his interest in chess (actually, he declares in the novel that he doesn't play chess, but we've seen his chess set at Whitehaven – it first appeared in Third Girl – and seen him play in The Chocolate Box, so this is an acceptable change). There is a lovely scene in which the two friends are reunited (reminiscent of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd). They also briefly touch upon the subject of retirement ('Time, it catches up with us all. Perhaps also for Poirot the shadows are lengthening and the moment it has come to think of a life that is quiet'). Present at the chess match is also Mme Olivier (not be confused with Mrs Oliver!), a brilliant French scientist who specialises in the nervous system (she was more interested in radium in the novel). Like Ryland, she is a member of the Peace Party. She is joined by her friend and ally of the Party, Stephen Paynter (from 'The Yellow Jasmine Mystery'), and his personal physician Dr. Quentin (a local doctor in the novel). Even Tysoe has managed to enter the event. In the game of chess, Ryland substitutes Gilmour Wilson and challenges Savaronoff, but it's Savaronoff who is murdered. Consequently, Sonia Daviloff and the scenes in Savaronoff flat are deleted. As Poirot and Japp start investigating, Poirot is intrigued by Tysoe's mention of the 'Big Four'. Tysoe explains that he has received letters with this information, as well as information on Ryland's past. Poirot goes on to solve the chess murder more or less like in the novel. Ryland is suspected, and he disappears shortly thereafter.

Then there's the Leg of Mutton. Jonathan Whalley was 'a lover of all things Chinese' who wrote a biography on Li Chang Yen, the Peace Party founder (in the novel, he was just interested in China). The stolen jade figures have become ivory figures, but the plot remains the same (even with most of the dialogue intact). Poirot solves the murder, more or less exactly as in the novel, and he suspects that the Big Four are involved. Shortly afterwards, Tysoe finds a stabbed man in the street (a clear warning that he should stop his investigation into the Big Four). The scene is somewhat reminiscent of the warnings Hastings receives in the novel after Poirot's death, and the dying Chinaman he encounters. Tysoe, frightened by the warning, comes clean to Poirot and Japp and reveals a set of playing cards that displays the Big Four (a Chinese card for Number One, a chance card from Monopoly for Ryland, a French Dame card for Mme Olivier and La Mort (Death) for Number Four). This is reminiscent of the dying words of Mayerling in the novel.

The next case is Yellow Jasmine (but the twist here is 'gelsemine', mentioned in the novel). In the novel, Paynter had written a book on Li Chang Yen ('The Hidden Man in China' – that’s been attributed to Whalley in the adaptation), but as mentioned earlier he has become a friend of Mme Olivier and a supporter of the Peace Party here. The murder is essentially the same (the Chinese manservant, Ah Ling, is even there, but he doesn't get to speak at all). However, a wife, Diana Paynter, and Mme Olivier, are added to the plot, and the nephew Gerald is made the prime suspect (Paynter wrote 'G', not 'Yellow Jasmine' in ink). The wife suspects her husband of having an affair with Mme Olivier. Gerald, Dr Quentin and Mme Olivier are interviewed, and Poirot begins to suspect her (gelsemine falls into her field of research). She later disappears.

Poirot then returns to the scene of the Mutton crime, the Whalley household. Jonathan Whalley had an estranged nephew who used to live with him, Albert Whalley, and Poirot searches the attic for clues as to his whereabouts. He finds a scrapbook with clippings from the Methuselah Theatre (as an aside, this means 'man of the dart/spear' or 'his death shall bring judgment' - a hint to the final solution). This leads Poirot to get in touch with former actors from the theatre, and he eventually tracks down Flossie Monro. Their conversation is incredibly well scripted, with just the right amount of sadness and humour. Unlike in the novel, Flossie is not murdered but will serve an important role later on. Shortly afterwards, Claud Darrell, another of the actors, calls Poirot and invites him to meet him. Poirot enters an apartment and is seemingly killed by an explosion (reminiscent of the scene with the match box in the novel). All that is left is Poirot's burnt-out walking stick. This leads us back to the day of the funeral, in which Hastings, Japp and Miss Lemon discuss their old friend. Hastings want to continue tracking down the Big Four (like in the novel), but the others disagree and he leaves the flat in anger.

Finally, there's the denouement scene. In short, the scene takes place in the Methuselah theatre (not the Felsenlabyrinth). Claud Darrell, aka Dr Quentin and Albert Whalley, has captured Flossie Monro and explains that he did everything for her. She rejected him fifteen years ago, when they were still acting at the theatre, because she wanted to be with 'someone the whole world will remember'. Poirot appears, revealing that he was not killed in the explosion after all. He explains that the Big Four never existed, that Mme Olivier and Abe Ryland had been taken prisoners by Albert Whalley/Claud Darrell. Whalley committed the murders to implicate Ryland (Chess), Olivier (Yellow Jasmine) and Li Chang Yen (Mutton), and create a sense of hysteria and fear around the world - all in an attempt to be remembered and be loved by Flossie. Once revealed, Whalley threatens to detonate dynamite that will blow up the entire theatre (reminiscent of the Felsenlabyrinth in the novel), but Poirot persuades him that he can't kill Flossie. In the end, he pretends to surrender before threatening Poirot with a gun. Tysoe, who has appeared on the scene with Japp, then brings the curtain down on him (literally speaking), and he is killed. The end scene sees Poirot, Japp, Miss Lemon, Tysoe and Flossie celebrate their 'victory' before Hastings appears, confused about Poirot's reappearance. That scene is wonderfully evocative of the early episodes.

Several fans have claimed that Gatiss and Hallard have changed too much of the novel and that the new ending is completely unbelievable. Personally, I think the restructuring of the plot and the new ending is a brave attempt at streamlining the narrative and, actually, making the ending more believable. The new ending is still far-fetched. Most viewers would say that the scheme is far too complicated for a madman who wanted to attract the attention of the woman he loves. There are aspects here that I struggle to accept. However, bearing in mind the source material they had to work with (as outlined in my introduction), I think Gatiss and Hallard have found a more or less sensible way to humanize the culprit.

I could never truly believe in the idea of master villains controlling the world. Admittedly, Poirot stories are fiction – and anything could happen in fiction – but they are always based on the real world, particularly in the TV series, which has consistently incorporated historical events. These master criminals wouldn’t exist in the real world. A lunatic, however, would. That has been evidenced time and time again. Even elaborate lunatics like Whalley. By making the plot a personal tragedy of sorts, Gatiss and Hallard almost manage to make us feel sorry for Whalley. Orphaned, estranged from his uncle, rejected by his one true love. Also, the decision to emphasise the similarities between Whalley and Poirot (‘We are more alike than you think, Poirot’) is an interesting one, because it highlights Poirot’s less endearing qualities (his showmanship, his self-assuredness). It’s also something of a foreshadowing of Curtain. All in all, then, I’m inclined to accept all the changes Hallard and Gatiss have made, because they have managed to make a more or less coherent story out of what Gatiss has described as ‘an almost unadaptable mess’.

Direction, production design, locations, soundtrack
Peter Lydon’s direction is wonderfully effective. The back of Hastings’ head, the close-up of letters, the grey funeral scenes, the camera zooming in on Poirot’s empty chair, the hooded figures of the Big Four – and that’s just the opening shots! I particularly enjoy the shifts of scenes in the interviews at the Paynter household, the ‘Poirot must think’ sequence (seemingly inspired by Sherlock’s ‘mind palace’), the clock motif throughout (reminiscent of The Clocks), and the flashbacks of the denoument scene (such a complicated plot explained in a matter of seconds). The colour grading is particularly well done throughout as well. The production team have created some wonderful props, including the playing cards, the Big Four lair set, and the miniature theatre with the ‘Big Four’ characters that Poirot finds in the attic. The locations used include Syon House, Brentford (the chess game scene), Hughenden Manor, High Whycombe, Buckinghamshire (the home of Jonathan Whalley and the prison gates), Nuffield Place, Henley-on-Thames (the Paynter house), The Undercroft of Lincoln's Inn Chapel, London (the scene with Tysoe and Poirot), and Hackney Empire (the theatre). Christian Henson’s soundtrack is perfect for the episode, sombre and dark for the emotional scenes and cheerful and nostalgic in the investigation scenes (notice the several references to the Poirot theme, particularly in the scene where Poirot tries to find Flossie Monro, and in the end scene.

Characters and actors
Gatiss and Hallard have added numerous references to the early episodes in this episode. I’ve already mentioned Hastings’ ‘Good Lord’ and Miss Lemon’s complaints about the late arrival of the post. Miss Lemon also has a cat called Marina, which is reminiscent of the episodes The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman and The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb. Moran is given some wonderful lines in the few scenes she appears in. I particularly enjoyed the ‘he always liked things just so, didn’t he’ as she straightens Poirot’s chair. This is a wonderful reference to their shared sense of order, not to mention his constant nagging about the tisanes. She certainly had to get used to his many quirks and habits over the years. Similarly, Fraser’s few scenes are very reminiscent of a number of early episodes (apart from his moving breakdown at the wake), e.g. his determination to pursue the Big Four (and antagonism towards Japp), followed by his ‘What do I do now, old chap?’, addressed to the dead Poirot, and his re-appearance in the final scene (completely confused and made to look stupid).

Philip Jackson gets a series of wonderful one-liners as Japp. The ever-present in-joke between him and Poirot on his career (Inspector – Chief Inspector) has now become Chief Inspector – Assistant Commissioner, the repeated mentions of Mrs Japp (I would have preferred ‘Emily’,  but I realize that most viewers wouldn’t understand who he as talking about) – particularly in connection with the tarot cards, and the no-nonsense action in the denoument scene.

David Suchet also gets to add a reference or two. I particularly enjoyed the dispatch case containing ‘the tools of my profession’, which we haven’t seen since The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and the aforementioned ‘think’ scene. David Yelland’s present was a nice nod to the later years. Ariadne Oliver would have been a welcome addition, to complete the references. Apparently, her character was included in an early draft, but she later had to be deleted, presumably because of costs or Wanamaker’s availability.

The guest stars all make the most of their scenes. Patricia Hodge is wonderfully over-the-top as Madame Olivier (even if she sounds like Edith from ‘Allo ‘Allo), Barbara Kirby is great fun as Mrs Andrews (thanks to the good script), Teresa Banham manages to create a moving mini-portrait of Diana Paynter, and Nicholas Burns creates a humorous caricature with Inspector Meadows. Tom Brooke is acceptable as Tysoe, and Simon Lowe isn’t too bad as Whalley/Darrell/Four, but he seems to struggle to find the right balance between camp and moving (but he is exactly as bland as he should be in the rest of the episode). However, the star performer for me is Sarah Parish as Flossie Monro. The character is very minor in the novel, and it mainly serves to elucidate the plot. Here, Flossie is the reason for the entire crime, and her character is made more tragic (in a sense). The scene between her and Poirot at Whitehaven is perfection itself. She tries to impress him with her acting roles, while Poirot obviously realizes that she is an aging, failing actress. He hasn’t seen any of her performances, but he tries to save the situation by claiming that he has seen her in Share My Cab at the Duke of York (he would never be seen at a play with a name like that!). But she only played the accordion. It probably doesn’t sound like it from my description of it, but it’s a very moving scene.

60 comments:

  1. It's an enjoyable 90 minutes from a book Christie herself didn't like, my only real complaint is that Miss Lemon didn’t get to do anything, what a shame, it’s a nice swansong for Japp, and Hastings gets curtain of course, but poor miss Lemon only gets about 6 lines.

    You have to feel sorry for the writers with this and with labours, no matter what they do the episodes are going to be poorly received. I haven’t seen it mentioned anywhere else but I feel Gatiss might have made a conscious effort been to parody the BBC’s “Sherlock”, in an attempt to match the books parody of the Sherlock Holmes stories.

    I think the bases of “the chess problem”, with number 4 disguised as a chess player, might have been changed due to dead mans folly being adapted in the same block, and not wanting to use two assumed identity plots close to each other.

    .... And i still think something was edited out of the interview from the "leg of mutton" segment, no one told Poirot when the butcher normally delivers.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Poirot knows the mutton was delivered today (Monday) because it wouldn't have been delivered on a Sunday and if it had been delivered any earlier, it would not still be frozen.

      Delete
  2. Very true. There will be more on the adaptation process later today - I have a very special post coming up!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hello, Eirik. I think the 'scene with Tysoe and Poirot' is not filmed at Inner Temple but at Lincoln's Inn (http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/3078690), though I'm not sure because I don't live in UK and haven't see the scene.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi! Yes, you're absolutely right! It's The Undercroft of Lincoln's Inn Chapel: http://www.flickr.com/photos/shadow-in-the-water/9450577599/. Thank you! Will edit the post.

      Delete
  4. Hi,It is driving me mad trying to place the staircase with the
    large unusual pendant light.Have you any idea where it was filmed please.Joan

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I have no idea, I'm afraid. But it looks very familiar, and I'm sure I've seen it in another drama series. My only guess would be the Freemasons' Hall in London, where a lot of scenes have been shot over the years, but I don't think that's the one.

      Delete
    2. Hi Joan, Erik,

      This is a staircase in Syon House. See https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Interior_of_Syon_House

      Delete
  5. Big Four was a big let down for me.I expected something better,considering the original story from book and the fact that it was one of the last episodes of the series..

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, yes, if you enjoyed the original plot this would probably seem like a disappointment. Personally, I think they've done a good job (not without its issues) with a mediocre novel. You can read my Q&A with one of the screenwriters, Ian Hallard, here: http://investigatingpoirot.blogspot.no/2013/10/adapting-poirot-q-with-ian-hallard.html (he explains some of the changes).

      Delete
  6. I actually found the "there is no Big Four" twist refreshing...I agree that it's MORE believable than the book...and TV increasingly endorses the idea of evil political, corporate, and media overlords out to kill everyone to a depressing extent. This felt optimistic by comparison. And Christie herself has used that device, such as in The Patriotic Murders. However, once Poirot revealed that twist (that it was all the work of ONE man), my I did kind of think, "Was this really important enough to fake your death for?" I felt that Four was spot-on in saying that Poirot did it solely to be dramatic. But poor Hastings and Miss Lemon. (I kind of thought Japp may have been in on it, but I can't prove that.)

    By contrast, if you buy into the international intrigue in the book (admittedly hard to do) than it's easier to accept that it's necessary for the hero to be thought dead. I thought Hastings' attempt to rouse the others to action was one of his best moments - and one of the best of the episode - and I wish we had seen more of him. I did feel disappointed when I realized the Countess wasn't in this one, but I agree with Eirik in preferring that she NOT be in league with the Big Four...that would take her too far into villainy territory and you wonder why Poirot remains infatuated with someone who was (in the books) at least complicit in murder, the one thing he doesn't tolerate. Although, I think would have been both possible and in character for Four to have somehow tried to entangle her innocently, if only to "play" with Poirot.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree that the book is too over-the-top, at least for a Poirot novel. Christie's spy novels were not her strongest suit but using some of the spy novel characters instead of Poirot would have been a step in the right direction.

      Delete
    2. I'm glad we agree on the new plot twist! And I agree, Four's comment on Poirot's tendency to be dramatic was spot-on (and surely very intentional on the screenwriters' part, because it explains the elaborate death-faking). But I suppose Poirot also wanted a confession, and the best way to get a confession was to let him believe he had 'won', so that he would brag about it to Flossie. (I had the same thought about Japp. Someone at Scotland Yard would have had to have been in on it, but that could have been one of Poirot's many other Yard contacts, like Battle.)

      As to Hastings not being in it much - read the Q&A explanation. It does make sense to minimise his role in order to make the emotional impact of "Curtain" bigger. Christie's use of Rossakoff in this novel never made sense to me, so I agree with the change that was made, too. It would have been possible, but again I think the impact of her return in Labours is bigger when we haven't seen her since Clue.

      Delete
    3. As to your second comment: I think the spy plot of The Clocks was very well done (i.e. the adaptation). So in that sense her attempts at spy plots have been included in the series as a whole :)

      Delete
    4. Now that I think of it, Hastings' appearing at all somewhat undercuts the premise of Curtain (a reunion after a long time apart.) If Big Four happens not long before Curtain, then they have seen each other recently.

      Delete
    5. Yes, that was the reason they minimised his part in the story, apparently. Big Four is set in 1939, Curtain ten years later.

      Delete
    6. The other thing about the Countess's role in Big Four original, (in addition to the plausibility issue with her being in league with them at all) is her suddenly having a (very young) child. I would have thought she would be too old to have given birth recently enough for the child to be that young (although words like "young" and "baby" are used loosely in these stories.) I didn't think she was super-young? I didn't think Poirot was being a "dirty old man" in his infatuation...but then again HIS age is a problem issue too. And someone in his profession could be semi-retired (at least from the official police force), at 50 or so, in those days.

      But although the child is young, the Countess speaks as though she hasn't seen him in years. ("Once, I had a child..." as if it was before Poirot even knew her) And where was he during The Double Clue? Of course, there are fans who have suggested he was born AFTER that, and have suspicions about his parentage...

      I do have to say, though, that going by the Labours plot where Niki is an adult, the Countess is a much better mother-in-law than most in Christie (saying that she will accept Alice because Niki loves her.)

      Delete
    7. Re the Countess and the Big Four: not only is she involved in the Big Four's schemes which involved taking (a lot of) human lives - she was involved DIRECTLY in plots to kill Poirot and Hastings themselves! Hastings actually comments on this: "Poirot had always had a sneaking fondness for the countess...she was, he wont to declare, a woman in a thousand. That she was arrayed against us, on the side of our bitterest enemies, never seemed to weigh in his judgment." And in the Labours story, he is clearly delighted to be interacting with her, without any bitterness that she worked with his enemies (it's like he doesn't remember it - he implies they've always been allies.)

      Now, we all know how fans come up with wild theories. For instance, Moffit wrote His Last Vow based on readers' theory that Holmes really did the kill the blackmailer in the original, parallel Doyle story, and the mysterious noblewoman murderer was merely an invention of Watson's. Regarding the Big Four, as I alluded to before, there have been speculations about Poirot being Nikki's father! Well, my own idea here for "saving" the situation with the countess is that she was all along some kind of reverse mole or double agent, whether working for Poirot or for some other government. Known to Poirot, or not. It's not too much of a stretch to interpret from the text, actually. We see Poirot and the Countess interact only from Hastings' viewpoint...and we all know how Poirot doesn't always let Hastings in on everything.

      Delete
    8. Remember the character in the book, John Ingles, alleging that the Big Four are behind EVERY REVOLUTION IN THE WORLD(!)? Including the one in Russia ("signs that Lenin and Trotsky were mere puppets...") Would the Countess have allied herself with that?!

      Delete
    9. The scene at the end in the Big Four's hideout is the first we ever hear of the Countess's child...yet Poirot has had him "ready" for a while...no, he doesn't tell Hastings everything.

      Delete
  7. You know, during the scene where Poirot is "buried," I realized I was expecting him to be revealed to be hiding behind a tombstone! You can probably guess why I was thinking that. It serves to remind us all that the death-faking in The Big Four novel was very much a nod to "The Final Problem" and "The Empty House" to begin with, but frankly, I find those kinds of "nods" to be unworthy of Christie, who had plenty of good original ideas and could come up with better "fair play whodunnit" puzzles than Doyle.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Haha, I did too! :) Which is why, when I did the Q&A (see separate post) I had to ask if the nods to "Sherlock" (and Conand Doyle of course) were deliberate on their part (the graveyard, the 'mind palace' sequence etc). Apparently they weren't. Christie was inspired by Conan Doyle, though - she admitted as much on several occasions. I think that's particularly the case here; the death-faking must have been a homage to Doyle, even if the rest of the plot was her own invention. I think it's important to remember that this was a farily early Christie novel (1927), written at a time of great turmoil in her personal life, so I'd say we should forgive her these nods; she demonstrated her brilliance in so many later stories.

      Delete
    2. After seeing too many Sherlocks and similar modern anti-social, seemingly-sociopathic-or-manic-depressive detectives, it was refreshing to revisit this version of Poirot who seems far more amiable, upbeat, and (for all his egotism) to have a genuine interest in people and in helping them.

      Delete
    3. Not to digress to talking about Sherlock too much, but I prefer Edward Hardwicke's Watson (in the series starring Jeremy Brett) being utterly joyful to have Holmes back from "the dead" over Martin Freeman's angry Watson. I realize the latter is probably closer to how a real person would react, but I really wanted to see a Watson in the throes of joy about (and love for) Holmes. I think Freeman's Watson is a bit too angry overall, and he seems to take out on Sherlock some things that are not Sherlock's doing (like Mary's background.) This Big Four adaptation stuck to Hastings being mostly joyful that Poirot was alive...but it was actually kind of toned down from the book because their reunion was pretty much cut short by the episode ending. I wanted to know more about what Hastings had been doing since Poirot's "death" that caused him to miss the original reveal.

      Actually, Hastings-mad-at-Poirot happened a little bit more often in the books than Watson-mad-at-Holmes did in their original stories.

      Oh, a minor point - but it sounded like they were calling Poirot's valet Josh. Was it some kind of French version of George?

      Delete
    4. I agree, Poirot is more 'human' than Holmes I would say. One of Suchet's notes on the character is that he is conceited in his professional life (the great detective), but not (as much) in his personal life.

      Hardwicke's Watson reaction is closer to the original stories, obviously. And yes, I suppose Freeman's Watson is angrier overall. But then I think that's part of Mofatt's/Gatiss's process of updating and modernising; there needs to be a twist to every well-known scene. I do think there's a genuine frendship between John and Sherlock all the same, though.

      Yes, Hastings is mad at Poirot quite frequently, actually. I can't remember which story off-hand, but in one scene he walks out on him and slams the door (much in the same way he did in Big Four).

      Poirot in the books often calls George 'Georges' (with a French/Belgian pronunciation). So that would explain the 'Josh'-sounding name.

      Delete
    5. Christie 'inspired by' Conan Doyle is a bit of an understatement - she blatant lifted several of his plots eg The man with the Twisted Lip, Charles Augustus Milverton, A Case of Identity.

      Am I the only one who found the new twist in this adaptation utterly ridiculous? While not one of the best, the original book is almost a proto-Bond novel (30 years early) and the ending fits with that, but the TV version is just risible, and Mark Gatiss's assertion that they improved on 'an unadaptable mess' is rather foolish considering the mess he turned it into.

      Delete
    6. Charles Augustus Milverton = Veiled Lady, but I can't place which Christie books are based on the other two you mention.

      Delete
    7. The Man with the Twisted Lip = The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim. a Case of Identity = every other time there's a murderer or someone else in disguise and they fool people who know them well. Sorry, perhaps I should have used the word 'tropes' rather than 'plots'. And while we're at it, of course, Vera Rossakoff is Poirot's Irene Adler.

      Delete
    8. Not to mention every time a clue of initials could apply to more than one person. (And invariably there's a reason no-one thinks to apply them to the correct person. They're reversed! They use their middle name! They're in Cyrrilic!)

      Delete
    9. Oh, King of Clubs and Taken at the Flood both take the scenario of a supposed murder victim really having hit their head accidentally from The Crooked Man.

      Delete
  8. It seems like some of the more extreme changes made to these adaptations might be partly in the name of political correctness. Such as here making a Chinese man and a female scientist genuine advocates of peace whereas in the book they are criminal masterminds. And the more expanded (and probably more sympathetic) treatment of the feminist issue in The Missing Will adaptation. Moffit and Gattis get a lot of flak for their sexism in Sherlock (the "strong" women all turn out to either be criminals, terrorists, assassins, or they fall in love with Sherlock, or some combination of the above). But that may be more Moffit's doing than Gattis'.

    On the other hand, they went in the opposite direction in the characterization of Bella in Murder on the Links. In the book, not only is she a spitfire and an acrobat, but she uses that skill to save the day! And for all his blather about being old-fashioned, Hastings is fascinated (and taken in by her). The adaptation's character is more ladylike and subdued (like Markham's Rossokoff). On the other hand, the original "Cinderella" underneath all her boldness is in love with Hastings and their getting together is portrayed as a happy ending - upon re-reading I felt like Cinderella could have done better than Hastings! And she is discussed as being nothing more than a nice, quiet little wife in future books - almost as if the circumstances of their getting together were forgotten. That was a pattern with Christie's strong-seeming heroines -if they are portrayed sympathetically, there is a resolution involving their getting married.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, I think the writers have tried to airbrush some of the racism from her stories to make it more palatable for modern audiences. The Big Four is Christie's worst example in many ways, so I don't find it difficult to understand that they would want to change their motiviations. But then there are stories like The Lost Mine and The Adventure of the Western Star. I'd say The Missing Will is more inspired by its source material; Violet is clearly a feminist in the original story, too. As to Moffat and Gatiss, I'm not really qualified to comment. But I do get the impression that it's Moffat who gets that criticism the most. (After all, he wrote both Scandal and Vow).

      With Bella in the Links adaptation I think the explanation is that, apart from Cinderella in the Links novel, Hastings does tend to fall for a more 'old-fashioned' kind of woman. So perhaps they wanted to focus on that? And I do think Christie forgot the circumstances, to some extent, e.g. she mixed up Dulcie and Bella in a later story. But then Dulcie seemed perfectly okay with Hastings risking his life in The Big Four (novel).

      Delete
  9. There is one issue in the novel that the adaptation's change, because it focused on Four, doesn't entirely resolve: I am willing to believe the guy was terrific with disguise, but how many lives did he have to live all at once? The murders seem to take place in a short timespan (well, the timeline in the book is fuzzy), and yet Poirot implies that the guy has been living each identity for a long time, to prepare the ground.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I never got that either. And would he really be able to pass as a qualified doctor, for instance? What about references? Medication? In the end it comes down to the neccessary suspension of disbelief, I'd say.

      Delete
    2. Surely Dr Quentin is the only role he has to play for any length of time. The others are all one-offs just for the individual occasions.

      Delete
  10. It has been speculated that the "O.B.E." title which Hastings possesses as of ABC Murders was due to his role in overthrowing the Big Four...someone (maybe Anne Hart) questioned whether Poirot would be envious...but in fact, I don't think Poirot would have been eligible to receive British titles (not being British)?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, that's Anne Hart's speculation :) Hm, I don't know enough about the British titles system to answer that, but I do think Poirot might have been envious anyway. Still, he did allow Japp the praise for so many cases, so I'm sure he'd want Hastings to have some recognition, too.

      Delete
    2. You don't have to be British to receive an honour. Any national of a country with the British monarch as its head of state is also eligible. Foreign nationals are eligible for honorary honours. They're not as common but they do happen eg Bono is an honorary OBE.

      Delete
    3. Well, "with the British monarch as its head of state" doesn't include Belgium. You would think, though, that the British government would have given Poirot some kind of award or honor - not just for Big Four but for everything he'd done.

      Delete
    4. Sorry, didn't explain myself properly. Any national of a country with the British monarch as head of state 9eg Australia) can receive a full honour. Any national of a country where the British monarch isn't head of state (eg Belgium) can receive an honorary honour. The example I gave of Bono comes under the latter as the Queen isn't head of state of the Republic of Ireland.

      Delete
  11. The premise of Labours is Poirot being at the culmination of his career...and yet, many Poirot novels were written during the 1950s and 60s? Are they supposed to be set earlier? I take it that is what the adaptations are doing, at least?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, the production team decided to set all his cases in the 1930s, moving novels and short stories from the 1920s and post-war settings. See my other blog for my attempt at a likely TV series chronology. Or read this blog post: http://investigatingpoirot.blogspot.com/2013/06/agatha-christies-poirot-1936-time-warp.html

      Delete
  12. I can suspend disbelief to the extent of believing in individuals scheming for power independent of any nation/state...but to believe that these same four are supposed to be responsible for EVERY revolution in the world is a bit harder. (In modern times they'd probably be media moguls, much as Sherlock's Charles Augustus Magnussen was a media mogul who combined elements of Doyle's blackmailer Milverton and "Napoleon of Crime" Moriarty. And we all know who else Magnussen was supposed to represent!

    Actually one of my biggest issues is that, for about three-fourths of the book, they are seemingly unstoppable, and then, suddenly, as soon as Poirot's faked his death, they have a secret headquarters, they are all there at the same time, the location is known, and the Secret Services of three countries are able to surround them, so they suddenly, rather nonchalantly, decide to kill themselves. Seems to wrap up too easily after establishing their virtual invincibility. Also, to the extent I can believe in master criminals like Li Chang Yen, I can't believe in them killing themselves because their colleagues have died. He was far away and not in danger of capture. I would have thought he'd go, "Good, now I don't have to share the power with anyone."

    And also, Poirot has been known to accept cases at the behest of government officials...but his close cooperation with governments in this one seems...well, unlike his usual MO. And he is able to direct the forces of several governments? (We learn at the end that England, France, and Italy are working together, though it's hinted they didn't believe in the Big Four earlier on.)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I know this is kind of a strange thing to say, but The Big Four book kind of feels like a dream Poirot might have had: 1) it's bizarre and surreal and unlike anything else he's involved in 2) it's about him taking down major criminals and basically saving the world (wish-fulfillment?) 3) it involves his love interest (maybe in the dream he knows she's really not his enemy) 4) and since the Big Four are alleged to be behind all of the revolutions, it means Poirot is fighting the very forces who robbed the Countess (indirectly) of her wealth and status

      Delete
  13. There is a real irony about Darrell's plot: Ryland, Olivier, and Chang Yen may not really have been working together to take over the world - but what Darrell was doing was producing, or could have produced, if he had been more successful, the same kind of havoc on an international scale that the Big Four were alleged to be trying to produce.

    After watching some early episodes and then this again (I'm in my Acorn trial month!) I was struck by how much older Japp, Hastings, and Miss Lemon look!

    ReplyDelete
  14. In a way, I was glad Countess Rossakoff was removed because that meant she was neither more nor less than a petty thief and not involved in any violent crimes...and then I saw Labours, which made her, in a way, the Countess of the Big Four novel. "What did she know and when did she know it?" is pretty up-in-the-air, but at the very least, she wanted to save a brutal serial killer - who had nearly killed her, no less! And essentially told Poirot that for him to do so was the price of having her in his life!

    ReplyDelete
  15. I read in the Q&A that budget reasons were what prevented more characters at Poirot's funeral. I would have guessed that was the reason, and yet, it did strike me that there should have been a huge turnout.

    There are many cases where some party involved is supposed to be a friend or relative of one of our "big four." (I didn't catch that one of the recipients of a letter was "Bulstrode!")

    And Poirot is so often treated like a VIP in other contexts I can't believe there wouldn't be more people "paying their respects" (former clients, others from Scotland Yard, or politicians). Remember how, in "Evil Under the Sun" supposedly-ill Poirot gets messages from Scotland Yard and the Belgian Ambassador

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, but haven't most of his friends been either murdered or arrested?

      Delete
  16. When I said before, "I felt like Japp may have been in on it," the "it" referred to Poirot not really being dead. But after watching the "memorial service in Poirot's flat" scene, I feel like Japp may have already found out, or been told by Poirot, that the Big Four aren't what they seem to be, and that's the real reason he brushes off Hastings' attempt to rouse everybody to stop the Big Four?

    ReplyDelete
  17. While the original was outlandish regardless, it would have worked better if the original had been as late in the book series as this one was in the adaptation series. Because the original should have been such a big case for Poirot (he says it is the culmination of his career and will cause everything else to see tame). But there are many, many Poirot cases after that. For it to be near the end of his career and life would feel right, somehow.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Hi Eirik,

    Sorry for the typo in my previous post. I have a question about the Whalley house. I recognise the interior at being that of Hughenden Manor, but what about the exterior? I haven't found any pictures of Hughenden Manor and the surrounding buildings that look remotely like the outside of the Whalley house. I found the cemetery, though. See https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/The_Big_Four_(2013_film). Your info helped to create this page, thanks!

    Judith

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Found it! It's the Manor House in Little Missenden.

      Judith

      Delete
  19. I never thought of it before, and maybe my perception is not absolutely accurate, but don't Ryland and Olivier look a lot bigger than Whalley? Like it should have been much harder for him to overpower them?

    ReplyDelete
  20. If the Christie estate said the major recurring characters would only return in books they'd actually appeared in and wouldn't be added where they hadn't, surely Miss Lemon should have been in The Labours of Hercules rather than here. And she should have been given a larger role too. Japp gets a major role in this episode, Hastings gets Curtain and Ariadne Oliver has two episodes, but Miss Lemon just gets a cameo. Even Vera Rossakoff gets a much larger role than her in the final series, which seems unfair.

    ReplyDelete
  21. How do Japp and Tysoe know to come to the theatre? And Japp shouldn't be waving a gun around.

    ReplyDelete
  22. Has anyone ever read the original twelve short stories as opposed to the novel? Are they significantly different or just minor changes to make them flow as a novel?

    ReplyDelete
  23. good adaptation(ie greatly changed) of original awful mess by cristie. still ridiculous but well made entertainment. poirot actually do some 'detecting' for a change. and good see his selfish hypocritical pontificating called out for once.

    ReplyDelete
  24. This movie was a disappointment and a complete waste of time. I really wish that the screenwriters had maintained the story's political theme instead of turning into . . . well, you know. Talk about a waste.

    ReplyDelete
  25. The original novel (which is a compilation of short stories published in The Sketch magazine in 1924, and reportedly only slightly altered in the book), reads like something from a Boy's Own Paper. Each story is short enough to fill at most two chapters, so many of them feel like a draft which needs finishing. In addition, the stories are a knockoff of adventure stories of the day, with Number 1 clearly a Fu Manchu copy. I've only done a little research into that genre but it may be that Christie was original in having four "master criminals" together as opposed to one master criminal or organized crime society. The original collection of stories doesn't suit Poirot at all in the amount of running around, traps, dungeons, explosions, etc. It does, indeed, read almost as a proto-James Bond story.

    Incidentally, the Wikipedia article on this book reports that Christie's brother-in-law (Archie's brother) helped edit the stories together so they flowed as chapters in a book, because she needed to get something published quickly. In fact the book was rejected until she did her disappearing act, whereupon it was published about a month after she reappeared.

    ReplyDelete
  26. I can see the logic of having the Big Four be an invention of Four. It's a clever way to use part of the novel. But doing so has injected new illogic: what did Whalley do for 15 years? Why does Hastings say he's going to work on the case and then not reappear in action? There is no point in Poirot deceiving his friends into grief just for a petty criminal. Did the writers not beta-test this script? Any audience would have helped them create a better alternative ending. I came up with this one very quickly: why not have Whalley decide to be the best in the world at disguise and become an assassin? Kill his uncle for money, Savonaroff for show. They could have added a government expert (not quite Mayerling the secret agent, but similar) and Halliday the scientist, and John Ingles back in. The ideas of using the Peace Party (or better yet, make them members of a UN Committee) to gain himself publicity and build an imaginary criminal society around himself would still work.

    ReplyDelete

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 poirotchronology@gmail.com, post a comment on one of my blogs, or get in touch on Twitter @pchronology. (I used to call myself HickoryDickory)