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'.

Episode-by-Episode: Triangle at Rhodes


The short story 'Triangle at Rhodes' was first published in 1936 and formed the sixth episode of the first series of Poirot in 1989. The episode was directed by Renny Rye and adapted by Stephen Wakelam in his only Poirot outing.

Script versus short story
Quite a lot of the scenes in the short story have been restructured, that is to say some of them appear in a different order from the source material, particularly towards the middle of the episode. However, the adaptation stays very closely to the short story, and almost all the lines are kept intact. Some references are expanded, such as the arrival of the two couples on the ferry, a fact merely stated by Douglas Gold in the short story. One character is deleted, namely Sarah Blake. Instead, Pamela Lyall gets most of her lines and takes a leading role in the 'investigation' (much like other women Poirot takes under his wing in future adaptations, e.g. Jane Grey in Death in the Clouds). She also gets to point out the triangle shape, a task assigned to Poirot in the short story. A major addition to the story is a subplot concerning Major Barnes (General Barnes in the short story), somewhat reminiscent of Evil Under the Sun, a novel very similar to this short story. He is a secret agent keeping an eye on the Italians in the face of the Abyssinia crisis (we also see Blackshirts throughout the episode). Moreover, there's the added Catholicism of Douglas Gold - which is probably intended to explain why he is not the murderer. Also, Poirot's escape for peace and quiet on a mountain top (in the short story) here becomes an excursion, much in the same way as in the adaptation of Appointment with Death. Finally, Poirot intends to leave the island in this adaptation (probably to keep him away from the actual murder and enable the insecurity about the poison bottle) and gets mixed up with the police (reminds me somewhat of the exciting scene in the adaptation of Yellow Iris!). For anyone who claims Poirot is never angry - take a close look at this scene.The ending of the adaptation is quite different to its source, with Poirot and Pamela tracking down the poison used for the murder (with the help of the forensic officer, a "friend" of Major Barnes)- and then an extravagant chase scene with two fishing boats (I do understand that they need to fill out the episode, and they to add some excitement, but particularly in future episodes, these the-villains-try-to-escape scenes are actually quite annoying...).

(I think it's necessary to emphasise that the introduction of the Abyssinia conflict is actually somewhat in keeping with the source material. In the story, the men discuss "this Palestine business' at the bar, so to change that into 'this Abyssinia business' isn't too far off the wall. Also, the story was published in 1936, so to focus on an event from 1934-5 would also be quite accurate).

Directing, production design, locations, soundtrack
This really is such a visually stunning episode. It's also the first episode to feature Poirot in an exotic location, and director Renny Rye utilises the location to its fullest potential. Scriptwriter Wakelam adds an opening scene outside the by now easily recognisable London home (in bleak autumn weather), which serves as the perfect contrast to the Mediterranean scenes that follow (in an added scene from the city market). Rye captures so many beautiful shots it's impossible to mention them all. I'll focus on the mountain top with the small church (capturing the magnificent view) and a wonderful image of Lyall, Mrs. Chantry and Mrs. Gold next to a temple at sunset - almost resembling Greek goddesses. An excellent use of the location. I don't know if it's been filmed at Rhodes (as I haven't been there), but it certainly looks authentic. I also like the police station, a very 1930s building. In terms of soundtrack, this really is one of the scores I would die to have on one of Gunning's releases. The version of the theme tune is lovely and it brings so much atmosphere to the story!

Actors and characters
A few bits on Poirot first. This is the only episode before Taken at the Flood in Series Ten that we are told (or, rather, shown) that Poirot is a bon catholique; he makes the sign of the cross after Mr. Gold and even explains to him later that 'your faith will be of great consolation to you'. This isn't completely off the mark from the story. In fact, Poirot mentions the bon Dieu to himself while on the mountain top (in the short story). Also, there's a small scene in which we see him tie his bow tie (fun fact: Suchet mentioned in Poirot & Me that he used to get tip off Americans from teaching them how to do their bow ties when he was a young and struggling actor!) and a small scene in which Poirot instructs a maid in how to pack his cases properly. Both instances excellently capture the personality from the stories.

Now, on to the guest actors. Frances Low is great as Pamela Lyall and a perfect "Hastings substitute" for the episode. Also, there's Angela Down as Marjorie Gold, who should manage to fool first-time-viewers into believing in the wrong triangle.

Thursday 30 May 2013

Episode-by-episode: The Third Floor Flat


'The Third Floor Flat' became the fifth episode of Poirot's first series. It was adapted from the short story published in 1929. Scriptwriter was Michael Baker, in his first of three Poirot scripts, and Clive Exton as a script consultant (notice how the production team are slowly letting other writers in on the job, under the watchful eye of Exton). The director was Edward Bennett, who had already directed the first two episodes of the series.

Script versus short story
The script stays remarkably close to the (rather thin) short story. There are some additions, but most of the added scenes are based on tiny references in the source material. I've noticed that some bloggers claim that the opening scene of Patricia and Mildred dancing is nothing but padding, and of course, to an extent it is, but Patricia does mention in the short story that the letter from Mrs. Grant is probably a complaint about the loud music from her piano, so to have them dancing to a record is more than acceptable in my view. Also, the fact that Mrs. Grant has just moved in isn't in the original story. In fact, you could almost get the impression that she has been living there for some time, without knowing that her rival lives right above her. So again, Baker's change makes complete sense (and, the change gives us some wonderful glimpses of Whitehaven Mansions!).

Now, of course, the main change, really, is that the unnamed residential block in which Poirot rents a flat is changed into Whitehaven. A very sensible decision. First, why would Poirot live anywhere else, now that he's established in Whitehaven? Second, why on earth would he take the name of O'Connor (and pretend to be Irish!)? I mean, out of all possible disguises, that is probably the worst he could have chosen (and dare I say, it does sound a bit out of character for him to choose such a lousy disguise!). Also, it makes much more sense to have Patricia be aware of his presence. I mean, if you were Hercule Poirot's neighbour, you'd probably know! Another important change is the introduction of Poirot's cold. Now, that's also based on the text actually, because it's how Poirot tricks Donovan into smelling the sedative, so again, a perfectly sensible addition.

The changes I've mentioned so far are all at least partly based on the source material. In addition to these, Hastings, Japp and Miss Lemon are added (which has become the norm by now). Miss Lemon's part is small, but sensible, in that she gets to help Poirot with curing his cold. Hastings doesn't get much to do either, apart from the added chase scene towards the end - and of course the devastation brought on by the destruction of his beloved Lagonda. Japp replaces Inspector Rice from the short story, and I'm not complaining. I do realise that they need to have a basic family unit, as Exton has described it, to make the series work. And of course, it adds to the development of the camaraderie between Poirot, Japp and Hastings. There's also an added section of the episode in which Poirot and Hastings, along with Patricia and her friends, attend a play. This is a nice addition, both because Hastings takes Poirot to a play like this in Christie's novel Dumb Witness, and because it explains where Patricia and her friends had been before they return to the flat (in the short story, it's just assumed that they've been out for the evening). As an aside, a very similar scene takes place in the adaptation of The Clocks, in which Poirot attends a stage version of one of Ariadne Oliver's books, 'The Good Samaritan' (another nice bit of continuity of sorts within the series' run). Any other changes I haven't mentioned are so minute and mostly based on the text, so I won't go into detail about them.>

Directing, production design, locations and soundtrack

Edward Bennett's direction is competent as usual. In this one, I particularly love his use of the location, with the rather memorable crane shot that follows the building from the window of Mrs. Grant's flat in 36B through Patricia's flat in 46B to Poirot's in 56B. I have always wondered whether that was shot on location at Florin Court or in a studio of sorts, but I guess they must have shot it on location - if not, then they really had some fancy special effects!

Now, the star of the show here, really, is Florin Court, that magnificent 1930s building doubling as Whitehaven Mansions. While I rewatched this episode, I realised how lucky the production team were when they discovered this gem - and found it to be empty of tenants! The story is quite remarkable, really. (See the documentary Super Sleuths or Peter Haining's book on the series). In fact, this particular episode could probably not have been shot in exactly the same way had it not been for the fact that they discovered this temporarily empty and newly restored building. Yes, the flats seen on screen are constructed sets, and the staircase is probably in a completely different building, but there are so many shots - in this and other episodes of the first series - looking in on the action through the windows or driving past the apartment block in the square in front of it, that probably couldn't have been done if the block was occupied.

The soundtrack to this episode is actually quite memorable. Sadly, Gunning's score for this one has not been released. As to the other bits of music - the record Patricia and Mildred are dancing to and the song they're singing in the staircase, I haven't been able to track down much information. The song they're singing is 'Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries' from 1931.

Actors and characters
There some nice character development on Poirot's part here. First, of course, we have his hypochondria, the very serious cold that turns out to be not as serious after all. I love that he's wearing all those layers of clothes (again, spot on from Christie's stories). Notice the slight change in voice as Poirot gets better (Suchet strikes again!). Second, there's the nice story about the girl he fell in love with who couldn't cook (though we can't really trust him with these sort of stories, he is known to invent whatever story suits him, it's still a nice touch and a slight sign of his lamentation on his loneliness that will grow in the years to come). Finally, there's his matchmaking trait. This is a particular favourite of mine. In several of Christie's books - and in quite a few of the adaptations - Poirot takes on the role of matchmaker/Cupid, like with Jimmy and Patricia ("Go to Mlle. Patricia, Jimmy"). See also the adaptations of How Does Your Garden Grow?, Murder on the Links, Sad Cypress, Mrs. McGinty's Dead, and The Clocks.

Of the guest actors, Suzanne Burden (Patricia Matthews) stands out with a lively and vivacious performance, and Nicholas Pritchard (Donovan) somewhat manages to awaken some sympathy for his character when he confesses to the crime.

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)

Wednesday 29 May 2013

'Elephants Can Remember' UK broadcast date confirmed - 9 June 8pm!

(c) ITV
...and we're off! Agatha Christie's Poirot Series Thirteen is on! The press release was issued about a week ago, with a strange embargo on publishing details. Anyway, now we have the official confirmation of the broadcast date (see this article, and this article for some lovely press photos)! Really excited to see some pictures from the episode, I love the house they seem to have used. And of course the fact that Poirot's flat is back on screen. It could just be the time of year they shot it, or even the way the photos were taken, but they do seem to have a rather bleak look about them - reflective of the adaptation as a whole, perhaps?

Also, just a few tidbits of information from the press release (everything has been on IMdB for months, actually). The series now has a new producer (David Boulter), who I think is the fifth producer on the show. The screenplay is by Nick Dear, who has written absolutely wonderful scripts before, particularly for the Ariadne/Poirot coupling, so this should be good. The best news, in my mind, however, is that Christian Henson is back to do the score, presumably for the entire series. After Gunning, he is definitely a good choice. Expect to hear references to the famous theme tune in future episodes.

Finally, just a few interesting bits from the interview with Suchet:
"Viewers should be able to see from 25 years ago to now that the character himself is still there and hopefully hasn’t changed and is the Agatha Christie character from day one."

"As well as watching ten hours of footage and perfecting his mannerisms, I also conduct a detailed script study to make sure everything I say is valid, especially when I come to Poirot’s summing up. I work very, very closely with the script editor to make sure there are no assumptions and it is all fact.In addition to the character preparation I like to rewrite my script in the vernacular of Poirot." (This is actually very reassuring news, it means he has a significant say in what happens in each episode, see below as well)

"Quite a lot now (of influence as associate producer), more so on the scripts before we start shooting and everyday I’m on the set I can always have an input if I see things that are not going quite right. Cast and crew can also come to me with a problem if our producer is not available. I like it very much because I’m the only one really that’s been there from the beginning so I can be very useful and helpful hopefully!"

"One is always in a situation with the adaptation of books and I get letters from Poirot diehards saying ‘oh its moved too far away from the book.’ Very often the books themselves are not that filmable from a commercial point of view. For instance, they maybe set in one setting and the audience loves us going out to other locations. Sometimes the stories do get changed but they are always pretty close to the book."
(Perhaps less reassuring, but I personally don't mind changes as long as they work - and it's good to hear that they are aware of that).

P.S. I'm not in the U.K., so I won't get to see the episode yet (unless someone puts it up on YouTube or something, but I'm not sure I want to see it there first). As a result, I'm not going to write anything on it until I've seen it. BUT: If anyone who sees the episode want to e-mail me or post a comment over at poirotchronology.blogspot.com on the chronology matters of the episode (i.e. any references to year, date or historical event), that would be much appreciated!

Monday 27 May 2013

Episode-by-episode: The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly


The short story 'The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly', first published in The Sketch in 1924, was chosen as the third episode of the first series of Agatha Christie's Poirot. The screenplay was again by Clive Exton and the director was Renny Rye, in his first Poirot outing.

Script versus short story
Given that the short story in question is one of the shortest in Christie's Poirot canon, some plot elements had to be expanded and changed on the journey from source material to screen adaptation. However, nearly all the dialogue from the short story is kept and the expansions and additions work, most of the time.

The most important change between the short story and the adaptation is that Mr. Waverly consults Poirot before the actual kidnapping, instead of afterwards. This makes complete sense, because it is much more enganging for viewers to see the case unfolding in "present time" rather than through Waverly's retelling of it. Curiously, however, the Waverlys do not consult Poirot together, like in the short story. I don't understand that particular change at all. For one thing, the two consulting him together would make more sense since they are both supposed to be concerned parents. But what puzzles me is why Mr Waverly (on his own) would consult Poirot at all. It would make sense for him to consult him under the pressure of his wife, but the adaptation suggests that he is the one who initiated the consultation. Of course, it is not uncommon in Christie's stories that SPOILER the culprit himself consults the detective, but why change it in the first place?

In any case, the restructuring of the story means that Poirot and Hastings visit the scene of the crime before the kidnapping takes place. In other words, every detail mentioned in Waverly's retelling to Poirot in the short story is here expanded and visualised. Poirot and Hastings are present when Mrs Waverly is ill and when Mr Waverly sacks all the servants. Also, Exton adds some apparent money trouble in the Waverly household, with Hastings remarking on the lack of food and a construction worker pointing out where the money lies (with Mrs. Waverly, not Mr. Waverly).

Moreover, the inspector from the short story, Inspector McNeil, is substituted with the ever-present Japp. While it is something of a stretch to have Japp handling almost every single one of Poirot's cases (and in terms of broadcast order, he has been in all episodes up to this point), his introduction here makes sense, particularly because Exton has added a scene in which Poirot and Mr. Waverly jointly visit Japp in his office, and it is implied that Poirot uses his influence (i.e. Japp) to bring the kidnapping to Scotland Yard's attention. In other words, the inclusion of Japp actually makes sense in this particular instance (and, of course, it is great to have Philip Jackson and David Suchet develop the Japp-Poirot relationship, so I am not objecting!). Miss Lemon is also added to the adaptation, in its opening scenes. Again, Exton's change makes complete sense, since Miss Lemon is employed by Poirot at this point in time of the Poirot series (but was not at the time the short story was published). Also, he makes use of Miss Lemon's famous filing system (referred to by Christie in the novel Hickory Dickory Dock), so her scenes are not entirely his own fiction - they are actually based on Christie.

Hastings, who is present in the short story, is given a new subplot, too. His Lagonda car, seen and discussed in the previous episode, Murder in the Mews, now gets to play centre-stage (of sorts). Firstly, in the opening scenes, he explains to Miss Lemon that his car has been accepted for the 24 Hours of Le Mans race, a fact he is only too keen to mention to Mrs Waverly on his arrival at Waverly Court. Secondly, he is impressed by Johnnie's toy racing car at dinner (a lovely touch, and the toy car is shown throughout the episode, closely associated with Johnnie - a clever choice by the director I assume). Thirdly, he drives Poirot to the village in the car, and on their way back the car breaks down (a smart move by Exton, since it conveniently delays their return and they miss the kidnapping). Throughout the rest of the episode, Hastings's attempts at repairing the car function as a sub plot.

As I mentioned earlier, I find some of the additions less successful than others. Although I realise that it might have been necessary to "remove" Poirot and Hastings from the scene of the crime at the time of the kidnapping (after all, we wouldn't like to see Poirot fail - better to see Japp fail), I still think the whole 'English breakfast in the village'-thing was a bit too much. Especially the fast driving, the singing of 'One man went to mow' and the implied effect of alcohol, given the 'beer for breakfast' exchange at the village pub (I mean, would Poirot be drunk? I think not.). It is all a bit too obvious as comic relief, isn't it? Still, the scenes enabled Exton to underline Poirot's disdain of the countryside (first referred to in The Adventure of the Clapham Cook), since he has to walk back to the house (a scene reminiscent of quite a few of the later episodes set in the countryside (see, for instance, Mrs. McGinty's Dead (2008) and The Hollow (2004). I love that Poirot character traits like this one are referred to throughout the series!). Also, Exton's scenes highlight the friendship between Hastings and Poirot wonderfully, suggesting that Hastings, as the proper Englishman, in a sense is "educating" Poirot the foreigner in English customs, like the full English breakfast and the nursery rhymes.

Directing, production design, locations and soundtrack

Director Renny Rye does a nice job, conveying the tension and nerves that encapsulates the Waverly family, both through several shots of four-year-old Johnnie playing and through shots of the clocks in the house. More importantly, though, I'm struck by the opening sequence in which a camera pans out from a close-up on Johnnie playing on the stairs to a full view of the front of Waverly Court. The shot cleverly conveys the two motifs of the story - children and money/honour.

There are only two sets in this episode (as far as I can tell), Whitehaven Mansions and Japp's office, both of which have been seen in all previous episodes. As to locations, the village Poirot and Hastings visit is Turville in Buckinghamshire. They have breakfast at the Bull & Butcher Pub and drive past Turville Church. 'Waverly Court' is Wrotham Park, Barnet (the location was also used as Sir Roderick's home in the adaptation of Third Girl (2008)). See this wonderful website for photos.

Sadly, the soundtrack for this episode has not been released. It would be lovely to see all the soundtracks from the episodes released, but I realise that it would probably be too expensive. In any case, this is not one of Gunning's most memorable themes - unlike some of the fantastic ones in later episodes.

Actors and characters

Most of the main character developments have been discussed already. Miss Lemon's meticulousness, Hastings's love of cars, Japp's professional pride and Poirot's eccentricities are all developed further. Of the latter, I would just like to point out the lovely scene in the garden of Waverly Court, in which Poirot removes a flower from the flower bed and places it in his button hole (the lapel pin vase is missing for once!) to restore the symmetry of the flower bed. Also, the scene in which Poirot reminds Miss Lemon of his tisane, which needs to be served punctually, at 11 a.m. Finally, the scene on the train in which Poirot makes his little speech about the "little policemen" we all have in our heads, a nice indirect reference to Poirot's sense of right and wrong, guilty and innocent etc. These scenes capture Poirot's character beautifully.

As to the supporting characters, none of them are particularly memorable. Of course, Geoffrey Bateman (Mr. Waverly) and Julia Chambers (Mrs. Waverly) do a nice job, but they don't stand out like some of the past (and future) guest actors in the series.

(Picture copyright ITV)

Wednesday 22 May 2013

Countess Vera Rossakoff


Since it is looking increasingly likely that we will see the return of Countess Vera Rossakoff in the final series (Labours of Hercules) I thought I might write down some thoughts on that particular character, the actress who portrayed her in The Double Clue and the rumours of a new actress in the role for Labours.

In Christie's stories - and in the TV series - Poirot first met the Countess in 'The Double Clue', a short story published in the early 1920s. A member of the ancien régime of Russia, she is described by Hastings as a 'whirlwind in human form' (Hart 233), and later as 'big' and 'flamboyant' (Hart 234). By the end of the jewel-robbery case, Poirot is completely enthralled by her:
'What a woman!' cried Poirot enthusiastically as we descended the stairs. 'Mon Dieu, quelle femme! Not a word of argument - of protestation, of bluff! One quick glance, and she had sized up the position correctly. I tell you, Hastings, a woman who can accept defeat like that - with a careless smile - will go far!' (Hart 234)
In later references, Poirot describes her as 'A woman in a thousand - in a million!' (Hart 234), further enhancing our impression that this truly is Poirot's Irene Adler. The two met again in the novel The Big Four (apparently not in the adaptation that was filmed recently). This time around, the Countess was backed by some of Poirot's toughest opponents yet. In the end, she helps Poirot and Hastings escape a certain death, on the terms that Poirot would reunite her with her long lost son. Then, for the third and final time, they met on the escalators of the London Underground in the 1930s, and in the nightclub called 'Hell':
'Though it was something like twenty years since he had seen her last the magic still held. Granted that her make-up now resembled a scene-painter's sunset, with the woman under the make-up well hidden from sight, to Hercule Poirot she still represented the sumptuous and the alluring.' (Hart 237)
After 'The Capture of Cerberus', they were never to see each other again, but in Christie's words, Rossakoff remained 'the flamboyant creature of his fantasy'.

On television, Countess Rossakoff was portrayed by Kika Markham in the 1991 episode 'The Double Clue'. Though the adaptation differs significantly from its source material (I will probably come back to this in greater detail in my 'episode-by-episode' series), I would still count it as one of my favourites - in terms of characterisation and character development. Markham and Suchet are both given much more to play with in terms of the 'relationship' between the characters, with walks in the park, visits to museums and picnics in the countryside. Also, the final scene at the train station has remained iconic. Markham was lovely in the part.

(Rossakoff was also an added plot line in the adaptation of Murder in Mesopotamia, which didn't really make sense to me. I mean, Poirot travelling all the way to Mesopotamia because she has sent him a cryptic message asking for his help? Oh well, I guess it was a nice touch and a way of showcasing his affection for her).

Now, rumour has it, based on this interview, that actress Orla Brady will be playing Countess Rossakoff in Labours. At first, I was slightly taken aback by this. (Not by Brady - she's an excellent actress - but by the recasting). Sure, Markham is older now (72-73, according to Wikipedia, cf. 50 when the episode was shot), but so is Suchet (67 now, 44 then). However, having looked at some recent photos of Orla Brady and compared them to screenshots from The Double Clue, I'm now convinced that this was, if not the right choice, then at least a right choice. As has been mentioned on the IMDb forum recently, Brady is closer in age to what the character would be in chronology terms (if we rely on my chronology, The Double Clue is set in the mid-30s and Labours will hopefully be set just before WW2). Also, she looks remarkably similar to Markham in 1990! In other words, the recasting will somewhat ease the chronology issues, and the two actresses are sufficiently similar not to annoy viewers. (As an aside, I remember when they recast the role of Helen Lynley in the Inspector Lynley Mysteries. That was... Well, they didn't even look remotely similar....).

All in all, I am just happy to see the return of Countess Rossakoff (if indeed that is the case). As I have mentioned elsewhere, I think her presence in one of the remaining episodes is absolutely necessary to close one of the important chapters of Poirot's life (what I have nicknamed 'Poirot's-lamentation-on-love' storyline).

(Picture copyright ITV, quotations from Anne Hart's The Life and Times of Hercule Poirot)

Tuesday 21 May 2013

Episode-by-episode: Murder in the Mews


This adaptation was shot for the first series in 1988, the second ever episode. It was based on the short story 'Murder in the Mews' first published in the UK in 1937. The script is once again by Clive Exton and the director is Edward Bennet.

Script versus short story
Once again, Clive Exton delivers the goods with a script that stays fairly close to its source material. Bits of dialogue are moved around to straighten out the narrative, but most of it is kept intact. As is the case with most of these short story adaptations, Hastings and Miss Lemon are added to the story (which originally just featured Poirot and Japp of the "regular cast"). Both additions make sense. In fact, in the case of Hastings, Exton introduces some of the character traits that will help Hugh Fraser to flesh out the character in future episodes. For instance, Hastings keeps his car in a garage in the mews where the murder takes place, a hint of what will become a somewhat significant part of TV-Hastings's character, his love of cars. Also, when Poirot visits the scene of the crime, Hastings is outside working on his car and is given the task to find witnesses, and he comes up with Freddie Hogg (who, in the short story, was one of three witnesses, together with his mother and father, a chauffeur, but they are only seen on screen, interviewed by the police). Later, Exton introduces Hastings and Poirot at the golf course at the same time as Miss Plenderleith is disposing of the golf clubs and the briefcase, adding an amusing scene in which Poirot attempts to play golf. Hastings's love of golf will also be referenced in future episodes (see, for instance, the Anthony Horowitz-scripted Murder on the Links (1996)).

Miss Lemon is given a few lines on a dental appointment for Poirot, which he is very keen to avoid (again, a character trait that will be referred to in later episodes, e.g. Clive Exton's One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (1992)) and the tasks of George, the valet (who will not be introduced until Series Ten). Also, there is an added "subplot" of the starching of Poirot's collars, which is not present in the short story, but I am fairly certain it is taken from one of Christie's other stories (The Dream). As to Japp, his wife (Mrs. Japp) is mentioned, and she will be referred to in later episodes as well, see for instance Exton's Hercule Poirot's Christmas (1995) and Horowtiz's Hickory Dickory Dock (1995).

Now, as to the plot itself, most of it is kept intact. The morning after the discovery of the body is kept almost intact, with Japp, Poirot, Dr. Brett and another police officer (Divisional Inspector Jameson from the short story, presumably) examining the scene of the crime. Miss Plenderlieth is a professional photographer in the adaptation, with her own "studio" on the ground floor. The housekeeper Miss Pierce's presence is delayed until later in the story (when Poirot encounters her on his visit to the flat to check for the golf clubs again), but this is an insignificant change. The interviews of the suspects are moved around a bit, so that Miss Plenderleith is interviewed three times in total, once on November 6th, once following the interview of Laverton-West and then in the denouement scene at the end. The interview of Laverton-West is also split in two, with a small part of it set in his office and then a latter part - after Miss Plenderleith's second interview - set in a swimming pool. Then, the interview of Major Eustace is set in a nightclub (in Soho, presumably), possibly the one mentioned by Major Eustace in the short story (The Far East Club), and conducted by Japp and Jameson, not Poirot). The final denouement is kept almost word by word, with the introduction of Hastings asking some of the questions assigned to Japp in the story.

Directing, production design, locations and soundtrack
Bennett makes good use of overhead shots, particularly when the scene of the crime is examined. This helps to visualise the (significant) position of the body, the gun, the entry wound etc. on the body. His directing seems competent and, importantly, unobtrusive. Now, as always in these adaptations, I have to mention the production design. The Bardsley Garden Mews flat is a magnificent set, very 1930s, very modernist and art deco. The flat layout is quite artistic in itself, suitable for a photographer, and I personally enjoy the fact that the "emerald green" colours referred to in the short story are at least hinted at in the design of the flat. As always, Whitehaven Mansions (aka Florin Court) is lovely, and particular points should go to the swimming pool set. Also, the decision to set the interview of Major Eustace in the nightclub proves that the production crew really do want to emphasise the production values, with the extravagant band and singer, the extras in the club and the detail of the set itself. In fact, this particular episode is very much set based, unlike some of the later episodes that place more emphasis on location (partly by choice and partly because the source material demands it). Consequently, there aren't any locations to refer to in this one, possibly apart from Laverton-West's office, but I haven't been able to work out where that is. Possibly somewhere in Bloomsbury? (Again, I'm not an expert). As to the soundtrack, there are no tracks available on any of Gunning's releases, but the song in the night club is an edited version of "Hindustan", written and composed by Oliver G. Wallace and Harold Weeks in 1918. This clip (from about 3:30) features the part presumably used in the adaptation, sung/spoken by Bing Crosby and Caterina Valente. This one, however, seems to be the more common version.

Actors and characters

I have discussed the character development and performances of the main characters elsewhere, and the important character traits added here, like Hastings's golfing and love of cars, have already been outlined above. Suffice to say that David Suchet here displays Poirot's strong sense of justice in the final scene. Bringing to mind the more recent ending of the Murder on the Orient Express adaptation, we see Poirot visibly enraged by Miss Plenderleith's attempt at taking matters into her own hands (a point to make note of for those fans who claim that Poirot is never angry or emotionally upset). Also, the adaptation nicely brings out the ambiguity of the crime, as we as viewers are invited to feel that her actions were justified (the way Major Eustace is portrayed in the film, as something of a brute, and the emphasis placed on Miss Plenderleith's affection for the victim (she attends her funeral in this adaptation, and Poirot's question - "You were fond of your friend?" - is emphasized by the actors' tone of voice and the soundtrack).

Of the guest actors, Juliette Mole (Jane Plenderleith) and David Yelland (Laverton-West) are the standouts. The first because she manages to bring out the sympathetic qualities and the genuine grief of her character, and the second because of his borderline caricature, but quite believable ambitious politician (well, and the fact that he goes on the become George, Poirot's valet, in later adaptations!).

Wednesday 15 May 2013

Episode-by-episode: The Adventure of the Clapham Cook


The adventure of ITV's screen adaptations of Agatha Christie’s stories on Hercule Poirot began in 1988, when the production crew started shooting their first ten adaptations. The very first episode was based on a short story, ‘The Adventure of the Clapham Cook’, first published in the UK in 1923. The adaptation was scripted by Clive Exton and directed by Edward Bennet.

Script versus short story
Clive Exton’s script stays remarkably close to Christie’s original story. The few scenes and characters that are added or changed are entirely logical and mostly just expand smaller references in the short story. For instance, Poirot’s visit to the bank, only referred to in the story, is here shown in full. Moreover, the interview with Simpson in his room is somewhat expanded, and Exton adds a further clue in Poirot’s reference to amateur theatre (which will later be tied to traces of glue on Simpson’s face from the false beard he was wearing when meeting Eliza Dunn). Also, Hastings and Poirot visit Eliza Dunn in her Lake District cottage, a nice way to underline her happiness and newfound sense of freedom. The visit also gives Exton (and Suchet) the chance to display Poirot’s distaste for the countryside, a character trait we will see more of in later adaptations. The search for Miss Dunn’s trunk is also somewhat expanded, including a comical confrontation between the station porter and Hastings. Again, Exton includes a further clue in the “Bolivian” notes the porter thinks he saw in Simpson’s wallet (which will later be revealed as bolivar, the Venezuelan currency). As to character introduction, both Japp (who is mentioned in the story) and Miss Lemon (who is not mentioned, since this story was written while Poirot and Hastings were still living in 14 Farraway Street) make logical appearances. Miss Lemon takes on parts of the landlady’s role, showing Mrs. Todd into the living room, and part of Hastings’s role, placing the advertisements in the papers (which makes a lot more sense than Hastings doing it). Japp is seen to be aware of Poirot’s hunt for the housekeeper, which leads to an amusing confrontation between him and Poirot both at the bank and at Mrs. Tood’s house. Also, the inclusion of Japp and the Scotland Yard in the hunt for Simpson makes sense, especially as they are already searching for Davis. All in all, then, the adaptation remains faithful to the short story and the few additions and alterations should hardly raise an eyebrow among Christie purists.

Directing, production design, locations and soundtrack

Now, as to the direction of the episode, this is certainly not my field of expertise. I get the impression, however, that the directing is more “realistic” in these early episodes than in some of the later ones that allowed for a lot more creative use of camera angles. There is a nice little anecdote from Suchet on the discussion between him and Bennett on the introduction of Poirot, with the gliding camera from his patent leather shoes up to his face (see “Poirot and Me”Part One: “How it All Began”). Also, I would just like to point out the production values, a trademark of British television. I mean, this 50 minute episodes could have been done in a far less expensive manner had they wanted to “just” make a TV series. It is evident from the outset that the series is attempting something quite different. There is the shot of “Clapham Common” and the crane shot of Albert Bridge (both mentioned by Suchet in the interview referred to above), but also the use of the Lake District location, the train, the bank, “Twickenham station” and Southampton docks. Although some of this is set and not location, it certainly underlines the ambition of the production crew. These are serious period adaptations with attention to detail. Location-wise the previously mentioned Albert Bridge in Chelsea features, and so does the magnificent Surbiton Railway Station in Surrey, here concealed as "Twickenham station". See photos here.

The most memorable part of the score for this episode, "To the Lakes", can be found on both CD releases by Christopher Gunning (see here for my blog post on the latest soundtrack release).

Actors and characters
I’ll jump straight to the guest actors, since I have outlined my view on the main character portrayals elsewhere. In my opinion, they all seem to fit their characters, but of course Freda Dowie (Eliza Dunn), Dermot Crowley (Simpson) and Brigit Forsyth (Mrs. Todd) are the only ones given sufficient screen time to excel. Having watched this episode countless times, the two first performances are the ones that seem to stay with me. Freda Dowie brings just the right amount of gentleness and kindness to the cook to make her somewhat tragic position moving, and Dermot Crowley manages to convey the slight uneasiness of Simpson's character here that you don't get in the original story, I think.

P.S. I have seen in comments on YouTube and elsewhere that many viewers react to the difference in Suchet’s performance in this early episode and the later ones, especially his accent. A part of this is due to the stage in Poirot's life (see my praise of Suchet's achievement here), but some of it certainly comes down to the fact that he is still adjusting and adapting his portrayal, Poirot's accent hasn't quite settled yet (even if it's very close to what we have grown accustomed to).

Episode-by-episode: Introduction

Image credit: Agatha Christie on Twitter

A reader e-mailed me recently with some suggestions for further "investigations" on the blog. He suggested I should discuss the work of prominent script writers, directors and actors on the show, and comment on their approaches to the stories, characters and series as a whole. In fact, this is an idea I've had at the back of my mind for some time, but I've dismissed it so far on the account that a) I don't consider myself a Christie expert, let alone a good reviewer of books and adaptations, and b) I cannot even begin to claim that I have any in-depth knowledge of directing, script writing or any other aspect of film work. Also, so many people on line have done such an excellent job with reviews and comments already, so why should I do anything other than refer to these? However, since receiving this e-mail, I've done some research into the information available on line. What strikes me is that while all the blog entries and reviews I can find are excellent in their own right, very few (if any) offer a broad overview of all aspects of each episode. So, in the end, that is what I have decided to do.

In the coming weeks and months I will attempt to discuss the series episode-by-episode, comparing Christie's originals and the adaptations, comment on directing in some limited way, offer behind-the-scenes information in the cases where I have been able to find some, refer to interviews and character development and offer a location guide where that information is available. In short, I'm attempting to offer the closest thing to a complete introduction to each episode, with (hopefully) thorough references to other blogs, web sites and literature on offer on line and elsewhere. I was going to discuss the episodes in the order of my chronology, but I have later decided that it makes more sense to study them in broadcasting order, both in terms of script writing, directing and character development.

My main references are likely to be the ones listed below, sites that are all excellent resources in their own right (in no particular order - and I don't necessarily always agree with them):

1) Re-reading Agatha Christie (stylesofdying.wordpress.com)
This one I only discovered a couple of months ago. The blog seems to be a work in progress, but the work so far is so good that I think it's probably the most thorough analysis of both Christie's stories and the adaptations that I've seen on line. Highly recommended.

2) The Agatha Christie Reader (agathachristiereader.wordpress.com) Again, a very thorough and knowledgeable review blog, with posts on all of Christie's books and the adaptations. Very well done.

3) Sound Insights (dougpayne.blogspot.com)
Offers insightful reviews of all the episodes so far, with comments on actors, directors and script writers.

4) Chris Chan's adaptation reviews (agathachristie.com/insight/papers/). Brilliant reviews!

5) IMdB "Agatha Christie's Poirot" (www.imdb.com/title/tt0094525/reviews)
The IMdB series reviews (and individual episode reviews) are usually not as insightful, but some of them demonstrate important views and concerns with each episode.

6) On Location with Poirot (www.tvlocations.net)
Absolutely brilliant site with pictures and information on nearly all locations of the series. Invaluable.

7) More Man than Philosopher (generalthinker.blogspot.com) Several in-depth reviews of the adaptations, like the one this link refers to.

8) Felice's Log (felicelog.blogspot.com)
Several in-depth discussions of adaptations.

9) The Passing Tramp (thepassingtramp.blogspot.com)Brief reviews of series 1-5 (the short story series).

10) Poirot Style (poirotfan.blogspot.com/)
Definitely not my area of expertise, but this blog offers in-depth discussions of the costumes of the series. I think this will become an excellent addition to the Poirot fandom blog sites.

(...and then we have the countless "regular" DVD/Blu-Ray reviews that I might refer to from time to time, for instance the excellent reviews of the new Blu-ray releases over at blu-ray.com.

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)