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).
- 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 firstname.lastname@example.org, post a comment on one of my blogs, or get in touch on Twitter @pchronology. (I used to call myself HickoryDickory)