Sunday 28 July 2013

Episode-by-episode: Hickory Dickory Dock

This episode was based on the novel Hickory Dickory Dock, first published in 1955. It was adapted for television by Anthony Horowitz and directed by Andrew Grieve.

Script versus novel
This was the first of the post-war novels to be adapted for the series and its established 1930s setting. In the years to come this would become a common occurrence - moving the plot of post-war novels back to that decade. Sometimes the transition is seamless (e.g. The Clocks, Mrs. McGinty's Dead), and sometimes not as much (Third Girl). Horowitz's script, I would say, falls somewhere in between. To begin with, the task of transforming a student hostel situation - post-war in its very nature - into a believable 1930s student rooms is not an easy one. Horowitz partly succeeds in that the 1930s student feel that we also got in the adaptation of 'The Case of the Missing Will' works quite well. He removes all the foreign students, including Mr. Gopal Ram, Akibombo, Elizabeth Johnston, Miss Reinjeer, Achmed Ali, Genevieve Maricaud, Jean Tomlinson and the two Turks (who, I assume, would be somewhat out of place as students in the 1930s - but, more importantly, they don't really provide important plot points, possibly apart from Akibombo, so it makes sense to delete them for time constraints reasons, too). A further change I don't quite understand is making all the residents of the hostel students - even Valerie Hobbhouse, who becomes a student of design and fashion. That seems a bit excessive, especially since the Series Five episode I mentioned (set at about the same time) covers the difficulty facing female students at universities. Anyway, I guess it works somehow or other.

As to plot changes, the list is actually quite long. First, we have the addition of Chief Inspector Japp (who replaces the book's Inspector Sharpe), and a subplot concerned with him coping (or not coping) at home in Mrs Japp's absence. He is eventually invited to stay with Poirot at Whitehaven - which, of course, gives room for some comic relief, like the bidet thing, but it all gets a bit too much, in my opinion. Especially that end scene in Japp's kitchen (faggot, phobie du faggot, spotted dick etc.). Second, the story is set around the 1936 Jarrow March (which occurred in October, not in April, as the lecture note at Hickory Dock seems to imply...a careless mistake), Sir Arthur Stanley becomes a leading Labour politician (and not a chemistry professor as in the novel), and Japp has a grudge against him because he investigated the death of his wife about ten years ago. Third, Miss Lemon's role is significantly expanded (which seems just right since her role is central to the story), and she is present throughout much of the investigation - and gets involved, too. Fourth, a couple of clues are removed partly as the result of the deleted student characters, including the silk scarf and the green ink. Fifth, Horowitz adds a subplot involving Customs and Excise, in which Sally Finch, the American student, gets a significant role. Sixth, the morphine that disappears was acquired by Colin McNabb, not Nigel Chapman as in the novel, probably in an attempt to widen the list of suspects (certain other additions, like Sally sneaking out at night and Len sneaking into Celia's room, attempt to do the same). Seventh, a further clue is added in the form of Valerie's peculiar stitch-work on a dress (and, of course, later on the rucksack). Eight, Patricia realises the connection between Nigel and Sir Arthur through a photo album at the hospital and not through conversations with Nigel. Finally, Horowitz adds the ever-present chase scene (this time at 'Hickory Road' tube station).

On the whole, even though Horowitz's changes are significant, the adaptation actually works as a more or less faithful retelling of the novel. The essential clues and plot points are retained, and even though the number of students is reduced, it's not something you would notice if you hadn't read the novel. In other words, apart from the odd anachronisms, including the student setting, the Fulbright Scholarship (not introduced until 1946) and the mistaken setting of the Jarrow March, the adaptation isn't half bad, considering the novel is very distinctly post-war.

Directing, production design, locations, soundtrack
Grieve's direction is as good as always, with a number of delightful references to the nursery rhyme and the mouse the student house name gets its inspiration from (notice, for instance, that both the opening shot of the living room clock and the shot of the clock in the denouement scene displays the time as one o'clock).
Hickory, dickory, dock,
The mouse ran up the clock.
The clock struck one,
The mouse ran down,
Hickory, dickory, dock
His direction works well together with Gunning's score, which repeats the 'Hickory, dickory dock' line. There is one issue with his directing choices, however. Several shots clearly reveal the identity of the murderer quite early on. Whether this is deliberate or not, I don't know, but it is quite evident if you know the story. The locations used for the episode include YHA, Carits Lane, London (the student house), Allen, the butcher, Mount Street, London (the place where Japp and Poirot buy meat), a car park entrance in Cartis Lane (the 'Hickory Road' station entrance), Brushfield Street, Spitafields (the store of Mr. Nicoletis) and Morden Station on the Northern Line (used as 'Hickory Road' station). See this link for photos.

Characters and actors
It's great to get some back story on Miss Lemon and her sister. Notice that Horowitz has given Mrs Hubbard a first name, Florence, to match Miss Lemon's (Felicity). Although I dislike some of the comic relief with Japp, it's nice to see their friendship develop further. Of the guest actors, I am most impressed by the fact that the casting director managed to find an actress so strikingly similar to Pauline Moran (Miss Lemon) as Sarah Badel (Mrs Hubbard). Not even that, Badel manages to match her in mannerisms and complement her just as in the novel. A delight to watch. Of the students, there are no real stand-outs, apart from Jonathan Firth (Nigel Chapman) of course. And naturally, there's the fun of watching a very young Damian Lewis of later Homeland fame.


  1. It's Carter Lane where the YHA is, not Cartis.

  2. I found this adaptation rather disappointing. And the changes - aside from the addition of Japp and the expansion of Miss Lemon's role - did not really help the story.

  3. I'm glad I'm not the only one who thought Sarah Badel really did look like she was related to Pauline Moran! And I enjoy Miss Lemon enjoying herself getting Poirot involved in this case and helping him out.

    The end exchange between Poirot and Japp was just...eew. It felt like two men coming up with excuses to use naughty words, if I may be so blunt.

    I can't believe you didn't comment on the use of the literal mouse, and its role in triggering the chase scene.

    As far as the female students, I have been struck throughout this series by how the younger characters feel almost like they would fit into today's society or something close to it. That was even true of the characters in Christie's books, albeit to a lesser extent than in the series - as far as how often young women showed up who were in scientific or financial careers, the younger people's being fairly blase about divorce and sex scandals and such.

  4. With the exception of Missing Will Christie rarely made a plot point of developing education and career opportunities for women. There are actually many educated women, working women, even women in scientific or financial fields scattered throughout Christie. While they're not the norm, necessarily, and while some characters (in the books, sometimes including Poirot) will express disapproval or scepticism, or perhaps pity (that they "have to") work, they also seem to not be a big deal - at least, not as big a deal as you would expect for the era. Difficulties being accepted in their fields (or the question of whether they can still be attractive) are rarely plot points. Many end up dead (Patricia and Celia) or turn out to be criminals (Alice Cunningham of the original Labours) though.

  5. Stuart Farquhar9 May 2015 at 20:34

    Not only is the murderer revealed early on, but the thief is clearly shown in the first scene. We also get to see her watching the jewels being removed from the rucksack and then we see them handed over to Mrs Nicoletis. That's a lot of crucial information given away far too early. And the thefts have already begun before the destruction of the rucksack, when in the book the whole point of the thefts was to make the rucksack look like just one theft among many.

    The attempts to make the nursery rhyme relevant (ie the constant shots of the mouse) are heavy-handed and a bit silly.

    While I realise it would have been difficult to justify their presence in the 1930s, it's a shame that when Christie tries (only partly successfully) to clean up her act on so-called ethnic minorities, the adaptation chooses to omit all but one (and has Miss Lemon make a racist remark about her).

    I'll add my voice to the chorus of approval for Sarah Badel though.

  6. I was just shocked to find in the end credits that the ginger bloke was Damian Lewis.

  7. If the murderer switched the poison with the boracic powder, why was the morphine tartrate still in its labeled bottle when Japp found it under the floorboards rather than in the boracic powder box?

  8. several points about your post and some of the comments.
    actually there were lots of students from empire in england pre war. everybody who can afford went there. oxford and cambridge for instance, were full of them. in addition to histories and biographies of lots of people in countries of empire, there are references in literature (brideshead revisited for one). i don't think they were excluded in episode because they cannot be justified in 1930s. if you read novel, it is clear enough why they were excluded. enough said.
    also higher education for women was widely available in 30s. exceptions were some elitist places with traditions. it is a mistake to generalize from exceptions. as noted by others here, even in christie, it was the 'missing will' that was exceptional in this regard.

  9. what's the jazzy background music in the scene where Poirot, Japp and Miss Lemon visit Valerie Hothouse?

  10. That seems a bit excessive, especially since the Series Five episode I mentioned (set at about the same time) covers the difficulty facing female students at universities.

    That was very much an Oxbridge thing rather than English universities in general. Although Oxford had allowed women to be full members from 1920 (though some parts of the university still resisted - e.g. the Oxford Union), Cambridge didn't do this until 1948 (and to this day graduation ceremonies occasionally include women, now in their 90s, being formally admitted to a degree for their studies a lifetime ago).

    However other universities had already moved on this in earlier years, with the developments at the University of London (whose colleges are the natural places the students would be at) having come in the 19th century.

  11. Yes how disappointing to see the murderer revealed in several scenes : the rucksack torn...the staircase scene shot from above....and his face easy to recognise on the photograph.... funny choice to set the action in 1930s.... but i vuess thus has to do with time considerations (poirot and the added Japp wd have to look 20 yrs okder...). I quite liked the comic relief scenes between those two. Thanks for your webpage!

  12. It's been a while since the last message, but i always come to this site when i watch a Poirot. Firstly, i love the Japp-Poirot comedy, they may be naughty words to us, but they weren't then. Also, i like how Japp's appearance becomes more and more bedraggled while he is away from Emily. Secondly, the hickory dickory theme was a bit tenuous. Thirdly, i don't think it was that obvious. It was clearly a man and they did a fair fist of accusing every man in the house. Finally, having read the book (not one that translates best to contemporary mores), i think they did a fine job of thirty-ising it.

    1. Well, they certainly were naughty words in 1995 when this was filmed, and they knew exactly what they were doing. I wasn't as hugely offended as Mr. L-C below was, but moderately surprised that they'd engage in such cheap humor; it was entirely frivolous. There was way too much of the mouse; I was waiting for it to hit a trap when the clock struck, it was so un-subtle. The coincidence of the photo album was too damn much, sorry.

  13. I hope that by "too much" you mean to say that the homophobic humour is disgustingly cruel to gay men. As a 22 year old gay male myself it made watching the rest of the episode impossible. Horowitz and Suchet should apologize.
    - Griff Llewelyn-Cook

    1. It was certainly stupid, and needless. As it was 25 years ago, I'm choosing to let it go.
      PS the film was over with that scene, anyway.

  14. The accusations of homophobic humour by some commenters are just woke hysteria. Japp was made to serve faggots because they are an obscurely named regional dish involving chooped liver that Poirot was guaranteed not to have encountered before and to find disgusting. Poirot's claim to have a phobia of faggots is funny principally because it is such an unconvincing pretext, born of desperation to avoid eating the awful food. The word faggot in the sense of a gay man was not current in England in the 1930s, so it is anachronistic nonsense to suggest that's how Poirot meant it. The pun on "homophobia" is the screenwriter's little nudge and wink to the modern audience: harmless wordplay to which the only legitimate objection is that it breaks the fourth wall. Lighten up, snowflakes.


About Me

I'm a passionate fan of Poirot, Agatha Christie and the ITV series. If you have any questions, comments, suggestions or requests, please e-mail me at, post a comment on one of my blogs, or get in touch on Twitter @pchronology. (I used to call myself HickoryDickory)