Tuesday 16 July 2013

Episode-by-episode: The Underdog

This episode was based on the short story 'The Underdog', first published in 1926. The story was adapted for television by Bill Craig (in his only 'Poirot' outing) and directed by John Bruce.

Script versus short story
Considering that this is one of Christie's longer short stories, and that it was not adapted by one of the regulars, this adaptation is quite faitful to its source material. Of course, there are several important changes nonetheless. Craig's main change is to intorduce a different subplot and motive for the crime. For one, Trefusis has become a chief chemist at a factory run by the Astwell brothers, and there is an entire subplot revolving around the development of a special type of rubber, astropene. Moreover, Craig has added several references to the coming war (seeing as the adaptation has been transported to - you guessed it - 1936); there's the militarisation of the Rheinland and the potential involvement of Astwell's firm with the German government (much resented by the other Astwell brother, providing him with a potential motive for murder). In fact, Trefusis apparently speaks German fluently, thus providing a further reason to suspect him for the murder. Also, Lily and her brother are still trying to get revenge, but here the motive for that revenge is the fact that Naylor is a scientist who originally developed the astropene. In other words, the main plot is concerned with this newly patented invention, its origins (Naylor) and potential buyers (Germany).

Apart from the actual backstory, the original text is also edited and changed in different ways. First, Hastings knows Astwell's nephew and so is invited to play golf at a local golf tournament (with Poirot as his guest - who only accepts the offer because Astwell has a magnificent collection of Belgian miniature bronzes (!)). Second, Poirot and Hastings are present at the fatal dinner party (in fact, all the scenes that are retold after the murder in the short story are here dramatised in "real time". Third, George, Poirot's valet is deleted (because he hadn't been introduced yet as a regular character). Instead, Miss Lemon is added. She even gets to replace the Harley Street doctor, because she apparently has a keen interest in hypnosis (which ties in quite well with the other character traits they have given her over the years; astrology, spiritualism, mythology etc. In the end, tough, the adaptation is a more or less faithful retelling of the story. All the essential clues, suspects and actions are kept intact, and the additions generally seem to compliment the story.

Directing, production design, locations, soundtrack

Director John Bruce competently conveys the right atmosphere for the episode, with particular attention to the many great features of the Astwell house. The locations used include the Royal Albert Hall and the Imperial College of Science and Technology. Sadly, I haven't been able to track down the house used. Gunning's soundtrack suits the episode well. Gunning's soundtrack works well for the episode, but it isn't particularly memorable.

Characters and actors
As always, it's nice to see small references to Poirot's character, like his love of the miniature bronzes, and, more importantly, his comment that he 'experienced the last one (war) first hand'. Hastings, of course, gets to display his golf skills again, and as mentioned Miss Lemon develops further too. Of the guest actors, Denis Lill (Reuben Astwell) is particularly memorable as the unlikable murder victim.


  1. This probably sounds as nit-picky as Poirot, but I think the screenwriters dropped the ball here in one respect: in the short story / novella, the theme of "A bad-tempered person is letting it all out when they have tantrums, but the person who holds it all in is more likely to snap and commit murder," is mentioned by Poirot at early points in conversations with Georges and also with the Astwells. Here, he brings it up for the very first and only time in his denouement speech. So while, "The Underdog" is still the title, it ceases to be the theme or the motif in the same way.

    I know they often consolidate the stories by eliminating or shortening or consolidating some of the conversation / dialogue, but this was important.

    1. I felt, as a philistine who hasn't read the books, that the underdog referred to the small inventor versus the large corporation who exploit that idea. I doubt that is a modern concept (evil corporations) and felt that the title neatly encapsulated the inventors plight.
      But, as I say, I know Poirot only from these programs. (I learnt Holmes off by heart long before I saw the Brett stories which robbed their denouement of some impact and resolved to not repeat that error). Watch first. Read second.

  2. I should say I didn't like this one. I'm watching (re-watching some) all of them chronologically, and this is the first one from I felt truly disappointed; it seemed kinda weak to me.


    As fangirl says, in the novel, Owen (Horace?) Trefusis is constantly humilliated by Sir Reuben Astwell (hence the title of the novel), hence also the motive of the crime, which was committed under a rage attack, there was no real premeditation; which is why I consider this one a Christie standout, personally. In the adaptation we don't see Trefusis character develop that much, he rarely speaks actually.

    So when Poirot referred him as the under dog, I didn't feel it much like. I think Victor Astwell (whose character was way different than in the novel) fitted this title more accurately. Anyway, they could keep all the rubber stuff, it kinda works in my opinion, just the novel title with this Horace Trefusis don't match.

    I loved to see Miss Lemon doing the hypnosis thing, and the relation Poirot-Sir Reuben with the bronze figurines was just hilarious. Love your blog, pal. Nice job :)

    this has to be the weakest most unconvincing detection of a murderer in the series so far (i have watched everything up to this). poirot completely fails to establish any solid proof that it was trefusis who committed murder, rather than anyone of the others. any one of the others would have done it and all the evidence would still fit. poirot has to prove it was trefusis and he fails. contract in stolen file is merely proof of motive, not of murder. nephew's bloody clothes, and the lily's stolen file from safe, are much better proof that they actually interacted with dead body and perhaps committed the murder. fact that it is reenacted on screen may fool some viewers and cover the fact that there is in fact no proof at all.

    btw this is an excellent blog. very informative. thanks.


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)