Thursday 15 August 2013

Episode-by-episode: Sad Cypress

(c) ITV

The second episode of Series Nine was based on the novel Sad Cypress, first published in 1940. It was adapted for television by David Pirie and directed by David Moore.

Script versus novel
Pirie's script takes quite a few liberties without losing the spirit of the novel. Especially two things had to be worked around for this adaptation. One was the 'court room' scenes, especially in the final sections, another was the fact that Poirot isn't introduced until quite late in the proceedings. There are still some court room scenes, especially a nicely done opening sequence (that glides seamlessly back into time with a Elinor Carlisle voice-over), but I think particularly the new denouement scene is brilliant and so much better than the court room version from the novel. As to Poirot, he is believably added to the plot early on with the threatening letter to Elinor. He is in the area due to a trial in a different case he solved a year earlier (it's nice to hear of Poirot's actual involvement in a court case for once). In fact, Dr. Lord is an old friend of Poirot's here - they play chess together regularly. Moreover, the way he introduces Poirot to the case is actually quite reminiscent of Hastings in The Mysterious Affair at Styles ("I know a detective"). Generally speaking, these two changes mean that Poirot (and the adaptation) is much more actively engaged with investigation - both into the threatening letters and into the murder itself (see, for instance, the added sandwiches scene, with the amusing comment 'she was murdered, yes, but not by these disgusting sandwiches'). Also, there are a couple of nicely incorporated scenes like Elinor's discovery of Roddy and Mary in the drawing room at night, Poirot's nightmare (quite creepy, but it ties in with the plot), Poirot admitting his mistake to Ted Horlick ('I have been thirty-six times an idiot!'), and a matchmaking scene implied in the novel between Elinor and Dr. Lord. Several minor changes have been made, too, including a shortening down of the discussion between Roddy and Elinor on inheritance in the first few pages, combining the characters of Ted Bigland and Horlick the gardener, removing Mary's father (only mentioned in the novel, but here he has died before the story takes place), Mary inheriting 7 000 pounds rather than 2 000 pounds, Mary having already made a will on Hopkins's suggestion (so the scene in which Elinor laughs and is discovered by Dr Lord is removed - instead, she explains to Poirot that she wants her dead. A more important change, perhaps, is the fact that the jury first sentence Elinor guilty, so that there is an overhanging fear of her being hanged (possibly to increase the dramatic tension of the story). Poirot's interviews with Elinor in prison are consequently much more poignant, too.There are probably other changes I have forgotten to mention, but all in all, I would say the adaptation works well, and the story has been expertly converted from a court room drama to a much more active investigation, in tune with Poirot's other cases. As such, I think the script is exceptionally well done and a great addition to the series.

Directing, production design, locations, soundtrack
Moore's direction suits the story perfectly, with a somewhat elegiac and dark feel to it. Some of the transitions are particularly well done (although I'm not sure if I like the abrupt shifts of scenes in some cases), and I like the way he has emphasised the darkness of the old house. The most striking bit of direction, however, is the nightmare sequence, with a truly horror-like transformation of Mary Gerrard. The production values are of a high standard, as always, with some minor slips (e.g. The British Library / The British Museum, Gershwin's date of death and a continuity error in one of the final scenes (Poirot first has an overcoat on, then he hasn't). The locations suit the story perfectly, and the soundtrack is beautiful (Gunning certainly increased the cinematic feel for these four episodes). The locations used include Dorney Court, Dorney, Buckinghamshire (used as The Hunterbury Arms Hotel), the Sue Ryder Home in Nettlebed, Oxfordshire (used as Hunterbury House - it would later be used as Meadowbanks school in Cat Among the Pigeons) and Hambleden Church, Buckinghamshire. See location photos here.

Characters and actors
There are some really nice Poirot scenes here (see, for instance, all scenes with Elinor). In tune with the development of Poirot's loneliness and heart ache, there's an added line: 'I can understand the ache of the heart. It is a place very lonely'. The guest actors are lovely, too, with Elizabeth Dermot-Walsh as the real standout. See more on her performance in the Poirot & Me documentary


  1. One change I wasn't crazy about: in the novel, Mary is very nice and innocent, is not that into Roddy, and really deplores his advances to her for being a betrayal of Elinor. In this one she is much more receptive and seems more up-front sexy.

    I am not sure how I feel about the heavy hints (well, they are more than hints) that Elinor and Roddy are sexually active during their engagement. I would have thought upper-class couples wouldn't have done that in the 30s, particularly with an old aunt around, even if they were engaged. Maybe the right answer is "they did, they just didn't talk about it." These two have certainly known each other a long time and, at least on Elinor's side, there is deep love involved. The sexual aspect of many Christie couples' relationship is made more explicit in several adaptations (Five Little Pigs had a scene of Amyas and Elsa in bed together, but that one did seem in keeping with the spirit of the novel - we know it was an affair.) I suppose Elinor's having gone "that far" with Roddy makes the whole situation that much worse for her and perhaps gives her a deeper motive for possibly doing away with her competition. It also makes Roddy seem a bit more cad-ish!

  2. Roddy being suggested to really enjoy sex with Elinor hits an odd note, given the premise that there was always a lack of real passion on his side. Love and attraction may be different, but I always thought the idea was, what he really felt for Elinor was love in a non-attraction kind of way, (relative-like).

    Obviously, they kept the novel's original resolution of Elinor's romantic life. After watching Taken at the Flood, I almost wish they had changed it to have Poirot help Elinor move toward being happy without a guy in her life (consider that she absolutely does not need the financial support, and is, in fact, almost certainly richer than either of the two candidates - and shown to be capable of dealing with money.)

    That said, this novel's resolution is actually unusual for Christie as well: Christie (and Poirot) had the ORIGINAL couple reconcile far more often than not. And one might question whether dumping someone you've known all your life for someone you've just met is wise, but of course, Roddy showed himself to be unreliable (in the sense of having his head turned by Mary - he IS loyal in the sense that he always believes in Elinor's innocence.)

  3. I bet everyone who has read my posts can guess what Roddy's first seeing Mary reminded me of (from the early series)...

  4. I think the idea that Elinor put on a stoic facade, so Roddy was deceived as to how much she cared for him, seems to be changed here. She certainly doesn't hide her heartbreak when they're definitely broken up.

  5. Dr Lord must be a terrible chess player if the best he's ever managed is to once almost have put Poirot in check!

    Is having Roddy impressed by Nazi politics meant to make him seem less sympathetic, just naïve or is it purely to help establish the period? Either way, it seems a bit clumsy and out of place. Roddy is certainly portrayed as much more of cad and less of a buffoon than in the book.

    I wonder why the adaptation has Mary only recently arrived when her long term presence is such an important aspect of the book.

    It's also quite strange that Elinor specifies the salmon sandwiches are for Mary and the crab & shrimp for the others. It's later said that salmon were Mary's favourite, but it's a very odd moment when the audience isn't aware. Presumably it's to emphasise Elinor as a suspect and to make it seem more certain that she could have ensured Mary ate the poisoned sandwiches; but considering she ISN'T the murderer, why would she do that?

    Poirot's reasoning about not being able to distinguish the sandwiches in no way proves Elinor's innocence as she made them.

    The denouement is a little odd, with suspects scattered all over the house and Poirot flitting between them to tell them all bits of the story. But the scene with Nurse Hopkins is good.

    In fairness, although he introduction is quite late in the book (by no means for the first or last time), once he arrives it does become a standard Poirot investigation and only turns into a courtroom drama near the end.

    1. It is quite clear from early scenes that Mary likes salmon: She takes salmon canape at the party, where Poirot meets Elinor.

  6. The altered ending jarred slightly for me, I think because it wasn't consistent with everything we'd been shown. Why would Nurse Hopkins, having gone to great lengths to avoid being connected with the murders, kill someone else in a way that (a) could not possibly be attributed to Elinor, and (b) would at the very least draw suspicion to her, even if it could not be proven? Poirot hadn't given much sign at that point that he considered her a suspect, so there was no urgent need to kill him.

    Also slightly off is her reaction to Poirot's faked I've-been-poisoned noises. Apomorphine Hydrochloride is, as we are told, an emetic, not an antidote. Even if he'd taken more poison than her, the fact that he was (apparently) already suffering the effects would indicate that it was already being digested - at which point no emetic will help. So she should have been alarmed and desperately trying to get away to throw up in private, not gleeful as he apparently died.

    Perhaps I'm over-thinking!

    1. Maybe misinterpreting. Emetics work up to 1-2 hours after ingesting poison (that's why they're used--they empty the stomach of the poison before it could be fully absorbed into the system). They actually don't work real well after the poison moves past the stomach, and don't work extremely well in general, but the medical field didn't know that back in the 1930s. And a nurse who has obviously used poisons on herself will monitor her own signs based on the weaker dosage she took, not that of her victim's, who she supposedly gave a dose for which an emetic. She knows when to take the emetic before the poison becomes fatal. Hopkins took the emetic earlier with Mary, because she was trying to frame Elinor and needed the poison clear of her system as soon as possible. Here, she's simply trying to kill Poirot in desperation, and setting it up to look like he could have been poisoned at any time (hence, the different, harder to trace poison she used), rather than the obvious morphine apparently stolen from her bag. The tea was her cover--they both took it. It was her same cover from killing Mary, only that by being a "harder-to-trace" substance, they probably wouldn't be able to find any traces in the tea if they looked.

      As far as why she would be trying to kill Poirot--Elinor is convicted, condemned and is shortly being hanged--why would she try to pin his murder on her? She's in jail. Poirot's gotten too close, and she realized that when he called to meet her at the house, it was probably the endgame. She's a multiple murderess (in the book, she's actually a serial killer), and Poirot, a private detective not the police, appears to uncovered the truth about the crime. Kill him, and possibly the crime remains hidden and she can still collect on Mary's inheritance. If the ruse doesn't work, she'll have time to disappear.

  7. The novel is one of the best of Christie's classic "fair play" puzzles. The adaptation probably could have worked without any changes to the original. At least they kept the key clues, the morphine/apomorphine label, and the thornless rose bush. As a side rant -- why on earth would such a carefully made series start using artificial roses at this point? And to use red ones instead of dark pink, which is the color of the Zephirine Drouhin rose! They could have at least used a few real roses, especially those held close to the camera.

    I am guessing that making Elinor and Roddy overtly lovers was to help modern viewers "get" the emotional tension Elinor feels - her guilt at wishing Mary dead. In the book Elinor is very repressed, which gives Roddy an excuse to dump her, and modern viewers wouldn't understand that. Another detail no one else has mentioned is the flirty glances Mary casts at Roddy. I guess that is to partly explain Roddy's unfaithfulness, but it doesn't really fit the story. Mary thinks she is going to inherit, regardless of Roddy's courtship or Elinor's status as "nearest relative."

    All in all this adaptation is one of the better ones in the series.

    1. I agree...I was really surprised how faithful this one felt, even with the complete rewriting of the ending. I think that it was an improvement--the book's method of revealing the true murderer in the courtroom was a bit too predictable and stiff, plus has the unfortunate status of becoming one of the oldest cliches in mystery stories, thanks to hundreds of tv shows.

      One of the toughest things about the book was portraying Elinor's repressed emotional turmoil. Obviously, some of that was done by having Elinor having break her stoic facade a few times, but I think the biggest way they did that was how Mary was portrayed. With one exception, every time we see Mary, we see her through Elinor. It's established that Elinor is suspicious of Mary's motives, and because we're watching those scenes with Elinor, we interpert those scenes the way she would, and see Mary the way she does. If you watch again, Mary smiles at everybody, the same way. Elinor only notices when Mary's looking at Roddy, the man she "cares too much about." Obviously, they made Mary attracted to Roddy, but she didn't actively pursue him; right before Elinor stumbles across them in the living room, we hear Mary say, "But I don't...I don't know." And the one time she's away from Elinor, when the nurses ask her about Roddy possibly asking to marry her, she's obviously pleased, but seems uncomfortable with it. The adaptation threads the needle with Mary, and it's a really intelligent way of translating Elinor's internal perspective to something the audience can experience, without utterly destroying who Mary was (like who Bella was in Murder on the Links).

  8. Just been watching this episode and i was miffed at the scene just before Elinor catches them kissing looks like a man in jeans and trainers as camera points down corridor i stopped the screen and was defintely a crew member lol

  9. Shouldn't Nurse Hopkins wait till after Mrs Wellman has changed the will to make Mary the sole beneficiary, before killing her? It does not make sense for her to kill her before she changed her will. Dying intestate, everything went to Elinor.

    1. Mrs Wellman couldn't have changed her will, because that implies that she had alread made a will. That wasn't the case. There was no will.

      But why didn't Hopkins wait for Mrs Wellman to make a will? I'd say Hopkins was too greedy.

      Without a will, Elinor would get everything, but once it is revealed that Mary is Mrs Wellmam's daughter, Mary (that means, Hopkins) would get everything.
      However, if Mrs Wellman had changed her will (more correctly: made a will in the first place)... we cannot know in which way. Of course she intended Mary to get a lot of money, but Mrs Wellman could have changed her will in a way that Elinor AND Mary each get 50%. Or, let's say, Mary gets 80%, Elinor 20%.

      But Hopkins wanted all the money, so she couldn't allow that to happen.

    2. Yeah, to me, it was clear in the book that Mrs. Wellman wanted a "provision" for Mary, not change the whole will into her favor like the authorities and rumor thought. What Elinor did for Mary was most likely what Mrs. Wellman had in mind, a point hammered home by Elinor trying to give Roddy back his share, despite breaking her engagement with him.

      Hopkins probably knew that Mrs. Wellman wasn't going to cut out Elinor or Roddy. Her plan always was that with no will, the entire estate would default to Mary once it was revealed that she was Mrs. Wellman's daughter. And then she would kill Mary. She probably planned to kill Mary, disappear, and then appear later as Mary Riley with the letter proving Mary's heritage and then inherit that heritage. Elinor putting the estate up for sale probably complicated things for her, so Elinor needed to be framed.

  10. I have two complaints about this production. I found the method in which Poirot had exposed the murderer unnecessarily theatrical. And two, I found Mary's willingness to be open to Roddy's interest in her hard to believe. I wish they had stuck to the novel in that regard.

    As for Elinor and Roddy's sexual activity . . . I found nothing wrong with it. We're talking about the late 1930s, not pre-World War I. The couple DID NOT have sex inside their aunt's home and Elinor was not exactly 16-19.

  11. I have a feeling the movie was heavily cut, from 100 (theory) to 93 (reality) minutes, but it's only a feeling. It looks as the film lacks continuity in some parts, for example end of Elinor and Roddy relationship isn't resolved - it just abruptly ends and then we see Elinor sort of accepting the fact like a decade passed. Very unnatural.

  12. Interesting to see how Poirot's attitude to Wordsworth has changed between 'Dumb Witness' and this episode!


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)