Tuesday 3 September 2013

Episode-by-episode: Mrs McGinty's Dead

Series Eleven opened with an episode based on the novel Mrs. McGinty's Dead, first published in 1952. It was adapted for television by Nick Dear and directed by Ashley Pearce.

Script versus novel
Nick Dear's script is impressively true to its source material. His changes are largely aimed at simplifying the plot elements for a ninety-minute time slot. Obviously, the setting is moved from the post-war years to the late 1930s, in tune with the time frame of the television series. The transition is more or less seamless. Moreover, Dear deletes some of the village characters, including the Wetherbys, their daughter Deirdre Henderson and Edna (witness / Joe Burch's lover). In Edna's place, Mrs Sweetiman of the post office becomes Miss Sweetiman. She has a secret meeting with Joe Burch in the woods. Also, Dear places less significance on the red herring of the anonymous letters to Dr Rendell, and the nature of the these. A further change concerns the crimes in Pamela Horsfall's newspaper article. These are reduced from four to two (Janice Courtland and Vera Blake are deleted). This is an improvement on the novel, as the two extra crimes did nothing to elucidate the plot. Finally, the character of Maude Williams is given a different backstory, turning her into something of an independent sleuth with a personal vendetta rather than Poirot's agent (in fact, she disguises herself as a survey conductor instead of working for the Wetherbys). Maude also becomes a love interest for James Bentley, and Dear adds a nice match-making end scene (reminiscent of quite a few of the later Poirot episodes, e.g. Sad Cypress and The Clocks). Dear makes some other minor changes as well, like introducing the brilliant character of Ariadne Oliver earlier than in the novel, and having Mrs. McGinty's niece live in McGinty's old house rather than somewhere else. All in all, the adaptation remains faithful to the novel, maintaining much of both its humour (including nearly all of the Mrs Oliver dialogue!) and its bleakness.

Directing, production design, locations, soundtrack
Ashley Pearce's direction takes some getting used to. I remember the first time I watched this episode I was just extremely annoyed by the constant use of out-of-focus close-ups and blurry shots, and I know some fans still feel this is one of the most poorly directed episodes of the series. With time, though, I've grown to appreciate the artistic choices somewhat more than I did initially. The slight 'glow' of the shots actually add to the atmosphere of the adaptation, and I enjoy the many overhead shots (particularly the crane shot of Poirot arriving in Broadhinny, which gives us the feeling that we are peering into not only Poirot but the lives of all the people in the village). In sum, then, the direction actually succeeds in creating a particularly eerie and dark atmosphere that goes well with both the original novel and Nick Dear's script. 

I also have to give credit to the production designers this time around. Not only are these sets perfect to look at (and contribute to create the atmosphere), but they have accurately taken the specific descriptions from the novel into account. For instance, the sugar hammer is exactly as described in the novel, and so is the Carpenter house. The locations include Richmond Theatre (where Robin Upward's play is performed), the village of Hambleden in Buckinghamshire (previously seen in Evil Under the Sun and Sad Cypress), Horsted Keynes Station on the Bluebell Railway in East Sussex (Broadhinny Station) and 'St Anne's Court' in Chertsey (Carpenter's house). The roof area of the latter house would later be seen in Three Act Tragedy, and the entrance hall was used as part of the flat belonging to Halliday in 'The Plymouth Express'.

Stephen McKeon's soundtrack is effective for the atmosphere of the episode, and several tracks are available on his website. I particularly love the minute references to Gunning's Poirot theme that were also hinted at in the score for Cards on the Table.

Characters and actors
It's an absolute treat to see the relationship between Poirot and Mrs Oliver develop further. She is a perfect Hastings substitute while at the same time providing Poirot with something completely different. Scriptwriter Nick Dear made the clever decision of keeping most of Ariadne's lines from the novel, which leads to some humorous interactions. I particularly enjoy the discussion of Robin Upward's play adaptation, but most of all I think her arrival scene (even down to the apple core from the novel) is especially well done, and her driving (with Poirot as a passenger) brings to mind all the scenes in the earlier episodes with Hastings and his race car. As I've said before, Zoë Wanamaker is the perfect Mrs Oliver to match Suchet's Poirot. It's also nice to see David Yelland back as Poirot's valet George (he comes across exactly as in the novel), and to see Richard Hope return as Superintendent Spence (previously seen in Taken at the Flood, he was sadly deleted from the adaptations of Hallowe'en Party and Elephants Can Remember. As for the guest actors, there are several good performances here, but the stand-out has to be Paul Rhys as Robin Upward. What a performance, especially towards the end of the film.


  1. The butane cigarette lighter used by Poirot: Is it an intended blooper? I believe this lighter was not invented yet in those years.

    1. I don't think it was intended (they pride themselves on the production values). So, if you're right, the reason would either be that they've slipped up or that this was the best they could get hold of for the scene (for instance, they do sometimes use car models that hadn't been in use yet).

  2. Maude Williams did not have a different backstory in the novel; they were the same in the book and the episode. The difference, rather, is that she uses her liking for Bentley as a front in the novel while it is genuine in the episode, which I felt made sense as a change.

  3. "MRS. McGINTY'S DEAD" is probably one of my favorite Poirot adaptations. I've always been a fan of the novel and it was good to see that Nick Dear did great justice to it.

  4. Thank you very much for a great and thorough review. Allthough I found this episode quite entertaining with it sometimes menacing atmosphere, I do have two major problems with the plot itself (SPOILER ALERT):

    1) The ages of the characters: From quite early on, we are led - or rather misled - to believe that Mrs. Upward is in fact Eva Cane (or Cain/Kane?). This suspicion is even furthered when it is implied (by mrs. Oliver and a villager) that Mrs. Upward isn't actually as weelchair bound as she makes it seem. Poirot says that mrs. Upward is the only one of the suspects who is old enough to be Eva Cane, since Eva would be in her sixties by now. But this last assumption is wrong, as Eva Cane was only 19 at the time of the Craig murder, which occured 30-odd years ago. This would make Eva Cane 49 at the youngest and 55 at the oldest, and mrs. Upward is certainly older than that (in fact, Siân Phillips, who plays her, was 75 at the time this episode was shot).
    The Craig murder can't be more than 40 years ago, because then the other ages wouldn't match up: (Poirot: 'If Eva Cane is still alive, she would have more than sixty years and her daughter would be in her thirties'). The people suspected to be Eva Cane's daugther (ms. Sweetiman, Maureen Summerhayes, Sheilagh Rendell and Eve Carpenter) were in fact played by actresses who were between the ages of 40 and 45 at the time of the filming of this episode. Paul Rhys (Robin Upward) was also 45 in 2008. Even if it was a mistake to claim that Eva Cane was just 19 (and pregnant!) at the time of the Craig murder, the dates do not match up. Also, the Craig murder could not have happened longer than 30 years ago, since the actress who played Maude Williams, who is reveiled to be the child of the murder victim in the Craig case, was only 31 when this episode was shot, and her character was clearly not meant to be older than that.

    2) The motive for the second murder: the reason why mrs. McGinty was killed is totally believable. She discovered that one of her employers was a murderer (she too thought Mrs. Upward was Eva Cane) and tried to blackmail her son (why not Mrs. Upward,herself I wonder?). But the motive for Robin Upward to kill his adoptive mother is dubious to say the least. Poirot shouts out that Mrs. Upward would have thrown him out, once she puzzled together that her adopted son was the child of a murderer, but this is merely an assumption. First of all, it would be outrageously unfair to blame him for the actions of his biological mother, whom he barely knew since he was abandoned at a very young age. Furthermore, mrs. Upward shows absolutely no signs of distancing herself from Robin between the party (where she is confronted with the photograph of Eva Cane) and the evening she was killed. Robin and mrs. Upward genuinely seemed to care for each other. It would have been more believable if her disgust about the discovery that Robin was the son of a murderer was shown in the denouement. Now the whole murder just seemed redundant and unnecessary.

    1. actually it is the motive for murder of mcginty that is not quite believable. she could and would have been bought, rather cheaply too. even the reporter dismissed her letter.

      more believable motive for second murder is that mrs. upward would be disgusted and eventually denounce, robin for being a murderer, who is allowing an innocent man hang for his crime(and not merely for being disgusted about the discovery that robin was the son of a murderer )

    2. I could not agree more on the second point, but would go even farther. Why kill McGinty? Granted, she was an attempted blackmailer, but she had nothing of value to sell. Even had Upward been Crane, who cared? Beyond weak.

  5. I thought Bentley got together with Deirdre...?

  6. well made solid episode. poirot actually does some detecting and solving for a change.

  7. I'm middle aged bordering on old, and have watched thousands of programs and films. This is, without doubt, the worst directed episode of ANYTHING I've ever seen. I know the internet is full of hyperbole, but it seriously is. Everything was so out-of-focus and blurry, with "70s skin flick" soft focus blooming every glint of light, that it was almost impossible to follow the confused plot. Camera angles were constantly bizarre and immersion breaking. Why point the camera at the actors when we can film through the blur of some undergrowth, a supremely backlit scene, from a low angle and then quickly switch to the kind of fish-eye lens close-up usually used by hack directors to illustrate mental illness.

    What makes this travesty even worse - especially when one looks at how gloriously filmed the preceding episodes have been - is that I still have two of this directors abominations to sit through. What an absolute waste of a gifted cast and sumptuous set design.


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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)