Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Clocks (2009)
Sometimes, we forget how old these stories are. In this case, we have a book, The Clocks, first published in 1963 but, for these purposes, it’s relocated even further in the past. We start off in the tunnels under the White Cliffs of Dover, supposedly a secret headquarters for Naval Intelligence just before the outbreak of what will become World War II. An agent of the Nazi government has infiltrated the tunnels and, with the security so lax, an entire army of spies could have wandered in and rifled through all the secret plans, she steals the disposition of mines throughout the English Channel. This cannot be a complete secret because every ship sailing through the Channel must know which areas to avoid, particularly if they wish to enter one of the ports. But I suppose it’s always useful to German High Command to have certainty. For these purposes, we’re to assume the British would not simply move the fields once they realised the plans had been stolen. Perhaps that’s more easily said than done. Who knows?
Anyway, the spy is observed in the act by another secretary, but her telephoned warning to the security section — a call taken by her lover, Lt. Colin Race (Tom Burke), who’s too busy playing cards to listen to her — is ignored. That forces our conscientious Brit to follow the spy. Both are killed in a car accident. Before she dies, our heroine writes a cryptic note which is presumed to be a reference to the address where the spy handed over the plans. When our negligent Lt. Race somewhat surprisingly escapes punishment and is surveying one of the possible addresses, he has the mixed fortune to collide with Sheila Webb (Jaime Winstone) who’s running out of a house having just discovered a dead body.
As a matter of historical record, the tunnels under Dover Castle were built in the early 1800s but were not adopted into use as a military command centre until 1940. Nevertheless, it’s a nice touch to start a spy story off there. The threat of a fifth column was very real and there was a strong counter-espionage operation in the Neville Chamberlain years before and after the Munich conference. The opening sequence in the tunnels and in the streets outside is nicely filmed as is the set-up with Sheila Webb, sent to the house by her typing agency. At this point we depart slightly from the novel. Over the years, a number of detective have either boasted of their ability to solve crimes without ever rising from their seats, or have only appeared in the real world through their assistants (e.g. Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe never leaves West Thirty-Fifth Street unless there’s a personal crisis). In this novel, the great Hercule Poirot is challenged to solve the murder case from the statements and other written evidence. In this adaptation, our young Lieutenant persuades Poirot to spend a day or two in Dover, ostensibly helping out Naval Intelligence which is convinced the murder and the disappearance of the plans are connected. This change in structure does make the story slightly easier to follow. It also allows the director to introduce one or two jokes at the expense of Poirot who, slightly more than usual, finds himself culturally at odds with the local Inspector Hardcastle (Phil Daniels).
I confess to finding both the original novel and this adaptation slightly less than the usual Agatha Christie standard. The hook is provided by the titular clocks. The question we are supposed to ask is why a young lady should so obviously arrange for herself to go to a house where she would not only kill a man, but also leave a number of clocks, all of which might suggest she was guilty. As an aside, the murder scene was the home of Miss Pebmarsh who’s played with remarkable power by Anna Massey. It was a sad loss when she died early in 2011. Her contribution to British acting for more than fifty years has been significant. Back to the plot, we also have the very tired ploy of the witness who realises something important but is killed before she can persuade the police to listen. Worse, in this adaptation, we even have the police shadowing another potential witness, only to lose sight and then find a third body. However you look at it, the police don’t come out of this story looking good. Indeed, they are shown as more than usually incompetent.
All this leaves us with David Suchet holding the leaky ship together. He’s his usual watchable self as Hercule Poirot. Indeed, after all these years, it’s hard to remember all the other talented actors who have tried their hands at the great detective. The director, Charles Palmer, and scriptwriter Stewart Harcourt, do their best to distract us with a mad cat lady and other eccentric neighbours around the first murder scene. The typing agency is quite nicely observed with the typists’ fascination for the awfulness of the novels they have to transcribe. Indeed, everyone does their best, sometimes melodramatically so, to get us through to the ending when the identity of the killer(s) is/are revealed and the secret plans are recovered. All Britain can sleep more safely in their beds, except for Sheila Webb and and the young Lieutenant, of course. Their meeting on the groyne on Dover beach would undoubtedly lead to less sleep for them. So, overall, Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Clocks (2009) is a well-made episode with excellent production values and a good use of locations in Dover, but it’s a less than convincing mystery thanks to a relatively weak original plot. At least we should be grateful the production company has resisted the temptation to “improve” the original.
For reviews of other Agatha Christie stories and novels, see:
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2004) — the first three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2005) — the second set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2006) — the third set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2007) — the final set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Pocket Full of Rye (2008)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Murder is Easy (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: They Do It with Mirrors (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Case of the Missing Will (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Chocolate Box (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Clocks (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Hallowe’en Party (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Murder on the Orient Express (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Three Act Tragedy (2011)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Underdog (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Yellow Iris (1993)