Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Underdog (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Underdog (1993) (Season V, Episode 2) is a wonderful example of what a television company can do with a slight short story if it decides to go all out. This first appeared in 1929 as “Under Dog” and so is more than ready for the full-blast of an art deco adaptation. The opening scenes in the factory is completely stunning. It actually reminded me of Mon Oncle by Jacques Tati which has a wonderful sequence in which Monsieur Hulot confronts modern architecture and loses. He accidentally damages the tree espaliered to the wall of the monstrous house and returns at night to cut it into a more symmetrical shape. When a noise wakes the Arpels, the owners, their heads appear in two circular windows making the house look like a face. In Underdog, a burglar comes down a beautiful multiple horseshoe staircase inside the factory. With the stairs backlit, he moves up and down in synchronisation with other employees until he can get to the floor he wants without being seen. It’s a wonderful moment with which to start the show, as are all the remaining scenes inside this factory. Similarly, the house chosen for occupation by Sir Reuben Astwell (Dennis Lill) is breathtaking. These locations are stars in their own right. Although I know the building that stands in for Whitehaven Mansions, the home for Hercule Poirot (David Suchet) in London, is actually called Florin Court and is to be found in Charterhouse Square, it would be good to discover where these other buildings are located. I would pay to go on a charabanc architectural tour.
Anyway, back to the story, we have Hugh Fraser reprising his role as Captain Hastings and Pauline Moran as Miss Lemon. The good Captain is off to play in one of these gentlemen’s golf competitions while Hercule Poirot is invited to view the Astwell collection of Belgian miniatures — statues that are notorious for being the largest miniatures ever made. This gets us into the house where the unlikeable Sir Reuben is struck down in his study. This interpretation of the plot gives the impression we’re looking for a nest of Nazi spies intent on stealing the formula for this new synthetic rubber. Except it appears Sir Reuben was intent on selling the manufacturing rights to IG Farben, the major German chemical company of the day. So perhaps we’re looking for a hero who wanted to keep the secret for the British military. Or perhaps everyone who knew Sir Reuben recognised a deeply unpleasant man and wanted to kill him. This would make the synthetic rubber a red herring — a fish endowed with great tensile strength. Lining up as obvious suspects are the research scientist doing the work, Horace Trefusis (Bill Wallis), the brother Victor Astwell (Ian Gelder), Lady Astwell (Ann Bell) the wife in a loveless marriage, and Charles (Jonny Phillips), the son. There’s also the dodgy companion, Lilly Margrave (Adie Allen), and the burglar apparently called Humphrey Nailor (Andrew Seear).
There are moments of silliness, of course. For example, the chase to London is based on the hypothesis that a criminal would give his correct home address when signing the register to stay at a hotel. Miss Lemon suddenly being recruited as a hypnotist is also memorably risible. But, taken as a whole, this is probably the best shot Bill Craig could make to stretch everything out to an hour, allowing for ad breaks. The answer comes by a process of elimination. When you have everyone in the same room and work your way carefully through what they actually did, there’s only one person left. The reason is not something we could have known. Poirot knows because he read a file but forget to tell us what he read.
In the end, Captain Hastings is allowed to get a hole-in-one (not in the least due to Miss Lemon’s powers of hypnotism, of course) while the good Hercule Poirot looks on through his telescope, proud of the little people he surrounds himself with. Underdog makes good television.
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)