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Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Blue Geranium (2010)

Marple Julia McKenzie

When you start with just the title, Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Blue Geranium (2010), it sounds really impressive. The scriptwriter drawing the short straw for this Herculean task was Stewart Harcourt. Even at the best of times, it’s difficult to take a short story and convert it into a television episode supposed to last 90 minutes (not including ads). What makes this more than usually difficult is that the original includes Dolly Bantree and the idea of yet another episode with Joanna Lumley in it was just too much to contemplate. So everything had to be relocated. With a clear vision of novelty, we now find ourselves switched to Little Ambrose (the internal scenes were filmed at Hatfield House) which is, as you will all know, best approached by road in one of those magnificently preserved coaches from the 1950s. Of course, Miss Marple (Julia McKenzie) is not alone. She has an importunate Eddie Seward (Jason Durr) to interrupt her thoughts. At first, I thought this must be a victim of shell shock (what we now call PTSD). Just after the war, there were quite a lot of men whose experiences during the war led to such anxiety-driven behaviour. Except he later turns out to be a recovering alcoholic. I found his behaviour unconvincing. Men of that era avoided embarrassing themselves with outbursts of this type. I understand that it’s essential for Miss Marple to acquire some information from him, but this seems less than credible when he could just as easily have been bohemian and chatty.

Julia McKenzie flanked by the police team with Kevin McNally on the right

Julia McKenzie flanked by the police team with Kevin McNally on the right

Anyway, we retain something of the original short story by having a frame involving Miss Marple talking with Sir Henry Clithering (Donald Sinden). Now never let it be said I use words loosely. I consider it entirely appropriate to dignify the frame and its consequences of Miss Marple being called as a witness in a murder trial completely idiotic. The script clearly says Sir Henry has retired yet, on he basis of what Miss Marple tells him, he’s able to call up the judge of the ongoing trial and have everything grind to a halt. Instead of all the suspects being called together in the library for the amateur sleuth to explain whodunnit, this episode has everyone sit in court and both volunteer evidence and shout out denials as Miss Marple does the reveal. Neither the judge nor the opposing barristers say or do anything to prevent Miss Marple from hijacking the proceedings. She’s even allowed to publicly berate Detective Somerset (Kevin R. McNally) for making a mess of everything — the poor man was already in trouble because of his drinking and, after this experience, he would probably disappear into a bottle and not emerge for weeks.

As to the broad narrative, this is not without merit. With Eddie Seward almost immediately found floating in the river next to the golf course, we can focus on the village and its usual assortment of interesting characters. At the centre of it all are the two brothers who married two sisters. Mary Pritchard (Sharon Small), ended up married to the philandering George Pritchard (Toby Stephens) while sister Philippa (Claudie Blakley) married the gambling addict Lewis Pritchard (Paul Rhys) whose only contribution as an author has been to produce three children without the means to pay for their upkeep. Mary appears to be one of these chronic hypochondriacs, forever convinced she’s dying and hooked on fortune tellers who feed her doom-laden predictions. This makes her a difficult patient and she’s had a succession of nurses, the current incumbent being Caroline Copling (Claire Rushbrook). The local Doctor Jonathan Frayn (Patrick Baladi) feeds her placebos and takes the family’s money (private medicine was alive and well during the 1950s running in parallel with the NHS). It’s a bear pit of 1950s village normality according to Agatha Christie.

Anyway, to come to the nub of the mystery, Mary the hypochondriac gets one of these dire predictions. Pointing to the wallpaper which is decorated with many different varieties of flower, the fortuneteller predicts that in sequence the Primrose will turn blue as a warning. This will be followed by the Hollyhock turning blue to show danger approaching, and the Geranium turning blue means death. And, hey, what a surprise. They do turn blue and she dies. Life works in mysterious ways in these stories. I suppose it’s not uninventive to try killing a hypochondriac by “frightening” her except, of course, no killer ever leaves anything to chance with a woman who’s as strong as a horse. So there you have it. One more local bites the dust before Miss Marple walks into the witness box to reveal all and not a moment too soon. Frankly the whole thing is a wobbly artifice from start to finish. No-one in their right mind would go through this pantomime magic to change the colour of the wallpaper. The actual murder method is simple and straightforward and, with the woman universally disliked and, more to be point, regularly announcing she was about to die, a post mortem would be unlikely and the murder would have been undetected. Waving a big flag and firing off a canon to announce the murder in advance only happens in short stories blown up into episodes like this. This is not to deny Julia McKenzie does a reasonable job at bringing Miss Marple to the screen. But it’s a waste of effort when more or less everything about the story is fatuous.

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 Caribbean Mystery (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Endless Night (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Greenshaw’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Murder is Easy (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Pale Horse (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Pocket Full of Rye (2008)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Secret of Chimneys (2010)
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 Big Four (2013)
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: Curtain. Poirot’s Last Case (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Mirror (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Elephants Can Remember (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Hallowe’en Party (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Labours of Hercules (2013)
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)

Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (2010)

Marple Julia McKenzie

Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (2010) is one of the better source novels. Sometimes the plot ideas just come together with a simple and credible motive for the first killing and a very elegant method of murder when the opportunity presents itself. Thereafter the deaths that follow show the killer(s) attempting to cover tracks and avoid detection. For these purposes there’s always at least one person who’s seen something incriminating and/or is in possession of information that would reveal the identity of the killer(s). The perennial problem for anyone who writes detective novels in the Golden Age tradition is to maintain some degree of credibility in the plots. Many resort to complexity, thinking the intricacy of the mechanisms substitutes for the need for simple elegance. Others feel the need for variation. Instead of it always being the butler that did it, everyone in the cast of characters must take their turn. So the writers defy plot logic in order the achieve the result they believe will be most surprising to their readers.

So where are we with this third version of the novel to be produced? Having the advantage of two previous adaptations to study, Kevin Elyot has wisely picked the best bits and added one scene which is rather cunning. For once, the core of the original is left intact, and the result is all the better for it. However, this is not to say the final script we see on the screen is a complete success. By modern standards, Agatha Christie’s novels are short. Publishers today think that quantity is quality. So if the original were to be brought to the screen unadorned, it almost certainly would not fill the designated running time at about 90 minutes (leaving plenty of space for ads to bulk it out to a nominal two hours). Even with added material, there’s considerable padding which fills the screen amiably but does not advance the plot with any real enthusiasm. While not blaming the producers for working to their brief, the show as we see it could benefit from losing about 15 minutes. Although it’s always sad to see one character’s part cut back, the role of Dolly Bantry (Joanna Lumley) is overdone. It’s a good double act with Miss Marple (Julia McKenzie), but it also jars since this repeats her appearance in this role from The Body in the Library when she did the same act with Geraldine McEwan.

Joanna Lumley and Julia McKenzie

Joanna Lumley and Julia McKenzie

This leads us to consider what’s added to the original. The major element comes from borrowing the film set idea from The Mirror Crack’d film adaptation which has Marina Gregg (Lindsay Duncan) convinced someone has poisoned her coffee. Also from the film, Jane Marple’s foot is injured which leaves her housebound for the early part of the film and forces us to sit through Dolly Bantree giving a guided tour to the renovated Hall. Into the midst of all this strides Inspector Hewitt (Hugh Bonneville) who’s under instructions from his superiors at the Yard to co-operate with Miss Marple whose reputation has now been established as beyond reproach. He and his sergeant are the comic relief as they wander round trying to establish what it was Marina Gregg saw that left her so transfixed when greeting those entering the VIP area. The one original albeit minor addition is Marina Gregg visiting her son at a local care facility. This rather cleverly makes her seem a more human and tragic figure. Up to this point, she’s seen largely as an actress having trouble with her nerves and attention-seeking which makes her somewhat unsympathetic. Frankly you can understand why most of the people around her would have been queuing up to dispose of her.

I remain unsure whether this adaptation is better because Miss Marple saves one of the victims in the novel. When you have a killer on the loose and there are already two bodies, why not add the third? That said the ending retains the original equivocal nature. The way this is put together makes the suicide of the killer slightly more credible. Although it does remain open for the interpretation one other person might have administered the fatal dose. When you put all this together, The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side is the best of the current adaptations so far. Given the poor standard, this is not saying much, but you do have the sense this was a better effort to capture the essence of the Agatha Christie original rather than try to rewrite in a way to make it fit modern expectations and sensibilities.

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: The Blue Geranium (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Caribbean Mystery (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Endless Night (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Greenshaw’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Murder is Easy (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Pale Horse (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Pocket Full of Rye (2008)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Secret of Chimneys (2010)
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 Big Four (2013)
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: Curtain. Poirot’s Last Case (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Mirror (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Elephants Can Remember (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Hallowe’en Party (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Labours of Hercules (2013)
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)

Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Secret of Chimneys (2010)

Marple Julia McKenzie

You see this is all the fault of Anthony Hope. I suppose not many of you out there will remember this author, but he was mildly famous when I was growing up. Although, truth be told, his reputation did rather rest on just two books: The Prisoner of Zenda and its sequel Rupert of Hentzau. Notice the names of the fictitious countries. Authors then had the same problem as authors now. They had to set their stories in places that resonated with mystery, romance and excitement (although not necessarily in that order). To this end, they either invented countries like Ruritania or set their stories in countries that sounded like one of these supposedly exotic places sandwiched between the Europe we all knew and the Russian expanse of which we knew little. Today, to avoid upsetting allies, dangerous gangsters or terrorists come from North Korea or Dagestan or somewhere obscure. Anyway, when we come to a young author sitting down in the early 1920s, she would likely think her book had to involve people and intrigue over places like Herzoslovakia and feature characters with names like Prince Michael Obolovitch, Count Stylptitch, and so on. That’s where we more formally enter into the novel titled The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie, now adapted as Marple: The Secret of Chimneys (2010).

This young author did rather churn out potboiler thriller novels with more than a suggestion of romance about them. Some are, by any modern standards, diabolically bad. At the time, they were considered full of excitement, romance and mystery (although not necessarily in that order). If you were to take a measuring gauge with some moderately objective pretensions, you might conclude this novel is by no means the worst of this type of novel but, if you tried to put it on the screen as written, today’s audience would curl up and die. This revenant from 1925 must therefore be recast so that we may adsorb its substance without being bored to tears by its delight in the politics and social niceties of the day.

Edward Fox

Edward Fox

The first step, of course, is to abandon the redoubtable Superintendent Battle of Scotland Yard and the amateur sleuth, Anthony Cade, in favour of Miss Marple (Julia McKenzie) with an unusually silent sidekick called Inspector Finch (Stephen Dillane). The only redeeming feature about this latter character is that’s he’s forewarned about Miss Marple who’s been showing up his colleagues as barely competent. So he immediately sets out to avoid the same fate by first listening to her and then arresting the wrong man — a ploy guaranteed to energise the old biddy and get her into top gear to save the innocent one destined for the romantic ending. At this point we must sympathise with Paul Rutman who was paid to write a new mystery. Even at the best of times, it’s difficult to write something to appease the purists while entertaining those new to the title. This is particularly difficult and, under the circumstances, the simplification of the plot to centre on the titular country house is sensible. The opening sections are also moderately well handled but, as we advance through into the broader part of the mystery, the initial glamour is lost and what remains is stolid, confusing and unrealistic.

As an aside, if the production company ever gets around to adapting The Seven Dials Mystery, I hope they remember one of the characters in that later book is now the murderer in this screen adaptation. More judicious rewriting and renaming will be required to avoid confusion. Anyway, let’s not worry about what may never happen. What happens in this story? Well, a group of people come to Chimneys which, for the record, is filmed at Hatfield Hall and Knebworth House. This decaying pile with the leaking roof is owned by a disgraced Lord Caterham (Edward Fox) and hunted by the emergent National Trust which wants to save it for the nation. There’s a high-level political meeting with an Austrian Count who ends up dead in a secret passageway. There’s also a poisoning and other minor excitements, some historical. The identity of the murderer is obscured by changing the apparent time of the shooting. The method used is mildly ingenious and the clue in plain sight is not completely unfair. It’s just incredible. No-one would actually be able to see it. But if we ignore this fact and we have the kind of mind capable of making intuitive leaps to the truth, it’s obvious. There’s also a dire coincidence and one of these self-sacrificing people who decides to cover up the killer’s identity. And did I mention there’s a missing diamond but that’s not the only jewel hidden in Chimneys.

The upshot of all this is that Miss Marple unmasks the killer, finds the diamond, identifies the real jewel hidden in the wall, and sets true love on its rocky path to the future — and all in ninety minutes. No mean feat for our amateur sleuth. All I can say about Marple: The Secret of Chimneys is that it looked good and Jula McKenzie does her best to be Marple-like. Everything else about it is an otherwise competent cast being given increasingly silly things to say and do. As we move into 2010, this series shows no sign of lifting itself off the rock bottom it had reached in 2009.

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: The Blue Geranium (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Caribbean Mystery (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Endless Night (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Greenshaw’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Murder is Easy (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Pale Horse (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Pocket Full of Rye (2008)
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 Big Four (2013)
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: Curtain. Poirot’s Last Case (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Mirror (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Elephants Can Remember (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Hallowe’en Party (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Labours of Hercules (2013)
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)

Agatha Christie’s Marple: Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (2009)

Marple Julia McKenzie

Agatha Christie’s Marple: Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (2009) is another of these rewrites — a task which, this time fell to Patrick Barlow. So how did he do? Well, from his point of view, he was starting from near the bottom of the barrel. No matter how you view the Christie canon, this is not one of her best works. Rather it’s one of these romance-tinged mysteries which has a couple of bright young things investigating skullduggery and coming out of the experience deeply in love. I think the kindest thing anyone can say of this early work is that it’s best left in relative obscurity. However, by changing things around to introduce Miss Marple, it’s possible to rescue the leaking plot, give it some cohesion, and raise the general standard of the mystery to solve. Watching the result proves the old adage that not everything that’s possible may actually be achieved.

Sean Biggerstaff

Sean Biggerstaff

Let’s start with the set-up. Somewhat extraordinarily, the young man with time on his hands is first seen walking along the cliff top in full childhood mode. He’s playing cowboys and indians (although, given the relocation in time to the 1950s, I suppose he could be pretending to be a heroic Tommy). Either way, he’s using his fingers as guns and, at one time, is himself shot and falls down clutching his stomach. Unkindly, I was forming the impression this was a character in need of psychiatric assistance when he metamorphosed into Bobby Attfield (Sean Biggerstaff) because, attracted by faint cries not emanating from the circling gulls, he looks over the cliff edge and sees the body of a man on a ledge. Climbing down, he receives the fatal question forming the title to the book.

At this point, I need to make a minor detour through my own recollections of the time. Yes, by modern standards, it was remarkably amateurish. But if there was an unnatural death, an inquest would be held and our cowboy Tommy would be called. If he did not turn up to give evidence, questions would be asked. Put this the other way round. He was expecting to be called and, when the letter arrived, he set off, meeting Frankie Derwent (Georgia Moffett) on the train. She comes with him and they find the nominated building closed. So they just shrug their shoulder and go home? That’s not credible. They would hammer on the door of the building or go round to the nearest police station to find where the inquest is being held. They are socially responsible and intelligent people. If a mistake has been made, they would want to put it right. This fundamental plotting error is the first of an endless series that ends up in one of the worst examples of potboiling melodrama it has been my misfortune to see for years.

Georgia Moffet

Georgia Moffett

I will spare you the catalogue of catastrophe. Suffice it to say that very little of what we see on screen makes any sense or allows us to see an investigation into the sequence of events that occurred six months earlier. Let me put it to you fairly and squarely. If Miss Marple is going to be able to reconstruct what happened in a house she’s never visited involving people she’s never met, how can she do it unless she physically goes there and talks with those people? The answer provided by this adaptation is that she can have perfect twenty-twenty hindsight without have any beforesight, if you catch my meaning. Apart from the killer(s), this Miss Marple does not meet with anyone who could possibly have told her what happened. We’re supposed to accept she could infer events from seeing the will. None of this rubbish about motive and opportunity. No grilling of witnesses. This is the ultimate rabbit from a hat without the intervention of a magician.

So apart from changing virtually everything without improving the outcome, can anything good be said about the production? I loved the old house they used as a setting for the larger part of the action. If you’re going to have people eavesdropping and lurking in shadows, you need the right place to do it and this house was absolutely perfect. Despite being given very silly things to do, the cast was unusually restrained and quietly impressive (except during the climactic denouement where all intelligence was abandoned. If you’re going to have a group of people pretend that any one or more of them could be murderers, they all have to look deeply suspicious and yet normal in a surreal kind of way. Without exception, this was done brilliantly. It didn’t matter which of them was guilty of the murder(s), they were all enjoyable to watch. As to Julia McKenzie, this was the first time I actually felt she was a good version of Miss Marple. She hid behind her knitting and was quietly sitting unobserved in odd corners as “things” went on around her. She was also more effectively proactive in protecting the two lovers in their naive efforts to solve the crime. As a final thought about the ending (ignoring the two love birds skipping off into the sunset, of course), it’s rare to have a whodunnit end with two of the “innocent” members of the cast under arrest for the murder of the murderer(s). Without wishing to spoil all the “excitement” you might derive from watching it, we have a quite deliberate execution scene. Although a good argument might have been made for self-defence, what actually happens is a deliberate act going far beyond what’s actually needed to protect the person under attack. I fear a mandatory life sentence would be required for these last minute killers. So Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? has a dire plot but a not unenjoyable piece of acting in spectacularly appropriate locations. This series is proving a disaster of unmitigated proportions.

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: The Blue Geranium (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Caribbean Mystery (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Endless Night (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Greenshaw’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Murder is Easy (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Pale Horse (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Pocket Full of Rye (2008)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Secret of Chimneys (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: They Do It with Mirrors (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 Big Four (2013)
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: Curtain. Poirot’s Last Case (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Mirror (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Elephants Can Remember (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Hallowe’en Party (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Labours of Hercules (2013)
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)

Agatha Christie’s Marple: They Do It with Mirrors (2009)

Marple Julia McKenzie

As Agatha Christie Marple: They Do It with Mirrors (2009) gets underway with this latest slice of Golden Age detective fiction, we’re suddenly transfixed by the appearance of a number of “old stalwarts”. Well, perhaps “transfixed” is not quite doing justice to the moment. I confess to being stunned and amazed Joan Collins is still going strong. Born in 1933, she contrives to look younger than Julia McKenzie and Penelope Wilton. For the record, both the book and this script require all three to be approximately the same age, having attended the same school. I’m not sure how she’s managing to preserve her youthfulness but, if Joan Collins could put it in a bottle, she would make millions more than her acting career has so far delivered. This only leaves the problem of her screen presence which is what you might might call idiosyncratic. I suspect she’s always been less an actor and more a personality. Even at the height of her popularity in Dynasty, there’s a magnificently artificial quality about her. In this performance, she’s definitely not in the business of acting “with” Julia McKenzie. They both just happen to be on the screen at the same time. There’s also something distinctly weird about the accent adopted by Penelope Wilton. Not only is it uncertain what she’s supposed to be aiming at, the goalposts keep moving as her voice trembles into a different variation for every scene.

So where are we with this adaptation? In terms of fidelity to the book, we’re fairly accurate with two variations. In the novel, a part of the mansion has been turned over to house delinquent boys, whereas in this adaptation, we see a compound in the grounds for the rehabilitation of adult offenders. The second is a redesign of the group scene when Lewis Serrocold (Brian Cox) and Edgar Lawson (Tom Payne) have their argument — the body of Christian Gulbrandsen being found almost immediately afterwards. On balance, I think this an improvement over the book. What actually works well on the page might not look quite so good on the small screen. Whereas this rather cleverly preserves the spirit of the original while making it visually arresting and spreading the degree of uncertainty about who might have committed the murder. The arrival of Johnny Restarick (Ian Ogilvy) is also pleasing, allowing us to see the outside of the mansion from his perspective in flashback as he approached through the early evening mist.

Julia McKenzie and Joan Collins as "old friends"

Julia McKenzie and Joan Collins as “old friends”

For once, keeping the ending the same also works well given this motive for the murders. There’s considerable pathos in seeing this acted out. However the other elements of the ending are definitely not even vaguely realistic. The failed marriage between Gina Elsworth (Emma Griffiths Malin) and Wally Hudd (Elliot Cowan) has been nicely shown. She’s shamelessly flirting with all and sundry while he stares morosely into his morning porridge. Then, miraculously she’s reformed and goes off to produce multiple babies to populate a house on the prairies. It’s wholly incredible. I’m also not sure about the character of Mildred (Sarah Smart). Even allowing for the fact her mother is shown as a complete failure in the parenting stakes, she’s grown up into an embittered religious fanatic, considered somewhat loopy by everyone. To have her reconcile with her mother and essentially become “normal” is stretching credibility. Finally, we come to the core “romance” between the Serrocolds. Given this version of the story, their relationship is supposed to be deeply loving where he would do almost anything for her. Frankly, I think these parts fundamentally miscast or the director is seriously at fault. Penelope Wilton comes across as almost completely self-absorbed with little or no empathy as a parent or wife. After seeing him play an endless sequence of villains, it’s fun to see Brian Cox try to appear somewhat more normal. But this performance fails to show any affection. Although couples who have been married for a few years can lack the more obvious signs of passion, this couple just seems to be sharing occupation of the house and an interest in rehabilitating criminals. They’re more like colleagues than lovers.

The result of all this musing is another failure. I’m still not convinced by Julia McKenzie as Miss Marple. She doesn’t feel proactive enough. When Joan Hickson was on the case, you felt a judge and jury had walked on to the screen to weigh the wickedness around her. For all her faults, Geraldine McEwan had a certain self-mockery about her performance, being fairly dotty and not averse to trying to matchmake when there was a young couple to push in the right direction. In this story, Miss Marple is supposed to walk into the household and take command to ensure nothing happens to her lifelong friend. Sadly, there’s absolutely no sign of that at all. So with all the weak performances and a fairly indifferent plot, Agatha Christie’s Marple: They Do It with Mirrors is showing every sign of continuing the decline of the series into oblivion.

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: The Blue Geranium (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Caribbean Mystery (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Endless Night (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Greenshaw’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Murder is Easy (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Pale Horse (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Pocket Full of Rye (2008)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Secret of Chimneys (2010)
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 Big Four (2013)
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: Curtain. Poirot’s Last Case (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Mirror (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Elephants Can Remember (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Hallowe’en Party (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Labours of Hercules (2013)
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)

Agatha Christie’s Marple: Murder is Easy (2009)

April 14, 2013 2 comments

Marple Julia McKenzie

Well the first in this new series of Golden Age detective fiction gave us our first view of Julia McKenzie as Miss Marple but she was kept rather in the background. This adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Marple: Murder is Easy (2009) keeps the character front and centre, offering us a better chance to evaluate the performance. The experience here is somewhat like watching Doctor Who, a character played by many actors over the years. This was always faintly disconcerting because, as each regeneration came, we got major shifts in age and attitude. Miss Marple, on the other hand, must always be reasonably old although even this was slightly bent out of shape by Angela Lansbury in The Mirror Crack’d (1980). The perennial problem of how to portray her lies in understanding her methodology. Once people huddle together into villages, they get sucked into the communal life. One of the most consistent characters is the gossip. This person is usually female and she prides herself on being able to ferret out who’s doing what to whom and why just by sitting in small groups and listening. In many communities where privacy is more highly valued, village gossips are rather disliked and, in some cases, feared.

Hence, when it comes to presenting a gossip on the screen as the heroine of a long-running series, the temptation is always to make her more likeable. Yet to defang her is to reduce her capacity for investigation. As drawn by Agatha Christie, this is a woman of intelligence who has observed life. She’s usually full of anecdotes about what the butcher did with his thumb when weighing the meat, and how many others whom she has known engaged in different types of dishonesty. She can be a little fierce sometimes. And herein lies the problem with Julia McKenzie. I think she’s altogether to pallid. Yes, you have the sense she’s intelligent, but there’s a lack of steel in her. This is a more passive Miss Marple, lacking any kind of quirkiness or eccentricity. She’s not even bumbling. The very least she could do is drop her ball of wool while knitting except we’re yet to see her knit. How is she supposed to eavesdrop on people in conversations if she can’t disappear into the background by appearing to concentrate on knit one, pearl one? If she’s supposed to be able to wangle information out of people, she should be more quickly able to blend into a conversation. In the first two episodes, there are too many silences and moments of slight awkwardness as she meets and talks with new people. I’m not convinced this is a good version of Miss Marple. I still prefer Joan Hickson with Margaret Rutherford a close second.

Benedict Cumberbatch  and Julia McKenzie making short work of the mystery

Benedict Cumberbatch and Julia McKenzie making short work of the mystery

As originally written, this is not a Miss Marple mystery. It features a free-standing Luke Fitzwilliam (Benedict Cumberbatch) who’s returned from distant parts of the Empire where he was a police officer. After a casual meeting with a woman on the train, he’s the one who goes to the archetypal village to unmask the killer and fall in love. It’s one of these slightly wishy-washy stories in which mystery and romance go hand-in-hand through a serial killer case in a class-ridden village where there’s a faintly supernatural element in play — the local Lord is into sacrificing hens in pagan rituals. What we are presented with here is not simply a reworking of the story to introduce Miss Marple, but a wholesale revision of the story. This not only removes some characters and introduces new ones, but it also completely changes the motive for the murders — it even changes some of murder methods, e.g. from a hit-and-run car accident to pushing the victim down a long escalator on the London Underground.

I need to be clear on the basis for this review. I’m simply noting that this is nothing like the Christie original but judging the episode as presented on the screen. The first problem is in the number of men on display. If this is supposed to be just after the Second World War, most villages were predominantly female. Local land owners, being mostly Conservative in outlook and patriotic by disposition, had gone off the war. Many had failed to return. There were also not enough children in view. Babies were booming at this time as those men who had either avoided the call to duty or had managed to avoid death set out to repopulate the land. This version has Miss Marple, Luke Fitzwilliam and the local PC Terence Reed (Russell Tovey) combine to investigate. The presence of the PC gives a veneer of official approval for the investigation but, as written, there’s no consistency in the Constable who veers violently between being almost completely dim to being able to attribute a quote to Edmund Burke. As to the rest of the cast, it was pleasing in a good way to see Sylvia Syms and Tim Brooke-Taylor — I always fear old “friends” have died. Shirley Henderson does well as a younger version of Honoria Waynflete. Everyone else lurks in the background or keels over dead with the customary style. I was very surprised at the darkness of the motive for all the murders. It’s certainly not something that Agatha Christie would ever have introduced. I feel those adapting an old book for a modern audience have an obligation to keep motives consistent with the morality of the times shown. Although the biblical disposition of the child was not unreasonable, I’m not convinced the concealment of this set of circumstances would have led to so many deaths. In the original, the murderer was less than sane. The murderer in this version seems to have killed so many out of an excess of caution — something I find less than credible. So, overall, I find Agatha Christie’s Marple: Murder is Easy disappointing.

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: The Blue Geranium (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Caribbean Mystery (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Endless Night (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Greenshaw’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Pale Horse (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Pocket Full of Rye (2008)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Secret of Chimneys (2010)
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 Big Four (2013)
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: Curtain. Poirot’s Last Case (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Mirror (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Elephants Can Remember (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Hallowe’en Party (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Labours of Hercules (2013)
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)

Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Pocket Full of Rye (2008)

Marple Julia McKenzie

Perhaps I’m just getting old and so more often find myself out of sympathy with television representations of the times from my youth. Although I failed to arrange being born into a rich family with a large country estate, we were on the periphery of the county set and I observed many people of the type we see on display in these period adaptations. The book on which Marple: A Pocket Full of Rye (2008) is based was written and set in the 1950s and, as the title suggests, was another of these plots recycling nursery rhymes. At this point I need to distinguish between the source material and the most recent adaptation. I read this when it first came out in paperback around 1958 and, like many books by Agatha Christie, the actual characters are fairly irrelevant. They are the standard stereotypes who do what’s necessary to advance the plot. The basis of enjoyment lies in the rather nice construction of the puzzle. As is always the case when the reader is given a clue in the title, the question is whether the author is playing fair or the clue is actually a bluff. If it’s a bluff, whose bluff is it. The author could be setting out to mislead us from the moment we open the book or the murderer could be using the rhyme for a particular purpose. When I sat down to watch this, I confess I could not remember it. Many of the Agatha Christies have blurred together into a kind of generic lump of Golden Age Detective Fiction. Of all the authors who came to prominence in the 1920s and 30s, she proved to be the best at the mystery three-card-trick. You take a limited number of people, shuffle them around and then devise a set of circumstances in which a different person is the murderer for each book. It can even be everyone or the detective or, in one case, the first-person narrator. Everyone gets to play the part on the whim of the Queen of Crime. The result is there’s little memorable about the individual stories. What we tend to remember are the broad brushstrokes of the detectives and their immediate entourage, and occasional solutions which were outstandingly spectacular.

Ralf Little, Julia McKenzie and Matthew Macfadyen looking to investigate

Ralf Little, Julia McKenzie and Matthew Macfadyen looking to investigate

So here we are with another actress drafted in to play Miss Marple (I suppose Geraldine McEwan was just a little too long in the tooth as she approached her 80th birthday). This time, we’re off with Julia McKenzie. For the record, Joan Hickson featured in an adaptation of this novel that was shown in 1985. So those of you with memories like an elephant or a comprehensive set of DVDs can compare interpretations. This strikes me a somewhat bland but, in part, that’s because she shares the detecting spotlight with Inspector Neele (Matthew Macfadyen) and his faintly comic sidekick Sergeant Pickford (Ralf Little). Perhaps if she was allowed the starring role, we might see her performance in a better light.

As to the plot, we start off with the murder of Rex Fortescue (Kenneth Cranham). Have you noticed how often Agatha Christie gets the ball rolling by killing a bullying patriarch? It’s probably terribly Freudian that these guys always deserve to die. They are usually slightly on the upper side of middle class, reasonably wealthy but ultimately convinced the rest of the world contains an inferior species. In this case, he’s somewhat loopy which is not a desirable mental state for a man running an investment bank. He’s been moving out of all the good, safe bonds into new derivatives and other casino style financial products. This has been driving his son Percival (Ben Miles) nuts. The family were watching their wealth go down the toilet but would the old boy listen? So they were rescued when someone poisoned the idiot and left the rye in his pocket. Naturally Miss Marple is not a little upset when her ex-maid is also slaughtered while hanging out the clothes in the garden. That just leaves the queen to die in the parlour and the rhyme is complete.

Rupert Grave as the black sheep of the family

Rupert Grave as the black sheep of the family

The problem with this adaptation is that the characters are either the servants (the drunk butler and prickly cook) who are easy to spot, or generic wealthy middle class types, often with rather less middle class accents to show their feet of clay. Yes, wealthy people did marry beneath themselves in those days. A fact made embarrassingly obvious in this production by their low class accents and potentially boorish behaviour. And that’s what really depresses me about this adaptation. The class-based drama focuses on the pursuit of money and status. This unhappy shower may have acquired the money but they certainly have not acquired any manners to go with them. This is the noveau riche trying to live the life of the old money, upper class. Percival is the miser son, counting every penny. Lance Fortescue (Rupert Graves) flies in from Paris after his father’s death so he stands out a little as having a little more style. But then the black sheep of the family do tend to be charismatic.

Even though it relies on one person being extraordinarily stupid, I suppose the plot is one of the better ones with the way in which the evidence emerges staying true to the book. I’m going to reserve judgement on Julia McKenzie as Miss Marple. We just don’t see enough of her in this episode. So A Pocket Full of Rye is reasonably entertaining for a show of this type if you can stand being cooped up with this group of rather unpleasant figures for two hours.

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: The Blue Geranium (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Caribbean Mystery (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Endless Night (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Greenshaw’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Murder is Easy (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Pale Horse (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Secret of Chimneys (2010)
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 Big Four (2013)
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: Curtain. Poirot’s Last Case (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Mirror (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Elephants Can Remember (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Hallowe’en Party (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Labours of Hercules (2013)
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)

Herring on the Nile by L C Tyler

As a reviewer, I try to read without any prejudices so one of the more intriguing aspects of the task comes after I finish a book and pick up the press pack sent with it. I say “pack” in the more general sense of the word because, in most cases, it’s only a single sheet of paper. But the norm is for there to be a brief synopsis and then talking points, focusing the reviewer’s attention on the features the marketers wish me to highlight. These are usually hyperbolic. For example, you may read that, “Jack Sunderland’s latest blockbuster will leave readers gasping for breath as the excitement rolls over them like a juggernaut”, or “Mary Dunstable’s work has a luminous and transcendent quality that makes her a major British voice”. Not that blurbs actually have to mean anything, of course. All they are supposed to do is hit a minimum number of key words that will produce a high google ranking if they appear in a website review.

 

So you can imagine, after finishing Herring on the Nile by L C Tyler (Felony & Mayhem Press, 2012), I was more than a little disconcerted to read the press pack headline, “Killingly funny!” I’ve made no secret of the fact my sense of humour quotient is usually zero. All the more interesting, therefore, to find the magic page listing previous books by this author and their nominations for “funniest book of the year” awards. It seems our author has a reputation for producing books leaving his readers gasping desperately for breath after laughing uncontrollably for several hours. For the record, this book was shortlisted for the GOLDSBORO LAST LAUGH AWARD 2011 so, yet again, I find myself cut off from mainstream reaction to a written source, although I draw minimal comfort from the fact it did not win (I capitalised the award title so you would be more impressed). Perhaps significantly, I was like the dog reading in the night and managed nothing approximating even hollow laughter.

 

I do confess to being nicely appreciative of the attacks on Dan Brown. I’m always fascinated to see what the libel laws currently allow us critics to say about another’s work and avoid civil action for damages. On this occasion, it continues to be acceptable to suggest this New York Times Bestseller Listed author can’t write for toffee. And the running “joke” based on our poor hero’s need to complete interview forms for various local newspapers did provide some interesting insights into his state of mind and immediate predicament. But looking back over the text, I’m stunned to discover this is supposed to be a comic novel.

L C Tyler (Len to his friends) doing his Tommy Cooper impression

 

So if Herring on the Nile is not going to leave you rolling in the aisles demanding more, is it worth reading? The answer is that, as a detective novel, it’s a rather clever puzzle and, although I think it’s fairly obvious whodunnit (although not why), I read through to the end in a single sitting with considerable curiosity to see how it all turned out. Our hero is Ethelred Tressider. He’s a third-rate author who, when the creditors become too importunate to ignore, churns out another crime novel (he has two pseudonyms) or a romance (using a third female pseudonym to blend into the landscape). The literary agent who has the thankless task of selling these books and their translation rights is Elsie Thirkettle. For reasons I will not bore you with, our joined-at-the-financial-hip couple (that’s not a romantic joining, you understand) end up on a mechanically-challenged paddle steamer making unsteady progress on the Nile (no-one seems very sure whether it’s moving up or down the river except, at one point when the engines fail, it definitely drifts out of control downstream). On board are the usual assortment of eccentric types most often associated with Agatha Christie novels. Needless to say none of them are what they appear to be although some of them are who they say they are and others may actually be better detectives than our heroic couple given that at least one other person works out whodunnit it before the penny drops for Ethelred. Frankly, I neither know nor particularly care whether Ethelred then tells Elsie. Not that any of the people astute or lucky enough to identify the killer(s) are at risk. The Egyptian and British authorities are convinced they know exactly what happened and would never reopen the case. The killer(s) has/have no reason to silence the amateur detectives. Indeed, doing so would alert the authorities to the idea their assessment of guilt was wrong.

 

So now your decision: this is a rerunning of the Agatha Christie jaunt on the Nile and it does its best to drag herrings of various hues across the trail to muddy the waters. You may be lucky and find it hilarious, but don’t bank on it. If you are going to read it, expect a clever puzzle to solve, some mild wit and fairly engaging characters who are initially intent on a holiday, but then find themselves in a genuinely dangerous situation. Why, you wonder, did I neglect to mention real danger until this dying gasp? Well, if L C Tyler is trying to write a comic novel, there can’t be anything even vaguely frightening. Even the Empress of Blandings could read this without losing her equanimity (assuming Monica Simmons was on hand to turn the pages, of course).

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan (1993)

Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan (1993) (Season 5, episode 8) first appeared as a short story under the title, “The Curious Disappearance of the Opalsen Pearls” in 1923 and, by any standards, it’s a fairly slight case. Hercule Poirot (David Suchet) and Captain Hastings (Hugh Fraser) are staying at the Grand Metropolitan in Brighton where they meet the Opalsens. He made his money in oil and she spends his money collecting jewellery. When she tries to show off her latest acquisition, a necklace, they discover it has been stolen. It seems one of the maids is responsible but, quick as a flash, the great Hercule Poirot unmasks the real villains.

Hermione Norris looking guilty as the companion

Now we come to the adaptation by Anthony Horowitz which takes this thin gruel and spins it into a delightful period piece. This time, the location and props departments have outdone themselves in transporting “Brighton” back in time — it’s actually Eastbourne standing in for its more celebrated cousin, but we can gloss over this inconvenient fact. It’s quite wonderful to see the streets so full of period vehicles, the costumes are magnificent and the use of locations superb. So now to the new story. According to the doctor called to examine our great detective, he’s been working too hard and therefore must be despatched to Brighton to take the sea air. This will dispel the sore throat and sniffles, and generally restore the little grey cells to their usual vigour. With relief, Miss Lemon (Paula Moran) waves him off. We’re then introduced to a nice running joke for, as Hercule Poirot leaves what’s supposed to be Brighton railway station, he’s immediately accused of being Lucky Len and the reward claimed. For those of you not of an advanced age, newspapers used to promote themselves by sending out reasonably distinctive people and, if a person holding the newspaper correctly challenged them using specified words, they could claim a reward. Needless to say, wherever Poirot goes, he’s immediately challenged. We get a sight of the actual Lucky Len at the end of the show.

David Suchet and Hugh Fraser examine the drawer

Life at any seaside resort would not be complete without a “theatrical” experience or two and Brighton was, and is, no exception to this rule. The Theatre Royal and Pavilion Theatre have been beautifully preserved. This adaptation has Mr Opalsen (Trevor Cooper) as a theatrical impresario with his wife, Margaret (Sorcha Cusack) the leading lady. To maximise the publicity for his latest play, Mr Opalsen has purchased a famous set of pearls. We meet the playwright, Andrew Hall (Simon Shepherd) who’s having problems in clearing his gambling debts, the companion Celestine (Hermione Norris) and Saunders (Karl Johnson), the driver. The padding is spectacularly brave with Hercule Poirot seeing Mr Worthing book into the hotel, then realising the solution to the robbery lies in The Importance of Being Ernest, and finally framing Mr Opalsen for fraud, in part as payback for exploiting his name to get additional publicity for the play. Miss Lemon also gets back into the action, this time talking to London fences about jewellery.

Paula Moran collects evidence in London

Quite frankly, the audacity of it all is remarkable and the results are wonderful. This is completely in character and, although I disapprove of the romantic ending (which would be doomed to failure given Andrew Hall’s gambling addiction), this is yet another successful adaptation cum dramatic expansion of a short story to add to the others in this series. The only fly in all this ointment is the likely legal consequences. Mr Opalsen has been wrongly accused and arrested for fraud. This would give him actions in tort for false arrest and false imprisonment against the police. More excitingly, he could sue Hercule Poirot and bankrupt him in libel for, no matter that impresarios live and die by publicity, an accusation of fraud just before his theatre company is about to take off for a tour of America is hardly likely to bring in the audiences. Counterbalancing this defamation is the return of the pearls so audiences might come to see them, worn six nights per week and one matinée by the leading lady. The only other comment I would make is as to the box in which the pearls were stored. It actually looked no more substantial than something you could buy at Woolworths and the key itself was so small with one simple lever that anyone with a hair grip could open it in five seconds. It was not a secure box and, worse, kept in an unlocked drawer. That said, since it was under “guard” most of the time, the screams of Celestine would alert all those around her to the presence of a robber with a gun in the hotel bedroom. Well, I did say the adaptation of The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan was audacious. Perhaps entertainingly foolhardy would have been a better choice of words.

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: The Blue Geranium (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Caribbean Mystery (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Endless Night (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Greenshaw’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Murder is Easy (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Pale Horse (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Pocket Full of Rye (2008)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Secret of Chimneys (2010)
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 Big Four (2013)
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: Curtain. Poirot’s Last Case (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Mirror (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Elephants Can Remember (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Hallowe’en Party (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Labours of Hercules (2013)
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)

Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Mirror (1993)

Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Mirror (1993) (Season 5, episode 7) is an adaptation of a short story that first appeared in 1932. It was then expanded for inclusion in Murder in the Mews, a collection published in 1937. Such is always the way with an author. You write something one day and then see a way in which it can be improved the next. Except, of course, the expansion does little to help a modern television company looking for a one-hour show. The challenge for Anthony Horowitz as scriptwriter, therefore, is to remain faithful to the spirit of the original while adding to it. In many ways, the strategy adopted here for filling out the content is rather clever. The textual story begins with Hercule Poirot (David Suchet) peremptorily summoned by Sir Gervase Chevenix-Gore (Iain Cuthbertson) and, when he arrives, he finds his client dead. Since the key to the case is the eponymous mirror, the television version has Sir Gervase outbid Hercule Poirot for the mirror at an auction and then use the mirror to lure the detective to his home and accept a commission to investigate an initially unspecified fraud. In other words, Hercule Poirot would not usually have forgiven the man for his rudeness, but would swallow his pride if he thought he would get the mirror in part-payment for his services.

Vanda (Zena Walker) asks her spirit for guidance

So, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings (Hugh Fraser) set off into the countryside by train. We have backstory showing Ruth (Emma Fielding) has already married Lake (Richard Lintern) with Ms Lingard (Fiona Walker) secretly observing, and our dynamic duo meet Susan (Tushka Bergen) on the train. Hugo (Jeremy Northam) meets them at the station and we see his workshop where he’s trying to develop stainless-steel framed furniture for the market. Sir Gervaise is threatening to cut him off without a penny which would leave him unable to pursue his commercial dreams. When we arrive at the house, Sir Gervaise wants Poirot to investigate Lake for an apparent fraud. More interestingly, we then come to another Agatha Christie supernatural element. The wife of Sir Gervaise is called Vanda (Zena Walker). She believes she has a spirit guide from Ancient Egypt who has warned her that a death is coming. Hercule Poirot is fascinated and gets details.

We then follow the plot of the original story except now Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings are house guests. Captain Hastings hears the gong for dinner, but Hercule Poirot does not. They both hear what they assume to be a shot and, when they break into the study, find Sir Gervaise has apparently shot himself in the head holding a gun in his left hand. This looks to be a suicide with the mirror broken by the bullet. When Inspector Japp (Philip Jackson) arrives on the scene, he’s all for it being self-inflicted, but Hercule Poirot points out that the man was right-handed and he’s curious as to where the bullet is.

Hugo (Jeremy Northam) and Susan (Tushka Bergen) talk about furniture

We then have some nice padding involving Lake’s fraud and get into the ending where Anthony Horowitz has outdone himself to flesh out the supernatural element into a full-blown manifestation of the Egyptian spirit. It’s all magnificently silly but it does nicely bring us to the hour mark (allowing for ads) without it looking too forced. The pleasing thing about this particular episode is that, for once, the adaptation is meticulously fair in showing us all the minor hints and clues in plain sight. Too often, the answer turns on something only the great detective would have known. This time, we get every detail and have the same chance to work out who must have done it. Equally of interest is the supernatural element. As I have commented elsewhere, Agatha Christie was writing at a time when table-turning and other spiritualist events were common. She could therefore hint at current social trends and be more immediately understood. Today, we’ve moved away from accepting spiritualism as real and now indulge our interests in more extreme forms of the supernatural. What would have been considered really spooky ninety years ago would be far too tame for today’s audience. That means the modern scriptwriter is working on a knife edge to keep the sense of the original while making it less naive for our sensibilities. Finally, a word must be said about Iain Cuthbertson who contrives to be rather magnificently unpleasant in such a short space of time before being bumped off. The rest of the cast do enough to be distinctive without distracting our attention from David Suchet and Hugh Fraser. Overall Dead Man’s Mirror proves to be one of the better episodes with Hercule Poirot seen to be relying on key people to be gullible when he pushes their buttons.

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: The Blue Geranium (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Caribbean Mystery (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Endless Night (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Greenshaw’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Murder is Easy (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Pale Horse (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Pocket Full of Rye (2008)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Secret of Chimneys (2010)
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 Big Four (2013)
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: Curtain. Poirot’s Last Case (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Elephants Can Remember (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Hallowe’en Party (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Labours of Hercules (2013)
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)

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