Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Big Four (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Big Four (2013) (Season 13, episode 2) shows us in heavy-hitter territory with big guns coming together in circumstances we expect them to pull off genuinely bravura performances. Let’s start with the script by one of the most reliable hands in the business. Mark Gatiss and Ian Hallard are credited. I make no comment how the latter came to get the job. I simply assume the relationship between them was not considered relevant and that he earned this sole writing job on merit. Appropriately given the title, we have Hercule Poirot (David Suchet), Captain Hastings (Hugh Fraser), Miss Lemon (Pauline Moran) and Assistant Commissioner Japp (Philip Jackson) in a reunion episode to celebrate the final set of adaptations to more or less complete the Christie canon. Having brought them all together, it seems rather a shame not to give Hastings and Miss Lemon more screen time. Hastings in particular is made to look even more a sidekick adrift without a rudder than usual in this episode.
I’m also obliged to characterise this play-dead ploy from Poirot as even more cruel than usual. We’ve grown used to his benign contempt for those inferior mortals around him, but allowing them to go through a funeral is pushing it a little. While thinking about that, we should also comment on the absurdity of the police not noticing the absence of a body at the site of the explosion. Even in those pre-CSI days, the amateur forensic team would have noted the absence of body parts and blood. The fact someone found his walking stick confirms a search. This means, at the very least, Japp must have been aware of the pretense and so in on the decision to abuse the emotional health of the two sidekicks. I was also disappointed not to use the device of Hercule reappearing as Achille. One of the problems of pretending death is where to hide when you have one of the most recognisable faces in London. Agatha Christie’s in plain sight solution might be a little silly, but it’s better than the embarrassed silence of this plot. Perhaps they did not want to sacrifice the mustache
We should not be surprised this potboiler melodrama, first published in 1927, has been left untouched until now. Structurally, the first book appeared as a fix-up, i.e. the elements in the book were published separately as short stories and then amalgamated into the “novel” we know today (or rather we avoid knowing today because it’s one of Christie’s worst books). That’s why some applause should ring out for Mark Gatiss. He has contrived to completely restructure the basics of the plot, changing the order of the deaths, and producing a coherent story with a rather remarkable ending in which everything but the kitchen sink appears to pad it out. This is not so much a condemnation as you might imagine. The unmasking of the villain may grow increasingly absurd, but there are elements of fun to make it watchable including the rather pleasing attack on Poirot’s vanity and his sense of theatricality in wanting a confrontation with all the suspects at the end.
So what’s this version of the story all about? Well, despite the advanced age of our primary characters, we’re set in the 1930s at a time when the world is beginning to fear there might be a second war. There are incidents in different countries which cause a certain loss of confidence. News media whisper the name of a new criminal organisation calling itself The Big Four which seems to ferment disorder with a view to profiting from arms sales. Led by a Chinese thinker, the Peace Party tries to right the balance, but an attempt to produce some degree of rapprochement with Russia comes unstuck when an old Russian chessmaster dies unexpectedly while playing an exhibition match. With suspicion falling on Abe Ryland (James Carroll Jordan), one of the people fronting the Peace Party, he disappears. This suggests he is one of The Big Four. Then one of the world’s experts on the Chinese leader is brutally murdered in his home. What is it that this leader is trying to hide? When a further murder implicates Madame Olivier (Patricia Hodge), the third leading member of the Peace Party, the press are convinced this Party has been playing a double game, terrorists masquerading as peace ambassadors.
So the first section of this adaptation plays the paranoia game with even the “respectable” newspapers stirring up anxiety. As the reputation of The Big Four rises, the attempts of the British government to calm the public with bland reassurances fail. Sadly the no-smoke-without-fire trope worked just as well in the 1930s as it does today. I’m slightly disappointed Tysoe (Tom Brooke), the pervasive journalist, was given such a lower middle class accent. Speaking like that, he would not have been allowed through the doors of the foreign office, let alone be permitted to speak to a senior civil servant. And talking of accents, we have the absurdity of a Belgian and French character talking to each other in French-tinged British accents instead of la belle langue with subtitles. I liked the character of Flossie (Sarah Parish) as the totally self-absorbed actress, but thought Simon Lowe played the part of the unmemorable Dr Quentin unmemorably.
So given the source material is so poor, the result on screen is quite pleasing. As always, the sense of period is done beautifully with every aspect of the production working to create the right look and feel. There are several gaping plot holes that I should mention. The first is the problem of time. Our chameleon killer can be everywhere being a clergyman, a delivery man, a chauffeur, etc. but also have a highly responsible role which should have required his presence on a full-time basis. And then there’s the question of how the drugged individuals were hidden and kept alive during such a long period. There just aren’t enough hours in the day for the killer to have fitted all this in. And did they really leave theatres in mothballs for fifteen years when rep and music hall were at their height? I don’t think so. And although the motive for one of the deaths fits, the overall point of all the press manipulation and murders is less than convincing. This leaves me thinking the result has one or two good moments but is, on balance, a failure. David Suchet is outstanding, genuinely coming alive in the confrontation at the end. But everything else collapses as a house of cards when the door of thought opens and you review what happened.
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 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)