Following a lot of Twitter activity regarding swearing in the BBC’s adaptation of The Pale Horse I was asked to discuss the subject of Agatha Christie adaptations on BBC Essex radio this week – it’s interesting that it has inspired so much debate! There are a lot of strong feelings it seems…
I’m thrilled to say that I’ll be talking at the Perfect Crime festival in Liverpool in November 2020. I can’t wait to join Sophie Hannah for a panel about (who else?) Hercule Poirot in his centenary year. There is a great line up for the day – you can see the full programme here and book a place here.
Over the last few years I’ve had a great time giving talks about Agatha Christie at various events, including a discussion of some lesser known screen adaptations at the inaugural Greenway Literary Festival last year. Most recently I was delighted to introduce a screening of Crooked House at the International Agatha Christie Festival in Torquay in September 2019.
I have quite a few talks already lined up for 2020 (and even one pencilled in for 2021!), and once I can tell people about them I will. Although this site holds the archive for the Agatha Christie on Screen blog, from now on it’s a place where I can let people know where they can hear one of my talks or read one of my publications.
If you have any enquiries please email Agathachristieonscreen@gmail.com
I recently took part in an Agatha Christie themed week over at In Media Res, a scholarly blog that specialises in bite-sized articles that ‘curate’ something – perhaps a clip, or a film poster. I decided to curate the trailer for the Margaret Rutherford film Murder She Said – surprisingly difficult to do when you only have about 350 words to play with!
You can find the article here. Of course, you can find out even more about the Margaret Rutherford films in my book, Agatha Christie on Screen, which you can order here or from your retailer of choice.
In a previous blog post I wrote a little about the Agatha Christie adaptations that are completely lost to us (as it currently stands) – in other words, those productions for which there is no known surviving copy. It’s always sad when a film or programme you want to see doesn’t seem to exist any more, but it’s worth noting that Agatha Christie adaptations are not particularly badly affected in this regard. However, what is more unusual is that in a market where works by, or based on, Agatha Christie are endlessly repackaged and re-released, there are a few adaptations that remain locked up in archives, inaccessible to most – so here is a glimpse of the adaptations currently missing in action.
Die Abenteuer GmbH (1929)
Of all the films on this list, this is the one that you are most likely to have the opportunity to see at some point. The second screen production of Christie’s works, this German adaptation of The Secret Adversary has had occasional screenings at festivals and even had a limited DVD release in Italy.
Nevertheless, there is surely a market for a proper release of the film – not only because of its historical significance, but because it’s also a lot of fun. Selfishly, it would also be great to have a release that uses English language intertitles, as the story gets rather difficult to follow during the impressive but lengthy chase sequence towards the end, and pausing the film every time the French and German text pops up to consult my foreign language dictionaries rather saps the enjoyment out of it.
Murder on the Nile (1950)
Agatha Christie’s mysteries popped up on American television many times in the decade or so from 1947 – sometimes these productions were original adaptations of her stories, but occasionally they were performances of existing plays. So it was that Christie’s Poirot-less stage adaptation of Death on the Nile, renamed Murder on the Nile (and sometimes Hidden Horizon), appeared in an abridged form on NBC in July 1950. Despite the fact that the recording of television programmes was not necessarily standard procedure at this time, a kinescope of the production was made and still survives. This makes Murder on the Nile the earliest existing Agatha Christie television adaptation.
The production itself is pretty unexceptional – abridged to under an hour, it rattles through the story so quickly that contemporary viewers may have struggled to keep up with the plot twists. On the whole performances are good, but some of the better supporting characters are reduced to near-cameos (the awful Mrs ffoliot-ffoulkes is particularly badly affected). Of course, the programme was live, and uses only a basic set that does nothing to make this of any particular visual interest, but aside from this unavoidable restriction it also lacks energy, with an over-reliance on characters relaying the plot to each other because all of the interesting character moments have been cut out to reduce the running time.
The production survives complete, including sponsorship promos, and is of a reasonable technical quality. To my knowledge it has not been seen outside of the archive since it was shown on television some 66 years ago.
They Came to Baghdad (1952)
They Came to Baghdad is a tough story to adapt by any measure. It’s one of Christie’s globetrotting thrillers, with multiple locations and a convoluted plot filled with double crosses and exotic locales. Resultantly, it is not an obvious candidate for live television – but nevertheless, in May 1952 CBS tried it and, thanks to a kinescope recording, it is possible to see their efforts. It seems likely that this story was chosen not only because it didn’t feature Miss Marple or Poirot (whose potential appearances on television were usually vetoed by Christie herself) but also because it was a new story, having only been published the year before, and therefore a title that may have been more familiar to the watching audience.
The adaptation saw several changes in plotting (some of which would be repeated when a script for a proposed TV movie of the book was written in the 1980s), but it is a confusing affair, and it often feels like the cast are having more fun than those watching. It is always enjoyable to see American productions try to depict England (as this does in the opening act) – it’s nearly as bad as when Britain tries to depict America.
The production survives complete, once more including sponsorship messages, and was briefly available from a small company selling alleged ‘public domain’ recordings on video in the early 1980s (despite the fact that the production is no such thing). Apart from this, it has remained unseen since its broadcast.
A Murder is Announced (1956)
One of the most famous early adaptations, NBC’s 1956 adaptation of A Murder is Announced saw the first screen appearance of Miss Marple, here played by Gracie Fields. This followed several years of plans for an appearance of Miss Marple on American television screens, with the original plan of a series, perhaps of original mysteries, starring Fay Bainter or Peggy Wood as Miss Marple, now living in Cape Cod. Christie’s strong objection meant that these ongoing plans never reached fruition.
The adaptation itself is good fun with a great cast, including Roger Moore and Jessica Tandy – the latter actually gets top billing, above Fields who, rather bizarrely, is given ‘Special Guest Star’ status. As is typical with television adaptations of this period, the pace is fast as the whole story is told in less than an hour, which is rather to its detriment.
For a long time this adaptation was considered lost, but a copy does exist in private hands.
[The] Spider’s Web (1960 & 1982)
Christie’s light-hearted mystery play was originally a showcase for Margaret Lockwood’s talents on stage, but it has made two screen appearances – both of which survive, but neither is available to buy in their original form.
The first is a 1960 colour film (called The Spider’s Web) starring Glynis Johns alongside a host of other familiar faces, and it’s a cheaply made but faithful version of the play. It is perhaps rather less fun on screen rather than on stage as so much of the story is effectively a farce, but as a depiction of the mystery it is perfectly decent. Unfortunately, it has pretty much disappeared since its release – the most recent screening on British television appears to have been in the Yorkshire ITV region in 1971. After this point, it simply disappears, no doubt for reasons linked to the winding up of the production company, helmed by the Danziger brothers. The film has been seen at the National Film Theatre in London, and even had a DVD release in Italy – but dubbed in Italian.
Twenty-two years later, the play made another screen appearance, this time on BBC2 in a largely studio-bound adaptation starring Penelope Keith. This fun production was well placed within the Christmas schedules, but has never had a VHS or DVD release.
[UPDATE: The TV version is now available on DVD in the UK and Germany, and the film is also available on both DVD and Blu-ray in Germany, with English dialogue and removable subtitles.]
The Adventures of Hercule Poirot (1962)
I’ve previously mentioned this 1962 CBS pilot for an unmade series, starring Martin Gabel as Poirot, in this blog post. This adaptation of the story ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’ is not without its faults – and the production paperwork for planned future adaptations shows a worrying disregard for what makes Christie’s stories so popular – but it is, nevertheless, an entertaining half hour of television.
Made on 35mm film, the pilot remains safely in the archives but has not been seen elsewhere since its only broadcast over half a century ago. It would be great to see this reach a wider audience today – perhaps packaged with the other unreleased television adaptations.
It isn’t just the case that older productions are the only ones to be lost from view, despite existing in the archives. A 1986 adaptation of Christie’s supernatural sort story ‘The Last Séance’ was made and shown as part of the Shades of Darkness series on ITV – however, it was pushed into a late night slot in most regions and was not included on the DVD release of the series. A more worrying fate may have befallen the charming Murder by the Book, which details a meeting between Christie and Poirot just as the writer is trying to kill off the Belgian detective. Starring Peggy Ashcroft and Ian Holm, the production was made on 35mm film by TVS, an ITV regional broadcaster whose productions are generally trapped in rights hell due to a later acquisition by Disney.
Poirot is probably the most instantly recognisable of Agatha Christie’s characters, particularly when it comes to the screen adaptations, because of his iconography (the moustache, the hat… even the waddle). But while even casual fans of Christie are used to seeing a handful of actors play the role (due to oft-repeated adaptations starring Albert Finney, Peter Ustinov and David Suchet), there are other actors who have also tackled the part – with varying degrees of success. Here’s a (non-definitive) selection of the more interesting takes on the role:
Oh, Austin Trevor. You don’t look like Poirot (No moustache! Too young!). You don’t particularly act like Poirot (must he really be quite so dull?), and yet, you were the first screen Poirot, so you will forever be important. To be fair to Trevor, he seemed to be pretty mystified by his casting as well. In a rather strange interview with a magazine of the time, he claims that he was probably cast because he’d once played a Frenchman in another picture. Yes – mon dieu! – in these films, proud Belgian Poirot is depicted as French! This followed a similar change in Alibi, the stage adaptation of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – so presumably it was that play’s script that had created the confusion. But still, a non-Belgian Poirot? That’s not Poirot.
Poirot in Germany
The first appearance of Poirot on television had been in a 1937 BBC production starring Francis L. Sullivan. This had been a screen enactment of a pre-existing play, which Christie was generally not averse to in the first few decades of television – but when (West) Germany’s turned to Christie in 1955 they not only plumped for Poirot, but also adapted his most famous case of all – Murder on the Orient Express. The 1955 series Die Galerie der großen Detektive was an anthology programme which, each week, dramatized a story featuring a famous detective. The series opened with an adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes story ‘The Dying Detective’, before working through other famous sleuths. It finished its run with a 50-minute adaptation of Christie’s mystery starring famous German actor Heini Göbel as a cigar-smoking Poirot. Unfortunately, no recording of the production is known to exist.
In 1973, Poirot returned to German television, this time played by Horst Bollmann in a production of the Christie play Black Coffee (pictured on the right, above). Bollmann provides the screen with probably the first completely satisfying portrayal of the character. He performs his greying (and short) Poirot as a spry and jaunty character, often played with a smirk and a great deal of charisma. This Poirot offers more energy than usual, something that can only benefit one of Christie’s duller plays. Meanwhile, the Poirot of the books would surely be pleased that, on screen, his companion Captain Hastings (played by Ernst Fritz Fürbringer) wears the moustache that he had implored him to grow.
This 1962 half-hour pilot for a series of Poirot adventures, which adapted the short story ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenhein’, is one of the more interesting productions of the period, and an intriguing dead-end. On the one hand, the scripting is reasonably accomplished and the production is shot on film – albeit at obviously small expense (poor Mr Davenheim doesn’t even get a line, even at the end!). It helps that it is one of the better Christie short stories, with a neat resolution – but its treatment of Poirot is bizarre. On the one hand, Martin Gabel is perfectly capable in the role for the most part (it is often said that this followed a pilot film starring José Ferrer as Poirot, but production documentation does not support this claim – it’s clear that Gabel replaced Ferrer before filming began), although he stumbles over his lines a couple of times – forgivable in a live production, but bizarre in something shot on film. But Poirot himself is not particularly likeable (taking on the case as a bet – as in the short story – seems crass when he is chatting to the distressed Mrs Davenheim), and the production team’s ‘twist’ on the character is ill-advised – as here, he is seen to travel in some sort of high-tech (almost magical) car, with a TV set, drinks cabinet, bed, and so on. This choice is more Batman than Poirot, although it would have been interesting to see how the series would have developed.
Poirot in Japan
There have been several Japanese adaptations of Agatha Christie stories – including an anime production featuring both Miss Marple and Poirot short stories, which is well worth seeking out. But probably the most lavish and interesting production is Fuji TV’s 2015 adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, which offered its own twist on the story in a production that runs for nearly five hours. This version of the mystery stars 48 year-old Mansai Nomura as Poirot, who is travelling on the ‘Special Orient Express’, travelling between Shimonoseki and Tokyo in 1933.
Nomura’s performance as the detective moves between charmingly eccentric and entertaining to rather over-the-top in the less effective comedic moments – however, because he is clearly enjoying himself in the role, the audience finds itself being swept along by his energy. The first part of the two episode adaptation follows the structure and detail of the original story closely, but the second part then takes an unusual but effective turn as it spends more than two hours dramatising the background to the case – namely, the kidnapping and murder of a young child – before following the suspects as they make the decision to commit murder as a form of retribution. The flashback is still framed by Poirot going through the details of the mystery on the train, but it is now that we see the whole story from the murderers’ perspectives. It is surprising that this flashback section is not more atmospheric – the kidnapping occurs in the middle of the day in natural lighting, for example – but as the story is so complex it serves a good function. Nevertheless, one has to wonder whether the idea really justifies more than two hours of screen time – for Christie fans there is much to be interested in, but more casual viewers may feel that it perhaps over-eggs the pudding somewhat. However, what it does show is that like the same year’s BBC production of And Then There Were None, there are still new ways to bring Agatha Christie to the screen.
I tried to make the book of Agatha Christie on Screen generally positive – even when an adaptation was a bit of a stinker, it’s rare that there isn’t something to praise. However, although Agatha Christie has been pretty well served by adaptations, there are some productions that should be avoided at all costs. Here are my top (bottom?) five adaptations that represent the worst of the screen versions of Christie stories.
There are some near misses that don’t make it to the list – the 1947 film of Love from a Stranger (adapted from the short story ‘Philomel Cottage’, via a stage play) is a hilariously unsubtle take on the story, with a curious period setting, apparently an attempt to replicate the success of the not dissimilar film (and play) Gaslight. The 1952 live TV adaptation of They Came to Baghdad is a confusing mess, but has some obvious restrictions that make it tough to be too critical. The Margaret Rutherford film Murder Ahoy manages to miss out mainly because it isn’t really an adaptation, while the pretty poor TV movies of the 1980s are saved by their occasional camp charm – something that was entirely unintentional. Personally, I find the LWT adaptation of The Seven Dials Mystery a bit of an irritating bore, not helped by the fact that it is so similar to the earlier Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? – with some of the main cast even popping up again.
So, that leaves us with these five…
Let’s get this one out of the way first. My problem with the ITV series Marple, starring Geraldine McEwan and Julia McKenzie, is not particularly rooted in the fact that the series generally takes huge liberties with the original stories. My issue is that the series itself is simply poor television.
Marple seems to be a programme made by people who have a vague idea of what they think Agatha Christie and Miss Marple is like, based on a few half-memories and maybe a Margaret Rutherford film, and then extrapolated from that. Unfortunately, it has neither the wit nor the brains to be a series that ever looks like more than an amateur spoof played out in a village hall. Consistently, the scripts arrogantly introduce or alter elements for the worse, rather than solving any problems inherent in the text (as some of the Poirot adaptations of problematic novels did), thus failing to take advantage of the general lack of fidelity to the original stories.
Clearly the series aimed for a bright, almost comic-book, style, but even this fails to work, with the end result looking remarkably cheap. The mise-en-scène is a consistent disappointment, with the costume given to McEwan’s Miss Marple particularly poor, looking like a batty old lady from a poor stage farce. McKenzie’s Miss Marple was dressed rather better, and her performance frequently manages to rise above the dreadful scripts she is given.
In terms of the guest cast, the remarkably high profile and esteemed names that the series attracted are squandered, as they seem to be directed to act as caricatures. But what else could one do with scripts of such poor quality?
The Alphabet Murders (1965)
In my writing of the book, I realised that this is the film that is pretty much the centre of the universe when it comes to understanding the relationship between the Christie family and the film adaptations. Christie was so upset by Murder Ahoy, the final Rutherford film, that her family wouldn’t even allow her to read the proposed scripts for this Poirot film. However, even this low-rent comedy adaptation of The ABC Murders is rather better than the original proposal, which was to star Zero Mostel. Full details are in the book, but suffice to say that we should be grateful that this proposed sex comedy never made it to the screen.
The film as released is pretty poor on all levels. The script by David Pursall and Jack Seddon (later to pen Carry on England) is a badly plotted shambles, lacking either tension or amusement. The cast are a little better, with Tony Randall’s Poirot perfectly fine in some scenes, but placed into silly scenarios elsewhere – if you’ve ever wanted to see the Belgian detective go ten pin bowling, then this is the film for you. Nudity is a recurring ‘comic’ theme, as is the general over-sexualisation of most characters, which can only elicit a roll of the eyes from the bored audience.
The film occasionally pops up on TV and is now out on DVD in the United States. Don’t bother.
Murder on the Orient Express (2001)
What a silly TV movie this is. Even casting Alfred Molina as Poirot can’t rescue this tedious ‘updating’ of one of Christie’s best known books. The 1974 film casts such a long shadow that it’s no surprise that a lower budget modern remake would need to find a way to present their own take on the story, but they could have found a better way.
How, then, might one update Murder on the Orient Express? Perhaps one might look at the modern relationships, between both people and nations? Consider what crime might be considered so horrific in 2001 that it would motivate the final murderer(s)? Draw parallels with the development of society since the Second World War? Nope. Instead, we just have everyone carrying around technology, have endless discussion of access to laptops, and have a dropped PDA stylus as a clue. Mature and nuanced this ain’t.
In its favour, it’s only 90 minutes. It just feels like longer.
Poirot: Appointment with Death (2008)
Oh, Poirot. Probably my favourite series of Christie adaptations and a remarkably consistent one – although some fans dislike the later era of the show, I feel that the vast majority of the productions still work very well. But not Appointment with Death. Because Appointment with Death is a brilliant book – and an unforgivably bad TV production.
So let’s start with the very fact that the book is so strong, with its vile matriarch presiding over her rather pathetic family. It is well plotted, with big broad moments of shock and interest, alongside an underlying discussion of the psychology of the family dynamic. This is a story that would work well on screen. Not here, however.
It’s difficult to know where to begin with the criticisms that can be levelled at the production the lack of subtlety can not only be shown through the one-note characterisation and simplistic relationships, but also the introduction of such elements as a slave-trading nun. Honestly.
The production is also disappointingly poor on a technical level, with some dreadful green screen work. No wonder ITV left it on the shelf for so long that it came out on DVD a long time before it was shown on TV. They were right to be embarrassed.
Partners in Crime (2015)
I have to admit that I struggle a little with Tommy and Tuppence. When occasionally visited through the short stories I can find them fun and a fresh change of pace. But too much of them is definitely too much, and I didn’t much care for the 1983 LWT series of Partners in Crime, which starred them. I was quite pleased to hear that the BBC were looking to do their own adaptations, as I hoped it would soften the edges of their (sometimes irritating) characters and still balance fun and adventure. Unfortunately, the final result was even weaker than the earlier series.
It is immediately obvious that David Walliams is not comfortable in the role of Tommy, despite being one of the forces behind the creation of the show. Jessica Raine’s Tuppence is rather better, but the leads are the least of the programme’s problems. Instead, once more it is the scripts that are the weakest link. The first story, The Secret Adversary, starts reasonably well but fails to live up to its promise by taking detours around the plot that make it increasingly difficult to follow – and even tougher to care about. The second story, N or M?, is even worse afflicted, as it jettisons anything of interest in the original novel, instead introducing a story so complex (and dull) that it’s no wonder that by the sixth episode of the series half of the audience had abandoned it.
The series should be grateful that the hugely positive response of And Then There Were None a few months later means that it was quietly forgotten in record time.
More information about all of these adaptations can be found in Agatha Christie on Screen, which is due out in late 2016, and is available to pre-order now from Amazon UK, Amazon US and most other stores.