I’ve had some lovely feedback about my talk for the fantastic International Agatha Christie Festival, which took place online this year. You can see it on YouTube for a little while longer.
Firstly, and inevitably, unfortunately all of my talks for this year have now been delayed until 2021. This includes the Greenway Literary Festival, the Agatha Christie Festival, and Perfect Crime in Liverpool. They are all something to look forward to, at least.
During lockdown I have still been talking and writing about Agatha Christie a lot including for the livestreamed event Murder in the Afternoon from Fantom Films, which you can see here.
I was also asked to write another short article for the Agatha Christie website, this time talking about my recommended film adaptations. You can find it here.
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.
More than once during the writing of Agatha Christie on Screen I had someone say to me, ‘I haven’t seen an Agatha Christie film – which one should I watch?’. It’s an entirely reasonable thing to ask, but also tough to answer, because the films and TV adaptations generally offer very different balances of characters, incident, plot, mystery and (often) comedy – and different audiences react to these elements in different ways.
Although my book isn’t entirely devoid of opinion, when I was writing it I decided that as this was a history of how Agatha Christie’s stories were brought to screen, readers were not necessarily interested in what I had to think. I was particularly aware that my opinion differs from many Agatha Christie fans, and casual audiences, and I had to be respectful of that, and not let my own opinions weigh too heavily on my discussion of the different productions.
So, having now finished the book, allow me to indulge in a very personal blog post where I can tell you what I really think!
Before I start, there are three omissions that some of you may be surprised by and I want to acknowledge. Firstly, the René Clair adaptation of And Then There Were None from 1945 – a film that has never really worked for me, being rather lacking in suspense and feeling very old fashioned for the time. It is probably the best Christie adaptation to that point, but has been surpassed many times since.
Secondly, none of the films starring Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple appear. While I don’t despise the films as violently as some, I also don’t think they’re very good. The scripts are thin at best, and they’re all over the place tonally (the line between amusement and irritation is frequently crossed), while the films never feel like any care has been taken with them. Rutherford is the best thing in them, but doesn’t play any Miss Marple I recognise. As I didn’t see them when I was young I have no real nostalgic affection towards them, either, and I think this often plays a part when audiences enjoy them now.
Finally, and most controversially… no, Murder on the Orient Express is not on this list. Sorry. I would say that the opening reel, showing the kidnapping that sets the film’s events into motion, is probably the best sequence in any Agatha Christie film. But the film is then crippled by both Albert Finney’s portrayal of Poirot, who I never believe can be a real person, and the strict adherence to the book’s structure. On the page, we are guided through a maze of clues and contradictions, but on screen Poirot interviewing everyone in turn eventually becomes a bit of a chore.
So, without further ado, my top five:
Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
This list is in no particular order – except for this one. The 1957 Billy Wilder film of Witness for the Prosecution is, for my money, the single best screen adaptation of an Agatha Christie story. There were several early TV adaptations of this short story on both sides of the Atlantic, but it was the success of Christie’s own stage adaptation that really made it a hot property. It was suggested to Alfred Hitchcock, but he was more interested in Dial M for Murder, and after a few wrangles it eventually became a pet project for Billy Wilder.
Writing with Harry Kurnitz, Wilder produced a screenplay that does the near impossible by making one of Christie’s very best stories even better. (A later blog post will give details of a few other adaptations that, I think, manage to surpass Christie’s original stories.) Wilder and Kurnitz add wit and warmth, filling out the characterisation and adding further incident. This includes the flashback sequence that sees Marlene Dietrich’s performance of ‘I May Never Go Home Anymore’ – this has often been derided, but not by me, as I think it’s essential that we see the relationship between the character of Christine, played by Dietrich, and Leonard (Tyrone Power) away from the court case that has seen the latter accused of murder. Although the cast is exceptional, including Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester, Dietrich steals the show – especially in one extraordinarily difficult scene (you’ll know which I mean if you’ve seen it).
The film was remade as a Hallmark TV movie in 1982 starring Ralph Richardson and Diana Rigg, alongside a host of recognisable British actors. The script was a condensation of Wilder and Kurnitz’s screenplay but, aside from an atmospheric opening, the final product doesn’t rival the 1957 film.
Evil Under the Sun (1982)
After the success of 1974’s Murder on the Orient Express, the film’s producers John Brabourne and Richard Goodwin looked to find another glamorous Christie book to film. The press reported that the next project was to be Evil Under the Sun, again starring Albert Finney, but Death on the Nile was always the preferred follow up, and Finney was never likely to reprise the role. So it was that, in the end, it took until 1982 for this tale of murderous events on an island made it to the screen, by which point Peter Ustinov was playing Poirot.
This is the best of the high budget film adaptations of this era because it no longer worries about restraining itself from the camp that had only bubbled under the surface to this point. Evil Under the Sun is also a film that feels glamorous, with its beautiful Majorcan locations alongside the highly affected costumes and Cole Porter score, which makes it so much more entertaining to watch. Added to this, the cast are clearly having a ball, especially during the barbs between Diana Rigg’s doomed Arlene and hotel owner Daphne, played by Maggie Smith.
Aside from the pithy put-downs and strong characterisation, Anthony Shaffer’s script balances a particularly complex set of clues and incidents to great effect, while also removing some less effective subplots and sensibly thinning out the crowd of suspects.
Perhaps the scene in which Poirot reveals the workings of the murder goes on a little too long, but the film as a whole is fun, gripping and clever, and what more can you want than that?
Miss Marple: A Murder is Announced (1985)
I’ve picked A Murder is Announced to represent the BBC’s Miss Marple series, which ran sporadically between 1984 and 1992, but really I am spoiled for choice. There is too much back story to go into here, but Joan Hickson’s Miss Marple is perfect – so perfect, in fact, that those making the later ITV series deliberately cast actresses who would be very different, so as not to invoke direct comparisons.
A Murder is Announced is probably the best overall production of this excellent run of twelve adaptations. It showed that it was possible to stick closely to the book while still making for a highly effective piece of television – even if, at over two and a half hours, it does perhaps run for longer than needed. Alan Plater’s lightness of touch to the script makes the world on screen feel like a real one, rather than a set of suspects waiting to be uncovered.
Poirot: The ABC Murders (1992)
I was tempted to go for Curtain here, but its inevitably downbeat tone doesn’t seem quite right for a celebratory blog post – I’d rather go to the series’ heyday by flagging up this 1992 adaptation from the Poirot series starring David Suchet. Some days, The ABC Murders might be my favourite Christie, and it certainly hovers in what I consider to be the top tier of her stories. It’s a fantastic premise, of seemingly random murders committed in alphabetical order, with a satisfying resolution.
The real strength of this adaptation is in the emphasis on Cust, a man who we must treat as the main suspect, and whom we even see committing murder at one point… don’t we? Donald Sumpter gives an exceptional performance as this troubled and confused man, and the audience is pleased to learn of his fate at the end.
Alongside this is a set of strong performance from the series’ regulars, and a reinforcement of their relationship, especially when Hastings brings Poirot a rather pungent present back from his travels.
Audiences have their pick of treats from the Poirot series, but this is the best of the bunch.
And Then There Were None (2015)
For the final choice, we come up to date. How nervous were many of us about this adaptation? 2015’s Partners in Crime had not exactly been a huge success, and so expectations were not high for this long overdue take on Christie’s best selling novel, despite the strong pedigree of writer Sarah Phelps. I was lucky enough to see some rushes during filming and was (pleasantly) shocked by what I saw – a lavish production, yes, but also one that was clearly taking this dark tale very seriously. When one person asked me to describe what I saw, I could only say that it looked great… and there was a lot of blood.
This description was to be true of the final three-part adaptation itself. Phelps crafted a brilliantly paced and constructed thriller, with strong (generally repulsive) characters. From this, director Craig Viveiros shot the piece not as ‘an Agatha Christie adaptation’ but a tense, violent, psychological thriller – and he was right to do so.
It was great to see how well received the production was when broadcast, and I hope that this will be an annual tradition of striking, modern, and faithful Christie adaptations.
As ever, much more information on 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.
When I started to research Agatha Christie on Screen (which is available to pre-order at Amazon UK and US, since you ask) I was keen to find out more about the adaptations we rarely hear about. In a later post I’ll look at existing adaptations that are not in general circulation (and so effectively ‘lost’ for many), but this first article is a chance to talk about film and television productions that – as far as we know – there are no existing copies of.
My favourite part of writing any book is the research – especially if it’s archival, and I get the chance to look at material that hasn’t been published before. It’s fair to say that files in various archives contained pleasant surprises (full censor notes for the abandoned Zero Mostel version of The Alphabet Murders!) as well as disappointments (scripts missing from the place where they should be), but the piecing together of the available information is the best part of the writing process – especially when it comes to these ‘lost’ adaptations.
So, I thought I’d open the Agatha Christie on Screen blog with an article that highlights some of the more interesting productions that you won’t have seen, unless you were able to catch them at the time – this is far from a comprehensive list, but they’ll give you an idea of what we’re missing.
The Passing of Mr Quinn (1928)
What is it?
The first Agatha Christie film adaptation, production of which just pre-dates the German take on The Secret Adversary.
What do we know about it?
Ostensibly this was an adaptation of the 1924 short story that would later be renamed ‘The Coming of Mr Quin’. Directed by Leslie S. Hiscott, this silent film was made as a ‘quota quickie’, following legislation that forced British cinemas to show a certain number of British films. One stipulation was that the story’s original author had to be British – and so Christie was an ideal candidate. In truth, only a few elements of the original story survived, and even the spelling of Quin’s name was changed. The plot takes some bizarre and convoluted twists and turns (including a trek to a convent, and a completely illogical reworking of the title character as a disguised alcoholic), and was poorly received.
A handful of publicity photographs, a detailed synopsis of the film via a novelisation (met with anger from Christie, and never reprinted as a result) and a few reviews give us a sense of the film, but no script or footage is currently known to survive.
How much do we want to see it again?
Quite a lot, although not for entertainment reasons. The whole thing sounds bonkers but as a result it’s difficult to know how it actually came across on screen. We know that it was distributed internationally, as far as Australia, and so there is a chance it may turn up one day.
Alibi and Black Coffee (both 1931)
What are they?
The first two films to star Poirot, here played by Austin Trevor, who was only 34 at the time, and did not don a moustache for the role. Both are based on stage productions, the first of which (by Michael Morton) was in turn based on the novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. The second, Black Coffee, was originally written for the stage by Christie.
What do we know about them?
Our best understanding of these two films come from the original stage play scripts, which don’t seem to have been heavily reworked for the screen. However, we can also gather a lot from the third film to star Austin Trevor as Poirot, 1934’s Lord Edgware Dies, which does exist. Unfortunately, it is also a lacklustre effort with weak performances (including a seemingly uncomfortable Trevor) and a marked lack of atmosphere. Given the generally poor reception of these two films from the press, we can reasonably infer that they were unlikely to have been any better. However, Trevor later reprised the role for BBC radio and had a cameo in 1965’s comedy Poirot film The Alphabet Murders, so we can assume he was fondly remembered by some of the audience.
A few nice photos and advertisements are the only visual material known to survive, with no known copy of the script, so we can’t be sure exactly what changes were made in the transition from stage to screen.
How much do we want to see them again?
While the prospect of seeing the first screen appearance of Poirot is a tempting, in reality we can gather a lot about the films from the stage plays and Lord Edgware Dies, so they probably wouldn’t be too exciting.
The Wasp’s Nest (1937)
What is it?
The first appearance of an Agatha Christie story on television, Christie’s one act play made its world debut on the medium in a live performance starring Francis L. Sullivan as Poirot.
What do we know about it?
Christie’s script is a good piece of drama that closely mirrors the events in the short story of the same name (give or take an apostrophe and definite article). Some moments probably struggled to work well on screen – one character is forced into near-hysteria at one point, with dialogue that would have been difficult to convey convincingly – but it’s a strong story. Satisfyingly, in the end the whole thing feels like a neat trick that everyone has played an equal part in.
A publicity photo or two, plus the full play script (although not the camera script, meaning that we don’t have an idea of exactly how it was shot), plus some broadcast documentation that gives us a few more titbits of information. This includes the fact that the opening music was Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Wasps Overture – what else?
How much do we want to see it again?
A lot – it’s a rarely performed play, with an excellent cast, and it was a televisual first to boot. Unfortunately, it also predates systematic recording of television broadcasts so I wouldn’t bank on someone finding a film recording in the back of a cupboard somewhere.
Three Blind Mice (1947)
What is it?
The history of the 1947 radio version of Three Blind Mice is well known, of course – mainly because it was eventually reworked and considerably expanded to become The Mousetrap, a unique theatrical success. However, just a few months after the radio production, an almost unchanged script also formed the basis of a television production.
What do we know about it?
A reasonable amount. We have a full script, and production details including the commissioning process (the execs would have preferred And Then There Were None, but the 1945 film meant that this wasn’t possible), a floorplan of the studio and some transmission info. It opened with a shot of snowy Culver Street (recreated in studio), where we see the murderer (in disguise) home in on their victim. The television production deliberately attempted to mirror the radio version as much as possible. In years to come, several attempts were made to stage the play on British television again, but the rights were not available due to the ongoing success of The Mousetrap. It popped up elsewhere on occasion, though – including on American television.
The aforementioned script and production documentation, which gives us a good idea of how the production worked on screen.
How much do we want to see it again?
A perfect story for live television, this would be great to see, but there’s no realistic chance that it was recorded.
Witness for the Prosecution (1949)
What is it?
This story was produced a few times for television, mostly predating Christie’s own adaptation of it into a play (which opened in 1953), and several years earlier than the exceptional 1957 film. Instead, these adaptations were based on her original 1925 short story. One of the more intriguing productions is this 1949 BBC adaptation.
What do we know about it?
The evidence indicates that this adaptation was a considerable embellishment on the original short story. We know this murder victim Miss French was a proper, credited role, while we also know that the production opened with a shot of her body (surely not enough in itself to give an actress such a prominent credit) and that sets included the balcony of a Swiss hotel overlooking a lake. Was this the setting for a flashback to a rendezvous between Romaine and Leonard? Unfortunately, the script hasn’t survived, so we can’t be sure. The production made use of just one film sequence, a specially recorded establishing shot of the Old Bailey.
A reasonable amount of production documentation tells us quite a lot about some elements (casting, sets, etc) but frustratingly little about others. No footage is known to survive and the performance pre-dates systematic recording of BBC television broadcasts.
How much do we want to see it?
A lot. Any of the productions of the story that pre-date Christie’s own stage play are of interest, but the implication that this particular version opens out the (excellent) story beyond the original plot is an exciting prospect. Even a copy of the script would be a good find but, unlike many BBC productions, this one is not held by the corporation.
The Case of the Missing Lady (1950)
What is it?
An American television adaptation of a light Tommy and Tuppence adventure, the really interesting thing about this production is that it starred Ronald Reagan as Tommy alongside Cloris Leachman as Tuppence.
What do we know about it?
Very little. We know that it was light hearted, and seems to have been a pretty close adaptation of the (very slight) original story. Reagan seems to have had fun in the role, playing a kazoo in a conscious echo of Sherlock Holmes’ efforts with a violin. Variety described it as ‘mildly amusing’, but then they also called it ‘The Case of the Blessing Lady’, so who knows how closely they were paying attention.
Not much, but we do have several nice publicity photos of Leachman and Reagan. Unfortunately, no recording appears to survive, although we can’t rule out its existence as 1950s film recordings of American television shows do continue to pop up in unexpected places.
How much do we want to see it again?
The idea of a future president playing Tommy is enough to make this of interest to more people than Christie fans – it would be good to see how well he carried off the part.
Afternoon at the Seaside (1963)
What is it?
One of Christie’s ‘Rule of Three’ set of one-act plays, the BBC transmitted a live performance from the Duchess Theatre, with an audience in residence.
What do we know about it?
This seems to have been a straightforward outside broadcast of the play – there had been similar instances with extracts from plays shown due to key anniversaries or launch nights in previous years, but this was the first time a whole play was shown, albeit a short one. Critics were not kind – one asked if it was ‘part of some Machiavellian scheme to convince viewers that theatre standards are infinitely lower than those of even the worst television drama’. Viewers received it more warmly, however, with 67% of an audience panel giving it a grade of A or A+.
Not a lot – a couple of reviews and a small collection of documentation, along with a few photos.
How much do we want to see it?
As a record of a performance of the play, it would be nice to see what the audience of the time saw – but it isn’t one of Christie’s more memorable pieces of work.
You can, of course, read much more about these productions – and lots of other ‘lost’ adaptations, including takes on Three Blind Mice, And Then There Were None and Witness for the Prosecution – in Agatha Christie on Screen, to be published in late 2016 by Palgrave Macmillan.