I’m looking forward to speaking at this conference among such great company! It was an honour to be asked. It takes place online on the weekend of 27-28 July. I’m speaking on the second day, and because the timing is between projects for me I am finally doing the talk about the process of writing about Agatha Christie (rather than the results) that I’ve nearly done for years but always chickened out of.
I’m really excited to say that I’ll be a part of not one but TWO Agatha Christie Festivals this year!
Firstly there is the brilliant International Agatha Christie Festival in Torquay in September. I’ll be giving a talk about my Poirot research as well as interviewing ITV Poirot producer Brian Eastman and BBC Miss Marple producer Guy Slater. Can’t wait! See the website for full details of the events, running 11-18 September. There are loads of exciting things happening, and some amazing guests and speakers. I can’t wait to attend.
Then, in November, I’m excited to take part in Tenerife’s Agatha Christie Festival Internacional. They’ll be announcing full details soon, but other speakers include Andrew Wilson and John Curran, so it should be a lot of fun!
Ahead of the American and Canadian publication of my Poirot book next month, Mysteries Ahoy! has published a new review, which I hope will help to convince a few more people to pick it up! Thanks to them for the kind words.
North American fans of Poirot and Agatha Christie may have noticed that my book isn’t out there yet (although it seems to be periodically available via Kindle and Audible), and was delayed from its initial publication date. I’m very pleased to say that the hardback will now be coming out in April, and the copies are already printed and finding their way across the Atlantic! You can find the Amazon.com page here, or (of course) you can order from your local book store – always the best option if you can! (At the moment Amazon.ca only has an old, incorrect listing for the hardback – hopefully that will be fixed soon.)
I’ve been asked to give a public online talk as part of Solent University’s new speaker series, and I’m looking forward to sharing some of my new findings about Poirot and Agatha Christie while discussing the background to my book. It’s free to attend and there will be a Q&A at the end. Feel free to sign up here and join me!
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.