This is the first proper post of my 2016 Poirot Project. You can read the full story in my Introduction post, but basically I realized in 2014 that I am inordinately attached to David Suchet’s portrayal of Hercule Poirot in the long-running ITV series, and I’m incapable of watching Curtain. I’ve decided to rewatch and reread the entire series this year so that, by Christmas, I’ll be ready to watch the final episode and say goodbye.
So, this post is about the first episode of the first series. I won’t labour the point too much, but these aren’t academic reviews. I’m not a Christie expert or particularly knowledgeable about the production of the ITV series. This is just a personal response to a TV show that I’ve loved since I was ten.
Beware: Here be Spoilers
The first ever episode of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was broadcast on the 8th January 1989 – it’s very weird to think that this is the exact date that I learnt who Hercule Poirot was. I knew who Miss Marple was from the BBC adaptations of the 1980s, and I’d already been permanently traumatized by Sleeping Murder (still can’t look over a set of banisters without getting the creeps) and A Pocketful of Rye (the clothes peg! oh God, the clothes peg!) As a side note, I was about to find out who Albert Campion was, as the BBC’s underrated Campion, starring Peter Davison and Brian Glover, would air a few weeks later. (Oh wow, I’ve only just thought, was this a competition between ITV and BBC? Two shows about dapper Golden Age detectives with ridiculously catchy theme tunes and natty Lagonda cars making their appearances on rival channels within weeks of each other? Hmmm…) In fact, I remember watching the first episode of Campion a lot more clearly than watching the first episode of Poirot, because my little brother loved Campion too. I don’t know if this is an embarrassing or endearing story, but me and my little bro were quite enamoured with Campion and used to insist on wearing white shirts and bowties when it was on (and repeatedly singing the theme song). I have no idea where we got the bowties from (I was ten, he was nine), but we clearly felt the show deserved a sense of occasion. All I remember from my first viewing of ‘The Adventure of the Clapham Cook’ was being quite fascinated by the concept of ‘white slavers’ (as I had no idea what on earth this might mean – if only I’d seen into the future and Appointment with Death, hee hee). But I digress…
‘The Adventure of the Clapham Cook’ was based on Agatha Christie’s short story of the same name, which was first published in 1923. The story was part of the ‘original’ series of Poirot stories (though it wasn’t the first to appear), published in The Sketch magazine and written at the request of Sketch editor Bruce Ingram. Hercule Poirot had made his debut three years earlier in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and Ingram approached Christie about the possibility of publishing further Poirot adventures. These stories are often quite short, and Christie would go on to rework several of them into longer stories (more on that in my next post!), and they are narrated by Poirot’s associate Captain Hastings (undoubtedly inspired by Watson’s narration of Sherlock Holmes’s cases).
In Christie’s ‘The Adventure of the Clapham Cook’, we meet a bored Poirot. The intrigues of the newspaper headlines – as read aloud by Hastings – do nothing to excite him, and he decides to focus his meticulous attention on attending to his wardrobe and his moustache. These plans are interrupted by the arrival of a Mrs Todd, who wishes to engage Poirot to find an absconding servant (the ‘Clapham Cook’ of the title). Poirot decides to take the case – on a whim, more than anything – but soon discovers that there is more going on at 88 Prince Albert Road than first suspected. It turns out to be, as he announces in the final sentence, ‘one of [his] more interesting cases’.
The episode was written by the late Clive Exton and directed by Edward Bennett, and it is a reasonably faithful adaptation. Much of the dialogue is retained from the short story, including (and I am very fond of this), Poirot’s conversation with Annie the maid (played by Katy Murphy) about white slavers and stewed peaches. But, for me, the most interesting moment comes not when something is said, but when something is not said. In the short story, when Poirot initially rejects Mrs Todd’s case as being beneath him, she remonstrates with him that, for someone in her position, a missing cook is ‘as much to you as her pearls are to some fine lady’. Poirot pauses at this, and Hastings notes:
‘For a moment or two it appeared to be a toss up between Poirot’s dignity and his sense of humour.’The adaptation retains this exchange, almost word-for-word. When Mrs Todd (Brigit Forsyth) finishes, Poirot is standing facing her and Hastings (Hugh Fraser). For me, this moment illustrates David Suchet’s approach to playing Poirot beautifully, as he simply captures the words of Christie’s text in his facial expression. We can see, like Hastings, the ‘toss up’ between his dignity and his sense of humour flicker across his face, before he laughs, apologizes and agrees to take the case. It’s a lovely moment.
While the story and much of the dialogue in ‘The Adventure of the Clapham Cook’ stays close to its source material, the adaptation makes some important changes that introduce the overall ‘shape’ that the early series will take. The characters of Miss Lemon (Pauline Moran) and Inspector Japp (Philip Jackson) are added, as they will be to further episodes. (While not present as such, Japp is mentioned in the original short story, as Poirot insists that ‘our friend Inspector Japp’ must never get to hear of their search for a missing domestic.) I will say up front that I have no problem with Japp, Miss Lemon and Hastings being added to stories – I love the dynamic between the characters, and the central group makes for a more coherent TV series. I should note, Moran’s Miss Lemon is quite different to the character that appears in Christie’s books – but I’ll cover that in a future post.
Other changes work in a similar way. Scenes that are (briefly) narrated in the short story – such as the discovery of Davis’s body – are (understandably) dramatized on screen. A scene in which Poirot and Hastings question a railway porter (played by Danny Webb, in the first of his two appearances in the series) about Eliza’s trunk is added, and this includes an additional clue about Simpson’s possible escape plan. In order to avoid the ‘static’ feel of the short story, Poirot and Hastings travel to meet Eliza Dunn (Freda Dowie) in Cumbria rather than the other way round. This allows for a comical insight into Poirot’s feelings about the English countryside, which will recur in other early episodes, and the first of many gorgeous, gorgeous steam trains. Finally, Poirot, Hastings and Japp race to the docks together to apprehend Simpson (in the short story he is caught ‘by the aid of wireless’ while on board a ship to America); this is the first of the classic Poirot ‘chase scenes’, which will become a staple (and faintly silly) feature of the early episodes. All of these changes are completely understandable, though, as they reveal an attempt to translate a short story into a TV drama – and to create a recognizable template for future episodes.
A more significant change, however, is to be found in the clueing of the story – and I have mixed feelings about this. In my opinion, one of Agatha Christie’s greatest strengths as a crime writer lay in her ability to obscure clues and present red herrings, so that she gave readers everything they needed to solve the puzzle without them realizing it. Consider the chatty, fussy opening to The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side or the blatant explanation of Ratchett’s death on the first page of Murder on the Orient Express – Christie was the queen of telling you everything when she appeared to be telling you nothing. And ‘The Adventure of the Clapham Cook’ has shades of this (though less developed than in her later novels) – one of the ‘throwaway’ headlines that Hastings reads to Poirot turns out (of course) to be the key to the mystery.
The adaptation dilutes this somewhat, by drawing the viewer’s attention to key plot elements right away. Instead of opening with a bored Poirot in his apartment, the first tense little scene shows us Simpson (Dermot Crowley) tying up Eliza Dunn’s box (to dramatic music). When reading the headlines to Poirot, Hastings names the bank from which the clerk has absconded (with £90,000 rather than the £50,000 of the short story – that’s inflation for you). When Poirot and Hastings arrive at Prince Albert Road, we see Simpson acting shifty and are quickly told that he works at the Belgravia and Overseas Bank. In a detail added to the original story, Poirot asks Simpson if he ever takes part in ‘musical theatre or amateur dramatics’, before shortly afterwards explaining that he had spotted a dab of Gum Arabic in the suspect’s sideburn. Once you’ve read the short story, these changes are disappointing, as you feel your attention is being drawn to the bank theft and to Simpson too quickly. Poirot describes Simpson as ‘inconspicuous’ in his summing-up in Christie’s story, but he is in no way so in the adaptation. However, I’m pretty sure I didn’t work out the mystery when I first watched the episode, and I know my husband (who watched it for the first time yesterday) was baffled until Poirot’s explanation. So maybe the rejigging of the clues isn’t a giveaway, but rather a necessity of creating appropriate tension and suspense. This is a question I think I’ll be coming back to a lot as I rewatch the series.
Overall, ‘The Adventure of the Clapham Cook’ is a brilliant opening to the series. It introduces us to the main characters, it cements the setting and aesthetic, and it’s a ‘classic’ Poirot puzzle. Highlights for me are Katy Murphy and Brigit Forsyth (who are just perfect as Annie and Mrs Todd), and the subtlety of Suchet’s performance. Minor negative point: the change to the interview with Eliza Dunn results in the omission of one of my favourite lines in the short story (‘Do not forget how to cook.’).
Next up… ‘Murder in the Mews’