This post is part of my 2016 Poirot Project. You can read the full story of why I’m doing this in my Introduction post. The previous post was a review of ‘The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly’.
Beware: Here be Spoilers
Episode 4 of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 29th January 1989. It was dramatized by Russell Murray (with Clive Exton as script consultant) and directed by Renny Rye. The episode was based on the short story of the same name (aka ‘Poirot and the Regular Customer’), which was first published in Collier’s Magazine in November 1940.
UPDATE: I have been reliably informed that 'Four and Twenty Blackbirds' was in fact first published in The Mystery Magazine in 1926, but didn't see its first UK publication until 1941 (in The Strand).
I don’t clearly remember watching this episode when it was first broadcast, though I’ve seen it a few times since. I do remember reading the short story for the first time though, and it remains one of my favourites. The adaptation is interesting, as it removes some of my favourite features of the short story (boo!) but adds some extra details that I really love (yay!).
Christie’s short story begins with Hercule Poirot having dinner with his friend Henry Bonnington at the Gallant Endeavour. While the two are enjoying their meal, the waitress tells them a curious story. She points out an old man who has been dining regularly at the restaurant for nearly ten years, and says that, like all ‘gentlemen’, he always orders the same thing. However, the week before, the old man had not only varied the day on which he came to the restaurant (he went on a Monday, as well as his usual Tuesday and Thursday), but he also ordered something quite different from the menu – thick tomato soup (despite never having ordered a thick soup before), steak and kidney pudding (despite hating suet pudding), and blackberry tart (despite hating blackberries). Poirot finds this occurrence fascinating, and his little grey cells begin to tingle.
This is what I love about ‘Four and Twenty Blackbirds’. It begins with this simple little curiosity and the reader, like Poirot, is invited to start thinking about explanations. Why would a man who has been so fixed in his eating habits for nearly a decade suddenly deviate so dramatically from habit? When I first read the story, I remember pausing at the section break after Poirot and Bonnington’s meal, running through possible scenarios that might explain the weird occurrence. And I’m quite proud of myself for actually working it out, too. Although this opening section of the story doesn’t give any information as to whodunit – in fact, at this point in the story, no one has actually ‘dun’ anything – I did work out the puzzle of the old man’s dining habits…
… but the fun of ‘Four and Twenty Blackbirds’ lies in its ‘double puzzle’ structure. Three weeks after their meal together, Poirot runs into Bonnington and learns that the old man hasn’t been to the Gallant Endeavour for over a week. Poirot is now completely hooked, and begins to investigate. He estimates the old man’s age and searches for reports of deaths that might match. With luck, the first death he finds (that of Henry Gascoigne) turns out to be the right one, and away he goes. But even if you (like Poirot) solved the first puzzle – that the ‘Henry Gascoigne’ who ordered the blackberry tart was an imposter – this only serves to make the second puzzle – who killed Henry Gascoigne, and why? – more confusing. The man was a poor artist, with only a nephew and an estranged twin brother, and there seems no reason for his death. Stranger still, Poirot discovers that the twin brother himself has died earlier the same day. All that remains is for Poirot (and the reader) to put the various pieces together and work out what has happened. There’s some nice clueing, and a little red herring, in the story to lead you on your way.
The TV adaptation makes quite a few alterations to the source story, some good, some not so good. Let’s begin with the not so good…
As with several of the early episodes, key details and clues are made much more obvious in the adaptation than in the short story. I’ve forgiven this in some previous episodes, but I find it a bit more frustrating here. Perhaps this is just because I’m fonder of the short story, I’m not sure.
The episode begins with a short disconnected scene (the same technique is used in ‘The Adventure of the Clapham Cook’), showing the death of Anthony Gascoigne, and mentioning his brother Henry and nephew George Lorrimer. We also quickly learn that George (played by Richard Howard) works in the theatre, and is devoted to both his uncles.
Poirot enters the story, as in the source text, at dinner with Bonnington (Denys Hawthorne). Bonnington is now Poirot’s dentist – allowing for further development of a recurrent joke about Poirot’s fear of the dentist – and the restaurant is now called the Bishop’s Chop House. Molly the waitress (Cheryl Hall) tells the men about the regular customer, but in this version there’s no mystery about his identity. She then interrupts the men’s meal to tell them that Henry Gascoigne has, for a second time, ordered thick soup, suet pudding and blackberry crumble. This conflates the events of the short story into one meal, and removes the need for a later chance meeting of Bonnington and Poirot. To be honest, I can understand why this meeting would have to be changed for the TV adaptation – it’s quite hard to imagine Suchet’s version of Poirot travelling on the tube – but I feel that this collapsing of events into one strange dinner weakens the mystery somewhat. The clues, which were handled quite neatly in the short story, are being presented a bit too heavy-handedly.
In addition to this, the plot has undergone some changes. The TV version of Henry Gascoigne is now a successful artist, who prevented sales of his highly-prized paintings during his lifetime. Two new suspects are introduced as a result of this change: Henry’s model Dulcie Lang (played by Holly De Jong) and his agent Peter Makinson (Clifford Rose), who both own paintings that have become highly valuable with Gascoigne’s death. Furthermore, a specific cause for the Gascoigne brothers’ feud is introduced: Anthony’s wife, Charlotte, was previously Henry’s model and muse. As Hastings comments, it now seems like ‘everyone stands to benefit from the old man’s death’. These changes turn out to be something of a red herring, however, as the final motive (and murderer) is revealed to be the same as that of the short story.
The episode’s slightly altered plot leads to a different denouement. This is the case with a number of the shorter episodes, as the short stories don’t all feature a confrontation with (or apprehension of) the perpetrator. As a result, these endings are often inserted into the TV episodes. As well as this, the change in George Lorrimer’s profession (from doctor in the story to theatre manager/performer in the adaptation) – and the inclusion of Japp and a team from Scotland Yard (see below) – leads to a very theatrical denouement indeed (which looks ahead, in a way, to The Big Four). It’s a bit over-the-top but, as I’ve mentioned before, the early TV episodes are known for their dramatic endings – and at least it’s not a chase scene this time.
While the puzzle is a little less subtle in the TV adaptation, there are some changes that I do like. As in other episodes, these relate to the inclusion of the ‘family’. Hastings, Miss Lemon and Japp are included in the story, despite not being in the original short story, and George is removed, despite being mentioned briefly (we’ll have to wait a while longer to meet George). And just like in other early episodes, these ‘family’ scenes are a complete joy.
Highlights of the episode include the revelation that Miss Lemon adores Raffles, the gentleman thief, and tunes in religiously to a radio adaptation of E.W. Hornung’s stories (much to Poirot’s affectionate amusement); the first hint in the series of Hastings’ predilection for redheaded women, and Poirot’s love of Surrealist art; Poirot’s cooking of a traditional Belgian rabbit dish for Hastings, which the latter says ‘tastes more... well... rabbity than any rabbit I’ve ever tasted’. By far my favourite addition, though, is a little scene with Japp, in which the policeman shows Poirot around Scotland Yard’s brand new forensics lab. As specialists pore over microscopes and samples, Japp explains that this is the future of policing and that, very soon, men like himself and Poirot will be obsolete. Poirot counters this by asking for a favour and, when Japp agrees, the little Belgian detective happily notes that no amount of forensic science could ever replace their ‘camaraderie’. It’s a lovely moment.
All in all, this is a good solid episode, though it isn’t a favourite of mine. There’s lots of good character moments – and it’s worth watching just for the cricket joke that runs throughout the episode (with a brilliant punchline right at the end) – but the storyline doesn’t quite live up to the excellent source story.
Time to move on to the next episode… ‘The Third Floor Flat’.