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 ‘Four and Twenty Blackbirds’.
Beware: Here be Spoilers
The fifth episode of the first series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 5th February 1989. It was directed by Edward Bennett and written by Michael Baker. The episode was based on the short story of the same name, which was first published in Hutchinson’s Story Magazine in 1929.
Christie’s short story opens with a group of fashionable young things returning to Friars Mansions from a night out, only to discover their hostess, Patricia Garnett, has lost her latchkey. The two men of the party decide to use the service lift to get into Pat’s kitchen (she lives in a flat on the fourth floor of the apartment block), but they miscount the floors and stumble into a third floor flat instead. And something in that third floor flat isn’t right…
Poirot enters the story in a rather odd way, which serves to raise more questions than it answers. When Pat’s friends, Donovan and Jimmy, return to the third floor flat and discover the body of its resident (Mrs Ernestine Grant), they realize they have to call the police; as they discuss this, a man appears behind them:
‘They stood staring at the little man with a very fierce moustache and an egg-shaped head. He wore a resplendent dressing-gown and embroidered slippers. He bowed gallantly to Patricia.’This is, of course, our Belgian detective – but his next statement is, to say the least, a little baffling:
‘I am, as perhaps you know, the tenant of the flat above. I like to be up high – in the air – the view over London. I take the flat in the name of Mr O’Connor. But I am not an Irishman. I have another name.’Why has Poirot been living in this apartment block under the name of Mr O’Connor? Why has he been pretending to be an Irishman? We never find out – but the image is rather charming. Having revealed his true identity, he proceeds to investigate the scene of the crime, partake of an omelette cooked by Pat, put together the clues he discovers, and reveal the murderer of Mrs Grant.
It’s a neat story, with a nice little piece of misdirection at its heart. And the TV episode is a fairly close adaptation, which retains much more subtlety to its clueing than some of the previous episodes.
The TV version moves the location to Whitehaven Mansions (Poirot’s home), thus removing the bizarre Friars Mansions/O’Connor subplot, and adds the usual ‘family’ of Japp, Hastings and Miss Lemon. In this version of the story, Poirot is suffering from a cold (something he merely pretends to in the short story), and Hastings takes him out to the theatre to cheer him up. The play that they go to see, The Deadly Shroud, is a murder mystery, and the two men make a £10 wager that Poirot can solve the mystery by the end of the first act. This is quite a charming touch – a bit more of the Poirot-and-Hastings bonding that is such a key feature of the early series – made even better by the fact that Poirot loses the bet (he believes the butler did it). When the men return from the theatre, they find Pat (Suzanne Burden) and Mildred (Amanda Elwes) locked out of their flat; Donovan (Nicholas Pritchard) and Jimmy (Robert Hines) soon arrive to announce their gruesome discovery.
As a little anecdotal note, I do remember watching and enjoying this episode when it was first broadcast (I was ten at the time). In particular, I remember being quite taken by the service lift the men use to get into the apartment – and, of course, I wasn’t the only person to fall in love with the Whitehaven Mansion sets used in the series – but also by the song Pat and Mildred sing on the stairs as they wait for Donovan and Jimmy. When I was older, I found out that this is quite a well-known song: ‘Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries’ by Ray Henderson and Lew Brown. The song was first performed by Ethel Merman in 1931, so its use here is a nice way of presenting Pat and Mildred as bright young modern things.
Unlike in the previous episode, the details of the mystery are unchanged in the adaptation. Some scenes that are described very briefly in the story are shown visually (and a little differently) in the episode. For instance, Pat mentions that she thinks Mrs Grant has requested a meeting with her because she wants to complain about the noise of Pat’s piano; in the TV episode, we see Pat and Mildred dancing to music from a gramophone, which appears to lead Mrs Grant (played by a rather underused Josie Lawrence) to post a note through her door. However, these little changes do nothing to alter the overall arc or the subtlety of the clues.
Much of the characterization also remains the same in the adaptation. One lovely detail is to be found when Pat cooks Poirot an omelette. In both the story and the episode, this leads Poirot to wistfully comment that, once, he fell in love with an English girl who was very like Pat – except that she couldn’t cook, so he knew it wasn’t meant to be. This is the first of several references to Poirot’s thwarted love life that add a slightly sad air to his character: unlike for Sherlock Holmes, it seems there was more than just ‘one woman’ for Hercule. (Alternatively, perhaps, he is making up the beautiful English girl who couldn’t cook in order to charm and flatter Pat. In which case, and this is a distinct possibility, Poirot is an incorrigible flirt!)
When I wrote about ‘The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly’, I mentioned the ‘car porn’ that is used in these early episodes – and this episode has plenty of shots of Hastings’s gleaming Lagonda. Unfortunately, the Lagonda gets caught up in the episode’s obligatory chase scene, leading to heartbreak for Hastings. While the climactic chases are usually faintly silly in these early episodes, I always find this one to be a bit different. Hastings’s response to the destruction of his beloved car is genuinely moving, and Poirot’s sympathetic response is very sweet.
Ultimately, this is a very good episode. For me, it strikes the perfect balance of recreating the original story and sticking to the format of the early TV series. And, like quite a few episodes, it has a classic Japp line delivered perfectly by Philip Jackson. When he arrives to investigate the murder at Whitehaven Mansions, our long-suffering policeman shoots his friend a mischievous look: ‘You’ll be having murders in your back bedroom next, Poirot.’
Next episode: ‘Triangle at Rhodes’