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 Theft of the Royal Ruby’.
Beware: Here be Spoilers
The ninth episode of the third series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 3rd March 1991. It was based on the short story of the same name, which was first published in The Sketch in March 1923.
After the madness of the last couple of posts – ‘The Mystery of the Spanish Chest’ and ‘The Theft of the Royal Ruby’ turned out the be a lot more complicated than I was anticipating – it’s nice to end the series with two reasonably straightforward adaptations of classic Poirot short stories.
‘The Affair at the Victory Ball’ was Christie’s first Poirot short story, written after Bruce Ingram, the editor of The Sketch, encouraged her to revisit the characters she’d created for The Mysterious Affair at Styles. The story is interesting for the way in which it develops certain aspects of Poirot and Hastings’s character that were hinted at in the 1920 novel, but also for the way it sets the template for the subsequent series of short stories. It’s also a very entertaining read, and I’ve always been very fond of this story and its adaptation.
The story is narrated by Hastings, and the first paragraph gives us a very brief resume of what has happened in the years since The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Apparently, Poirot’s success in that earlier case ‘brought him notoriety’, and so he has decided to settle in London and set up as a private detective. Hastings himself was invalided out of the army after being wounded on the Somme – a fact hinted at, but never stated explicitly, in Styles – and so ‘finally took up [his] quarters with [Poirot] in London’. (It’s interesting to see this said so clearly, as many of the other short stories are a wee bit circumspect about the men’s living arrangements. It’s also intriguing that Hastings says he ‘finally’ took up residence with Poirot – Christie would come back to the question of what Hastings did before he took this decision in ‘The Lemesurier Inheritance’ at the end of 1923… but it’ll be a while before I get to that story.)
In case we’ve forgotten Hastings’s Watson-esque role as Poirot’s chronicler in Styles, he reminds us of it here:
‘Since I have first-hand knowledge of most of his cases, it has been suggested to me that I select some of the most interesting and place them on record.’As in the earlier novel, Hastings never really tells us who suggested this – or where this record is being placed. But that doesn’t really matter… it’s just a literary conceit after all. (Every fan bone in my body just ached as I wrote that sentence.)
‘The Affair at the Victory Ball’ begins with a scene that will become very familiar to readers throughout the run of the Sketch stories – Hastings has completed his Perusal of the Morning News, and shares a curious report with his illustrious friend. He has been reading about ‘The Affair at the Victory Ball’ – i.e. the murder of Lord Cronshaw and the subsequent death of Coco Courtenay from an overdose of cocaine – and is keen to engage his friend in a bit of armchair detection.
Poirot doesn’t take the bait, though, as he’s too busy admiring the new pomade he has bought for his moustaches.
Before things can go any further, the men’s domestic scene is interrupted by the landlady, who announces the arrival of Inspector Japp. And the Scotland Yard man has a proposal for Poirot:
‘I’m on a case that strikes me as being very much in your line, and I came along to know whether you’d care to have a finger in the pie?’Ah ha! The game is afoot…
As Japp explains, the murder of Viscount Cronshaw took place the previous week at a grand fancy dress ‘Victory Ball’. Cronshaw had attended with his friends – ‘Coco’ Courtenay, Mr and Mrs Davidson, Cronshaw’s uncle the Honourable Eustace Beltane, and an American widow named Mrs Mallaby. The party had worn the costumes of the Commedia dell’Arte, modelled after a set of china figures in Beltane’s collection. Cronshaw was Harlequin, Coco was Columbine, the Davidsons were Pierrot and Pierrette, and Beltane and Mrs Mallaby were Punchinello and Pulcinella.
At some point during the evening, Cronshaw and Coco had a falling-out, and the actress was taken home by Chris Davidson. After this Cronshaw became moody and withdrawn, before finally disappearing completely. He was spotted briefly at around 1.30am, but not seen again. Eventually, his friends decided to look for him, and that’s when they discovered the body of the murdered Harlequin – he’d been stabbed through the heart.
To make matters worse, the following day Coco Courtenay was found dead in her flat. A known user of cocaine, the actress was believed to have taken a fatal overdose. But did this have anything to do with Cronshaw’s death?
‘The Affair at the Victory Ball’ is an absolute classic. The clues are nicely subtle, the misdirection is almost imperceptible, and the cast of characters is intimate, but diverse enough to give you something to ponder over. And the Commedia dell’Arte costumes add a touch of theatrical glamour to the proceedings. (Incidentally, I absolutely love the Commedia dell’Arte, so that might be part of the reason why I’m so fond of this story. Christie, too, seemed to be rather fond of Harlequin, as one of her less well-known detective creations was a certain Mr Harley Quin – but more on him another time.)
In addition to the Poirot-Hastings reunion and the well-crafted puzzle, this short story also offers us a reminder of Poirot’s infuriatingly efficient grey cells, and our first taste of the detective’s penchant for ludicrously elaborate dénouements.
In the case of the former, it appears that Poirot gets his first inkling as to the puzzle’s solution before Japp has even finished outlining the facts. Hastings spots that his eyes are ‘shining with the green light I had learned to recognize so well’ as the policeman comes to the end of his narrative. But, of course, Poirot isn’t quite ready to share what he has deduced just yet. When pushed to explain his thinking, he simply says:
‘Ah, mon ami, you know my little weakness! Always I have a desire to keep the threads in my own hands up to the last minute. But have no fear. I will reveal all when the time comes.’This doesn’t go down brilliantly with his associate, of course. It never really does, does it?
‘“Poirot,” I cried, “one day I shall murder you! Your habit of finding everything perfectly simple is aggravating to the last degree!”’More hints of the way the relationships between the men are going to develop come when Poirot asks Japp if he ‘play out’ his resolution of the mystery in his own unique style. Not only does this give us a hint of the elaborate game the detective is planning to play, but it also allows for a really lovely response from Japp, which really gives you an idea of how the poor old policeman sees his mad Belgian friend:
‘“That’s fair enough,” said Japp. “That is, if the dénouement ever comes! But I say, you are an oyster, aren’t you?” Poirot smiled. “Well, so long. I’m off to the Yard.”’Now, I’ve talked about some of Poirot’s bonkers dénouements before – the ones involving almost life-size ventriloquist’s dummies and fake séances complete with blood-stained hands and wandering ghosts – but this one is quite the sight to behold. It seems that, in the early days, Poirot actually has a team of guys on hand to help him create his bizarre little performances:
‘The preparations greatly intrigued me. A white screen was erected at one side of the room, flanked by heavy curtains at either side. A man with some lighting apparatus arrived next, and finally a group of members of the theatrical profession, who disappeared into Poirot’s bedroom, which had been rigged up as a temporary dressing-room.’Japp’s reaction to all this? ‘Bit melodramatic.’
Of course, like many of Poirot’s escapades, this complicated endeavour is actually almost completely pointless. The ‘performance’ itself takes just a couple of minutes, and is merely intended to prove that it’s possible to hide a Harlequin costume under a Pierrot costume – something that’s surely blinding obvious to anyone who has seen the outfits. But still… it’s always fun watching Poirot playing the game, isn’t it?
So… how does the TV adaptation stack up?
The ITV version of ‘The Affair at the Victory Ball’ was directed by Renny Rye and written by Andrew Marshall, and it’s a fairly faithful interpretation of Christie’s story, with just a few alterations to fit the format and style of the TV series.
We have a little pre-Poirot scene, as we do in a number of episodes, but, unlike in ‘The Adventure of the Clapham Cook’ or ‘The Mystery of the Spanish Chest’, this doesn’t give anything away that wasn’t said up-front in the short story. The opening scenes include a voiceover from Poirot explaining the characters of the Commedia dell’Arte, and we see a bit of the relationships between Cronshaw and his friends. In order to establish Coco Courtenay as an actress, but also as a druggie, we see her (played by Haydn Gwynne, in the first of her two appearances on the show) arriving late to a radio performance on the BBC National Programme (you know, in case we’d forgotten it’s the 1930s…)
Given that the short story already contained quite a bit of Hastings and Japp, there’s no real attempt to change their roles particularly in the adaptation. As with a number of the early episodes, though, Miss Lemon is added to the episode. Sadly, poor old Pauline Moran doesn’t really get much to do here, except demonstrate Miss Lemon’s familiarity with how the radio works. She doesn’t seem very impressed with Deadly Alibi by Desmond Havelock Ellis (the play in which Coco is performing) though – clearly it’s not as good as Raffles, the Gentleman Thief (who, as we all know, Miss Lemon adores).
Another change made to the story – and, again, this is quite a common one for the series – in the insertion of Poirot and Hastings at the scene of the murder. As in ‘The Mystery of the Spanish Chest’, Poirot is actually present at the party where the murder takes place.
However… he nearly isn’t at the party. Although Hastings is over-the-moon about attending a costume ball, Poirot initially appears to have forgotten all about it. When his friend bounds in, clutching a large box containing his costume, Poirot is resolutely unimpressed. He can’t go to the ball, he says. Why?
‘I’m afraid I must rearrange my stamps in order of size.’Hastings twists his arm, and they reach a compromise. Poirot will go to the party, but he won’t wear fancy dress. I don’t think this matters though, as Hastings has more than enough costume for the two of them.
Hastings has already given us a hint of what he will wear when he burst into Poirot’s study shouting, ‘They seek him here, they seek him there…’ But I love the fact that Hastings actually seems to be dressed as Sir Percy Blackeney, rather than his Scarlet Pimpernel alter ego – there’s something quite cute about Hastings dressing a mild-mannered fellow whose mask of stupidity hides the truth about his daredevil character. It’s how I imagine Hastings likes to think of himself.
Much as I love Hastings’s costume, the real stars of the Victory Ball are, of course, the Harlequinade. And the costumes in the episode really are gorgeous.
Finally, as might be expected from the series, there is a slight expansion of the puzzle aspect of the story in order to better fit the format of the TV show. A straightforward clue from Christie’s story is altered to create a bit more confusion (the cocaine boxed that was engraved with ‘Coco’ in the short story is now marked with a more ambiguous ‘C’); an additional red herring is added in the form of a cryptic note saying ‘Lowestoft’; and there’s a slight alteration in the meaning and motivation behind the pompom cut from Mrs Davidson’s costume after the ball. However, none of these really amount to massive changes, and so the story itself remains very close to Christie’s original.
Saying that, there is one further alteration that should be mentioned. Poirot’s staged dénouement plays out a little differently in the adaptation, which sort of makes sense given the shift from theatre to radio acting earlier in the episode. The TV finale is still bonkers – just in a different way to that of the short story.
In a bold – and probably illegal – move, Poirot decides to perform his unveiling of the murder live on the BBC. He enlists the help of producer James Ackerly (played by Andrew Burt) to help with the technical side of things (replacing the gang of lighting technicians and actors he employed in Christie’s story). And he brings along the set of china figures to help aid his little play.
It’s a somewhat toned-down version of the source story’s finale, as Poirot mostly narrates events, rather than revealing fully-clothed versions of the characters. I’m also not sure it works as piece of radio – Miss Lemon listens at home enraptured, but I’m not convinced Poirot’s monologue would be as engaging without the visual aids he has in the studio. Given that he also can’t show the dramatic costume switch that revealed the mechanism of the murder in Christie’s story, the unveiling of Davidson has to rely on yet another new detail: Poirot (clearly forgetting the constraints of radio) suddenly throws a china figure at Davidson (Nathaniel Parker), who catches it in his left hand and gives away the fact that he was the fake Harlequin witnessed by Mrs Mallaby at the Victory Ball.
It’s a bit flimsy, to say the least. Perhaps he should’ve hired that lighting rig after all.
Anyway, despite the slightly weakened ending, ‘The Affair at the Victory Ball’ is one of my favourite episodes from the early series. It’s just got everything you’d want from a Poirot story, and it’s a fitting adaptation of such a significant story in the Poirot canon.
One final detail that I really like comes about halfway through the episode, as Poirot, Hastings and Japp discuss aspects of the case. They walk past a newspaper boy who is selling issues of The Star: the front page headline is about the case, but specifically about Poirot’s involvement in the case (and his apparent inability to get to the bottom of it).
It’s not a particularly important detail – Poirot shrugs it off and makes a dismissive comment about safeguarding his ‘reputation’ – but it does remind us of Hastings’s words at the beginning of Christie’s short story: Poirot really has gained a fair bit of notoriety.
Time to move on the final episode in this series: ‘The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge’.