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 Mystery of the Spanish Chest’.
Beware: Here be Spoilers
The eighth episode of the third series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 24th February 1991. It was based on the short story of the same name (aka ‘The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding’), which was first published in the collection entitled The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding in 1960. In its turn, this story was based on a shorter story of the same name (aka ‘Christmas Adventure’), which was first published in The Sketch in December 1923.
It’s pretty cool to be writing about this story in the run-up to Christmas, as it’s the first of two Christmas Poirot stories, so it feels seasonally appropriate. As well as this, ‘The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding’ is one of my favourite examples of how seemingly minor details shift from an earlier Sketch story to a longer piece by Christie to an ITV adaptation, giving subtle little comments on the changing context of their creation.
Let’s begin with the earliest version of the story…
‘The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding’ was the penultimate story in the second series of ‘The Grey Cells of M. Poirot’ published in The Sketch in 1923 (and it’ll be a long time before I get to the very last one in the series… you’ll have to watch this space for ‘The Lemesurier Inheritance’). The 1923 version of this story isn’t included in The Complete Short Stories, but it is in While the Light Lasts (under the title ‘Christmas Adventure’), so that’s the version I’m using.
‘The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding’ differs from the other stories published as ‘The Grey Cells of M. Poirot’ (first and second series) in one very important respect: it isn’t narrated by Hastings. In fact, Hastings isn’t in the story at all, as he has emigrated to South America.
Now, readers of Christie’s novels would already know this, as Murder on the Links was published earlier in 1923; however, the short stories in The Sketch had studiously avoided any reference to Hastings’s marriage up until this point. A week before ‘The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding’ was published, ‘The Double Clue’ was the story of the week, in which it’s business as usual for the dynamic duo (albeit with a certain Russian countess appearing as a distraction). Prior to that, it was ‘The Cornish Mystery’, which gives no clue at all that anything has changed in the men’s relationship. So, ‘The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding’ comes a little bit out of the blue, as it’s the very first time we’ve seen Poirot without Hastings.
The story opens with Poirot staying at an old country house for Christmas. We’re introduced to Miss Endicott – an elderly spinster – and a gaggle of ‘young people’ who are visiting the house for Christmas. It’s snowing – ‘[r]eal Christmas weather’, as one of the boys describes it – and the party are looking forward to a traditional English Christmas.
The first hint of intrigue comes very early on in the story, when Poirot is handed a note by the butler: ‘Don’t eat any plum-pudding,’ the anonymous missive reads.
This is immediately followed by the next hint of intrigue (and bear in mind that we still don’t have a clue why Poirot is visiting this house for Christmas): Poirot notices one of younger visitors – Evelyn Haworth – sitting alone, looking pensive and fiddling with her engagement ring. Poirot attempts to question the young woman on the cause of her sadness, and the way he gets her to open up is by revealing that he is also sad. It’s very moving and, again, comes completely out of the blue after ‘The Double Clue’:
‘No, you are not happy. Me, too, I am not very happy. Shall we confide in each other? See you, I have the big sorrow because a friend of mine, a friend of many years, has gone away across the sea to the South America. Sometimes, when we were together, this friend made me impatient, his stupidity enraged me; but now he is gone, I can remember only his good qualities.’Don’t worry, Hercule. He’ll be back again very soon! (Seriously… ‘The Unexpected Guest’ was published in The Sketch on 2nd January 1924, and this story begins with Hastings arriving at the white cliffs of Dover, impatient to see his old friend again.)
Okay… so that’s Poirot’s sadness, but what about Evelyn’s?
Evelyn is engaged to a man named Oscar Levering, but she is really in love with Roger Endicott (eldest nephew of Old Miss Endicott). Victims of circumstance, Evelyn and Roger were unable to start a relationship and, while Roger was away working in Australia, Oscar befriended Evelyn and helped out her family financially. As the young woman felt very much in his debt, Evelyn accepted a marriage proposal from Oscar – but now Roger’s back, and she’s struggling with her feelings.
Poirot understands. Of course.
After this slightly melancholic interlude, we cut back to the Christmas fun. The young people are building a snowman that looks like Poirot and wondering how to make the most of having a famous detective staying in the house. They decide to stage a fake murder as a prank, to see how Poirot will react. It’s all going to be such jolly fun.
Roger Endicott isn’t so sure though… he has an important question that is surely shared by the reader at this point:
‘“I was just wondering,” he said quietly. […] “Wondering what M. Poirot was doing down here at all.”’So this is the set-up to the mystery – albeit a rather unusual one. The snow fun is then interrupted by the gong, signalling both Christmas dinner and the beginning of the story’s action:
‘It was a real old-fashioned Christmas dinner. At one end of the table was the Squire, red-faced and jovial; his sister faced him at the other. M. Poirot, in honour of the occasion, had donned a red waistcoat, and his plumpness, and the way he carried his head on one side, reminded one irresistibly of a robin redbreast.’A gigantic Christmas pudding is brought it, and slices are served still flaming. Despite having received his anonymous note, Poirot decides to risk eating his slice. But it’s the Squire who finds something untoward – there’s a lump of red glass in his piece. Poirot discreetly pockets this.
Now, I could go through the rest of the plot in this much detail, but that would take all day. And what I want to focus on is the transformation that the story goes through to get from ‘The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding’ (a 1923 short story that is mostly concerned with Christmas pudding, snowmen and children’s games) to ‘The Theft of the Royal Ruby’ (a 1991 TV episode that is mostly concerned with hunting down a jewel thief and retrieving an Egyptian prince’s ruby). All three versions are recognizably the same story, but there’s a shift in emphasis from one to the next that’s quite interesting. And it all revolves around puddings and rubies…
After the ‘red glass’ is discovered, the 1923 story plays out with the children staging their fake murder mystery (but with a macabre twist added by Poirot himself), the ‘glass’ being purloined by Oscar Levering during the course of the charade, and then Poirot offering a lengthy explanation of his presence in the house (and the backstory to the events that have transpired).
The 1923 story is about the theft of a royal ruby – Poirot explains that he has secured an invitation from Mr Endicott because he is tracking down a thief who, with the help of her brother, managed to relieve an unnamed European aristocrat of a valuable stone – but this narrative is utterly overshadowed by the ‘Christmas Adventure’ part of the story. The revelation that Oscar Levering and his sister are the jewel thieves is almost secondary to the happy reconciliation of Evelyn Haworth and Roger Endicott, and much of the story is taken up in describing the murder mystery charade staged by the younger guests. This is hardly surprising, as the note at the end of the story in While the Light Lasts explains that Christie’s inspiration for ‘The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding’ came from memories of childhood Christmases spent at Victorian Gothic Abney Hall in Stockport, which she described as ‘a wonderful house to have Christmas in as a child’, and which she used to explore with the other visiting children. It’s easy to imagine, then, that she originally envisaged this story as being about the children’s ‘Christmas Adventure’, in which a real-life detective comes to stay one snowy Christmas and reveals the exciting story of a stolen ruby hidden in a gigantic Christmas pudding.
So… what becomes of this story in 1960? Where did Christie take it when she decided to expand it?
Well… this is a much more complicated expansion than we saw with ‘The Mystery of the Spanish Chest’. The bare bones of the plot are the same, but there are significant differences in the set-up, the significance of the ruby, and the version of Christmas being presented.
Firstly, the 1960 story begins with Poirot being asked – almost instructed – to travel to Kings Lacey (the name of the country house) by a Mr Jesmond. We are told up front that Poirot is to undertake this journey in order to track down a stolen ruby – and so the theft part is immediately foregrounded over the Christmas part.
The importance of the ruby is expanded here as well, and it’s given a political significance that it lacked in the earlier story. In the 1923 version, the unnamed aristocrat was worried that the theft would cause a scandal that would threaten his marriage to a European princess. Here, though, there are even deeper ramifications.
The ruby belongs to a ‘young potentate-to-be’, whose country has been ‘passing through a period of restlessness and discontent’. The prince’s father is described as ‘persistently Eastern’, and the young prince has faced widespread disapproval of his ‘Western’ follies. He is now betrothed to a young woman who has been ‘careful to display no Western influence’, but who will, according to Jesmond and the prince, be a progressive reformer once she is married and her husband inherits the throne. (In case you’d missed it, Western=progressive for the purposes of the story.) If it is discovered that the prince lost the ruby (which was to be a wedding gift) during a night out in London with an English girl, the scandal will destroy all the royal couple’s plans to enact widespread developments in education and democracy throughout their country. This is a far cry from the trinket lost by a rich man in the 1923 story. As we are told:
‘The ruby was something more than a ruby, it was a historical possession of great significance, and the circumstances of its disappearance were such that any undue publicity about them might result in the most serious political consequences.’All this before we even get a whiff of plum pudding!
Poirot eventually relents and travels to Kings Lacey, where he meets Colonel and Mrs Lacey (replacing Squire Endicott and his sister), and their gaggle of ‘young people’. Evelyn Haworth is replaced by Sarah, the Laceys’ granddaughter, who has taken up with Desmond Lee-Wortley (a man with ‘a very unsavoury reputation’). Mrs Lacey would much rather see her granddaughter marry David Welwyn, a family friend, but Sarah is completely infatuated with Desmond.
So, the emphasis here is slightly different as well. Sarah is less a victim of circumstance than a headstrong young woman who is trying to break from her family’s traditions and make her own life; Desmond is more obviously a wrong ’un than Oscar Levering, and Poirot is being actively encouraged to steer the young woman away from him (as opposed to in the 1923 story where the detective simply takes it upon himself to do a bit of festive matchmaking).
Finally, after all this, we get our two additional plot points that were so central to the earlier story: the kids decide to stage their fake murder play, and Poirot receives an anonymous note (this time reading, ‘Don’t eat none of the plum pudding. One as wishes you well.’)
Again, I’m in serious danger of running away with the details of this one. You can always read the stories yourself if you want to find out more. What really interests me (given that I’m writing this post on the 22nd December) is the way that Christmas has changed in the years between the two stories being written.
In the 1923 story, there’s a sense that the Endicotts’ Christmas is a little bit dated, but nevertheless there’s a feeling of continuity with the past. The celebrations are done in the way they’ve always been done, and there some nice little moments where characters reminisce about Christmases past. Miss Endicott, in particular, offers a charming little story about Christmas puddings that really sets the scene:
‘Christmas puddings ought to be made a long time before Christmas. Why, I remember when I was a child, I thought the last Collect before Advent – “Stir up, O Lord, we beseech Thee…” – referred in some way to stirring up the Christmas puddings!”In the expanded version, this type of old-fashioned Christmas is being replaced by more modern celebrations. Mrs Lacey explains that their festivities are very old-fashioned, and that most people now prefer to go out to a hotel and dance on Christmas Day. Social changes are also reflected in the differences between the stories. In the earlier version, the Endicotts’ household comprises a number of live-in servants, including a cook and butler. But in 1960, the Laceys find it a little harder to run a manor house:
‘Of course, one cannot expect to be looked after and waited upon as one used to be. Different people come in from the village. Two women in the morning, another two to cook lunch and wash it up, and different ones again in the evening. There are plenty of people who want to come and work for a few hours a day. Of course for Christmas we are very lucky. My dear Mrs Ross always comes in every Christmas. She is a wonderful cook, really first-class. She retired about ten years ago, but she comes in to help in an emergency.’The Laceys’ butler, Peverell, also comes out of retirement for the festive season, so that the family can keep up a pretence of continuity with the past.
At the heart of all of this change is the Christmas pudding, and even that isn’t completely immune. It’s still the flaming centrepiece of a lavish festive dinner, but there are little reminders here and there that the times they are a changin’. There’s no sixpence in this pudding, for instance, because the coins aren’t made of pure silver anymore (instead, there’s a bachelor’s button, a thimble and a ring – as well as the unexpected ‘red glass’). When Poirot visits the kitchen to pay his compliments to Mrs Ross (and subtly get a bit of information), he questions whether the pudding was homemade or shop-bought – surely such a thing wouldn’t have crossed his mind in 1923. At least the retired cook provides a little link to the past, as she delivers the same anecdote about the ‘Stir up, O Lord’ Collect that Miss Endicott gave in the earlier story (though there’s absolutely no doubt in Mrs Ross’s mind that this was a signal to start stirring up the Christmas puddings).
So… what we have here are two rather different Christmases and two very different rubies. The result is a pair of stories that, while similar in overall plot, differ greatly in their tone and emphasis. The first is a cosy Christmas tale of make-believe and excitement; the second is a story of political intrigue that invades the fragile peace of a decaying way of life.
Time to throw a third version of the story into the mix…
‘The Theft of the Royal Ruby’ was directed by Andrew Grieve and adapted by Anthony Horowitz and Clive Exton. Generally speaking, it follows the 1960 version of the story, with its emphasis firmly placed on the political ramifications of the jewel theft, with the Christmas part of the adventure simply forming a rather charming backdrop.
In this version, the ruby is the possession of Prince Farouk of Egypt (played by Tariq Alibai). It’s stolen in the opening sequence by a woman named Iris Moffat (who we don’t see), after the prince takes her out for a night on the town. Prince Farouk is a much more dissolute and obnoxious young man than his literary counterpart – he is much more concerned about his own position than about educational reforms or democracy – but the ruby now comes to represent East-West relations in a way that has implications for control of the Suez Canal. As Poirot is told, Prince Farouk succeeding the throne is ‘imperative to British interests’ and getting the stone back must be his primary focus.
Poirot’s stay at Kings Lacey is once again orchestrated by Jesmond (played by David Howey), but there is a more direct connection between the family and the theft in the adaptation. Colonel Lacey (Frederick Treves) is a prominent archaeologist who is close friends with the prince’s father and, prior to the theft, the prince had been a visitor at Kings Lacey where he’d shown the ruby off. (This is, of course, a bit of a problem, as Colonel Lacey doesn’t recognize the stone when he discovers it in his plum pudding – just one of the ways that the adaptation is a little disappointing.)
As in the previous two versions, Poirot wangles an invitation to visit the family at Christmas in order to track down the jewel thieves. In a way, given that it’s set in 1935, the adaptation’s version of Christmas should be closer to the 1923 story than the 1960 one.
And it kind of is… there’s no more talk of Christmas dinner in a hotel, and Mrs Ross (played by Susan Field) is back to being a live-in cook, part of a household of servants. There aren’t any conversations about how the Laceys’ traditions are relics of the past, and everything is pretty much presented as ‘standard’ for the festive season.
However, although the characters need no introduction to a traditional Christmas, viewers in the 1990s might need a couple of pointers. Most importantly, they might need some information about why Mrs Ross makes two Christmas puddings (and, of course, this is utterly integral to the plot, so it couldn’t just be dropped from the adaptation).
In the 1923 version, there’s no explanation given for the two puddings – it’s just the way things are done. In the 1960 version, Mrs Ross makes four Christmas puddings (two large ones for family gatherings at Christmas and New Year, and two smaller ones for Colonel and Mrs Lacey when the family are absent). Although she explains this to Poirot, it’s all very matter-of-fact, as though this is a totally normal thing for a cook to do. But in the 1991 version, the existence of multiple puddings is explained very carefully, as though there’s an assumption the audience might not be familiar with the practice. (The ‘Stir up, O Lord’ story is also gone – presumably it was considered to be a little too cryptic for the hip cats of 1991. Sigh. Some of us still observe Stir Up Sunday, you know.)
Okay, so I mentioned above that there were a few disappointments in the episode. The main one for me is the TV version of Kings Lacey – it’s just not right at all.
As I said, the Endicotts’ house in the 1923 story was probably inspired by the Victorian splendour of Abney Hall. In the 1960 version, Kings Lacey is even older – it dates back to the fourteenth century, and the thought of its draughty old corridors fills Poirot with an abject horror. Jesmond seeks to put the detective’s mind at rest by informing him that, for all its medieval history, the manor house has ‘oil-fired central heating’ and ‘a splendid hot water system’.
So which house did the programme-makers choose to represent this glorious old medieval/Victorian manor house?
That’s right… Joldwynds, the 1932 modernist house built by Oliver Hill, which previously appeared in the ITV series as the home of the eponymous businessman in ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’.
It’s just all wrong! This is nothing like Abney Hall, and nothing like the Kings Lacey of Christie’s later story. It sets a completely different tone – goodbye Gothic Christmas adventures, hello well-travelled archaeologist with impeccably modern tastes – and further downplays the festive focus of the 1923 story. It’s not even snowing, for goodness sake! When Poirot is led to the scene of the kids’ staged mystery, the body of young Bridget (Alessia Gwyther) is lying in a sandpit rather than a snow flurry.
Although the changes don’t sit well with me, Poirot seems a lot happier at this version of Kings Lacey. He nods in approval when he sees the house, and immediately settles in to charming Colonel Lacey by showing him how to correctly serve a mango. (‘The fellow’s an absolute marvel with a mango!’)
But one thing that confuses me… given that the setting has been altered so dramatically, why does Jesmond still use the presence of central heating as a selling-point to persuade Poirot to take up the case? I’ve never understood why this line was kept in the adaptation, given that there’s now no reason for Poirot to assume the house will be lacking in mod-cons. Ah well… perhaps this is a mystery I’m not meant to understand.
Despite all this, though, all three versions of the story have one very important thing in common. Whether it’s the story of a country house Christmas, of a cunning jewel theft, or of a potential international incident, ‘The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding’ is always a story of Poirot flying solo. None of the regular recurring characters appear in any of the versions.
In Christie’s short stories, the absence of the ‘gang’ isn’t explained. Aside from the melancholy comment on Hastings’s absence in the 1923 story, there’s simply no mention of any of the detective’s associates. Obviously, for the TV version, we need a bit more of a clue as to why Poirot is looking forward to Christmas on his own (with a demi-kilo of fine chocolates for company), so we’re informed briefly that Hastings has gone to Scotland (why? no clue!) and Miss Lemon is visiting an aunt in Torquay (because Miss Lemon only has family who live on the coast… Folkestone, Frinton, Torquay… do no Lemons live in-land?) This isn’t the only early episode in which the gang are entirely absent – ‘Triangle at Rhodes’ also has Poirot on his lonesome – but it’s still quite an unusual occurrence. And it’s in this that the TV episode comes closest to capturing the tone of the odd little story from 1923, in which Poirot is seen without his sidekick for the very first time.
Alright… time to finish up now… but before I go, just one more thing. (Oh wait, that’s Columbo, isn’t it?)
There is one other little detail that changes from one version of the story to the next. It’s nothing to do with the ruby or the Christmas pudding, and it doesn’t seem to be anything to do with the changing social context (perhaps it’s more to do with the author’s changing age and attitude towards young working women?). It intrigues me though…
I want to talk about Annie…
In all three versions of the story, Annie is the housemaid who is revealed to have written the anonymous note warning Poirot away from the plum pudding. At the end of each story, we are told that Annie overheard Oscar/Desmond discussing Poirot with his ‘sister’ and telling her that he would put ‘it’ into the Christmas pudding mix. Annie believes that ‘it’ is poison, and that the dastardly pair are planning to do away with the detective. Once the truth comes out, Poirot thanks the young woman for her attempt to protect him.
In the TV version, this is quite a simple scene. Poirot looks stern as Annie (played by Siobhan Garahy) confesses, but melts into the twinkly gentleman we know and love: ‘You have the gratitude most sincere of Hercule Poirot,’ he tells the relieved young woman with a kindly smile.
His gratitude is even more sincere in Christie’s 1960 story. After Annie tells her tale, the detective surveys her ‘gravely’, and then we get the following little exchange:
‘“You see too many sensational films, I think, Annie,” he said at last, “or perhaps it is the television that affects you? But the important thing is that you have the good heart and a certain amount of ingenuity. When I return to London I will send you a present.”While this is very sweet, and make the detective seem even more personable than the TV version, it’s nothing compared to the wonderfully bizarre display of gratitude with which the 1923 story ends. Once again, Annie reveals herself to be the author of the note, and once again Poirot takes his time before responding to her. This time, however, he knows exactly what gift he wants to give the maid:
“Oh thank you, sir. Thank you very much, sir.”
“What would you like, Annie, as a present?”
“Anything I like, sir? Could I have anything I like?”
“Within reason,” said Hercule Poirot prudently, “yes.”
“Oh sir, could I have a vanity box? A real posh slap-up vanity box like the one Mr Lee-Wortley’s sister, wot wasn’t his sister, had?”
“Yes,” said Poirot, “yes I think that could be managed.”’
‘“You read too many novelettes, Annie,” he said at last. “But you have a good heart, and a certain amount of intelligence. When I return to London I will send you an excellent book upon le ménage, also Lives of the Saints, and a work upon the economic position of woman.”’Merry Christmas, Annie!
Okay… so this festive post turned into a ridiculously long essay. You’ll be glad to know the next two episodes are a little bit more straightforward. Onwards to ‘The Affair at the Victory Ball’…