Monthly Archives: March 2013

Re-Watching Agatha Christie: ‘The Affair at the Victory Ball’

‘The Affair at the Victory Ball’
Agatha Christie’s Poirot (Series 3, Episode 10)

Screenplay by Andrew Marshall
Directed by Renny Rye

50 mins

As with most of the short story adaptations screened by ITV in the 1990s this is a vast improvement on the original text. Being only half the length of their longer adaptations of the Poirot novels, there’s ample scope to flesh out the outlines of Christie’s plots.

As with The Murder on the Links this adaptation restructures the story to avoid unnecessary infodumps, in this case by having Poirot and Hastings in attendance at the ball, conveniently situated for a more hands-on approach to the gathering of evidence. This also helps to rescue Inspector Japp from his thankless role as the Lestrade figure of the original text – here, he and Poirot work together to gather the evidence and solve the case. At the same time, an opening voiceover from Poirot handily explains the concept of the Commedia dell’Arte, a duty that felt rather clumsy in the original story when devolved to Japp.

Elsewhere, the more rounded characterisation takes its cue from notes in the story. Thus the Uncle is almost bankrupt, having spent his money on his massive collection of exotic china (I love this detail – it immediately conjures the ridiculous image of someone murdering their rich nephew in order to fund an unfortunate ebay habit). The BBC setting is a nice addition, indicating the kind of context in which a famous actress like Coco Courtenay would have worked. Mrs Davidson and Chris Davidson’s relationship is also nicely dramatised, with a real sense (missing in the book) of the kind of woman who would cover for Chris. The original story simply assumes that a wife would cover for her husband, but here we are given a more nuanced view of a timid creature whose need to submit to an unpleasant man earns our pity. The fact that Chris isn’t physically abusive or obviously domineering adds to the subtlety of the portrayal. Wisely, they also get rid of his ‘Curse you! How did you know!’ confession. As might be expected of Andrew Marshall (of 2 Point 4 Children fame) there are also some nice one-liners: ‘No doorman?’ ‘But we’re so backward in England Mrs Mallaby. We still have door handles’. As a researcher of late-Victorian literature and culture the name of the writer of the convoluted potboiler in which Coco Courtenay stars also raised a smile: Desmond Havelock Ellis. Presumably, in this parallel version of the 1930s BBC, the following week would have seen the premiere of the latest thriller from the pen of Malcolm Sigmund Freud.

The characters of Poirot and Hastings are also fleshed out somewhat. Poirot himself is a charming socialite who attends fashionable dances and gossips and chats with Hastings and his friend. This sense of Poirot as a celebrity doesn’t really see its fullest expression in Christie’s writing until Lord Edgeware Dies. It’s indicated by the celebrity of Poirot’s clients and the notoriety of the crimes in which he becomes embroiled, yet Poirot himself remains an outsider: a go-to ‘other’ not often portrayed as a public figure in his own right. At the same time, the idea that Poirot is at once a public celebrity and an isolated introvert is charmingly conveyed by the fact that Hastings has to persuade him to leave his stamp collection and go out dancing. Christie conveys the affectionate working relationship between the two men, but it is undeniably welcome to spend some time with them beyond the confines of the investigation. Conan Doyle gives us quite a few glimpses into Holmes and Watson’s attempts to while away the evenings together when the game isn’t afoot, but it’s largely left to the TV version to do that with Christie – at least in terms of these early stories.

The radio context is also a clever addition to the story. Providing an instantly recognisable 1930s setting, there is a sense in which it is merely the ‘period fixture of the week’. Yet, it is also a nice embellishment on the theatricality of the masked ball so central to the murder plot. As the script points out, the ‘visual appearance’ of radio performers is unimportant, which makes the medium an appropriate counterpoint to the Harlequinade, where the right mask is enough to convince everyone (erroneously, as it turns out) of the identity of the person beneath. Having said that, Poirot’s decision to broadcast the denouement live on the radio is really unethical!

Another nice dramatic touch is the way in which the murder is detected at midnight, amidst a flurry of patriotic union flag balloons and strains of Rule Britannia. This is a postcolonial touch, highlighting the evil and corruption at the heart of the empire’s ruling class. Similarly, the Uncle’s ‘success in bringing them [i.e. the porcelain figurines on which the harlequinade costumes are based] to this country’ points to a disregard for the traditions of the country from which they originate. The fiery passion of the Italians, which the porcelain figures personify in their exotic otherness, is imported in more ways than one – undercutting the idea of its intrinsic otherness, as well as the empire’s ability to maintain this foreign violence as ‘other’ by policing its borders effectually. The violence is pretty shocking too, with the camera lingering horribly on the very blunt butter knife with which Lord Cronshaw is eventually stabbed. Ugh.

While the dramatisation comments on elements of its inter-war setting, however, it is also itself historically locatable as a product of the early 1990s. Specifically, it recalled to me the paranoia that surrounded the escalating war on drugs in the period. I’m not criticising this ‘war’, of course – it merely struck me that the crackdown on drug use, which was such a feature of media reaction to 1990s rave culture, is very much in evidence here. Christie’s tale doesn’t really comment on the drug-taking and drug-dealing that ultimately underlies the plot – it’s simply an anonymous mcguffin there to serve the needs of the murder plot’s mechanics. Here though, Poirot is given a vehement and livid reaction to the discovery that these young revellers have been using cocaine and Coco’s murder is definitely the result of her dealer giving her a fatal dose of the substance – a detail which (rather more convincingly, it must be said) is left ambiguous in Christie’s text. And while the mechanism of the story’s plot means that it nominally demonises the figure of the drug dealer, the TV adaptation has Poirot liken that figure to the devil himself. Indeed, in this version it is Chris himself who cuts off the second pompon, which he uses not only to replace the one missing on his own costume, but also to implicate his wife – a horrible action, very different from the story, in which Davidson’s wife cuts it off in order to safeguard her husband (here, Mrs Davidson’s defence of her husband merely involves her lying to protect him).

Believe me, it is not my intention to defend the innocence of drug traffickers, nor to uphold Christie’s apparent belief in the appropriateness of an unquestioning devotion to one’s husband. Rather, I’m attempting to illustrate that most useful of maxims: always historicise. Whatever else it represents, the replacement of Mrs Davidson’s ‘natural’ and unquestioned devotion to her husband with a device that serves instead to demonise the figure of the drug dealer is a fascinating example of the way in which the socio-political priorities of texts change over time, yet never totally escape the immediate concerns of the period of which they are the product.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Agatha Christie's Poirot (TV Series), Captain Hastings, Hercule Poirot, Inspector Japp, Poirot's Early Cases (1975), Short Stories

‘The Affair at the Victory Ball’ (1923)

This story first appeared in issue 1571 of The Sketch in March 1923. It was Agatha Christie’s first published short story and, for the rest of that year, there was barely an issue of The Sketch not featuring a tale of hers. Sadly, The Sketch is an appropriate name for the paper containing these early Poirot stories since this is, essentially, all we get – a ‘sketch’ of a plot, fleshed out with only the most basic character and dialogue notes and the occasional novel device (such as this story’s theatrical dénouement) to lend a little interest. That said, these plots are often very ingenious, providing the basis for longer stories, plays and novels later in Christie’s career. In this form, however, they are usually nothing more than plot summaries that have got a bit above themselves. I can’t comment on the story’s distinguishing characters, events and settings because that would be like focusing on the colour of an iPod skin or the particular shade of grey on an engine bolt. To all practical purposes they are no distinctions at all.

This particular story opens with an acknowledgment that Poirot is now the star of his own ongoing series. Hastings begins tells us of the ‘notoriety’ that Poirot has gained in connection with ‘the Styles case’. He himself has been invalided out of the army after the Somme and, taking up residence with his old friend, has decided to lay the true facts behind some of Poirot’s cases before the public. As in Styles, Hastings’s idea of what constitutes Poirot’s most ‘interesting’ cases is connected with ‘the tremendous publicity given [the case] by the press’. This explains perhaps why Poirot appears to be at once a celebrity and a socialite, constantly mixing with the rich, famous and otherwise influential – this is what interests the press, so this is what informs the kind of ‘public interest’ that Hastings’s stories avowedly serve. In short, it is on Poirot the celebrity and public that Hastings’s narratives often focus. Here, for example, the victims are a young viscount (stabbed to death at a costume party) and his lover (a noted actress who has apparently killed herself by overdosing on cocaine). Hastings’s narratives have this in common both with the newspapers – both provide a discursive arena in which Poirot is drawn into the realm of celebrity and the fashionable zeitgeist. In the TV versions, this is exploited to the full as an opportunity to present a different contextual ‘theme’ every week (the country house, the race track, the golden age of the liners or the early days of radio and film).

Also symptomatic of the tale’s establishment of Poirot as a recurring protagonist is the character’s vanity, which is more overtly signalled here than in Styles. At the outset we find him

delicately applying a new pomade to his moustache. A certain harmless vanity was a characteristic of Poirot’s and fell into line with his general love of order and method.

An idea of what Poirot means by ‘method’ is also indicated when he and Hastings interview Lord Cronshaw’s uncle, who has inherited the dead man’s estate:

‘You think he is the “wicked uncle” of the story-books, eh?’
‘Don’t you?’
‘Me, I think he was most amiable towards us,’ said Poirot noncommittally.
‘Because he had his reasons!’
Poirot looked at me, shook his head sadly, and murmured something that sounded like: ‘No method.’

In these condensed narratives, Poirot less a character and more a caricature – a kind of cipher for explaining the mystery plot; a vessel in which to gather the clues. In the novels, we get a fuller, more organic picture of who he is, what people think of him, what he believes in and what motivates him, but here any unique characteristic is as superficial and cosmetic as a pomade applied to a moustache.

The characterisation, like the narrative prose, is hurried, slapdash and clumsy. Japp, in particular, is now nothing more than a cipher. With little sense of an individual identity, he is there to serve the plot and nothing more. This leads to some careless inconsistencies. At one point, for example, he says that he doesn’t know what ‘the old Italian Comedy’ is – only to then proceed to give a very informed description of its main protagonists. Japp is also a more stereotypical mystery story policeman. He is the ancestor of the parasitic Lestrade, coming to Poirot for help with problems that are beyond him (even when, in reality, they wouldn’t be beyond most twelve-year-olds). I find it totally unbelievable for example, that, when dealing with a crime at a masked ball, Japp doesn’t ‘know the exact details of the costumes’ of those involved, nor can he ‘quite see what that has got to do with it’. The point is that the narrative prose subsumes any characterisation – and both are subsumed totally to the demands of a plot that has to be unfolded with an extreme economy. Economy of style is usually Christie’s strongpoint, but the stylistic budget here is stretched to breaking point in order to cover the cost of the (admittedly clever) plot. As a result, Christie’s usual economy (a disciplined deployment of clear, no-frills prose which is its own skill and hence a perfectible style) devolves into a poverty not only of style and consequently of anything beyond the mere facts of the story related.

An example. Poirot’s eye for theatricality and Christie’s eye for the detective plot as essentially a way of analysing the narratives that control our lives are both well-served by this story, making it a fitting start to Poirot’s adventures as an ongoing series. Hence the literal theatricals of the dénouement, in which the suspects are all gathered in Poirot’s flat to view a tableau of the characters they each played at the Victory Ball – a masquerade that is instrumental in revealing the masquerade within a masquerade that lies at the heart of the murder:

‘And yet – you are all wrong! Your eyes have lied to you – as they lied to you on the night of the Victory Ball. To “see” things with your eyes, as they say, is not always to see the truth.’

The problem, however, is that the melodrama here isn’t a commentary on the melodrama of the murder plot or on the relationship between crime and performance – it’s simply part and parcel of the sensationalism of the story itself. This is made comically apparent when the actual culprit, instead of denying his involvement, leaps up and yells ‘Curse you! How did you guess?’ even before Poirot has accused him. Given that he has just condemned himself to summary execution the action is a little difficult to swallow.

But then I’m almost certainly being too hard on this story, which was never intended to do any more than sketch an interesting puzzle. It isn’t (as Christie’s best stories and novels are) an enjoyably sensational comment about crime and justice and the intricacies of their operation within a given socio-political context. It’s just a puzzle to be enjoyed formally on the level of a puzzle. Hence the way in which Japp’s arrest is presented as nothing more than a narrative formality, the dashes in the dialogue indicating the hurry with which he reads the prisoner his rights: ‘I arrest you Christopher Davidson – charge of murdering Viscount Cronshaw – anything you say will be used in evidence against you’. He might has well have said ‘I arrest you for murder – blah, blah, blah, you know the drill’ and ended it there. Indeed, given that the murder plot is the only basis for the tale existing at all and since this has been played out, it would not have been overly inappropriate of Christie herself to have ended the story right there and in those very words.

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Filed under 1920s, Agatha Christie, Captain Hastings, Hercule Poirot, Inspector Japp, Poirot's Early Cases (1975), Short Stories