‘The Affair at the Victory Ball’
Agatha Christie’s Poirot (Series 3, Episode 10)
Screenplay by Andrew Marshall
Directed by Renny Rye
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.