‘Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan’ (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Series 5, Episode 8
Screenplay by Anthony Horrowitz
Directed by Ken Grieve
Cast: David Suchet as Poirot, Hugh Fraser as Hastings, Philip Jackson as Chief Inspector Japp, Pauline Moran as Miss Lemon
Only the second Poirot short story to be published, this was the last to be filmed for TV. Suffice to say, the short episodes didn’t go out on a high. The original story excels is in its economy, providing enough detail to establish an interesting context in which the central mystery plot can unfold, together with a few character moments charming enough to stop it being simply a dramatised logic puzzle. Unfortunately, the TV version extends the mystery plot in a way that doesn’t really work, whilst adding so much extraneous background material that the main interest of the episode (the central puzzle of the missing pearls) is in danger of being swamped. The regular cast are as fine as ever. My favourite instance of this is Japp’s embarrassment at having won a teddy bear at the local fairground (‘Is that for your little boy, Inspector?’ ‘Erm… yes.’) As I said though, the embellishments to the story just don’t work for me and even the wonderful production values and the entertaining turns from the regular and guest cast can’t stop this being something of a chore to watch.
The episode begins with newsreel footage (again) which establishes the fact that these aren’t just any pearls, but a gift from a Tsar to a famous dancer. Mr Opalsen is not just another businessman here either, but a theatrical impresario, while his wife is a waspish amateur on the stage, rather than the affable ‘Greek chorus’ of the original story. The pearls are to be the star of Opalsen’s new play Pearls Before Swine. The subtext is more than obvious. Garish Mr. Opalsen has purchased the pearls with his ‘new money’ in order for them to feature in a tacky dramatic presentation. Having little idea of their ‘true’ value, he treats the great pearls just as he will later treat the great Belgian detective – merely as a source of publicity. Indeed, we soon learn that Opalsen has bought the play outright from its disgruntled writer and totally rewritten it into the sub-par cliché it now resembles. Opalsen’s ‘casting’ of the pearls in the play echoes his devaluation of the play itself: once more, he has taken something that had intrinsic value beyond the mere financial and forced it into the strictures of a squalid entertainment industry that waters that value down into the most basic terms. The play and the pearls that feature in it have alike been ‘cast before swine’. Eventually, he is hoist by his own petard when Poirot has him falsely arrested for insurance fraud, before snidely suggesting that the impresario should be pleased at the free publicity this has afforded the play.
A more amusing subplot involves Poirot frequently being mistaken by newspaper readers for ‘Lucky Len’ in expectation of a £5 prize. The two new additions (‘Lucky Len’ and the theatre setting) are actually intrinsically linked – both are critiques of popular media forms (the tabloid newspaper and the pier’s-end drama) that inevitably dilute high art in the name of profit and mass-entertainment. Indeed, as the episode plays out, it transpires that the culprits plan to conceal the pearls amongst the scenery and props of Opalsen’s play as a means of smuggling them into the American market. Within the story itself, that is, the play disguises the pearls’ value in a monetary sense, in a way that literalises the underlying metaphor – Opalsen’s acquirement of the pearls for purely financial reasons means that the play also acts as a means of disguising their ‘true’ aesthetic value from their new owner.
This idea of ‘true’ greatness, which the tasteless bourgeois is unable to apprehend, is paralleled at the end of the episode when Poirot meets the real ‘Lucky Len’, whose luxurious moustache impresses the Belgian. Because of the spate of wrongly identified Lens, the newspaper has sacked the unfortunate character from their staff on the grounds that he has too ‘common’ a face. Poirot disagrees, informing him knowingly that he has the face of a great man. Once again, the institution controlling the way in which popular culture is circulated – the newspaper in this case – doesn’t know ‘true’ greatness when it sees it. Little wonder then that the newspapers, like Mr Opalsen, value Poirot not for his transcendent, timeless greatness, but for his ability to provide them with publicity – to help them in their continual quest for the next, new, fashionable ‘big thing’.
As I see it, the adaptation uses Christie’s story to critique the assumption (which Opalsen embodies) that the most profitable endeavour is always necessarily the most valuable. I have no problem with criticising this idea, but I’m not sure I like the way the episode offers Poirot and the pearls as contrasting embodiments of ‘true’ greatness, ‘true’ value. Troublingly, the episode locates both of these within an old-fashioned idea of ‘class’ – faces that are not ‘common’, jewels owned by Russian aristocrats. Yes, ‘common’ could well be taken simply to mean ‘usual’ or ‘ordinary’ here, but ‘common’ is also a word fraught with prejudicial associations and part of the joke underlying the punchline of the ‘Lucky Len’ subplot is the fact that he has an uexpectedly ‘posh’ accent that is quite at odds with the cockney strains possessed by those who recognise him. Similarly, Poirot’s revenge on Opalsen (in which the possibility that the pearls might not have belonged to the Tsar after all prompts them to lose their monetary value) draws attention to the apparently inevitable relationship between monetary value and class.
There is an attempt to subvert this, certainly, by showing the actual criminals to be much better read than Opalsen himself, adopting a ruse inspired by Oscar Wilde rather than by the vulgar sensationalism of Opalsen’s play. They are also better actors than anyone in Opalsen’s troupe. The idea of ‘recognition’ as a marker of taste is also carried through: Grace Saunders knows the game is up when she recognises Poirot and the ‘Oh Gawd’ that signals this recognition implies that the outward signs of class (accent, dress, manners etc) are not intrinsically linked to the ability to display ‘real’ taste. Moreover, her arrest also indicates that an appreciation of ‘true’ value does not exampt one from adherence to the rule of law.
This is all very well, but the resolution, in which Opalsen is taught a lesson about ‘true’ value while Mr and Mrs Saunders are punished for seeking a way out of their servitude, is still problematic. Obviously the Saunders couple are ostensibly punished for trying to steal valuable property but, following a Marxist reading to its conclusion, this might be a possible subtext to the episode – that those in charge of the means of production need to be educated, lest an economy based on rewarding the most intelligent or tasteful members of society should take its place (the latter solution, incidentally, being Oscar Wilde’s own suggestion).
Yet, even putting Marxism to one side (and, let’s face it, Christie herself would probably prefer that we did), it’s still a bit rich that an adaptation that adds a chase at a racing course purely to extend the running time makes fun of popular entertainment. It smacks of biting the hand that feeds. The original short story is just breezy fun with likeable (if superficially drawn) characters and an intriguing central puzzle. I have no objections to the TV versions adding or embellishing such stories, but the embellishments here fail on their own terms. For example, having introduced the idea that popular theatrical clichés distract from more culturally valuable artefacts, the adaptation itself ends with a stupidly clichéd denouement in which the culprit appears to have donned a disguise for no other reason that to facilitate its removal at the appropriate dramatic moment.
Personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with enjoying formulaic crime drama, nor with pointing out the merits of such on their own terms. Nor is there anything wrong with critiquing such drama. But I do think that the last place you should be critiquing it is within… a boring formulaic crime drama. One that palpably fails on its own terms (in the eyes of this viewer, at least). At one point, asked by the producer of Pearls Before Swine whether he had solved the mystery before the end of the third act, Poirot retorts that the problem had ceased to occupy him long before the end of the first. Unfortunately, this is exactly how I feel about this episode.