‘The King of Clubs’ (1989)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Series 1, Episode 9
Screenplay by Michael Baker
Directed by Renny Rye
Although following the plot of Christie’s story closely, this adaptation is notable for the way in which it updates that plot to a different temporal setting. In Michael Baker’s adaptation (and under the watchful eye of ‘script consultant’ Clive Exton) this early instalment of Agatha Christie’s Poirot moves the story from the early 1920s to the mid-1930s and from a milieu of theatres and dancers to the flourishing British film industry only a few years after the advent of ‘talkies’. Valerie Sinclair is a screen actress rather than a dancer here and Reedurn is a seedy studio executive, rather than a theatrical impresario. Two new characters are added, namely Hastings’s friend ‘Bunny’, a young director, and Ralph Walton, an established screen actor struggling to cope with the move to talking pictures. To update the plot to the 1930s in this way is par for the course with this TV series, but here it really is striking. This setting simply did not exist at the time Christie’s story was originally written and although the plot transfers easily to it, it feels as jarringly different in terms of temporal locality as does the 1980s-set film version of The Man in the Brown Suit. Not that I’m complaining. All of this helps to lend interest to the process of stretching an eight-page short story to fifty minutes of screen time and the specially-filmed black and white cinema footage is really a tour de force of direction, acting and design – you’d swear the clips of Sinclair and Walton in action were lifted directly from a real old movie. Even so, it’s still a testament to how richly plotted Christie’s original tale is that so little is added to this television version.
One thing that really struck me about the new setting is the way it bears out Poirot’s statement, uttered at the beginning of the film, that actors are more interesting than the productions they end up starring in. While I would hesitate to agree entirely with this view it’s still the case that, by placing a sumptuous recreation of a 1930s movie in sharp juxtaposition with a dramatisation of the offscreen tensions surrounding its production, this film serves to remind one that the version of the past left to us today (in books, films, audio recording and even journals and letters) were as performative and as artificial in their time as they are now as a record of that time. In short, the minutiae of the everyday lives of the people who appear on the screen or who have left a written record are lost to us forever – all that is left is a record itself. This is really driven home at the end of the episode, when a marvellously framed shot of Poirot and Hastings walking dramatically off the film set is self-consciously disrupted when they both go off in different directions, leaving Poirot to scurry across the screen to join his friend. By disrupting the mis en scene in this way, this directorial decision reminds us that our ability to visualise actions in reality is flawed – beyond the film set, actions are unpredictable, unplanned, lacking direction and therefore impossible to visualise. On the set and in front of the camera they are meticulously planned, staged and directed, but all the more false for that. The same goes for speech – off-screen it is less guarded, more spontaneous and perhaps less polished; in front of the camera it is mannered, eloquent and scripted. Yet it is this latter record that we have left to posterity – everyday behaviour and speech is largely lost to us. The problem is a familiar one to literary critics and media historians – while we are able to assess the ways in which a historical period chose to represent itself, it’s more difficult (perhaps even impossible) to assess the everyday reality of life for the people who produced and responded to these representations. How did people behave when there was no direction and no intended audience?
Anyway, to get back to the episode as an adaptation of Christie’s story. I found that this is an episode in which the visual medium is able, appropriately enough, to take advantage of its freedom from the constraints of first-person narration, allowing us to see things that Hastings couldn’t have. In this case, we get to see Reedburn being an all-round creep to Valerie, including some very unsavoury sexual harassment – the spectacle of his blackmailing her, extorting not money but sexual favours, is not pretty, but it adds weight to the vague insinuations of the short story and helps us to accept Poirot’s ethically dodgy ideas about what counts as murder and what does not. Of course, this ability to show things that a first-person written account cannot is also a disadvantage in that it is more difficult to misdirect the audience as to the circumstances of the crime. The inability to show something that didn’t happen is a bit of a problem for a visual adaptation – in particular, it’s patently obvious from the moment we see Mrs Oglander reporting the crime, not only that the Oglanders are in collusion with Valerie, but also that they weren’t playing bridge when she ‘stumbled’ into their house on the night of the murder. After all, if this were the case (the viewer is left thinking) why didn’t we see this dramatised along with the rest of that evening’s events?
As I implied above, however, the direction in this episode is particularly good in other respects. Although the story shies away from the theme of heredity, which is prominent in the original tale, it does emphasise family bonds, particularly the whole thing about Valerie being ‘dead’ to the family and the world in which she grew up – and it does so in a richly visual way. The bright colours and art deco chic of Reedburn’s house and the drab Victorian gothic of the Oglanders’ abode is used strikingly to emphasise the contrasting ‘worlds’ which, for Valerie, they represent – both threaten her in different ways, but the fact that it is ultimately the homely Victorian villa of her childhood that offers her escape is very much in keeping with Christie’s conservative (with a small ‘c’) mindset. The pervasive quiet of the Oglanders’ house is also striking. Basically, I felt the episode tried hard to show us visually and aurally the stifling world from which Valerie escapes, whilst also setting it in stark contrast to the one in which she is now embroiled. Horrible, misogynist Reedburn is the kind of character who cannot be tolerated in either world and it is a collusion between herself and her estranged brother that brings about his eventual demise. Fittingly, therefore, it is the exorcism of the fashionable, showbiz world’s bogeyman (whose sexual deviance and garish aesthetic tastes represent that world’s stereotypically degenerate, morally-bankrupt underside) that signals Valerie’s ability to bridge the gap between her new and old existence and establish a common ground between the two.
Speaking of family bonds, I’m not entirely sure the enforcement of a ‘family’ of regular characters for the TV version of Poirot altogether works on this occasion. Hastings really doesn’t have much to do, while Japp’s involvement stretches credulity – would a Chief Inspector of Scotland Yard really be called out in the middle of the night to investigate a rumoured ‘disturbance’? That said, Hastings’s bemused take on modern art is a nice addition, while it’s interesting to see Japp and Poirot’s friendship not quite as fully developed here as it will later become. The Inspector is patronising and not totally pleased to see his Belgian acquaintance – and I suppose his perpetual confusion helps to sell the idea of a ‘murder’ that will, on this occasion, go unsolved.