Re-Watching Agatha Christie: ‘The Plymouth Express’

 Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Series 3, Episode 4

 Screenplay by Rob Beacham

Directed by Andrew Piddington

 

This is a faithful adaptation of the Christie story in terms of plot, with only a few minor changes: Halliday and his daughter are Australian rather than American; the red herring of the newspaper is slightly different and is changed from a mere alibi to a premeditated attempt to lay suspicion at the door of both the Count and Rupert Carrington equally. The Count’s role in proceedings is also expanded into a full-blown subplot in which he is fraudulently dealing in shares pertaining to Halliday’s mining company – a conspiracy that means he is in England at the time of Flossy’s death. The plot is expanded to fit the fifty minute running time as well, so that Poirot is called in by Halliday not to investigate Flossy’s murder (at least not initially) but to ‘vet’ the Count’s suitability as a husband. Otherwise, the plot stays extremely close to the original short story – the murder is even discovered by a young naval officer, a detail that could easily have been changed without anyone noticing.

 It’s in the tone of the piece that the adaptation really differs from the original story. While Christie is rather crassly unsympathetic in dealing with the brutal murder of a young woman, the TV version goes to great lengths to bring out the horror and grief of the affair. It does so by deftly drawing our attention away from the sensational aspects that the short story revels in, presenting it instead as a piteous domestic tragedy with which we can easily empathise.

 In particular, Halliday’s position as a single father doing his best to raise a daughter on his own is dealt with in much greater detail than is his status as a ‘self-made’ millionaire (we get no real indication of how he made his millions, only that he is now in the mining business). True, the adaptation retains the original story’s idea of rich folks’ distance from ‘real’ problems – the maid is deservedly contemptuous of the Count’s silly message to her mistress, which she is forced to read aloud. But the single father/only child thing helps to override this and to make one more sympathetic both to the millionaire and his spoilt daughter on the level of common (and therefore relatable) human experiences, rather than as ‘othered’ socialised abstractions. To put it another way, where the short story is ‘us and them’, the adaptation challenges the viewer to expand its definition of ‘us’. The way the press flock around Flossy’s body (contrasted with Hastings, Japp and Poirot’s solemn and respectful examination of the corpse) helps to demonise further those who would play up these people’s difference from the rest of us. I love the scene when Halliday tells Poirot: ‘You find the murderer Poirot; I’ll make you richer than you ever dreamed’. The delivery conveys such helplessness at the very same time as it demonstrates how powerful Halliday’s money makes him. The idea of death as a great leveller is very movingly conveyed – money is all well and good, but it doesn’t make grief any easier to bear.

 More fun is to be had with the Count, who might as well be called Dracula so stereotypical is his aristocratic villainy. Come to think of it, maybe we’re meant to make a very middle class distinction between the self-made millionaire and the hereditary peer? Be that as it may, the Count’s villainy is deliciously camp. He plots cryptically in a darkened room with a taciturn old banker, refuses to drop his cigarette even whilst running away from the police and nonchalantly declares himself to be ‘devastated’ by the tragedy of Flossy’s death in a deadpan manner that suggests nothing of the sort! Frankly, if he had a moustache, he’d be twirling it. The episode even acknowledges this metafictionally – at one point Hastings awkwardly tells Poirot that the Count is very much of what you’d expect from his ‘type… of Frenchman’. Poirot agrees, confirming what we can all see plainly: ‘He is typical of his type’.

 The regular cast are very well served in this episode. Miss Lemon isn’t in it much, but she not only gets a wonderful line (‘Difficulties were made to be overcome, Mr Poirot’) but also gets to make quite an entrance in her marvellous period dress, complete with fashionable haircut and glasses. On a more serious note, Japp is very much Poirot’s respected colleague in this episode – unlike the bizarre rivalry mentioned in the short story, they willingly collaborate here on what both agree is a serious case with little time for frivolity. Hastings also gets a nice scene in a bar where he befriends Flossy’s husband in order to discover any motive he might have for his wife’s death – he isn’t quite the bumbling fool he sometimes comes across as and that’s welcome, however endearingly he plays that role.

 Japp and Hastings’s mutual relationship to Poirot is also brought out by a nifty piece of direction. Hastings and Japp are framed either side of Poirot, arguing about which of their two favoured suspects is the most likely culprit, only to shut up immediately as soon as Poirot intercedes. As Poirot gives his speech, the three pass through a set of double doors, which Japp and Hastings open together in order to let Poirot through – a nice metaphor that illustrates not only their mutual respect for the Belgian, but also their mutual status as his practical helpmates in crime-solving.

 Another scene illustrates the way in which Japp acts as a mediator between the active, physical duties of the jobbing policeman and the intellectual endeavours of Poirot’s little grey cells. As a senior police officer, Japp is a mixture of the two – he has to take practical considerations into account (the need to gather tangible evidence, to be seen to be making progress and to do the actual dirty work of pursuing and arresting criminals), but also represents the ‘brains’ of the whole operation – an aspect with which Poirot often helps out. This is summed up visually on screen in Poirot’s skilful undercover chat with the suspected jeweller. The intellectual duties over, Poirot is able to confirm to Japp that this is the man they’re looking for – which is Japp’s cue to gather a troupe of constables, force entry to the jeweller’s establishment and make the arrest. Hastings and Poirot look on with a pained expression at this, before turning away. It’s a good way of showing how, for all his keen moral sensibilities, the game of detection is, for Poirot, very much an abstract one – his hands never get dirty.

 That isn’t to say that Poirot’s notorious sense of evil is not very much in evidence here. It may have deserted him in the short story, but here he is keen to point out just how callous and horrible this particular murder actually is. The murder itself is reconstructed in gruesome, bloody, fashion – gratuitously so really. But this serves to make the point viscerally – unlike in the short story, where the murder remains an abstract logic problem, here we’re not allowed to forget the sheer cold-blooded brutality it represents. To cap it all, Poirot then describes the action of knifing a woman to death in great detail, just to drive the point home (if you will). Seriously – it should come with a trigger warning.

 Tonally different to the short story, then, this adaptation is very much in the spirit of Christie’s moral framework – albeit at the more acceptable end of her rather uncomplicated belief in inherent evil as a dangerous reality. It is according to their inherent capacities for empathy (the mark of the ‘good’ person here) that the characters are eventually set up to be judged. The murderers are at one end of this spectrum, with Halliday and Carrington at the other – both have their flaws, but their disgusted spurning of Flossy’s diamonds demonstrates that their moral compass is pointing the right way. The Count, however, with his dispassionate attitude to even this most self-evidently evil of actions is somewhere in between – not as bad as the murderers, it nevertheless makes Japp determined to punish him for remaining resolutely unapologetic in the face of such manifest grief. Ostensibly, he is arrested for fraud, but one really gets the impression that his true crime is not to acknowledge the grieving father by saying sorry…

 Then there’s the final scene, in which Halliday’s letter is read out in voiceover, as Poirot hands Miss Lemon the cheque he has received in payment. Poirot is embarrassed at having been paid so much – and Miss Lemon’s reaction is very telling. Looking at the generous cheque, she is moved to comment of Halliday: ‘the poor man’. It’s as if the fact that Halliday is so grateful that he feels compelled to pay an enormous amount to Poirot is indicative not of how much money he has to give away, but rather of how little it actually matters to him any more. It’s a much more realistic ending than the flippancy we get at the short story’s conclusion.

 I’ll be honest though. While I admire this episode a lot as an adaptation (the direction is particularly good) it isn’t one that I particularly enjoy. Until now, I had thought this was because it was simply dull, like the short story – but I’ve changed my mind on this matter. The episode is dreary, but it’s a dreariness that’s depressingly appropriate to the tragedy of the story. This is admirably in keeping with the way in which the adaptation determinedly downplays its potentially sensational aspects to hit you with the sheer misery of the situation. It’s almost as if it’s defying you to enjoy it. Although I think it succeeds in this defiance, I’m in the paradoxical position of not being sorry that it does.

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

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