Monthly Archives: December 2013

Re-Watching Agatha Christie: ‘The Kidnapped Prime Minister’

Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Series 2, Episode 8

Screenplay by Clive Exton

Directed by Andrew Grieve

52 mins

As the ‘The Kidnapped Prime Minister’ is one of my favourite Poirot short stories it should come as no surprise that this adaptation is also one of my favourite episodes of the Poirot TV series. Not only is it stylishly directed by Andrew Grieve, but the slight tweaking undertaken to ensure that the plot fits into the political context of the mid-1930s (as opposed to the mid-1910s) helps to resolve some of the annoying jingoism of the original story – even if it does add a number of inconsistencies, which it’s best not to think too much about!

The episode opens at Charing Cross Station with Japp and a group of civil servants anxiously awaiting the arrival of the PM’s car, following the apparent attempt on his life. A newspaper stand displays the headline: ‘Disarmament: Prime Minister to Speak’, alerting us to the changed political context of the adaptation. No longer intent on prolonging a World War in the hope of securing a victory for Britain and its allies, the threat is now that the Prime Minister will not be around to avert a second war. ‘His is the one voice that can unify Europe and stop Germany re-arming’, we are informed at one point. Others might disagree, but I find this a more palatable motive than Christie herself offered. Even so, it might be argued that the very thing that makes this motive tense and dramatic (that we know the consequences of Germany re-arming better than most ordinary denizens of 1936) is undermined by the irony that this benefit of historical perspective is also, ironically, the very thing that makes the entire affair ultimately redundant – modern viewers, after all, also know that the Prime Minister will fail.

While the anti-pacifist context is altered, however, the theme of the obtuseness bedevilling the John Bullish nationalism of the English establishment is retained to amusing effect. I love the way the ‘attack’ on the PM is described in the papers, for example: ‘It just calls them “ruffians”. In the next paragraph is says “thugs”.’ The self-congratulation that accompanies the ‘rescue’ of the PM from his would-be attackers is also ironic given that this is actually a dupe, a fake display of daring-do designed to appeal to the English love of decisive action: “Well done Commander Daniels. Well done!” says the traitor’s superior, his stiff upper lip visibly wobbling into the ghost of a hubristic smile. The theme of Poirot’s quiet intellectualism versus the unthinking action is also humorously driven home throughout the episode. ‘I don’t want method, I want action!’ cries a disgruntled foreign office official at one point. Informed by Japp that Poirot is thinking, he exclaims: ‘Thinking? What’s he doing that for?’

As in the short story, therefore, Poirot is the antipathy of this appeal to outward decorum and bravely heroic action. The comic subplot (if it can be called that) involving Poirot’s visit to a working-class tailor of some genius, rather than to a posh purveyor on Saville Row emphasises the point – it is the genius, the little grey cells, that matter and not the outward show of tradition and convention.

Japp’s expanded role is also welcome, since it allows the episode to reiterate effectively the function he plays in these narratives – welcome because it shows how Japp is not an idiot plod (to which Lestrade is often reduced in the Sherlock Holmes stories), but rather a sort of mediator between Poirot and the establishment, harbouring an admiration and respect for his friend’s purely cerebral approach but unable to pursue such a line himself because of his beaurocratic training and an emphasis on procedure and visible results. Japp defending Poirot on the phone is thus not only a very sweet moment, especially given his own frustration, but also helps to signify his role as the man of ‘action’ that helps to translate Poirot’s thinking into practical application – a reciprocal relationship, a different way of doing things that renders the contrast more subtle than the ‘police bad’/‘detective good’ dichotomy of many tales in the genre. The old adage that the police ‘would only hamper my investigations’, the fodder of many a crime fiction spoof, does not apply here.

Indeed, all of the regular cast are given a nice moment to shine. Hastings gets one of the series’ most enjoyable car chases, whilst Miss Lemon gets a charming moment of comedy as she completely fails to remember the name of the house for which they are searching. The actors clearly relish the opportunity as well, with David Suchet’s accent unexpectedly wandering into Allo’ Allo’ territory as he follows Hastings’s progress from his flat: ‘You’ve lost ’er? [aside] ‘E’s lost ‘er!’

As mentioned above, another asset is the film-like quality afforded by the leisurely pace and the stylish directorial touches. Poirot takes more than a minute of screen time to enter the Foreign Office and arrive at the office of Sir Bernard Dodge, all the while accompanied by the strains of Big Ben and camera angles that linger over the grandeur of the Westminster architecture. It is a visual key to the episode – the little Belgian modestly waddling along the imposing corridors of power gives lie to what subsequent events will prove to be the case: that it is the physically unprepossessing intellectual who will ultimately triumph, rather than the outwardly impressive accoutrements of the establishment. This is important because although, as in the short story, we are told that the Destroyer is waiting to convey Poirot to France, we don’t get to see it (presumably for budgetary reasons) so it’s nice to get this point of futile show versus mental activity signalled visually in a different way. Another really impressive shot involves the camera panning down the outside of a building, tracking the protagonists’ conversation as they proceed down a flight of stairs inside. The wintry exteriors are also very atmospherically captured as are the cool shots of vintage cars racing through the night (an image I always associate with the Poirot stories and the TV series in particular, viz the picture at the top of this blog!) Although is that really the main road from Windsor to Datchet? If so then the M4 has a lot to answer for. Such is the price of progress!

One thing that did strike me is the way the TV adaptation has a different relationship, on a narrative level, to the presentation of space and time. In the short story, Poirot’s pointless trip across the channel and back again is a humorous device used to signal the futility of the frantic physical effort of his English employers. On paper, this can be accomplished easily enough in a couple of paragraphs – a journey that covers several hundred miles and taking a number of hours in practice can be conveyed quickly and easily in the telling, echoing the ostentatious might that can easily ‘convey’ Poirot across the sea in an instant. On film, this is not the case – the difficulty involved in visualising such scenes would inevitably end up making them look pretty spectacular and belie the point being made, so it makes sense to ditch the journey to France. On the other hand, Poirot’s search of the cottage hospitals (which takes a few lines in the short story) is laboured over in the adaptation precisely to dramatise the impatience it evokes in Poirot’s employers – something we are briefly told in the short story. It’s a consummate example of a change in the narrative from page to screen making complete sense dramatically as the story shifts between mediums.

It isn’t a total success though. The subplot regarding Daniels’s ‘divorce’ is a good addition and is much more satisfying than the short story’s logic of ‘he has a German aunt so that explains everything’. Yet, no really convincing replacement is found for the espionage motive of the original story, clunky though it is. Instead, the Irish Home Rule strand of the original plot is lifted from red herring to fully-fledged motive. This is convincing as far as it goes. The Home Rule plot highlights what is the traitors’ real grievances, namely British imperial hubris: ‘Anyway what’s it got to do with Britain if Germany re-arms?’ Moreover, a ‘strong element in Ireland that does not care if Germany re-arms so long as it hurts Britain’ is certainly a fair assumption of a particular kind of nationalist politics in several Celtic nations during the 1930s and 1940s and so it isn’t hard to believe the lengths to which Daniels’s wife will go. But when applied to Daniels himself it falls down somewhat and becomes horribly convoluted and hard to follow. So… his dad’s career was ruined by Asquith, who approved of home rule… so he was easily persuaded to turn traitor… even though a different PM and a different political party are now in power. Or something? As I said earlier, probably best not to think about it.

Another disappointment is that the Home Rule motive should afford a great opportunity to use the driver Egan as a red herring, as in the original tale – since he, and not Daniels, is the obvious candidate for an Irish traitor. Egan’s lodging is full of Catholic tat, he has an Irish landlady and disappears from the plot halfway through, so the opportunity for such a red herring is certainly there. Yet, he’s never mentioned again! Unless it’s him who appears to aid Mrs Daniels at the end? Again, it’s not clear – and I’m speaking from the perspective of someone who was studying it all very closely in order to write it up on this site. For the general viewer it must have been pretty incomprehensible.

Dramatically, however, it does manage to be exciting enough (and just about clear enough) to be enjoyable and the direction, pacing, characterisation and performances are all top notch. I could argue that the episode shows its hand too early regarding Daniels’s guilt and goes against its own dramatic grain by substituting action-packed car chases for properly thought out explanation – but this is really a minor quibble. Ultimately, like the short story on which it is based, this is brilliantly orchestrated entertainment.

Leave a comment

Filed under 1920s, Agatha Christie, Agatha Christie's Poirot (TV Series), Captain Hastings, Poirot Investigates (1924), Short Stories, Short Story

‘The Kidnapped Prime Minister’ (1923)

First published in The Sketch, on the 25 April 1923 (Issue 1578) and later collected in Poirot Investigates (1924). The story’s setting in the Poirot chronology is considerably earlier than most of the other stories in the Sketch series, apparently taking place shortly after the Styles case. Poirot has just taken up permanent residence in London and is not yet the famous, fashionable detective that he will soon become; Hastings, meanwhile, is still working for the army in an administrative capacity. In fact, the war is still very much ongoing and patriotism is the keynote of the tale – a keynote that is struck by Poirot himself. When visited by two government officials who hope to enlist Poirot’s help in finding the missing Prime Minister, the immigrant detective understandably enquires: ‘What made you come to me? I am unknown, obscure in this great London of yours.’ He has apparently been recommended by a Belgian notable:

 ‘One higher than the Préfet. One whose word was once law in Belgium – and shall be again! That England has sworn!’

Poirot’s hand flew swiftly to a dramatic salute. ‘Amen to that! Ah, but my Master does not forget…’

This ardent political affiliation seems unusual for our Belgian hero, but this somewhat sweetly outdated patriotism is understandable in the context of a man exiled from their homeland by conflict. There are many troubling aspects to the unthinking patriotism on display in this story – not least the fact that it all too often equates with outright jingoism. But moments like this serve to remind us how much a product of its moment this story is, composed when life during war time was still raw on the memory.

Twentieth century history is not my area of expertise, but I’ll venture to say that it’s pretty clear that the Prime Minister ‘David McAdam’ is a thinly-disguised pseudonym for David Lloyd George. I love the fact that Lloyd George was Welsh and that the defence of the Belgians (another ‘small nation’) was one of the deciding factors in his support for Britain’s entry into the war – no wonder Poirot was so supportive! This story was published a year after Lloyd George (who had become Prime Minister in 1916 and seen Britain through the war) lost his office to the Conservative Andrew Bonar Law, himself replaced a year later by Stanley Baldwin, who was in power when this story was published. I don’t know what Christie’s opinions on Lloyd George were, but this story seems to be very supportive of McAdam. Indeed, the fact that Hastings feels that sufficient time has now elapsed to tell this amazing story of how his friend helped save the Prime Minister may well be a topical comment on the fact that Lloyd George has left office – so a story about his time there might now be safe to tell. This helps to explain how a story set earlier chronologically appears mid-way through the Sketch series sequentially.

Another facet linking the story to Lloyd George is the suspicions that fall on O’Murphy, about whom the fact that he is ‘an Irishman from County Clare’ is apparently just as suspicious as his disappearing mysteriously from a Soho restaurant known to be a den of German spies. This seems less obviously racist when one considers that Lloyd George was the Prime Minister who instituted the north/south partition in Ireland, following the Easter Rising, thus making him an obvious target for nationalists – to immediately suspect everyone from one particular nation is still problematic, of course, then as now, but it does make more sense than Tommy Beresford’s ability to spot a Shin Feiner at fifty paces in The Secret Adversary. It also turns out to be a red herring, the real traitor lying closer to home.

Then again, ‘McAdam’ also seems to be a metonym not for any particular politician, but for England itself. He is a patriot who can be relied upon ‘unequivocally [to combat] the Pacifist influence… He was more that England’s Prime Minister – he was England’. If this muddies the waters as to where the story (or at least Hastings) stands on the question of Lloyd George, it does at least indicate clearly where it stands on the question of what is and isn’t English – and pacifisim, it appears, definitely isn’t. The Prime Minister’s rescue is important, all the protagonists agree, because he has to attend a peace conference where only he (i.e. England) will have the gumption to stop that conference achieving its ends. So, the Prime Minister has to be rescued not only from German (or possibly Irish) antagonists, but also from those damned conscies. One cannot help but detect something of the retrospective hubris of the victor in this passage. After all, it’s perhaps easier to deride ‘peace by negotiation’ as ‘the parrot-cry of England’s enemies’, when you’re writing at a time when the war is over and you know that you were on the winning side.

A more positive outcome of this rendering of McAdam into an avatar of England itself is the nice reversal in terms of national roles that results from it. Poirot (a symbol of brave little Belgium) helps to save England – literally and figuratively. In doing so, the story is able to atone somewhat for the bullishness of its anti-pacifist agenda by playing up the more intellectual qualities that, paradoxically, help to further it. As a detective, Poirot is resolutely on the side of brains rather than unthinking brawn – of thought over action. This is clearest in his oft-quoted critique of Hastings’s idea of a detective’s method:

‘He must be full of energy. He must rush to and fro. He should prostrate himself on the dusty road and seek the marks of tyres through a little glass. He must gather up the cigarette-end and the fallen match? That is your idea, is it not?’

His eyes challenged us. ‘But I – Hercule Poirot – tell you that it is not so! The true clues are within – here!’ He tapped his forehead. ‘See you, I need not have left London.’

This commitment to detail over action is also reflected in the tale’s structure. Not only is it unusually brimming with dialogue, but the only action that does take place (bar a short chase lasting one paragraph at the story’s end) is circular. The story crosses the channel twice but, as Poirot points out, needn’t actually have left London, the voyage back and forth across the English Channel being a massive red herring present only to emphasise what turns out to be its own irrelevance to the plot. This demonstration of the ease with which the ostentatious might of the English navy is brought into play actually serves only to undercut the impotence of that military might at this particular moment. It recalls the ridiculously mundane description, earlier, of how the Prime Minister was (apparently) ‘conveyed across the Channel by destroyer’ – a description that has the delightful effect of placing this expensive piece of macho kit on an equivalence with the 73 omnibus. No wonder the war politicians are fooled by the ridiculous story of the ‘masked men’ – as ever in Christie’s fiction, action and visible spectacle are mere external show, with the key to the mystery lying in altogether subtler intricacies of plot.

And yet, when all’s said and done, Poirot’s intellectual abilities are only employed in order to facilitate the continuance of a military struggle. While the story satirises the English characters’ determination to rush headlong into action, it does so only by contrasting that determination with Poirot’s intellectual role ascribed to a foreigner – an intellectuality that still remains ‘other’ to the very Englishness it is called upon to rescue. The maintenance of this ‘otherness’ is the other, unspoken, reason why it is Poirot who is called upon to investigate the disappearance. Because Poirot is here, more than ever, an avatar of brave little Belgium, whom England just as bravely defends, it actually maintains the dichotomy between the passive quality of intellectual endeavour, and the active quality of military prowess, which is upheld by presenting Poirot’s commitment to the work of the little grey cells as very much a temporary expedient – an expedient so outside the innate experience of Englishness that outside help is required. Ultimately, it seems to suggest, in times of war, the duty of the English is to fight without question – if that isn’t always adequate, then help can be sought from the ‘other’ nations with which it is allied.

Purely on the basis of entertainment value, this is one of my favourite Poirot short stories. As with ‘The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan’, the style is satisfyingly economic, every detail of character, plot and setting occupying only as much space as it needs to and no more – so that, if it doesn’t make for a particularly insightful read, it doesn’t feel superficial or rushed either. This makes for a consummately entertaining (if dated) piece of genre fiction; a fast-paced adventure that also allows us a glimpse into a literary-historical moment in which the identity of the bad guys seemed never to be in question – and where the only socio-political grey area is the lingering doubt over how the blighters did it.

5 Comments

Filed under 1920s, Agatha Christie, Captain Hastings, Hercule Poirot, Inspector Japp, Poirot Investigates (1924), Short Stories