Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Series 5, Episode 6
Written by Douglas Watkins
Directed by Ken Grieve
First broadcast: UK – 21st February 1993
Take a quick look at the dates on this post and the one before and you don’t need to be Poirot to notice that this blog has been sadly neglected for a while now. This has been due to many factors – other writing projects and a protracted house-move among them. But it’s also been due to procrastination, thanks in no small part to the fact that this is not an episode of Agatha Christie’s Poirot that I remember all that fondly, and thus not one I was exactly enthusiastic about revisiting. That isn’t to say that I remember it being actively bad (it’s certainly better than ‘The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan’) Rather, I remember it as being very pedestrian. Just sort of… there. So when I finally popped the DVD into the player I was pleasantly surprised to find that there’s an awful lot to recommend this one.
Firstly, the episode does an amazing job of bringing the story to life dramatically whilst remaining very faithful to the source text. Opening with the murder (although it’s not revealed to be a murder until later) is a good move and whets the appetite well for what follows. Having been slightly baffled by the unfamiliar political and social context of the short story, I’m also pleased with the way in which Douglas Watkins has limited the political background to terms more readily familiar to a modern audience further removed in time from these events than Christie’s readership would have been. No detailed understanding of pre-war Belgian politics and religious conflict is required. Paul is, at worst a German sympathiser or, at best, intent on appeasement which, with hindsight, we know will fail – that’s all we know and all we need to know (later, in an added subplot, Paul is indeed revealed to be a full-on collaborator).
The frame narrative is also altered. This time Poirot tells the story to Japp who is in Brussels to receive an award – he is to be made a ‘Companion de la Branche D’or’ for his help in aiding the Belgian police force (the Abercrombie forgery case, alluded to in Styles, gets a mention). Japp, as so often in the early short stories, begins the tale in expository mode – ‘Well Poirot, how does it feel to be back in Brussels again after so many years?’ – but he also provides a tangible link to the Belgian police force and Poirot’s past life, meaning that the frame narrative is not completely separated from the central mystery, as in Christie’s story, and can thus be used to foreshadow events in the episode’s ‘present’, demonstrating the ways in which Poirot’s mistake haunts his relationship with the characters in the here and now. This is far less clunky than the flashback sequences in the adaptation of ‘The Sunningdale Mystery’ from the 1980s Partners in Crime series, for example, where Tommy and Tuppence spend ages wandering around a golf links discussing events which we’re then show. Here, events in the present tantalisingly reveal clues to events in the past and vice versa – each temporal setting helps to up the dramatic tension in the other.
Strangely, as in the film of Murder on the Links later, Poirot is the only character who speaks with a Belgian accent. In every other department, however, no expense or effort has been spared to provide a luscious evocation of Belgium before and between the wars. The amount of money that’s been spent would make a modern British TV director, in these cash-strapped times, green with envy. The costumes and scenery are truly incredible and a feast for the eye. Even the maid and the cook, who appear briefly in a flashback-within-a-flashback, get to wear the most glorious period garments. Budget aside, however, the whole thing is also beautifully photographed, the mannerisms and pace of pre-war Belgium given a stately feel, appropriate to an ‘old world’ now lost.
The acting all round is very satisfying and the impressive cast includes veteran screen actor Mark Eden (as Boucher) and Anna Chancellor as a very radiant Virginie. Suchet himself gets to play a younger Poirot. Though not massively different in appearance –he looks like the older one but thinner and with a slightly different moustache – it is in demeanour, mannerisms, and an added buoyancy and enthusiasm that Suchet signals the difference between the older and younger versions. Younger Poirot is fastidious, but not prematurely avuncular as in the short story – hence the incipient romance seems a natural addition. Indeed, not only is the episode generally very faithful to the short story, but the embellishments are intriguing, done with a light touch and feel very much in keeping with the source material. In fact, it’s less dry as a result, and springs off the screen in a way that the story doesn’t really leap off the page. There is a greater attention to character and, dare I say it, more thought seems to have been put into what all these things mean to Poirot – how these events still matter to him, how they make up the rich tapestry of who he is. That this is a world on the brink of being thus lost is foreshadowed by the mention of Paul being the kind of man who’d appease the Kaiser – but the nostalgia also plays out on a personal level, with Poirot at the beginning of his career, about to prove the worth of his little grey cells, but at the expense of an incipient romantic relationship. This reflects a longstanding tendency in his later life, where he usually ends up fixing other people’s romances, rather than finding happiness of that kind for himself – a recurring thread in the TV show (though not in the novels). Poignantly, we learn that the buttonhole Poirot is frequently seen wearing in other episodes is one Virginie gave him, and I wonder if it is her he thinks of during his more melancholic moments during the TV versions of The Hollow and Death on the Nile?
Poirot is also shown to be a talented housebreaker – for at least the third time in the TV series. In all honesty, Poirot colluding with Virginie to spy on the Count, whilst still managing to keep his job stretches credulity. Yet, on the other hand, it’s another example of the story’s theme – how even Poirot has been prone to mistakes during his long career. Moreover it’s exactly the kind of off-the-wall, outside-the-rulebook stuff he is still getting up to in his retirement. This is, after all, a man who tricks murderers into confession by faking the return of their victims’ ghosts. He isn’t exactly your average policeman.
The moment when he misinterprets the overheard scrap of conversation, ‘As if I had fired a pistol into his heart’, is another learning curve (the Count is actually referring to conversation at dinner which he thinks caused Paul’s heart failure). Misinterpreted overheard scraps of conversation are important clues in later cases – think of the clue of the Dictaphone in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd for instance. In these instances Poirot is able to see through the apparent meaning of these overheard ‘clues’ by insisting that they not be taken at face value. Could this be where he learns that caution?