Following on from the success of ITV’s Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? and The Seven Dials Mystery, the network’s next foray into Christie was this ten-part series, The Agatha Christie Hour, which took lesser-known Christie stories – rarely murder mysteries – and gave them the one-hour TV treatment.
Review: “The Agatha Christie Hour” (1982)
written by Freda Kelsall, William Corlett and T.R. Bowen.
The opening credits sequence is a butterfly floating past a woman typing mechanically on a typewriter as lovely music plays, and this about sums up the series: beautifully filmed and lovingly told versions of rather mechanical stories. Christie’s novels were usually stronger than her short stories, and that’s particularly noticeable when you take her non mystery based stories, so it was certainly an interesting decision to use these stories as source material. Like the aforementioned TV films, most of these are very literal, word-for-word adaptations (padded out with extra character scenes), and it’s certainly an unusual experiment.
The Case of the Middle-Aged Wife (from Parker Pyne Investigates) is the first on-screen appearance of Christie’s little-known detective Parker Pyne (Maurice Denham). Financial and emotional troubles pain the Packington marriage: Maria (Gwen Watford) worries that George (Peter Jones) is having an affair with his typist, Nancy (Kate Dorning). Seeking out Pyne – through his enigmatic newspaper ad – to engage his help. Pyne is a most unusual detective: he’s an older, experienced, retired civil servant who thinks of people in terms of his statistics. With his secretary Miss Lemon (Angela Easterling), in her pre-Poirot days, Pyne has a roster of employees who act out various fantasies for the client, although the client rarely knows which parts are fantasy and wich reality. (This Miss Lemon is less adorable than the more-well known version played by Pauline Moran, but she’s no less clever, rigorous or opinionated.)
In truth, The Case of the Middle-Aged Wife doesn’t really need an hour. Maria takes her good time getting to Pyne, and his plan largely involves her being courted by the dapper Claude Luttrell (Rupert Frazer) until both she and her husband are forced to reevaluate their relationship. It’s a lovely little story, with very solid performances from Watford, Frazer and Jones, and a nice exploration of all the central characters. However, it is quite slight – few will be surprised by the twists and turns of the plot – and seems to me an unusual choice to open the series. Still, it gives you a good indication of the frame of mind to use with this series. I’m sure many have been disappointed upon purchasing this series to find that it features few mysteries and even less murder. But in its original format as a teatime anthology series, and taken as a series of vignettes, this series can be delightful. Indeed, one of its strongest assets is that unpredictability: when each episode opens, you have no idea whether it will be a mystery, a romance, or even a tale of the supernatural.
The second episode, In A Glass Darkly, is one such. It’s from Miss Marple’s Final Cases (although doesn’t feature Miss Marple) and uses the supernatural rather lightly. Christie didn’t hold much truck with the realm of the fantastic, and it informs her rather lifeless stories in this genre. Why she chose to write them – other than a challenge – has never really been apparent. In truth, this is a most unusual story. Matthew Armitage (Nicholas Clay) visits his friend Neil Carslake (Shaun Scott, with whom Clay shares an almost homoerotic chemistry) and – while preparing for dinner in his room – has a vision of a scarred man killing a woman. Naturally, it comes as quite a shock to meet a similarly scarred man, Derek Wainwright (Nicholas Le Provost) and his wife-to-be, Neil’s sister Sylvia (Emma Piper).
In A Glass Darkly is a confounding little story through and through. We expect a twist in the tale, particularly as various couples separate and come together, and another major character suffers a similar scar. But instead, the story keeps veering away from the scar – and thus the supernatural element – to focus more on the character relationships. By the time the ending occurs, there’s very little surprise, and we begin to realise that it’s been about relationship and character all along. There’s a lot of strength in this; the main cast are great, aided by Elspet Gray as Sylvia’s mother, and Jonathan Morris as her older brother Alan. Morris’ career never really took off, but he’s delightful here, charismatic, gawky and just a touch mannered. In fact, the whole episode is like a movie, as we witness the marriage and its ups-and-downs over the years. While the scenes set during wartime feel very studiobound, it’s still admirable that this series is already conveying a range of places. Unlike the staid, middle-class milieu of episode one, this episode gives us wars and lush gardens and people with servants.
Beyond this, In A Glass Darkly manages to take a story that reads like a cliched urban legend and imbue it with character. There’s an intriguing dilemma at the heart – would you tell a stranger that you may have had a prophetic vision of their fiancee strangling them? what if you knew of this vision and suspected you were the strangler? – and the character notes (Neil breaking down, mid-war, in utter terror) are all quite powerful. The episode does rather awkwardly attempt to stride several genres at once, luring us in with the supernatural element and then playing it down at every opportunity. The ending – while quiet and very human – is perhaps too nice on a cruel character, but it certainly held my interest.
Third up is The Girl in the Train (from The Listerdale Mystery) in which George Rowland (Osmund Bullock) – fired by his Uncle William (James Grout) sets out on a whim to visit a distant landmark and gets caught up in Eastern European politics (as people do strangely often in early Christie). There are some fine characterisations here, with Roy Kinnear proving his usual slimy but clever self as a cabbie and Sarah Berger as the mysterious young woman who starts the plot off, but it’s perhaps a bit too silly to contain any real substance. Bullock is adorable, and seems custom-made for the part, but this is probably the slightest of the first five episodes, since it doesn’t really focus on characterisation like the others. (Christie’s light thrillers were also never her strongest novels.)
I remain somewhat surprised that these episodes were successfully pitched to a TV network executive, but it is nice to have some of Christie’s less-known stories dramatised.
The Fourth Man is taken from the supernatural story collection The Hound of Death, but it’s really more of a tale about psychology, conveyed primarily through a handful of very successful performances. Three colleagues – played with vigour by Michael Gough, Alan MacNaughton and Geoffrey Chater – discuss the sad tale of Felicie Bault (Fiona Mathieson), a young woman with multiple personalities who recently committed suicide. The other man in their train carriage – Raoul Letardau (John Nettles), a ‘gentleman of the press’ – admits to having grown up with Felicie, and proceeds to tell them her story.
Raoul’s tale is yet another surprising addition to this anthology-style series. As a young man (Roy Leighton), Raoul is sent to the foster home of Mademoiselle la Solitaire (Barbara Bolton) to live with his foster sisters. Felicie is gruff, unattractive, and strong as a man; Annette (Prue Clarke) is vibrant, feminine and gleeful. Yet, as their lives together continue, Annette shows her sadistic side, gradually obtaining a psychological hold over Felicie, who feels compelled to do her bidding and who is essentially treated as her ‘dog’. It’s an unusual story for Christie, and she handles it with aplomb – it actually strikes me as closest to her Mary Westmacott books. Mathieson, who died far too young before her star could rise, is powerful as the abused Felicie, and she’s ably matched by Clarke. It’s perhaps true that Clarke’s portrayal isn’t quite as strong as the character could be, but I liked the contrast between her vivacious schoolgirl persona, and the secret cruelty she shows only to her siblings. Leighton is beautiful as young Raoul, and Bolton is mighty fine as their single-minded foster mother. While I understand the need to have these French characters speak in English, it is a bit odd that they speak RP yet pronounce the French names so accurately – why not just move the location to England?
Back in the present day, meanwhile, John Nettles proves himself the MVP of these five episodes, telling his tale with mournful eyes and a powerful soulfulness. His three scene partners – who, after all, do little more than sit in a train car and listen – are also superbly cast.
Like not a few of the Sherlock Holmes stories, The Fourth Man loses some of its surprise factor these days. Whereas multiple personalities – and their causes – were particularly exotic psychology in the ’30s, we’ve now seen Sybil and United States of Tara, and read K-PAX. The solution to the mystery no longer comes as much of a surprise, but it’s chillingly told so that it doesn’t really matter. Again, as with the strongest stories in this collection, it’s the characters who matter more than the plot.
Episode five is The Case of the Discontented Soldier, Parker Pyne’s second and final appearance in the series. This episode is a delightful little romp, but it’s definitely quite inconsequential. Major John Wilbraham (William Gaunt) seeks out Parker Pyne, who sets about putting a spark back into the military man’s tired life with his band of merry women. What a pity that they didn’t decide to spin Denham’s Pyne off into a full series. There are only a dozen or so stories, so it wouldn’t have been a long-term commitment. The sheer number of allies of Pyne in this story make it all the more a pity that we don’t get to see them in action. Here, there’s the ruthlessly efficient Miss Lemon, fiery, dark-haired Madeleine de Sara (Veronica Strong) and the powerhouse Lally Bowers as novelist Ariadne Oliver. Bowers is simply astonishing in her three-minute cameo appearance, and I can imagine many disappointed viewers upon learning there weren’t going to be any follow-up appearances. She’s vastly different to the other two screen portrayals of Mrs. Oliver – Jean Stapleton and Zoe Wanamaker – but no less effective, in her blustering, matter-of-fact way.
It’s a nice little story, anchored by the no-nonsense performance of Gaunt (and his own dog Walter plays John’s dog Wally!), and the varied cast of characters keeps it interesting through the hour. While it doesn’t have quite the same psychological insight as the better tales, The Case of the Discontented Soldier is certainly not a failure.
Well, that’s the first five episodes in this series. If I sound ambiguous about it, I suppose I am. I doubt I’ll revisit any of these stories any time soon, and there’s certainly nothing special in these quiet vignettes. But they’re all well-acted, and the better ones amongst them present some intriguing character studies. An intriguing experiment, if nothing else.