Hi folks, today I follow up my previous post to review the final five episodes of that little-known 1980s series The Agatha Christie Hour.
Film review: “The Agatha Christie Hour” episodes 6 – 10 (1982)
written by John Brynden Rogers, T.R. Bowen, William Corlett and Gerald Savory
The great thing about this anthology series is that, going into each episode, you can’t tell what it will be: murder mystery? supernatural drama? romance? I had read several of these short stories but mostly years ago, and the facts were all gone from my mind. The first five episodes were quite successful, excepting of course the change in pacing and production values in the last 30 years! This next batch is more of a mixed bag, but there are some enjoyable little pieces in here, even if none are truly gems.
Magnolia Blossom is very loyally adapted from a short story not published in book form in Christie’s lifetime, in which Theo Darrell (Ciaran Madden) leaves her stern, business-obsessed husband Richard (Jeremy Clyde) for Vincent (Ralph Bates), a dashing and delightful dilettante who convinces her to run away with him. On the night the pair plan to flee the country, however, Richard’s business and reputation are ruined, and Theo – unwilling to take away the only thing he has left in the world now – returns to him, only to find her husband less than forgiving.
Magnolia Blossom is an intriguing little melodrama in two parts. The first half is the amiable dinner sequence which – like most of these episodes – features a surprisingly large guest cast, and effectively sells Vincent’s courtship of Theo, largely through the convincing performance, oddly, of Jeremy Clyde as Richard. Rather than creating him simply as a monster, Clyde show us not only why Theo married him in the first place, but also how their relationship has steadily deteriorated. The first half isn’t dull but it feels a little excessive, since none of the extra characters will appear in the second half, which is primarily the confrontation of husband and wife. Madden gives a dynamic performance throughout as the tortured Theo, both in her coy scenes with Vincent and throughout the very believable confrontation with Richard, ultimately making the best possible choice. It’s not a particularly amazing hour of television, no, but the complex central relationship rings quite true, and it’s buoyed by strong performances.
Mystery of the Blue Jar is a very diverting hour of television which, in retrospect, seemed to think it was far more amusing than it was. Law student Jack Hartington (the commanding and stunning Robin Kermode) takes a holiday to a quiet inn, only to have an unusual experience when he keeps hearing the cry of “Murder!” near a house being rented by Felise (Isabelle Spade), a young Frenchwoman. Despite the advice of fellow guest, Dr. Lavington (Michael Aldridge), Jack refuses to believe that it’s all in his mind. Things take stranger turns when he learns of the house’s recent past – vacated by a man whose wife was not seen by locals in a long time – and he begins to suspect he is being contacted by a ghost.
Rare for this series, Mystery of the Blue Jar is an episode that keeps the audience guessing. Coming from Christie’s supernatural collection The Hound of Death, I expected an ending that was far less concrete, but instead we get a very satisfying collision of characters, aided by Kermode’s strong leading turn (like many of the male heroes in this series, he’s a little left of centre and more quirky than you might expect), and a boisterous performance by Derek Francis as his concerned uncle. The twist ending is clever (sure, it’s easy to guess something is happening, but the specifics surprised me) and things move along very quickly… well, not very quickly, but quickly for this series! Loyalty to the original short story’s style, however, means that the conclusion feels awkward. Hugh Walters puts in a spirited turn as Mr. Dodds, an effete bookseller who figures out the truth, but he does so while remaining disconnected from the main plot entirely! It’s like one of those later Poirot books where he turns up in the penultimate chapter and just figures out the entire crime in an instant. An enjoyable little caper episode.
Third on our agenda, also from The Hound of Death, is The Red Signal. It’s the only bona fide supernatural story in this batch, but even then the supernatural becomes a very minor element once the story hits its stride. Dermot West (Richard Morant) attends a dinner party with a varied assortment of British archetypes where the quirky hostess (Joanna David) organises a seance with a kindly medium (Rosalie Crutchley). As I mentioned earlier, this series spared no expense when it came to cast members, and every episode seems to overflow with small appearances from a host of talented actors, although it means that the episodes often take a while to find their centre! Here, it’s very much Dermot, who believes – against his better judgement – in a “Red signal”, a warning he has seen before that saved him from death, and which he sees tonight. The medium warns the party not to go to their homes that night, as danger awaits. The group use this as an excuse to party on throughout the night, except Dermot’s sceptical psychologist uncle, Sir Alington (Alan Badel) whom he escorts home. Later, of course, Sir Alington is found murdered.
The Red Signal is a patchy episode but when it’s strong, it’s very strong. The question of “what would you do if the medium gave you a warning?” resonates, and the size of the cast means that it moves quite quickly. It’s a bit like an Agatha Christie Hour greatest hits collection by the midpoint: Dermot is considered the likely suspect, but he is concerned it is either Claire (whose family has a history of mania, as we’ve both seen and were warned by Sir Alington) or her husband Jack (Christopher Cazenove), whom he wanted to take her away from. Either way, Dermot has no time to figure things out, as Inspector Verrall (Bob Keegan) is hunting him for the murder.
Truth be told, there probably isn’t enough menace in the proceedings, particularly as this is our only murder mystery in these five episodes. And any fans of short stories will be able to note at least one way in which this episode could’ve ended with a clever (if dark) twist, bringing the “Red signal” omen back into play. But in spite of these reservations, I quite enjoyed this episode. The investigation sequence is quite tense, with Dermot posing as his own servant, under the watchful eye of Constable Cawley (Andrew McCulloch) while trying to find out the truth. The ending makes sense and works well, even if – as I say – it all ties up too nicely. Still, this was a suitable little melodrama, on par with the rest of the series.
I’d be interested to learn what, if any, contemporary response there was to this series. (It doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, so I’d assume not much!) None of these episodes could’ve been that costly, and Christie certainly had a wide range of short stories out there. Sure, none of these episodes are astounding entertainment, but as light diversions, they can’t have been too poorly received. (It was also the era for completists, with the Partners in Crime series, the complete Marple novels done by Joan Hickson, and other series such as Jeeves and Wooster.) For whatever reason, though, the series was not renewed, and these ten episodes stand alone. (Perhaps one day, some crazed billionaire will fund a project to film all the remaining Christie works… we shall see…)
Jane in Search of a Job, from The Listerdale Mystery is my personal favourite of the ten episodes. Jane Cleveland (Elizabeth Garvie) is quite literally bankrupt and cannot find a job. As she says, the daughters of country vicars simply are not brought up to do anything anyone will pay them for. Having pawned her belongings and relying on the charity of her landlady (Julia McCarthy), Jane answers an advertisement almost tailor made for her: requiring only certain skills and a particular look. The job, it turns out, is doubling as Pauline, Grand Duchess of Ostravia. The real Pauline (Amanda Redman) is in England seeking financing for her country, aided by two delightful grotesques: Princess Anna (Stephanie Cole) and Count Streptitch (Tony Jay). Everyone here has such fun with their characterisation (even if only Cole’s accent is believable) that it’s impossible not to enjoy the episode. Garvie in particular is simply brilliant as Jane, convincing us of both the excitement and understandable terror in taking on this role. (The only issue for me is that Ostravia sounds like ‘Australia’ in these accents, which had me very confused!)
As expected, the house party goes awry (from the very premise, this is quite like a Sherlock Holmes story), and Jane is thrown into a world of intrigue and double-crossing, where she realises she has been used as part of a con herself. Jane in Search of a Job moves along at a steady clip, features gorgeous costumes and set design, and is filled with wry humour, making it a joyful little escapade. It’s the only episode in the series to be really altered from its source material, and even then it’s only to add in character business for Jane, notably her burgeoning relationship with her neighbour, handsome policeman Nigel Guest (Andrew Bicknell). There’s also a delightful cameo from Helen Lindsay as the nosy Lady Anchester. A fun time had by all. (What amused me most was the period detail in how Jane is embarrassed to be seen in her full-length pyjamas, but putting on a robe makes it all okay!)
The Agatha Christie Hour is a true anthology series, in that none of the episodes even have a house style. Sure, they’re all video-taped and so share a common look, but from the various (or non-existent) opening titles to the soundtrack, each episode has its own intangible feel, which added to the enjoyment for me.
The final tale is The Manhood of Edward Robinson and no, it’s not about a teenage boy’s first brush with sexuality, as you dirty minds might well think. It is, however, about an adult man’s first brush with the feeling of being alive and – again – this is captured mostly due to a powerful central performance. Nicholas Farrell is one of those celebrated actors who is in everything yet not famous, and he does indeed have a knack for playing characters without charisma. Here, he’s Edward Robinson, a dreamer living a somewhat isolated life, reading romances and avoiding commitment to his sweetheart Maud (Ann Thornton). Edward is a character common to anyone who has read Christie’s Mary Westmacott novels, in his desire for something else, but his inability to commit to seeking it. Maud has recognised his pointless extravagance and – at the urging of her shrill mother Mrs. Lithinglow (Margery Mason) is trying to fight against it. Instead, after winning a small amount in the lottery, Edward gets himself a fancy car and skips out of town for the Christmas period to have an adventure.
Edward’s adventure becomes real when he climbs back into the wrong car and finds himself in possession of a stolen diamond necklace and a beautiful woman, Noreen Elliot (Cherie Lunghi) who thinks he is her fiancee’s brother. The night takes stranger and stranger turns – accompanied by a ludicrous array of frivolous youths, Sallyanne Law, Patrick Newell, Rupert Everett, Nicholas Bell and Julian Wadham among them – as Edward begins to discover how he can reconcile his regular life with that of his daydreams. The centre of the story is the camaraderie between Farrell and Lunghi, the latter simply gorgeous and the former slightly off-putting while remaining genuine and delightful (which, I think, is Farrell’s true talent).
Truthfully, The Manhood of Edward Robinson contains no stakes, high or otherwise. Each danger turns out to be merely a lark, and – in spite of occasional cuts back to Maud, as she grows suspicious of Edward – there’s never really a fear that things won’t work out. This is an unusually structured but heartwarming look at Edward’s growth as a person, told with an unusual structure and with some sweet performances. Things do become rather coy in the last five minutes, as Edward is perhaps given one too many trials before he makes his way home again, but it feels earned due to the sincerity of Farrell.
Well, that was The Agatha Christie Hour. Probably won’t rush back to it any time soon (which seems to be my standard response to non-David Suchet Christie adaptations!) and I still am fascinated by how this odd anthology series was received in 1982, but I’m definitely glad to have discovered it.