[29 May 2012]
Agatha Christie, BBC period dramas, waxed mustaches—when it comes to some things in life, you’re either in or you’re out. I’m in, with bells on, as long as it’s Hercule Poirot wearing the mustache and David Suchet playing him.
Still, even an avid fan must recognize that not all of Dame Agatha’s work was top-drawer, not all BBC adaptations do justice to their sources, and even the Belgian detective and his famous little grey cells could have an off day, now and then. Fortunately, the third series of Poirot episodes released by Acorn (they originally aired in 1990-1991) has substantially more hits than misses, including one episode (“The Mysterious Affair at Styles”) that stands out as a particularly fine example of what the BBC could do with a good Christie story.
People enjoy mysteries for different reasons. While Agatha Christie is admired by many as a master of plotting, I’ve always been more interested in her ability to communicate the character of a place and time—in my days as a straphanger (subway commuter) in New York City, reading her books was like taking a trip to the English countryside of a far calmer era. To be fair, the settings of Christie stories are set an England that existed primary in her imagination and should not be equated with any real time and place, but that’s part of the fun of fiction—it doesn’t have to stick to reality as commonly understood.
Aside from “The Mysterious Affair at Styles”, these episodes follow a common formula: a cast of stock characters are introduced, something goes wrong, Poirot is brought on the case, he makes observations and conducts interviews (thoughtfully cueing the audience as to what they should pay attention to), and finally delivers his verdict as if lecturing in a college hall. That’s not a criticism but merely a description—genre fiction relies on sturdy formats, and as these episodes are less than an hour apiece, one could hardly expect the adaptations to communicate all the necessary information for the story to make sense and be wildly inventive as well.
The fun comes in the details—both the production details (from the usual gorgeous costumes and sets to scene-setting details like exterior shots of Broadcasting House) and the story elements which are part of what keep readers and viewers coming back. Most of the stories in this collection are set in the 1930s, and taken as a group they include most of the elements associated with Christie’s brand of fictional Englishness—gorgeous country houses and rain swept London streets, bicycles and trains, bowler hats, Egyptologists and visiting royalty, the decadent rich and the sturdy working class, and lots of murders by poisoning.
“The Mysterious Affair at Styles” stands out from the others by its length (two hours) and period (late World War I, the period of the Christie novel) and is really a television movie rather than an episode of the series. It’s based on her first novel (published in 1916 in the UK), which introduced Poirot, Lieutenant Hastings, and Inspector Japp to the world, and gives you Poirot’s back story while also presenting a clever locked-room murder that takes place on a country estate. “The Mysterious Affair at Styles” was aired on the BBC to honor the 100th anniversary of Christie’s birth, and would be a good choice to recommend a friend who’s a Poirot virgin and is wondering what all the fuss is about.
The ambiance of these episodes make them half-cozies—they’re often set in the English countryside; have a minimum of violence, a maximum of ratiocination, and little to no sex; the criminals belong to the same world as the victims and are motivated by the most human of failings (often jealousy or greed); and everything is set to rights by the time the credits roll. Granted, the detective is male and Belgian, but he’s a great fan of his adopted country, and he solves the cases using psychology and reasoning. He’s also short, wears glasses, and is an immaculate dresser with delicate sensibilities—which is to say, he’s about as far from the stock hard-boiled detective as he could possibly be.
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Series 3 include 11 episodes (628 min.) on three discs. The episodes included, besides “The Mysterious Affair at Styles”, are “How Does Your Garden Grow?”, “The Million Dollar Bond Robbery”, “The Plymouth Express”, “Wasp’s Nest”, “The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor”, “The Double Clue”, “The Mystery of the Spanish Chest”, “The Theft of the Royal Ruby”, “The Affair at the Victory Ball” and “The Mystery of Hunger’s Lodge”.
The visuals look good, but not great, in this release; according to the press materials, the episodes have been restored and remastered, but they still suffer from some noticeable flaws, mainly a softness of image in many shots, and a washing out of some of the exterior scenes. The sound is quite good, for both dialogue and the soundtrack.
Alas, there are no extras in this collection, which is a missed opportunity—perhaps someone at Acorn will get ambitious and release a collector’s edition with commentary tracks and “making of” features. After all, Christie fans would enjoy those features (personally, I want to know the location of every exterior shot), and students of film and television could learn a lot from them about how to effectively translate books to the screen.