Thursday, July 5, 2012

By the Light of the Television: Poirot, Season 2 (1990)

Season 2 of the Poirot series--starring the inimitable David Suchet as the title character, Agatha Christie's brilliant Belgian expatriate detective--originally aired from January to March 1990, which means the episodes are now over twenty years old.  Incredibly the series is with us still, being expected, I believe, to wrap up in 2013 with productions of the four remaining never filmed Poirot novels--The Big Four, Dead Man's Folly, Elephants Can Remember and Curtain--and Christie's finest short collection, The Labors of Hercules.  How is this for longevity!

Acorn Media finally has started reissuing the early seasons of Poirot on remastered DVDs, with vastly improved sound and picture quality (and closed captioning).  This is a great gift to those of who love Agatha Christie and Poirot.

first American edition of Peril at End House
(speaking of Art Deco!)
Season 2 opened with an adaptation of the first Poirot detective novel (as opposed to a short story) to be filmed for the series, Peril at End House (1932).  With this novel Agatha Christie launched a phenomenal run of stupendous Poirot mysteries. While the clear peaks of the 1920s Poirot novels are The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) and The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), there is an embarrassment of riches in the 1930s and 1940s, a mass of masterfully plotted tales.

Peril at End House is one of the best Poirots.  The Belgian detective is on holiday in Cornwall (Captain Hastings in tow), where he meets the charming young lady "Nick" Buckley, who lives at ramshackle End House on the bay.  Poirot discovers that Nick has been the victim of a series of accidents, which he decides have been murder attempts.  Poirot now has to determine not only who is trying to kill Nick, but why someone would want to kill Nick, a delightful and rather impecunious young woman.  There's also the little matter of preventing the next "accident" from being a fatal one....

Not only is Peril at End House one of the best Poirot mysteries, but the 1990 adaptation of it is one of the best in the Poirot series.  Largely faithful to the book, it's also superbly filmed.  Gothic End House and the gorgeous Art Deco Majestic Hotel are joys to behold, as are the costume and set designs. David Suchet and Hugh Fraser (as Hastings) are in top form and even Poirot's secretary Miss Lemon (Pauline Moran) gets a notable role in this one.  Inspector Japp is less relevant, though as always Philip Jackson makes him a splendid incarnation of the between-the-wars English copper (the end scene of Japp and Poirot sitting in chairs on the beach amusingly illustrates the wonderful way he and Suchet inhabit these characters).

Poirot delivers dire news to Nick (Polly Walker)
Nick is played by Polly Walker, that memorable beauty from Enchanted April (1992) and Emma (1997) and more recently The Mayor of Casterbridge (2003) and the TV series Rome (2005-2007).  Peril at End House is one of Walker's first film appearances.  She is very good! Also memorable is Alison Sterling as Nick's best friend "Freddie" Rice (and check out Freddie's flapper wardrobe).

There are eight more Poirot episodes on the Series 2 set too. I will rate them below (Peril at End House gets  ***** by the way).

The Veiled Lady ****
Poirot comes to the aid of a blackmailed lady and finds rapidly snowballing complications. This amusing one culminates in a fine chase at the Natural History Museum (part of the British Museum in the 1920s and 1930s, I believe).  Not to mention that we see Poirot on a bicycle!  And we get the great line, "I didn't know he was one of your unnaturals, sir," when it's discovered Poirot uses--quelle horreur-- a mustache comb!

The Lost Mine ****
The highlight of this one probably is Poirot and Hastings playing Monopoly (not in the story!), but there is some good deduction by Poirot as well.  An improvement on the story.

The Cornish Mystery *
Unfortunately one of the poorest of the entire series.  I find the characters are implausible and uninteresting and, unpardonably, Poirot just brazenly guesses his way to the solution and unbelievably bulldozes the murderer into a confession.  Bah!  It was never much of  a story in the first place, however. Oh, well, at least there's nice scenery.

The Disappearance of Mr. Davenheim ****
A clever story with some nice touches added in the adaptation.  One of those fantastic Art Deco millionaire's houses in this one.

the abiding glories of Art Deco are seen in "Double Sin"
Double Sin *****
My clear favorite of the story adaptations in Season 2.

A good plot (theft of miniatures on charabanc), combined with a host of amusing situations and characters (the two local coppers are hilarious) and fabulous lake district scenery (and another amazing Art Deco hotel).

Also a memorable American businessman (we know he's an American because he's obnoxious and says "goddamn" ;) ).  And the great line, delivered to Hastings, "Don't you know what it's like to love a man?!!"  Hastings' response is priceless.

The Adventure of the Cheap Flat ****
Another story that, like The Veiled Lady, was clearly influenced by Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes.  This one involves American gangsters, in an amusing, tongue-in-cheek way.  Also a good role for Miss Lemon, where she has to pose as a fulsome writer for a "women's magazine."  And another obnoxious American who says "goddamn" (this one is a copper who looks like Rush Limbaugh).

The Kidnapped Prime Minister ***
Although anyone familiar with Christie by now should catch the trick immediately, this one is enjoyable and unusual in bringing in a political plot.  Also a delicious, scenery-chewing performance by Lisa Harrow.  Still, I miss the humor (there is a nice bit with Miss Lemon trying to recall a name).

The Adventure of the Western Star ***
Pleasant one involving complications over missing gems.  And we get to see Poirot as a film fan (a Belgian film fan!).

I was just thinking, looking over this list, how few quaint villages and ancient country houses are depicted.  There is a village in The Cornish Mystery and country houses in Davenheim, Kidnapped Prime Minister and Western Star, but of the latter not the following: one is in ruins, another is owned by an aristocrat in dire financial circumstances and the last is an Art Deco mansion owned by a parvenu financier (End House is not really a country house; it's overlooking a very modern Art Deco hotel).

As this series constantly reveals Agatha Christie and her Poirot were modernists!


  1. Tread carefully, Curt, that last comment could mark you a heretic with people on both sides of the fence. ;)

    Anyway, I completely agree with you on Peril at End House, which, perhaps, is not one of her grandest achievements, but nonetheless an enjoyable one and it's always been one of my personal favorites – and the adaptation did the book justice. Hopefully, they will be looking at some of these early episodes for the last remaining books (Please, Poe, don't let them muck up Curtain).

  2. Really useful prompt to buy the series, which was brilliant other than the appalling adaptation of Ackroyd and the way they crowbarred Poirot's secretary into every episode.

  3. This is a series which in my view, declines in quality. The first series based on the HP short stories are in my opinion the best although I did enjoy series 2. The later episodes, where full length books are adapted are ludicrous for their tinkering of the plots. 'Cat Amongst the Pigeons' for example is virtually unrecognisable from the book. Some of the characterisation is a bit dodgy too. Poirot and Hastings are very good. Miss Lemon is a complete caricature and Ariadne Oliver nothing like the books.
    I usually watch the new episodes and then turn over in a rage when I realise the plot has been changed.

  4. It gets patchier as it goes on that's true but it's largely the fault of the scripts and whoever is signing them off. Appointment with Death was a disaster in the Middle East (just like the Ustinov version).

  5. I'm re-watching Season 3 and will post on it soon. Interesting to see Sarah liked Season One best. I'll have to go back an re-watch that one too! Season 3 strikes me as somewhat more serious in tone. Of course most of the stories concern murders, whereas previously they were mostly about theft and fraud. I think Season 3 has some of my favorites though.

    I don't like ones where they make big changes in the plots either. Christie didn't need plotting help from modern-day scriptwriters. Most of the stories seem to me cleverly expanded (as opposed to altered), however.