Problem at Sea: episode overview

***Spoilers as always***

Things I loved:

1.) Everything Hastings! “Problem at Sea” was a Hastings-less short story of Christie’s, but as usual, he was written into this earlier episode. In some ways, his involvement with this plot is more incidental than terrifically important, but whenever he shows up, he’s adorable and endearing. Some notable moments: his arrangement of the clay pigeon shooting tournament; Poirot’s unsuccessful attempt to engage him in conversation with Miss Henderson (“Oh, Hastings, Hastings, Hastings”); his participation in the “usual sort of tourist things” he’d planned to avoid in Egypt (and Poirot’s serious analysis of the photo poses); his successful nabbing of a jewel thief. If you didn’t love Hastings already, you definitely loved him by this first-season episode.

2.) Some of the additions used to bolster the plot. “Problem at Sea” is one of Christie’s more “slight” stories, one that requires some padding to make it work onscreen. Using the arranged entertainment on the ship was a clever way to introduce Ismene and her dolls, tying it into the ventriloquism thing. To make General Forbes have a romantic interest in Mrs. Clapperton was also natural, I think, considering that in the book, he rails against Col. Clapperton as a fraud. It might feel a bit of a stretch to think of anyone sustaining an interest in Mrs. Clapperton, but that’s just because the role was played with such perfectly-appropriate odiousness.

3.) Pamela and Kitty were hilarious. Well done.聽 馃檪

4.) The wardrobe. I mentioned the wardrobe already in my review of Triangle at Rhodes— it’s great throughout the series– but what stands out to me in Problem at Sea is Poirot’s wardrobe. Some of my favorite outfits of his are unique to this episode. Hastings, also, sports some great clothes, including casual wear that is not often seen in the series.

5.) Suchet’s dramatic delivery of the denouement. Absolutely spine-tingling, just as it was intended to be in the book.

Things I didn’t love:

1.) Despite the wonderful delivery mentioned above, the script’s climax was written to be much less dramatic than the book. And this is my primary criticism. What makes the story interesting is not really Clapperton being a ventriloquist; in fact, that’s certainly one of Christie’s most unoriginal solutions, in my opinion. What makes the story fascinating is that Poirot knows that Clapperton has a weak heart and deliberately shocks the crud out of everyone with his dramatic denouement– purposefully sending Clapperton to his death from shock. When confronted by Ellie Henderson for his “cruel trick,” the story ends with this ominous, ironic, and chilling statement:

“I do not approve of murder,” said Hercule Poirot.

In other words, Poirot basically murdered the guy because he didn’t approve of murder. This was, perhaps, considered too much for the TV audience to handle, or something. But it’s what makes the whole story intriguing.

2.) I wanted Mrs. Clapperton’s voice to be more distinctively annoying than it was. Its very shrillness is part of what made it possible for her husband to imitate it so convincingly. In the episode, it was a little hard to believe he had so accurately imitated the woman’s voice that came through the other side of the door…

3.) Col. Clapperton’s stiffness at supposedly being “found out” during the card trick rang a bit hollow to me, and sounded more like he was angry or offended rather than embarrassed.

4.) I didn’t understand the point of some of the characters. The Tollivers, for example, seemed to have no real reason for existing. (And their first names are Oliver and Molly– Ollie and Molly Tolliver! Ack.) Also, although no one (except Forbes, apparently) likes Mrs. Clapperton, it is perhaps a bit difficult for the viewer to formulate ideas on why she would have been murdered. There’s the money and jewel-robbery angle, but that is pretty quickly diffused by Poirot. It’s impossible to suspect the two girls. Forbes, old Mr. Russell, a random bead-seller, or the Morgan sisters? Meh. The only people one suspects at all are the husband or Ellie Henderson.

Things that really confused me:

1.) Pamela and Kitty are chasing after Col. Clapperton, described by Christie as a “tall, soldierly-looking man.” Now, no disrespect intended to John Normington. But HASTINGS IS ON BOARD. Seriously– who ought Pam and Kitty be clamoring after? Seriously? I’ll tell you:

And there’s no excuse. Pam and Kitty can’t even be mere gold-diggers, because Clapperton’s wife is the one who has all the money.

2.) The amber beads. First, when they were found near the body, Poirot doesn’t scold Hastings for picking them up and possibly ruining fingerprint evidence. Second, Poirot asserts at the end that the beads were definitely not Ellie Henderson’s, despite the fact that they look identical to the ones she bought. How does he know they weren’t hers, and that someone didn’t just take them because they were convenient to plant suspicion on either her or a bead-seller? She had mentioned earlier that she lost her beads; why insist those weren’t hers? That seems rather an odd coincidence.

3.) I really wanted to know more of the back story hinted at when Hastings and Bates are standing on the deck. Hastings bemoans the woman inside singing “The Army of Today’s All Right” and “The Kashmiri Love Song,” after he’d explicitly asked for no soldier songs or Indian love lyrics. “We’re all civilians now, Bates.” In the midst of all the comic moments Hastings supplies, this is a rare glimpse of something dark in Hastings’ past, probably related to his military service. The Mysterious Affair at Styles and Curtain are almost the only stories that hint of this past, but incorrigible fans want to know more!

Conclusion: An episode with plenty of fun. Not the most brilliant of scripts, but very well-delivered, including one of Poirot’s best denouement speeches of the earlier episodes. Some great character development for Hastings, too.

 

Miniature room box #2: The study

I’ve been mostly finished the miniature study for some time, but I’ve been waiting for ages to get the shelves I ordered. Well, they came yesterday at last! There are still one or two things I’m waiting on, a standing lamp in particular, so I borrowed a lamp from the sitting room to help light things up in the meantime. Here it is…

Here’s a bit of an overhead view of the desk. On it, you can see a little green-shaded desk lamp, a calendar (anachronistically dated 2006!), a black vintage phone, a letter-holder, an inkstand and letter-opener, and that little verdigris antelope statuette that Poirot has on his desk in the latter episodes. (I made that out of Sculpey and painted it.) Also part of the desk set is a blotter, a fountain pen, a magnifying glass, and a bridge score pad. Perhaps Poirot is investigating Cards on the Table?聽 馃檪聽 I made the chair on the right with some bendy brass rods and upholstered it with the same fabric I used on the window curtain and the cushions in the sitting room– the chair is actually very unstable! I was delighted to have found the brass clothing valet in the back left there, which you can also see in his study in the latter episodes. The floor lamp actually belongs on a table in the sitting room; I brought it here for a bit more light. The little bonsai tree I also made, not liking the ones I saw in stores, and put it on a little Art Deco table with scissors on the shelf beneath.

You may have seen this shot before, but I’ve made changes. The Japanese prints are still there, but I’ve exchanged white lilies for yellow irises (in reference to the story). The mini clock here really works; it’s very Art Deco-looking. I scored it off a friend of a friend for $1.聽 馃檪聽 The ashtray includes a tiny black cigarette, the kind it is Poirot’s affectation to smoke. The brass coat rack really doesn’t belong here; that’s where the standing lamp is supposed to be. It would be an inconvenient location for a coat rack. But I live in hope of one day making a fourth room, a hallway and perhaps Miss Lemon’s office.

The scene of Prague appears in several places in the earlier episodes, most noticeably in the sitting room of his flat. I stuck it here in the study with a picture light. The mini barometer I made as a model of the one in his second flat (see the first bit of Third Girl for a good glimpse of it). I believe that one was loaned to the set by Suchet, who apparently collects barometers. The chess set is pretty self-explanatory. The umbrella and cane stand is meant to be transferred to Future Room #4 as mentioned above.聽 馃檪聽 The Chinese curio shelf includes such trifles as a ball of malachite, a sheep figurine, a compass, a crystal specimen or two, and a Chinese coin.

The bookshelf is one of the most fun parts of the room. Delightful to fill it up! The “pottery” on the top shelf are actually dollar store beads.聽 馃檪 I moved things from elsewhere to the shelf, including the running deer statue, the copy of Murder on the Orient Express, the copy of Blue Train (on the top left, propped up), and the globe that I used to have on the desk.

Detail. Notice the golden sphinx figurine (a reference to Poirot’s journeys to Egypt). I also moved First Steps in Russian to the bottom left shelf, as it was too big to stand up!

On the second shelf on the left, you can see a Pieta statuette; it is holding up the loose books in that shelf, including the one right next to it: Agatha Christie’s A Pocket Full of Rye!

More detail. On the bottom shelf is a series of medical reference books– VERY useful! Also, I painted up a series of Ariadne Oliver novels, which are next to them. You may remember that Poirot has a set of her books in his office, right behind his chair.聽 馃檪聽 The turquoise “jar” is another bead.

Poirot bikes past Claude Langton’s house in The Veiled Lady

Remember Claude Langton from Wasps’ Nest? Who can forget either Peter Capaldi’s performance or that funky zigzag door on his character’s stylish Art Deco house?聽 馃檪

I only just noticed, while re-watching The Veiled Lady yesterday, that Poirot bikes past this same house while on his way to the blackmailer Lavington’s to “case the joint.” Lavington is said to live in Wimbledon. I don’t know exactly where this house is located, except that it’s somewhere in Surrey. So, that’s all right.聽 馃檪

The mantel clock

The lovely Art Deco mantel clock that appears in Poirot’s second flat has a fun history. It was acquired by David Suchet and used as a prop for the show (as is the stylin’ barometer in the front hall).

I decided to make a little model of it for my miniature room. It’s skinnier than the original; all the better to fit into a small space.聽 馃槈聽 I used a sterling silver dog charm (loop cut off) for the statue part– the dog in the original looks rather like a Doberman, but the best charm I found for my purposes happens to be a Great Dane. The agate bases are rectangular cabochons that I ordered from Estonia. The rest is metallic cardstock, beads, transparent plastic, and a bit of paint.

Poirot himself had a model of a foxhound he bought with his winnings from his bet with Giraud in The Murder on the Links (he names it Giraud, in fact).聽 馃檪

Feedback:

“Good pictures”: the Japanese prints in Poirot’s study

When I see art used for the set, I tend to be curious as to where it came from. In Taken at the Flood, David Hunter and Rosalind are perusing Poirot’s new flat. Hunter wryly comments on the “good pictures” that Poirot has, referencing a couple of Japanese wood block prints. You were wondering about those prints that caught Hunter’s eye, weren’t you? Of course you were…聽 馃槈

I finally managed to track down the one on the right, anyway. It appears to be by Kunisada II: 鈥淎ctors Band么 Hikosabur么 V as Akogi Gennoj么 and Onoe Kikugor么 IV as the Female Street Musician (Onnaday没) Ohaya.鈥 This print was purchased and had been donated to an American museum by the early 20th century.

Japanese wood block prints became fashionable throughout Europe in the 19th century, and the art of Japan came to influence genres from clothing fashion to the fine arts. Van Gogh was an avid collector of Japanese prints, and the flat, vivid, outlined imagery would come to be seen in his own work and that of others of the Post-Impressionist and Expressionist movements. Poirot’s second flat was full of the fashionably continental.

And it would be a picture of actors, wouldn’t it.聽 馃檪

I included miniature paintings of these two prints in my own 1:12-scale Poirot study.

Miniature room box #3: The bedroom

At this point, I have three miniature rooms of Poirot’s flat in various stages of completion. Since the bedroom is almost finished now, I’ll put the photos up here.聽 馃檪聽 First, a couple of “in progress” shots as construction was happening…

The (almost) finished product…

Still needs a couple of lights on the back of the side walls. I’d bought a couple for this purpose, but they’re too amber and I don’t think they’ll work. I was also planning on adding a couple of rugs, but not too sure now– it might overwhelm the space. Slippers, however, are going to happen. 馃檪

 

This little tailoring form was super tricky to execute. Among other things, I didn’t have a sewing needle fine enough for that super-fine brass chain, so I had to constantly alternate between sewing needle and beading needle! As you can see, Poirot has plenty of clothes brushes. 馃檪

On the shelf is a statue of St. Michael, a small pistol and dagger, a set of brass “justice” scales, and a glass bottle. I love that little prie-dieu– it came as a kit. It turns out that the archangel Michael is considered the patron saint of law enforcement officers as well as patron saint of the city of Brussels. So it seemed logical to me that there might be some reference to him in Poirot’s rooms (as he is a good Catholic). The image of Michael defeating the devil also serves as an apt picture for Poirot’s own sense of his vocation.

Miniature Agatha Christie books! Because of course, Poirot would read about himself. 馃槈 The Poirot books are Blue Train, Murder on the Links, and Murder on the Orient Express (which is really micro-printed and cloth-bound, a little masterpiece).

His vanity. I had SOOO much fun with this. There’s a shaving set, moustache wax and pomade, tiny cotton swabs (handmade), a silver vanity kit with brushes and comb, tiny scissors (a bit of manipulated wire), hair tint, hair tonic, scented talc, fig-sulpher-senna tablets, Flu-Nips, cologne, and on the top shelf…

…Ammonia, morphine, arsenic, strychnine, generic poison, unknown pills, a syringe, and another mysterious bottle. Just so we don’t forget whose room this is!!! 馃檪

The blanket chest contains personal keepsakes– WWI-era newspapers.

The pictures on the back wall are solid stone, inlaid intarsia pendants. They look almost like photographs or abstract art. I replaced the round, wide shades on the original miniature lamps with these squarish ones so they would fit better.

In the little box on the bedside table is this bitty rosary, which I strung myself with garnet beads smaller than 2mm.

Christie’s physical descriptions of Poirot: Branagh and Suchet

The trailer for the new Murder on the Orient Express film has been released. Various reactions ensued. There’s a lot of excitement, of course, at the prospect of Christie on the big screen again. There’s a heavily star-studded cast (not unlike the 1974 Finney production, in that way). But what stands out to me is the visceral reaction to the simple sight of Kenneth Branagh’s Hercule Poirot. A lot of longtime and hardcore Poirot fans are stunned– not necessarily in a good way. And yeah, okay, I’m one of them. I may have used the phrase “greying, tousled 21st-century hipster” once or twice.

And yet, I do want to be as fair as possible. Fans were bound to react with a great deal of indignation at the sight of another Poirot after Suchet’s 25-year span on the small screen. So utterly dedicated was he to the character, so very convincingly did he pull off the role, that it has become difficult to associate Poirot with anyone else. (Ustinov who?) I don’t think I personally ever really will. He really did seem to just waltz off the written page and onto the screen.

So let’s consider the written page– Christie’s own physical description of Poirot. Many fans are comparing the look of Branagh’s character unfavorably to Christie’s original. Others are comparing only against the Suchet interpretation, and although he’s famously faithful to Christie, there are still distinctives against which, from a more purist point of view, certain criticisms of Branagh would be somewhat unfair. You might say that this post is me trying to put a best construction on, against my own knee-jerk reactions.聽 馃檪

Poirot is described for us, via Christie, as about five feet four inches tall, or “no more than” five foot five. Branagh seems to be somewhere between 5’9″ and 5’10”; Suchet is apparently around 5’7″. Neither actor is quite there, although Suchet is closer.

Christie often describes Poirot’s distinctive green eyes. Branagh’s are blue; Suchet’s are brown. Arguably Branagh is “closer” there.聽 馃檪

But oh! the moustache! What great consternation was caused by Branagh’s eye-popping facial hair– definitely grey, whereas Suchet keeps a proper blackness. But I think what shocked people more was the flamboyance of Branagh’s. Having a big and flamboyant moustache is actually quite in keeping with Christie, as well as with the early 20th-century continental ‘stache in general. She has many ways of describing Poirot’s, so some variation is acceptable for the purist. But she does occasionally use words like “enormous” (e.g. Dead Man’s Folly). I even seem to remember something about the Christie estate expressing surprise at the time that the Suchet ‘stache wasn’t as flamboyant as it could have been, although they understood the reasoning of the creators of the show. And I think the decision about the ‘stache for Suchet, Brian Eastman, etc. really came down to a desire to not make Poirot appear more ridiculous than necessary. It’s true that in the books, the extreme moustache did contribute to many Englishmen’s contempt for Poirot and their view of him as ridiculous. But by the late ’80s, the character of Poirot himself seemed to have become somewhat of a joke– people didn’t take him seriously, which is why John Suchet initially discouraged his brother from taking the role. It became very, very important for the show’s creators, as it was for Christie’s family, that the character be taken seriously, and I do think that the moustaches they had for Suchet’s Poirot were the right choice as a result. Now that Poirot is firmly established on screen as the serious and well-rounded character that he is, thanks to Suchet, another actor can perhaps come along and demonstrate the flamboyancy aspect of it (although identifiable wax and pomade is still most in keeping with the books). And I think that Branagh really had little choice but to differentiate his Poirot from Suchet’s in various ways, for better or worse. So there you go…

A few other words about hair. My own biggest issue with the Branagh image is that in some of these early photos, Poirot’s hair looks too unkempt, and his centre parting goes haywire. It is also too grey, although one might make one small observation that way. Although Christie mentions more than once how “suspiciously” black Poirot’s hair is, and either hints or states outright that he dyes it, consider Hastings quote from The A.B.C. Murders on the subject…

‘You’re looking in fine fettle, Poirot,’ I said. ‘You’ve hardly aged at all. In fact, if it were possible, I should say that you had fewer grey hairs than when I saw you last.’

Hastings goes on to say that Poirot’s hair is “so much blacker” than when he saw him last. The inescapable conclusion, then, is that Hastings has seen Poirot with greying hair! But it’s true, we don’t actually see it on the written page (not until almost the very last page, anyway), so ultimately I come down on the side of grey hair being a no-no.聽 馃槈

Since we’re talking about hair, here’s one of my favorite descriptions of Poirot’s appearance from “The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest”:

To see Poirot at a party was a great sight. His faultless evening clothes, the exquisite set of his white tie, the exact symmetry of his hair parting, the sheen of pomade on his hair, and the tortured splendour of his famous moustaches– all combined to paint the perfect picture of an inveterate dandy. It was hard, at these moments, to take the little man seriously.

Poirot is always described by Christie as at least appearing to have a full head of hair, with a centre parting. In the pictures I’ve seen, Branagh’s Poirot just looks too 21st-century for my liking– not enough pomade, and at times downright tousled! So, what are we to make of Suchet’s Poirot on this point? As a matter of fact, a significant number of stage, screen, or artistically-rendered Poirots in days gone by are deliberately depicted with vanishing hairlines, contra Christie. Why? I think the most obvious answer is that, far more prevalent than the author’s description of Poirot’s hair is her famous description of his head— “egg-shaped.” Christie herself, humorously, wasn’t quite sure what an egg-shaped head even was. But since it calls attention to head shape, it automatically (at least to me) creates a visual assumption of some level of baldness.

For the overall effect in appearance, Christie describes Poirot as looking “positively exotic” (e.g. Dumb Witness, etc). Suchet most definitely wins that contest. He has mentioned in interviews that his Eastern European heritage has aided him in playing the roles of “outsiders,” as he “certainly doesn’t look like a typical Englishman.” I don’t really know what a typical Englishman is supposed to look like, but if I had to guess, Branagh (who’s from Northern Ireland) might be high up on my list.

For general body type, Poirot is written as a “small, compact figure” (The Labours of Hercules), “delicately plump” (The Big Four), with “a certain protuberance around his middle” (Evil Under the Sun).聽 Although vain about his brainwork and meticulous about appearing neat, he has no illusions about being attractive to the opposite sex, and in physical appearance is only proud of his moustaches. Other physical descriptions of Poirot from Christie include “expressive eyebrows,” “tiny, fastidiously-groomed hands,” and “short, stubby fingers.” He is in the habit of tilting his head to one side like “an inquisitive robin.” He is attired in correct, well-pressed and symmetrically neat urban wear, has an English tailor (Dumb Witness), prefers his large turnip of a pocket watch, and indulges in bling like pearl studs (“The Under Dog”). Christie’s written character uses no spectacles, monocle, or pince-nez (Lord Edgware Dies). He wears tight patent leather shoes which are a regular source of discomfort for his feet and affect the way he walks. And he always wears a hat when outside and muffles up to the nines against any possible chill.

It will be interesting to see how much, or little, of Christie’s descriptions factor into the appearance of Branagh’s Poirot. I was not favorably impressed by the grey and the generally rumpled appearance he seemed to present. And I’m still thoroughly convinced that Suchet was the perfect Poirot, so much so that in whichever little ways his presentation of the man departs slightly from the books, it seems that Christie herself must have gotten it wrong! That bias of mine has to serve me as a reminder that Branagh, great actor that he is, does deserve at least some leeway.

We’ll see what we shall see…

branagh5

 

Ambigram: Dead Man’s Folly

Once again, a vertical-axis “mirror” ambigram of a Christie title. Acrylic on square canvas board. I’m attempting to carry on my habit of using the letters themselves (frequently the center letters) to convey some important pictorial plot reference. In this case, we have the folly itself.聽 馃檪

Poirot’s flat, dollhouse miniature style!

Currently I have two room boxes in the works for the sitting room and study of Poirot’s flat. The rooms aren’t replicas of the sets, but I use elements from the sets (including both flats) plus some of my own observations from the books.

I was excited to get my cut MDF pieces from my friends, the Harders, this evening. The sitting room is the first room box. I painted up the walls right away, added paper parquet flooring and baseboards, and glued it all together. Here’s how it looked:

Herringbone parquet is the flooring seen in both of the flats of the television series.

Then came the fun of adding the details! Here’s the current flat-in-progress…

Still missing, as you can see, at least one more painting under the picture light on the right-hand wall, one of the end tables to match the other, and some more shelving, etc.

A little difficult to capture via photo, but the fireplace has a flickering LED bulb behind the vellum fireplace screen. The picture lights and wall sconces are attached to the wall via a glued-on magnet. They’re easy to remove for turning the lights on and off.

Picture lights abound in Poirot’s second flat, so I was delighted to find them in miniature. The round shades of the wall sconces are reminiscent of certain table lamps observable in both flats. The running deer is similar to certain ceramic pieces in the second flat, including mantel decorations.

The brass clothing valet was also a delight to have found; I’ll probably be moving it to the study. I intend to fill the decanters and possibly the glasses and add a bottle of liqueur. I made the chairs, side table, fireplace, and plant stand from scratch, but bought the brass/glass/acrylic furniture.

An aerial view. Obviously, symmetry is important! The area rug was made by heat-bonding a piece of bluish-gray cotton to a stiff felt backing so it would lay very flat. The distinctive wood grain of the chairs, side table, and plant stand were lifted directly from the show. In the opening scene of Third Girl, the camera pans down the lovely wood dining table. I took a screen capture of the wood grain and just printed it out on my computer to use for the furniture.

Fans should understand this reference… 馃檪

Refreshments on the coffee table. Included is a cup of hot chocolate with a dollop of whipped cream and a spoon, and two plates of macarons. (We actually see Poirot and Mrs. Oliver sharing some macarons in his apartment in Elephants Can Remember.) The wooden box opens and contains cigars; next to it is a cigarette case and a table lighter. White square ashtrays are on the side table.

Coming soon, I hope… the study!聽 馃榾