Four and Twenty Blackbirds: episode overview

I haven’t done an episode review for awhile now, so here’s one I’ve been mulling over in the last few days.  🙂

Things I Loved:

Making Poirot’s friend Bonnington his dentist also. Doing this scores a couple of script writing points. First, it provides some insight to Poirot’s character which is reiterated elsewhere in the series (he hates going to the dentist). Second, Poirot’s aching bicuspid makes a convenient excuse for him to meet with Bonnington a second time, so he can hear the news of Henry Gascoigne’s death; in Christie’s original, they meet again randomly on the Tube. Finally and most importantly, it makes the references to the dead man’s teeth seem natural and consistent with the rest of the story, and serves to slightly conceal the vital clue.

The contrast of the opening scene. Brighton’s frivolous outdoor revelry is sharply contrasted by the interior shot of the dying Anthony Gascoigne.

A tiny detail in the closing scene, but I thought it was great anyway– when the lads are gathered again at the restaurant at the end, you see Molly come through the shot from the back left, bearing two plates of a dessert that might conceivably be the blackberry crumble and depositing them before customers. This is an exact parallel of one of the last lines of Christie’s story, and I appreciated the touch.

Mrs Mullen, the neighbor of Henry Gascoigne, treating Poirot like he’s deaf or unable to speak English– SO funny.

-Bringing food into the rest of the story. Many of the early scripts, especially those based on the “slighter” short stories, take elements from Christie’s original and incorporate the themes into the other characters’ storylines. (For example, in The Cornish Mystery, Mrs Pengelley’s digestive troubles and diagnosed “gastritis” parallel Hastings’ stomach issues and diet.) The crux of Four and Twenty Blackbirds is one man’s eating habits which give away a crime. The script writer for this episode adds the delightful scene of Poirot cooking for Hastings, which is also a good excuse to throw in some Belgian references. The line, “Please– do not be stinting with your praise” is one of my all-time favorite moments of Poirot vanity.  🙂

Miss Lemon’s wireless program. She is listening to a radio drama featuring A.J. Raffles, “London’s Man of Mystery.” He and his sidekick Bunny were modeled from Holmes and Watson; she describes Raffles as “such a dashing figure.” You could read this as an early indication that Miss Lemon finds the whole renowned-London-detective-character attractive, and it elicits a very interesting look on Poirot’s face when he hears it. Of course, in the books, Miss Lemon wouldn’t touch detective fiction with a ten-foot pole (see: Dead Man’s Folly), but the discrepancy doesn’t trouble me. Oh, and the fictional Raffles is also a CRICKETER! Considering Hastings’ cricket mania in this episode, is this a coincidence?

-The forensics team at Scotland Yard, which would go on to send Poirot a get-well message after his bout of food poisoning in Evil Under the Sun.  😀  And Japp absolutely cracks me up in the scene at the Yard in which Poirot is trying to wheedle some information out of him. His “scrap heap of scrap” and his “I didn’t”… ha! And in the midst of the humor, and despite his skepticism of Poirot’s interest, you nonetheless get a good sense of Japp’s own intelligence here.

-Speaking of which, I need to hold forth about the denouement of this episode. This is the very first of Poirot’s many dramatic, public reveals. He (rather outrageously) brings the whole Scotland Yard forensic department onto Lorrimer’s stage. When Lorrimer tries to make a dash for it, he is blinded by stage lighting and cops appear to cover all exits. It is done in truly over-the-top theatrical style– practically music-hall, indeed– and foreshadows future denouements with a calculated theatrical setting (Problem at Sea, Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan, Lord Edgware Dies, Three Act Tragedy, The Big Four). But what stood out to me in this early “big reveal” was a reminder of one of the reasons that David Suchet manages the character of Hercule Poirot so well. It’s one thing to say that he’s a great actor and does his homework and all that– true, but the same can be said for Ustinov and Branagh, and I don’t really want their Poirots. There is a combination of characteristics that Suchet seems to have a natural facility for playing really, really well. The “foreigner” is an obvious one. But in dramatic reveals like this one, a duality in Poirot’s personality is displayed in striking fashion: on the one hand, an extremely charming and/or charismatic gentleman; on the other, a figure who is ruthless to the point of death, and fittingly terrifying as a result. Several of Suchet’s very best roles of screen and stage have featured this duality of character, including Robert Maxwell, Rudi Waltz, Melmotte, and Iago. Christie wrote this contrast into her own character, and to see someone of Suchet’s experience and skill have at it is absolutely inspirational.

Things I Didn’t Love:

-Hastings himself was a bit weirded out by the vaguely voyeuristic overtones of the awkward moment in the gallery when Dulcie Lang is posing for a life class. I mean, points for character representation of Hastings, I guess. Not devastating or anything as a moment, but awkward.

-For all the fun of the denouement, there were some curious choices in the general unraveling of the crime. The biggest clue in the story were the “blackbirds”– or blackberries– that the dead man with the unstained teeth was supposed to have eaten. This discovery of Poirot’s was revealed not at the climax of the story, but in the middle. Likewise, the supposition that the last meal that Gascoigne had eaten was not dinner, but lunch, became a deduction made along the way. The dramatic denouement was really more about informing Lorrimer how much tangible evidence they had against him. Part of me wanted a bit more recap at the very end as to just why Lorrimer’s performance was “fatally flawed” (mainly, because he forgot to eat like his uncle).

Things That Confused Me:

-If you were already familiar with the story, the dynamic shifts in the TV plot may cause a little confusion generally. In the book, Anthony Gascoigne had married a rich wife and was consequently well off, while brother Henry was an “extremely bad” artist who was poor. Lorrimer had to wait until Anthony died, because the money would come to his brother, who he had to kill shortly afterward, hence the careful timing of the murder. In the episode, Anthony may or may not have been well off, but Henry was, including assets that could only be sold after his death. If Henry Gascoigne is the rich one, why does Lorrimer have to wait until after Anthony dies to kill Henry? Instead of the chain of inheritance, the focus is shifted so that the very existence of Anthony serves to provide other plot elements: another suspect for the impersonator, some background as to the brothers’ quarrel and the influence of an artist’s model, and just general red herring-ness. It seems the story almost could have been told without Anthony.

-It was something that puzzled me in the book as well– how does George Lorrimer know that Anthony Gascoigne had made no will (or in the book, no recent will at least)? Since the twin brothers had a very long-standing quarrel, it makes sense that they’d consider cutting each other out of their wills if they’d had any.

-Why does Mrs Mullen, the observant neighbor, unlock the door of Gascoigne’s house and let Poirot and Hastings in, since she’s so suspicious of them? And if she knew that Dulcie Lang was upstairs, why “break in” at all– why not just ring?

-In Poirot’s first meeting with Dulcie Lang, he surreptitiously cuts a small piece of blotting paper from the blotter on Henry Gascoigne’s desk. We don’t discover what this is all about until the stage scene, where he reveals how the deception with the smudged postmark was done. But surely there is no way Poirot could have guessed at that point that the tiny blotter smudges he first saw on Gascoigne’s desk were of any relevance to his death.

-Are we supposed to believe that Dulcie Lang’s passionate retort that she would never part with Gascoigne’s paintings at any price indicates some romantic interest? It kind of comes across that way– and the deceased was not young, just saying.

-The restaurant in the book was called the Gallant Endeavor. This was changed to the Bishop’s Chophouse in the episode, and was accordingly filmed at the oldest chophouse in England, Simpson’s Tavern. This is all well and good, since the Gallant Endeavor is supposed to be extremely British in its cuisine, shunning all things hinting of the continental, and has all the marks of a chophouse. However, I don’t really understand why the sign “Simpson’s” is clearly visible on the outside of the restaurant as it was filmed, as characters in the episode clearly refer to it as the Bishop’s Chophouse.

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Conclusion: What can I say? I do love it! In all of its inimitable, sweater-vested glory!  🙂

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Poirot and Japp, acrylic on canvas board

This is a small canvas board, 5×7″. I really like the mysterious lighting and the comparative lack of color in the image, as well as the “blurry” Japp in the background. But as I try to explain to people, when painting a film screenshot like this (image from The Big Four), half the battle is just finding a shot where the lighting IS good. They’ve already done all the work of making a good screen image; I just adapt it to paint.  🙂

The Lost Mine, and the actors who make a fool of me

I keep tripping over silly little details about The Lost Mine, ranging from “oops… didn’t notice” to “OH MY GRACIOUS HOW DID I NOT SEE THAT I’M A TRIPLE IMBECILE!!!”

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Take, for example, Mrs. Charles Lester. I will be honest: this performance by Barbara Barnes from The Lost Mine is one of my least favorite in the entire Poirot series. Her voice (sorry) makes me want to rip my hair out. I don’t care for the delivery and don’t find it particularly convincing. So maybe that’s why I was blocking her out and didn’t even recognize, until quite recently, the same actress when she appeared as “Lovely Louise” Leidner in Murder in Mesopotamia (giving, I think, a much better performance).

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Generally speaking, I’m not the most astute at recognizing actors from one project to another. When I first watched through the Poirot series, which I did all in one shot, I had been thoroughly convinced that I’d NEVER seen Philip Jackson on screen before. But there was a character in The Lost Mine I knew I’d seen before: Anthony Bate, who played Lord Pearson. I recognized him from another “banker” role he played in the mid-80s in this weird little cult film by Paul McCartney, Give My Regards to Broad Street. And crikey, I SHOULD recognize him, having seen GMRTBS countless times since I was about 16 (though it’s admittedly an awful film in almost every respect, but of interest to big McCartney fans and containing good music). Yay, I’ve recognized someone! Only…

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Well, here’s another shot from GMRTBS, with Bate on the right and… this other guy… on the left…

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Yeah, this guy…

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Yes, that is Philip. Freaking. Jackson. Who was one of the MAIN CHARACTERS in GMRTBS. Which I’ve been watching for half of my life. And who I didn’t recognize once when watching him play a main character throughout the ENTIRE Poirot series, though I recognized a single lesser role played by Anthony Bate from the same film.

“I am an imbecile.”

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Speaking of Give My Regards to Broad Street and its Poirot connections, here’s something I did notice. In that film, the infamous Ralph Richardson makes an appearance as a batty pub proprietor who owns a little pet monkey. It was his second-to-last film credit, and the project was released posthumously. His last film, also a posthumous release, was Greystoke, a re-telling of the Tarzan story. Guess who else features in that last film with Richardson… in the role of a seedy inn proprietor… and who has a friend who owns a little pet monkey…

This guy.

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And in this scene, Suchet is playing opposite Ian Holm, whose character (Capitaine Phillippe D’Arnot) is a normally dapper little Belgian gent.

Did I mention that Ian Holm has also portrayed Poirot on screen?

Holy crumb. Say it with me, friends…

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The painted miniature books (7)

Since I’ve already covered the Hastings novels (no pun intended),  I thought I’d round off the rest of the covers with “series sidekicks” Inspector Japp and Miss Lemon.

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This cover for the story collection Murder in the Mews features Japp and Poirot contemplating a red “kipper” of a cuff link. Apparently I took this picture before painting the black line frame around the image! The quote on the back features an oft-reiterated sentiment from Poirot on the topic of murder.

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This mini was the last one I ever painted, and I was happy to get Japp on just one more cover before the series was completed. He features in seven novels, after all, but was often squeezed off my covers by Hastings. This novel features Japp but not Hastings, and so was an ideal one to feature the good inspector. While I was painting this, my iPod actually fired up “Take On Me” by a-ha, and if you don’t know why that’s hilarious, well, it’s because Philip Jackson (in magnificent, rotoscoped glory) appears as Pipe Wrench Guy in the song’s video, which is considered by many to be one of the greatest music videos ever made. Go watch it now. Or maybe watch the literal video version for some extra giggles. Anyway, I was in hysterics while painting for that reason.

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This photo is terrible, terrible, terrible, but Pauline Moran turned out nicely enough on this cover of Hickory Dickory Dock. Yellow is for Lemon. This novel was the most obvious one to feature Miss Lemon on the cover, as she (and her sister) feature prominently in the story. I rather wish I could take better photos of these book minis, but I don’t have them anymore. (And if I did, my photos would still be terrible!)

The painted miniature books (3)

The eight Hastings novels were finished, but I wasn’t quite finished with putting Hugh Fraser on the book covers. After all, there were five short story collections yet to go, two of which feature the character prominently, as well as Black Coffee. “But Black Coffee is a novelized play, and wasn’t filmed,” you say, sagaciously. Shut up, I’m going to have a complete set, dangit!!

I cheated on Black Coffee by collecting a large number of stills throughout the series of Poirot and Hastings with tea or coffee cups… there are a lot of them… and finally choosing this shot from “The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb” for the cover. There’s a cup on the table, and a Highly Ambiguous Hastings with a Highly Ambiguous Poirot, neither of which have clear faces. This seemed appropriate in light of my shameful trickery.

Is it just me, or is the quote from Black Coffee, like so many other quotes from that book, a duplicate from something in The Murder on the Links or some other book?

Is it just me, or is the quote from Black Coffee, like so many other quotes from that book, a duplicate from something in The Murder on the Links or some other book?

Poirot’s Early Cases, on the other hand, features an honest shot and matching quote from a story in the actual collection: “The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly.” It’s one of my favorite Poirot/Hastings visuals for the sheer loveliness of the surroundings, with Poirot characteristically holding forth. The book color was a sort of “twilight gray,” as it would be the penultimate in book listing, next to the inky-dark Curtain. The image of the two strolling away from the viewer also seemed appropriate in that wistful light.

“A pleasing little problem, obscure and charming,” murmured Poirot. “I will investigate it for you with pleasure.”

And finally, I finished off with Hastings in Poirot Investigates (I’ve given away three copies of that book this year, ma foi). I returned to my deceitful ways by painting a scene from “Murder in the Mews,” which is not in this collection. But I was very keen to paint this shot. The scene is a fun one (although Poirot is not actually investigating as such in this moment). And it’s difficult to find shots of the sort I could use where Hastings and Poirot are so close in size, rather than a less-distinct Hastings hovering behind Poirot’s shoulder; fine for film but harder for miniature painting.

It might be that I used the shot here instead of the Murder in the Mews collection because I’d already decided on a shot from that particular episode that featured Japp, and I wanted to make sure he got on a cover or two as well. There are even fewer Japp novels than Hastings novels. “Then why,” you ask with superior tones, “didn’t you just choose a different Japp shot for Poirot Investigates, since he features in the collection, and use this picture for the Murder in the Mews collection?” …Shut up.

No, actually it was because Hastings doesn’t feature in the stories from the Murder in the Mews collection, though he’s in the episode, and I didn’t want Hastings on book covers in which he wasn’t an appearing character, like Murder in Mesopotamia or Evil Under the Sun.

Poirot investigates... golf. The quote is from

Poirot investigates… golf. The quote is from “The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan.”