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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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.  🙂  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. 🙂

 

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. 🙂

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. 😉 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!!! 🙂

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.

Poirot in America: Flatlands presents a Christie radio drama

On this Fourth of July, what a treat to be able to watch a live presentation of the Agatha Christie radio drama, “The Case of the Careless Victim,” right here in southern Manitoba. Flatlands Theatre Co. has been doing a series of events at Bethel Heritage Park in Winkler this summer– and woe betide me if I miss Poirot when he’s within a ten-minute drive!!

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Bethel Heritage Park, Winkler.

The set-up was delightful, with the Flatlands cast in period costume for the benefit of the audience– Poirot was even given a cane. Since it is radio, I’ll forgive his extra facial hair, especially since the accent was so nicely done.  😉  The performances were all really excellent. Angela Klassen gave an especially memorable turn as the plucky Miss Abigail Fletcher, in whose apartment a body is discovered. “Watching” radio drama sound effects live is rather fun, and these were interspersed throughout the performance with generous doses of Christopher Gunning’s Poirot theme music. There was even an adorable vintage-tinged commercial break.  🙂

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Now, the world of “Poirot audio” is familiar to me– I’m a frequent listener of Christie’s audiobooks a la Hugh Fraser and David Suchet, and John Moffat is known to me as well– but Christie’s own radio dramas via the American market was a huge, mysterious unknown. I wasn’t sure what to expect, or even if the story was really a Christie original, as I’d never heard of it before. The plot had some typically Poirot-esque elements, but with some glaring departures from Christie’s usual style for her Belgian sleuth. First and most obviously, Poirot himself is in America, which never happens in the books. He even takes an apartment and hires a secretary there! Second, in the radio drama script, there are a few phrases and thoughts expressed that one does not normally associate with Poirot. He says “sacrebleu” twice, a phrase I don’t ever recall Christie putting in Poirot’s mouth (despite a Poirot reference in the Wikipedia article on the term– incomprehensible). He also once mentions finding the circling of airplanes at the location where he is dining as “charming” in that it gives the sensation of flying, although Poirot himself detests air and sea travel, which makes him feel sick. (This also explains why he hadn’t gone tripping across the pond in Christie’s stories– the Channel alone is hard enough for him!)

My ever-helpful husband found some information for me to answer some of these burning questions and puzzlements. It comes down to the fact that the rights to use the character were contracted from Christie to produce these radio dramas in the mid 1940s, which explains the discrepancies from canon and why they are not included with other Christie Poirots. You can go to this link and read all about Hal Huber’s efforts in procuring Poirot for American radio– it’s interesting stuff.

Good job, Flatlands– and thanks for introducing me to Poirot in America!

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