Agatha Christie on TV – My Top Six

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A recent post by Simply Media has inspired me to select my favourite Agatha Christie adaptations (due to the parameters of this blog I’ll concentrate on television only).

06. Peter Ustinov in Thirteen at Dinner (1985).  I’ve a lot of time for the 1980’s American Christie television movies.  They may take liberties with the source material (this one, for example, is updated to the present day – giving us the odd sight of Poirot guesting on David Frost’s chat show) but you can’t help but love Ustinov’s idiosyncratic and entertaining Poirot.

It boasts a wonderful guest cast – David Suchet as Japp!, Faye Dunaway in a duel role with Bill Nighy, Diane Keen, John Barron and Jonathan Cecil as the ever-loyal Hastings offering solid support.  Certainly well worth a look.

05. Francesca Annis and James Warwick in Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (1980).  Prior to the 1980’s, Agatha Christie adaptations on television were a rarity.  This was due to Christie and later on her estate not wishing to see her stories distorted (although given some of the, ahem, more interesting adaptations during recent years I guess the copyright holders now hold a more relaxed view).  Therefore the early 1980’s ITV adaptations were something of a trial run – with Poirot and Miss Marple off-limits, ITV had to scrabble around amongst the more obscure corners of Christie’s catalogue in order to prove that they could do her works justice.

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Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? isn’t classic Christie, but it’s a more than decent mystery.  Annis and Warwick, as Lady Frankie Derwent and Bobby Jones, team up nicely (a few years later they’d return to the world of Christie as Tommy and Tuppence Beresford).  Evans has another cast to die for – a pre-Marple Joan Hickson, James Cossins, Madeline Smith, Eric Porter and an amusing cameo from John Gielgud.  It’s maybe slightly too long, but it’s still very agreeable.

04. And Then There Were None (2013).  I may loathe Sarah Phelps’ adaptation of The Witness for the Prosecution with a passion, but there’s no denying that And Then There Were None is a quality production.  The main problem I have with Witness is that it’s mostly Phelps with very little Christie showing.  And Then There Were None is more recognisably Christie, albeit with a few tweaks.  An all-starish cast helps to bring to life one of her darker works.

03. The Moving Finger (1985).  Whilst the debate about the best Sherlock Holmes isn’t clear cut, surely there can’t be much of a question about who was the best Miss Marple?  In every respect Joan Hickson wipes the floor with her ITV counterparts (as well as Margaret Rutherford – a fine actress, but no Miss Marple).  If Hickson is first-rate, then so too are the twelve BBC adaptations she starred in.  All-film productions, with high production values, they just ooze class and style.

With Roy Boulting on directing duties and some fine performances (always a pleasure to see John Arnatt and Richard Pearson, amongst others) The Moving Finger is one of the best of the early Hickson Marples.  It may not be the most taxing mystery Christie ever wrote, but it has more nuanced characters that we sometimes saw – for example, the relationship between Gerry and Megan is an atypical touch.

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02. David Suchet in The Third Floor Flat (1989).  The Suchet Poirots were clearly following in the footsteps of the Hickson Marples with a similar glossy all-film style.  That Suchet managed to film the entire canon is laudable, although it’s a little sad that some of the later adaptations began to veer severely away from the originals.  Possibly this is why I’m most fond of the earlier runs which began by concentrating on Christie’s short stories.  It’s true that some of them are a bit thin (Christie’s early short stories can be fairly perfunctory in some respects) but the television versions are nicely bulked out thanks to the sympathetic adaptations.

01. Joan Hickson in The Body in the Library (1984).  Back to Hickson for her debut as Miss Marple, broadcast on BBC1 during Christmas 1984.  Sarah Phelps has recently restarted the tradition of a “Christie for Christmas” – hopefully her next one won’t be quite so depressing though.

Allo,Allo! fans will be able to spot a pre-Crabtree Arthur Bostrom, Jess Conrad is perfect as the pearly-white Raymond Starr, Andrew Cruickshank is an intimidating Conway Jefferson whilst David Horovitch and Ian Brimble begin their careers as Slack and Lake – two police officers destined to always be at least two steps behind the elderly spinster who may look harmless but possesses a mind like a steel trap.

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Great Expectations (BBC, 1967) – Simply Media DVD Review

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When young Phillip Pirrip, nicknamed Pip, meets a strange, reclusive lady called Miss Haversham (Maxine Audley) it opens up a new world of possibilities. Miss Haversham’s ward, the beautiful Estella (Francesca Annis), bewitches him from the first time they meet, although she is unable to return his love.

As the years pass by and the boy grows into a man, Pip learns that he has “great expectations” and will shortly come into the possession of a handsome property. Since his most heartfelt desire is to become a gentleman (only then, he believes, will he be able to win Estella’s heart) it seems like a dream come true.

So he moves to London and at first all seems well. But later he receives a shock – his anonymous benefactor turns out not to be Miss Haversham after all, but a convict named Magwitch (John Tate) ….

Originally published across 1860/61, Great Expectations was Charles Dickens’ penultimate completed novel (Our Mutual Friend and the incomplete The Mystery of Edwin Drood would follow).  A popular success at the time of its original publication (unlike Our Mutual Friend, which received a much more muted reception) Great Expectations has proved to be one of Dickens’ most enduring works.

Its popularity can be judged by the number of film and television adaptations it has inspired.   Great Expectations made its debut in the cinema all the way back in 1917, whilst on television the 1959 BBC adaptation, with Dinsdale Landen as Pip, was the earliest.  Sadly, the 1959 Expectations is missing one of its thirteen episodes (episode eight) so it looks unlikely to be released on DVD.  Some eight years after the BBC first tackled the novel they did so again – with this 1967 ten-part adaption by Hugh Leonard.

Since so much of the impact of Great Expectations comes from the travails of Pip, strong casting of the character is essential.  Luckily this production managed the feat twice – Christopher Guard played the young Pip, whilst Gary Bond took over when he reached adulthood.  Guard had already appeared as David Copperfield the previous year, so was clearly well versed in the world of Dickens.  Bond had racked up a varied list of credits since his screen debut in 1962 (including a notable film appearance in Zulu as Private Cole).

The first episode opens with Pip’s graveyard encounter with Magwitch. It’s a sequence that required a certain amount of skill on the part of the vision mixer, due to the way it frequently cuts from film (establishing shots of Pip) to videotape (the studio dialogue between Pip and Magwitch) and then back to film again. It’s a pity that the entire scene wasn’t shot on film, but presumably this was a matter of cost. There’s more filmwork across the serial than there was in Our Mutual Friend, but the studio scenes still dominate.

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John Tate makes for a menacing Magwitch, although even in this intial scene there’s a feeling of conflict in his character. He might issue bloodcurdling threats against Pip, but he also holds him close in a way that almost seems to be tender. And when he’s later recaptured (Tate excellent again here, mudcaked and weary) he chooses not to mention that he forced Pip to fetch food for him.

Young Pip’s homelife is pretty grim. He’s abused by his sister (played by Shirley Cain) although her husband, Joe Gargery (Neil McCarthy), is a much more genial – if simple-minded – chap. McCarthy, like so many of the cast, impresses with a deftly sketched performance.

Sound effects and music are prominent right from the start. The music is dramatic (possibly over-dramatic at times) although the sound effects are more successful in creating mood and atmosphere. The constant wailing of the wind throughout the early episodes helps to create the impression that Pip lives in a cold, desolate and foreboding area. Visual signifiers – a rotting corpse hanging on a roadside gallows – reinforces this.

If Pip’s first meeting with Magwitch is a signature moment, then so too is his initial encounter with Miss Haversham. As Pip approaches her intimidating house the music swells and then abruptly cuts off as Pumblechook (Norman Scase) lays a hand on him. This could be intentional, although it seems more likely that it was a grams error.

Whilst Maxine Audley’s Miss Haversham is muted to begin with, the meeting between her and Pip still has a uncomfortable, off-kilter feeling. Not least because of Francesca Annis’ cold and abusive Estella who treats Pip with the utmost contempt.

Francesca Annis, Maxine Audley & Christopher Guard

Christopher Guard gives a very internal performance as Pip. Since he’s only a young boy (and one you can imagine has beaten into obedience from a very early age) Pip is unable to talk back to his elders and betters. So Guard has to either suffer in silence or express his true feelings somewhat obliquely.

The third episode – Apprenticeship – sees the mantle of Pip pass from Christopher Guard to Gary Bond. It’s done in a visually striking way as we see Pip, apprenticed as a blacksmith to Joe, toiling in the forge. Overlaid smoke effects and mournful music create a weary mood as the camera moves down to focus on the metal he’s hammering. And when it moves back up, the boy has become a man (thereby not only solving the problem of how to move from one actor to another, but also neatly suggesting that Pip has spent years in a form of statis – doing the same thing, day-in and day-out).

Great Expectations boasts many fine performances across its ten episodes. Ronald Lacey casts a menacing shadow as the drunken and violent Orlick (who, like Pip, starts off as an apprentice to Joe) whilst Hannah Gordon radiates honest goodness as Biddy, a maid who helps to keep Joe’s household together after Mrs Gargery is left insensible after a violent attack from an unknown assailant.

The always dependable Peter Vaughan has a nine line in icy disdain as Mr Jaggers, the solicitor who informs Pip of his great expectations. Bernard Hepton, another fine actor, plays Jaggers’ clerk, Wemmick, a much more approachable and amusing fellow. After they’ve become better acquainted, Wemmick takes Pip on a tour of his house – a wonderfully eccentric creation which features a drawbridge, waterwheel and a gun on the roof (which he fires every day at 9.00 pm). And all this in the heart of London!

Richard O’Sullivan is a pleasingly jaunty Herbert Pocket and sharply contrasts with a brooding Jon Laurimore as Bentley Dummle

Pip remains a curiously unlikable character for most of the serial. His desire to better himself and become a gentleman is generated purely by the hope it will win Estella’s approval (although given her utter indifference for him, he seems doomed to failure). Her mocking laughter at the end of the fifth episode – The Betrayal – shows that while Pip may have changed, she hasn’t.  Unlike some of Dickens’ other novels, where you sensed that the author approved of and supported his hero, there’s a much icier feeling here as well as a deep sense of melancholy.

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Maxine Audley, Francesca Annis & Gary Bond

The seventh episode – Pip’s Benefactor – helps to pivot the story into new and unexpected directions. The return of Magwitch is heralded by a brief burst of icy wind on the soundtrack (a nice, understated nod back to their initial graveyard meeting).

Pip’s horror that Magwitch is his benefactor is plain to see. Is it because Magwitch, although wealthy thanks to his efforts as a convict in Australia, is still somewhat uncouth? Or does it have more to do with the fact that transportation is a life sentence and so by returning to England, Magwitch faces certain death if he’s caught?  Initially there’s no doubt that he’s somewhat repulsed by Magwitch but eventually he acknowledges the sacrifices the older man had made for him, which is a key moment (from this point on Pip becomes much less self-centered).

Alan Bridges peppers the ten episodes with some interesting directorial flourishes. Miss Haversham’s mausoleum of a house offers plenty of unusual camera angles whilst elsewhere (Mr Jaggers’ office, for example) the use of projected light helps to create striking shadows on the wall. Miss Haversham’s death in episode eight is another standout moment, although like Pip and Magwitch’s first meeting it’s puzzling that the scene (mostly shot on film) still has a few brief videotape inserts.

This adaptation of Great Expectations has no weak links on the performance front – Peter Vaughan, John Tate, Bernard Hepton, Richard O’Sullivan, Neil McCarthy, Francesca Annis and Maxine Audley are especially noteworthy – whilst both Pips, Christopher Guard and Gary Bond, acquit themselves well. Bond is especially impressive in the closing episodes as Pip faces one reversal of fortune after another, although they do help to deepen and strengthen his character.

The prints are of a pretty consistent quality throughout – there’s the occasional sign of dirt and damage, but given that the materials are some fifty years old that’s not too surprising. In general the picture is clear and watchable although there’s always a slight drop in quality during the film sequences (not surprising, due to the way that the film inserts would have been telecined in during the recording session).

Even with so many different adaptations of Great Expectations jostling for position, this 1967 serial – although it may lack the budget and scale of some of the others – is still worthy of attention.  Tightly scripted and well acted, it’s a very solid production which still stands up well today.  Warmly recommended.

Great Expectations is released by Simply Media on the 3rd of July 2017.  RRP £19.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here.

Bernard Hepton & Gary Bond