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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The Nightmare Man – Episode Four

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The military arrive in force as Colonel Howard prepares to lead them in a expedition to recover a valuable piece of hardware.  Howard is remarkably blase as he informs Inskip that he’s invoked martial law and is therefore now in complete control of the island.

As the soldiers make their landing, Michael is still musing over the identity of the killer and the reason why he’s being hunted by the army.  “They lost contact with that craft and it ran aground here. Probably a power failure. Because what got out of it was no longer a man. Radioactive. Its mind in splinters.”

Douglas Camfield had been a Lieutenant in the West Yorkshire regiment, but due to health issues he was forced to leave in 1956.  His love of the military never left him though and can clearly be seen in some of his best directorial efforts.

The Web of Fear, The Invasion and Terror of the Zygons were three classic Camfield-directed Doctor Who‘s which all had a strong military angle.  And in some ways the last episode of The Nightmare Man resembles Zygons – the incongruous juxtaposition of the army and a small Scottish village, for example.

The revelation of the killer’s identity seems to be one of the main reasons why The Nightmare Man is viewed as a disappointment.  After three episodes of teasing the audience with various possibilities, the somewhat prosaic reality can’t help but feel like a letdown.  Especially as when we see him in the cold light of day he’s not a terrifying sight – although that may have been intentional (let’s be generous and give the production the benefit of the doubt).

Another slight disappointment is the way that Inskip fades away once Howard takes control.  But the fact that Howard isn’t all he appears to be is a decent twist, although the audience should have twigged this early on (after he tells Michael and Fiona that he has a great admiration for their police).

Positives. Maurice Roëves as Inskip and James Cosmo as his laconic sidekick Sergeant Carch. The slowly increasing sense of dread and fear as the attacks continue.

Negatives. Not every question is answered – for example we’re never told why the killer became cannibalistic or how he had super-human strength.  And if the killer looks rather unimpressive in the cold light of day, then that goes double for his craft. We’re expected to believe that it could travel thousands of miles in the water?  Sadly it looks like the filmiest, most unconvincing prop ever.

There’s no doubt that the dream-team combination of Holmes and Camfield would have been enough to interest many Doctor Who fans, but The Nightmare Man doesn’t really show either at their best.  The script is workmanlike (not having read the original novel I can’t say whether Holmes added many of his own touches).  His trademark humour isn’t really in evidence, although Carch gets some decent lines.  Camfield seems to perk up when the army arrive, but otherwise there’s few of the flourishes and innovative camera-angles for which he was known.

But whilst The Nightmare Man ends with a whimper rather than a bang, it still has its moments.   Not a classic, but there are worse ways to spend a few hours.

The Nightmare Man – Episode Three

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The Nightmare Man was Jeff Stewart’s first television role.  A few years later he was cast as Reg Hollis in The Bill and would remain with the series for an impressive twenty four years.  It’s strange to hear him speak with a Scottish accent, although since he was born in Aberdeen I assume it’s his natural one (he’s not tended to play many Scots during his career).

Stewart plays Drummond, one of three coastguards who all work in a very isolated spot.  There’s a clear vibe that they’re going to be the next victims, although it’s surprising how it takes before the unseen attacker strikes again.

This isn’t a bad thing though, as it means that Camfield’s able to gently rack up the tension as the episode progresses.  The policeman guarding the mysterious craft hears a noise (but it only turns out to be Dr Goudry), the coastguards detect something outside which triggers their radiation meter (but it slips away quickly), etc.  These little moments help to create a faint sense of unease – we know that there will be another murder, we don’t know when.  Although if you’d said just before the end of the episode, in order to create a nice cliffhanger, you wouldn’t be far off the mark!

Colonel Howard continues to move about the island, offering his help to the police (which is declined) and generally acting in a somewhat smug manner.  So it comes as no surprise when he receives a coded phone-call which confirms he’s deeply implicated in this mysterious business .

CALLER: Mother asked me to call.
HOWARD: Mother knows best. How is her chicken?
CALLER: Still free-range, I’m afraid.
HOWARD: Then forget the chicken. I’ve arranged for the egg collection. Can you close the coop?

Top marks to Jonathan Newth for keeping a straight face during that exchange of dialogue.

It seems probable that they’re both part of a military operation (who else would use so many convoluted code-words?) but we’ll have to wait until episode four to find out.

Fiona has developed the film from Dr Symond’s camera.  It was running at the time he was attacked and offers several snapshots of the killer.  Luckily, he was also recording his thoughts onto tape at the same time – so Fiona and Michael are able to organise a macabre film show for Inspector Inskip, Sgt Carch and Dr Goudry.  It’s a disturbing scene, as though we see very little (the pictures are quite blurred) the sounds the killer makes are enough to create a whole host of disturbing mental images.  There’s only one more episode to go before we find out if the reality will measure up.

With just a couple of minutes left, it must be time for another murder.  We cross back to the coastguard station, where one of Drummond’s colleagues elects to go outside by himself.  Has the man never watched any horror moves?!  It’s clear that he’s going to meet a very nasty end – which he does – and Drummond’s other colleague quickly succumbs to the implacable killer as well.

This leaves Drummond as the last man standing and so the episode ends on a close-up of Jeff Stewart’s face.  It’s quite a responsibility to carry a cliffhanger, therefore let’s be generous and remember that this was his first television job.  He does his best to pull a shocked face, but it doesn’t really convince.  Although his colleagues have both been killed he doesn’t really project a sense of dread or terror – more a sort of mild perplexity.  It’s slightly surprising that Douglas Camfield didn’t elect to try another take, but even allowing for Stewart’s lack of emotion it’s a jolting ending.

The Nightmare Man – Episode Two

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James Warwick was pretty ubiquitous on British television during the early 1980’s. By the time The Nightmare Man was broadcast he’d already appeared in several one-off Agatha Christie adaptations (Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?/The Seven Dials Mystery) and a few years later would star alongside Francesca Annis in Partners In Crime, also adapted from Christie’s books.  His earnest, square-jawed persona fitted the works of Agatha Christie like a glove and he plays Michael Gaffikin in a similar way.  His performance isn’t quite as good a match here though – at times it feels rather artificial (although it’s not as bad as his very wooden turn the following year in the Doctor Who story Earthshock).

The mysterious creature spends the early part of the episode lurking about (and killing the odd sheep).  Michael surmises that it could be the result of genetic experimentation whilst Inskip wonders why the woman killed in episode one (identified as Mrs Anderson) was dismembered and then taken miles away from spot where she was murdered.

Picture quality for the exteriors is pretty poor – due to the heavy mist (it does help to give the location work an unearthly atmosphere though).  But it’s difficult not to wonder just how more impressive it would have looked on film.

Because the police-force on the island is so small (limited to four of five officers) it’s reasonable that Inskip would ask for Michael and Fiona’s help.  Michael, having originally wondered if the creature came from the sea, now has another theory – that it’s extraterrestrial in origin.  Roëves continues to have many of the best lines as Inskip counters that “a straightforward homicidal maniac with bad teeth running amok is good enough for me.”

But when they find Dr Symonds’ body, Inskip is forced to admit that nothing human could have been responsible. Although it’s hard to see why, as Symonds’ body is intact (unlike the mutilated Mrs Anderson) with only a minimal amount of blood.  No doubt this is due to what was deemed permissible in a pre-watershed programme (a violently attacked body clearly wouldn’t have been). Camfield could have elected to play the scene just on the reactions of Inskip and the others, but since we’ve previously met Symonds, his death has more of an impact if we can see his face.

If the cliffhanger is a little of a damp squib, it does at least up the ante a little more.  Another death and still the mysteries deepen.  There’s a mysterious craft on the shoreline, traces of radiation and the possibility that somebody parachuted onto the island the previous night.  And it seems that the charming Colonel Howard is more than just an innocent visitor ….

The Nightmare Man – Episode One

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The Nightmare Man was adapted by Robert Holmes (from the novel by David Wiltshire) and directed by Douglas Camfield.  Since Holmes and Camfield were both experienced Doctor Who hands it’s tempting to view this as almost a Doctor Who story by proxy.  Holmes had a love of classic horror tales, so there’s no doubt that Wiltshire’s story of a series of mysterious deaths on a remote Scottish island would have right up his street.  Whilst there’s little blood or gore it does feel a touch more adult than his Doctor Who‘s, something which probably would have appealed to Holmes (he was always a writer who pushed against the boundaries – as Mary Whitehouse would attest to).

It’s slightly surprising that it’s shot on VT rather than film, especially since Camfield was a master with a film camera.  Presumably this was budget-related, as there’s only a handful of video effects.

Within the first few minutes we’ve met the main players.  Fiona Patterson (Ceila Imrie, sporting an impressive Scottish accent) runs the local shop whilst Michael Gaffikin (James Warwick) is an English dentist, in love with both the island and Fiona. Both run into a visitor, Colonel Howard (Jonathan Newth), who tells them that he’s planning to spend a few days exploring, whilst we also bump into Inspector Inskipp (Maurice Roëves).

But whilst all this seems normal enough, there’s something on the island which is far from normal.  This strange entity is shot from their POV and instantly creates an unsettling atmosphere.  When Michael finds a body on the golf course it appears the mysterious creature has claimed its first victim.  Inskipp is matter of fact about this grisly discovery.  “Aye, I do mean a body. We haven’t found all the pieces yet.”  During the episode we’re drip-fed more facts about the murder and nothing we hear sounds very comforting.  The body wasn’t dismembered with a knife – it was literally torn apart.

Camfield always cast his shows incredibly well and The Nightmare Man is no exception.  Maurice Roëves makes an immediate impression as Inskipp and does something with what could be a cliche role – the tough copper.  Although Camfield had a reputation for using a “rep” of actors it’s not really in evidence here, although Tony Sibbald (playing Dr Symonds) had appeared in his 1975 Doctor Who story Terror of the Zygons.

This does everything that an opening episode should.  It sets up the mystery efficiently and finishes on a strong cliff-hanger (Dr Symonds attacked by the mysterious creature).  Will the serial keep this quality up or will it end in an anti-climax?  Time will tell.