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National Film Theatre: a tribute to the work of Agatha Christie

Mein Freund Norman Home hat einen auszgeichneten Bericht in englisch verfasst.

by Norman Home
13-15 JULY 20O1

Agatha Christie’s Poirot

The first event, on Friday evening (6.20pm in NFT2), was a 90-minute programme, consisting of three segments of clips from the ITV Poirot series, each followed by informal discussion by a panel of five:

  • Charles Osborne – In the Chair
  • Andrew Grieve – Director of many of the episodes of the ITV series
  • Brian Eastman – Producer of the ITV series
  • Philip Jackson – Chief Inspector Japp
  • Hugh Fraser – Captain Hastings

The clips showed such things as when Poirot first met Japp and Hastings (including Evil under the Sun, Murder in Mesopotamia (which we have yet to see) and The Mysterious Affair at Styles); murder scenes (Hickory, Dickory, Dock and Murder on the Links); and scenes etc which are in the TV version but not in the original novel.

Twenty of the Poirot stories have not yet been filmed in the ITV series. Two or three are usually made each year, depending on the principal actors’ commitments and American co-funding. It has not yet been deceided what to film next year. All of the TV versions are set in l936. All the short stories have been done, and 10 of the novels. David Suchet would like to do them all, and has indicated that he would rather like CURTAIN to be the last acting job he does! There was comment on the new US version of Murder on the Orient Express, where there has been a lot of up-dating, including use of a lap-top. Brian Eastman, at least, didn’t agree with that treatment.

There was some discussion of the merits of putting extra “action” into the TV versions, to make them more watchable and less static. One example shown – the chase seen at the end of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd seemed to me particularly crass. I couldn’t resist saying that I thought this was completely out of character. The Doctor was the one person I couldn’t imagine making a run for it; he was introspective, wrote everything down in detail; it seemed to me very important to preserve the integrity of the character when adding extra “business”.

When asked to name their favourite “Christie”, Hugh Fraser chose Murder in Mesopotamia (with its archaeological backbround, the novel is full of the flavour of Christie, it was filmed in Tunisia, he said); Andrew Grieve chose The ABC Murders (It was interesting to do, he said); and Brian Eastman said it was impossible to choose. He mentioned one which he would never forget; The Million Dollar Bank Raid (Not exactly the title, but I can’t recall it exactly) [The titile is "The million dollar bond robbery, C.K.] , which necessitated building The Queen Mary in the TV studio.

Lord Edgward Dies

Later on Friday evening we were expecting to see the film “Alibi” but the wrong film had been sent to the NFT. Instead we could, if we wished, see “Lord Edgware Dies” this evening rather than later on Saturday, when it was scheduled to be shown. I opted to see it on Friday.

I don’t think I had seen it before. Certainly a collector’s item. To think that Austin Trevor played Poirot in three films!!

A Caribbean Mystery

On Saturday morning at 11 o’clock we saw A Caribbean Mystery, one of the Miss Marple TV series, filmed in l989 at the Coral Reef Hotel, Barbados, where Agatha Christie stayed and wrote the novel. Christopher Petit, the Director, introduced the film. He said Agatha Christie based the hotel owners in the novel, Tim and Molly Kendall, on the actual owners, and they were still there when the film was made. Apparently they had not read the novel; just as well in view of the part they play in the story!

The film was scheduled to be shot in 18 days. It was the rainy season. Chistopher asked to go over budget because he needed more time, but this was refused. Then there was a hurrican, so extra time became a matter of insurance and they did stay longer. Afterwards he discovered that the cast had been booked on an 18-day package tour! Christopher admitted at the outset that directing was out of the question; everyone did it how they wanted to, especially Joan Hickson and Donald Pleasance. Interior shots were filmed at Ealing Studios. For this reason, you never see anyone leaving a room; the externals were all in Barbados.

Agatha Christie: Queen of Crime

After lunch there was an hour’s panel discussion, involving:

  • Russell James – In the Chair
  • Christopher Petit – Director of some of the Miss Marples series
  • Martin Edwards – Crime writer
  • H R F Keating

Martin Edwards explained that Mathew Prichard was unable to take part; he was admitted to hospital two or three days previously. Everyone present wished him well.

The panel first discussed whether Agatha Christie is indeed – as an opinion poll in the USA recently showed – the greatest crime writer of the 20th century. There was much debate about what being “great” or “the greatest” means, and it led the panel to point up the strengths of Christie’s writing and also indicate those aspects where she was less effective. Although her characters could be said to be one dimensional and have no “inner life,” it was probably more accurate to say that they were “two dimensional” and conveyed “types” very well. She invented the “puzzle,” the whodunnit; the datedness of the stories is in many ways their very appeal; she is also very quick to read, a plus these days when we don’t have any time.

There was a difference of view over the question of up-dating. Some thought it would show up weaknesses in the plotting; and “we like it as it is”. Others saw no reason why it couldn’t be made to work.

Invited to choose their favourite, James chose The Hollow (the murderer’s identity is a very surprising element); Keating, The Pale House (the sense of evil is notable in this story); Petit, The Pale Horse (because of the ingenuity), and And Then There Were None; and Edwards, And Then There Were None.

Invited to choose their favourite character, James liked the Tommy and Tuppence stories; Keating, the Doctor’s wife (Did he mean “sister”? – NH) in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd;Petit, Poirothimself; and Edwards, Miss Marple.

In a discussion of possible successors to Agatha Christie, Chris Petitreferred to Ruth Rendell, similarl;y prolific, with much the same kind of market, and Martin Edwards put in aword for P DJames. Butthe feeling was that there didn’t seem to be anyone; Agatha Christie was unique, unrepeatable, and there was no one like her today. ( A novel perhaps worth reading was Reg Hill’s Dialogue of the Dead. Martin Edwards spoke highly of it.)

Butter In A Lordly Dish

At 3.15pm we were treated to a performance on stage of the radio play Butter In A Lordly Dish, first pefromed in l956. It was read in front of microphones, with suitable sound effects. The Producer, Simon Brett, introduced the cast, of Charles Osborne, Sheila Mitchell (H R F Keating’s wife), Jean McConnell, Simon Shaw, and Caroline Backhouse. In this setting it was difficult to conjur up an air of mystery, let alone suspense, but it was an entertaining hour or so, very well presented. It was a tale of retribution, a young woman succeeding in murdering the Barrister who successfully prosecuted her lover for murder,which she believed he did not commit (I think I’ve got that right!-NH).

Agatha Christie Today

At 4.30pm there was an hour’s discussion of the relevance of Agatha Christie to crime-writing today. The panel were:

  • Kate Stine – Director of the Agatha Christie Society
  • Charles Osborne
  • Danuta Reah – Lecturer in English. Crime-novelist, including “Night Angels”
  • Hilary Bonner – Crime-novelist, including “A Kind of Wild Justice”
  • Robert Barnard – University Lecturer and crime-novelist, including &The Corpseat Haworth Tandor”, “Scandal in Belgravia,” and “The Bones in The Attic”
  • David Roberts – In publishing

Kate Stine mentioned that David Roberts had written a very good analysis of Agatha Christie’s writing as a crime novelist, but I didn’t catch where it had been published.

The panel first discussed Agatha Christie’s influence on their own writing, which they considered was personal and significant. She had left them with the legacy that, as writers, they must always have a puzzle; she set a tenplate that it is difficult to get away from. Her legacy in crime fiction generally is not “mystify and then explain” (as in Conan Doyle), but one of taunting the reader, not to be able to identify the murderer.

The general view was that Agatha Christie had not had much influence in the theatre, and had left not legacy there. I couldn’t let that pass, and had to mention The Mousetrap – which is a landmark in theatrical history – and, apart from that, Agatha Christie was the first ever person to have three plays running simutaneously in the West End; she was a major influence on Anthony Shaffer in writing the brilliant play “Sleuth” (and accompanied him to the theatre to see it); and her crime-writing is splendidly pastiched in Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Inspector Hound” and inthe character of Inspector Truscott in Joe Orton’splay “Loot”.

As regards their favourite books, Charles Osborne chose The ABC Murders; Danuta Reah, Five Little Pigs; and Kate Stine, Murder in Mesopotamia and Murder at the Vicarage.

The Spider’s Web

At 6.20pm we saw the cinema version of The Spider’s Web. I was pleasantly surprised, because I had alaways resisted seeing it, thinking that Cicely Courtneidge was playing Clarissa Hailsham-Brown, in a classic piece of mis-casting. So, I was pleased to find that Glynis Johns was playing the role, giving it the light, humorous touch that it needed, and that Cicely Courtneidge was playing the overbearing gardener. But it is still essentially a play, I think, and not suited to the cinema.

Die Abenteurer G.M.B.H

This l929 silent German film version of the l922novel The Secret Adversary is another collector’s item. We saw in NFT1 in Sunday afternoon. As it is a silent film, albeit with Dutch and French intertitles (on a split screen), there was a live audio translation in English of the intertitles, and a live piano accompaniment. The film was a real oddity, and it looks as if no one had actually seen it before writing the programme notes or the short item in the NFT brochure.

Any similarity to Agatha Christie’s novel or her realisation of the characters of Tommy and Tuppence was coincidental, miraculous almost..

In the film, the Tommy character is called Pierre, looks like a body-builder and is first seen working in the engine room of the ship,the sinking of which featuresat the beginning of the story.In the course of the story he fights his way out of a lot of trouble, tackling four men at once on the stairs at one point, and does someawesome stunts that would have done credit to Harold Lloyd. The plot became so complicated that I lost trackbut it was compellingviewing. It’s not often you can see a silent film, made in one country,read the dialogue in the languages of two other countries, listen to a translation inEnglish and a lively piano, and still get the jokes! We must somehow persuade the Agatha Christie Society to give the film a wider showing to members. You have been warned!

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