08 October 2020 02:30
Undaunted by the fact that the BBC currently has the monopoly on TV adaptations of Agatha Christie, it has found an alternative: murder mysteries featuring Christie herself as the sleuth. It's not quite sleight of hand, but it's crafty. Agatha and the Midnight Murders was the third in a series of feature-length films. Helen Baxendale played the author, with a warmth in her voice and a glint in her eye. It was a classic and atmospheric locked room whodunit – deaths piling up, everyone a suspect, plenty of red herrings.
There were points when I had to rewind in order to work out what was going on, as with an early fight scene. The script also felt as if elements were missing: if you had not seen one of the earlier films, Agatha and the Truth of Murder, then you were at an immediate disadvantage in understanding the relationship between Christie and her companion, Travis Pickford (Blake Harrison). In real life, Christie wrote a novel featuring the death of Hercule Poirot and locked it in a bank vault for 30 years. Here, she was flogging the manuscript to a Hong Kong businessman and superfan (Thomas Chaanhing) for £20,000 because she was being pursued by the Inland Revenue. They met to complete the transaction in an eerily quiet hotel, staffed by a solitary barman, during the Blitz.
An air raid siren went off and in burst a very odd police constable (Jodie McNee) who shepherded everyone into the cellar. Before long, the manuscript was stolen and Christie's polite request for the culprit to hand it back fell on deaf ears. All of the characters' behaviour felt a little weird, and it was not clear if that was by accident or design. Some were caricatures – Sir Malcolm Campbell played as an entitled toff – while others were barely there, as with the two women posing as tourists. I have no idea if the real-life Christie ever swore but some of her lines jarred, not least because they sounded strikingly modern: "Is there anyone in your life who's been around 20 years and not f---ed you over?" she said, trying to explain her attachment to Poirot. And yet for all the production's faults, the whodunit was effective, because I stuck with it to the end in order to discover the identity of the killer. In that at least it captured something of Christie. Agatha And The Midnight Murders He could just harness the energy of Dame Agatha Christie, spinning in her grave like a diamond drill bit. The Queen of Crime and her legacy were thoroughly traduced in Agatha And The Midnight Murders (C5). Helen Baxendale played the novelist as a devious, callous double-crosser willing to stitch up her publishers and kill off Hercule Poirot to evade bankruptcy. When her bodyguard Travis (Blake Harrison), a small-time crook, tried to swipe her manuscript for himself, she calmly dosed him with poisoned whisky and watched him die. Helen Baxendale played Agatha Christie as a devious, callous double-crosser willing to stitch up her publishers The two-hour drama set during the Blitz ended with a disclaimer: 'This film has not been endorsed, licensed or authorised by the estate of Agatha Christie.' You don't say! From the first scene, it was sickeningly off-key. In the aftermath of an air raid, an ARP warden in a gas mask stalked the rubble with a knife, to slice the fingers off victims and steal their jewellery. Instead, Travis and Agatha strolled into the bar of a glamorous London hotel, sparsely populated with sub-Cluedo characters. Then a policewoman turned up. She pulled a revolver and locked everyone in the cellar for the duration of an air raid. There was a Chinese gangster (first to die), a stuttering waiter (second to die), an Italian black marketeer (third to die), a mysterious femme fatale (fourth to die), two lady tourists who turned out to be secret agents, and a fearless war hero with his dim blonde girlfriend. oh yes, the Chinese gangster had his own bodyguard, a thug from Malta (seriously, Malta). His name was Rocco, and the actor who played him (Morgan Watkins) had to invent an accent that sounded half-Spanish, half-Russian. Dull viewing of the week: Scottish detectives hunting a killer in Murder Case (BBC2) had to slog through 500 hours of CCTV footage to spot their suspect. Think of that, next time you flick through 30 channels and find there's nothing on. As the body count mounted and someone stole her precious manuscript, Agatha turned sleuth. Oddly, she failed to realise that the Metropolitan Police weren't meant to carry guns, nor that the Italian spiv ought to have been in jail, since this was 1940 and we were at war with his country. But she did spot a smear of blood on her bodyguard's forefinger, which tipped her off to the fact that he was the killer. She waited until he'd shot the policewoman before she revealed what she knew, though. There's no point in rushing these things. It was all confined to three cramped sets, with the cast as posed and static as a third-rate am-dram production. No historical fact was left unmangled. Even the dresses looked hopelessly wrong, early 1930s instead of wartime. The real savagings of the night were being handed out by Sean, the head butler in The Savoy (ITV). Sean, a little bald Irishman whose devotion to the five-star hotel is beyond fanatical, constantly fizzes with fury. Veins throb in his eyeballs when he discovers a room service trolley with a wonky wheel or spots a badly folded serviette. I dread to think of his reaction if anyone dared to point out that all he and his butlers provide is glorified room service. Meanwhile, in the hotel bar, they're selling cocktails for £25 with names borrowed from songs.