After an underwhelming 1949 television production of "Ten Little Indians", Agatha Christie decided she was not interested in seeing her work adapted for the small screen, and denied further requests for rights to her work until her death in 1976. In a somewhat amusing twist, Christie's novels would go onto spawn some of the more popular and enduring mystery television series in history, including "Poirot" and two separate versions of "Miss Marple." In addition, 27 specials have been made from her work since 1980, mostly in the United Kingdom. Three of those specials are collected in this new 3-disc set, the Agatha Christie: Queen of Crime Collection. It's a slightly bizarre set, seemingly made up of odds and ends Acorn couldn't find a better home for.
The oddest of the included specials is first, "Sparkling Cyanide." This 2003 production kicks off when the Rosemarie Barton (Rachel Shelley), the beautiful, young wife of aging, self-made millionaire George Barton (Kenneth Cranham), drops dead in the middle of a fancy party. Enter married secret service agents Dr. Catherine Kendall (Pauline Collins) and Col. Geoffrey Reese (Oliver Ford Davies), who set about trying to untangle a web of lies involving Rosemarie's affair with a rising politician (James Wilby); her mooching cousin Mark (Jonathan Firth) and aunt Lucilla (Susan Hampshire), who were more like brother and mother to Rosemarie and her sister Iris (Chloe Howman); and George's longtime assistant, Ruth (Lia Williams). To assist them, they have computer whiz Andy Hoffman (Dominic Cooper), who is more than adept at hacking into CCTV cameras and people's bank accounts.
The mystery of "Sparkling Cyanide" is not the one in the story, which starts out average and then builds to unrealistic lunacy involving George restaging the night of his wife's death and the kind of computer analysis programs that only exist on mystery television shows, but what it's doing in this set. The other two mysteries, "Why Didn't They Ask Evans?" and "Seven Dials Mystery", are both vintage programs from the early 1980s, both set in the high-class, formal world of 1930s Britain. Furthermore, "Sparkling Cyanide" was already adapted in the 1980s, utilizing the same 1930s setting as Christie's novel, although I suppose Warner Bros. may not have been willing to surrender the rights. In any case, this forgettable special doesn't have much going on, listlessly hoping to get a few laughs from the droll nature of Catherine and Geoffrey's investigation. (Although I can't vouch to its accuracy, I also hear it takes great liberties with Christie's book, even apart from the contemporary overhaul.)
The second program, "Why Didn't They Ask Evans?", is an improvement over the first, although it has its rough patches as well. Bobby Jones (James Warwick) is golfing when he looks off the cliffside and sees a body on the rocks below. While his doctor friend and golfing partner runs to get help, he watches the man, who uses his dying breath to ask the big question. His only possession: a photo of a beautiful lady, whose face burns itself into Bobby's mind. After giving testimony, Bobby is poisoned and almost dies, and the photograph that runs in the newspaper is different than the one he saw. With the help of his feisty friend, Lady Francis "Frankie" Derwent (Francesca Annis), they go undercover trying to suss out the involvement of folks at nearby Merroway Court, including Roger Bassington-ffrench (Leigh Lawson), who was also on the beach that day; Dr. Nicholson (Eric Thomas), who runs a home for drug addicts; and Moira (Madeline Smith), the girl in the photograph.
Although it sure takes its time getting going (nearly an hour passes before Frankie and Bobby are legitimately involved in the mystery), and could probably lose 20 or 30 minutes without dropping a single plot point, the strength of the characters pulls "Evans" along. Annis is very entertaining to watch, injecting the special with feminist spirit and personality. She's good enough to make Warwick better, who seems kind of like a clueless dope until she shows up, and they construct a believable friendly chemistry, especially when she teases him about his obvious crush on Moira. Frankly, it's a shame that the special feels as if it's balanced so that Bobby is the protagonist and Frankie is his sidekick (and a bit of a shame that John Gielgud doesn't have much to do here but chide Bobby, as his disapproving vicar father), but this and the length are probably the result of the producers' attempt to stick as closely and faithfully to Christie's work as possible.
The set closes with "Seven Dials Mystery", which (of course) brings back James Warwick but not Francesca Annis. Warwick is Jimmy Thesiger, who, along with his friends, decide to play a prank on their late-sleeping friend Gerry Wade by placing 8 alarm clocks in his room while the group of them are having a house party. Their joke abruptly ends when, instead of a punchline, they are presented with a dead body: Gerry dies in his sleep as a result of an apparent chloral overdose. Shortly thereafter, the owner of the residence takes control, and his daughter Lady Eileen "Bundle" Brent (Cheryl Campbell) finds herself drawn into the mystery, most pointedly when one of Thesiger's friends collapses, shot, on the road in front of her car, with the mysterious final message: "Seven Dials...tell Jimmy Thesinger." Much like "Evans", Warwick's character is drawn into a detective story with a spunky female partner.
Viewing "Evans" and "Dials" back-to-back, it's hard not to be of two minds about them. On one hand, they're much more fittingly paired with one another as a DVD double feature. On the other, they're so similar, being by the same production companies, produced a year apart, and featuring many of the same cast members, that watching them both is slightly monotonous. Campbell is almost as charming as Annis, and once again, the mystery becomes more involving as it goes on, but the similarity led me to prefer the previous one, which cast Warwick as more of an everyman, whereas he tends toward the stuffy in "Dials." Of course, Agatha Christie fans probably won't mind the similarities between the two; it's likely that the formula itself is part of the appeal.
Agatha Christie's "Queen of Crime" Collection arrives in a single-width 3-disc DVD case with a flap tray. The picture is a nearly generic image of wine pouring into a glass and forming a skull, over a magenta background. The back cover shows the glass tipped with a couple random photos from two of the three shows. Each of the programs appears on its own disc, and there is an insert inside the case advertising other Acorn releases.
The Video and Audio
"Sparkling Cyanide" is the most recent of the three programs, having aired in 2006. Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, it generally looks decent, if inconsistent, with blacks crushing at times, then appearing washed out later, and ghosting is sometimes visible. Detail is generally strong, although in some scenes, black lines appear to be bleeding as green, giving the image a dated appearance. Although the program is only presented in Dolby Digital 2.0, the sound spread is fairly nice, with some decent modern city atmosphere and use of music for a stereo presentation.
"Why Didn't They Ask Evans?" and "Seven Dials Mystery" are presented in a 1.33:1 full frame aspect ratio. Both appear to be sourced from tape. "Evans" fares worse; issues include chroma noise (including constant distortion on the left edge of the frame), black analog video haloes, aliasing, macroblocking, cross-coloration, color bleeding, occasional ghosting, and comet trails. I even spotted a single tracking line rolling up the screen. Even considering all of these issues, it's probably better resolved than it ever looked when it originally aired on television, but as far as DVD standards go, it's sorely lacking. Comparatively, "Dials" is more stable, with slightly more saturated colors and less distortion, although the garish haloes, softness, and some of the color bleeding is still very noticeable. Both shows offer a 2.0 audio track is clean and free of any hiss, pops or crackle, but is also thoroughly unremarkable. English subtitles are available for all three films.
This three-disc set is a bit of a mixed bag. Two decent, if fairly similar features, and a third, wildly different, distinctly underwhelming one. The inclusion of the first major, contemporary Christie adaptation for television is probably a strong draw, but the dated picture quality is underwhelming. It's a bit of a toss up, but I have to come down on the rent it side on this set, especially considering the high MSRP.
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