Following the success of several lengthy adaptations of Agatha Christie's novels for the small screen, it only made sense to try a series. 10 episodes of "The Agatha Christie Hour" were produced, which aired in the United Kingdom in 1982 and eventually migrated to the United States as part of PBS's "Mystery!". Considering the fact that I found the other two '80s British Christie specials I viewed ("Why Didn't They Ask Evans?" and "Seven Dials Mystery") to be overly lengthy, I was interested in seeing how these shorter episodes would fare in comparison.
The major advantage of a format broken up into more episodes is that it allows the program to tackle a wider and more interesting range of Christie's work. Although she is known for her mysteries, these big questions in these stories break away from murder investigations, and branch off into other interesting arenas. One episode is like a spy thriller, following a young man who meets a woman on a train and gets wrapped up in an adventure. Another involves a premonition, and the suspense of wondering whether or not it will come true, while a third concerns the truth behind the repeated cry of a woman, which haunts a young man's every waking moment. In execution, the tone and style of these episodes range from spy thriller to horror movie.
The "horror" episode, "The Fourth Man", is one of the best in the set. Raoul Letardau (John Nettles) places himself inside the train compartment of Dr. Campbell Clark (Alan MacNaughtan) and his two friends, lawyer George Durand (Michael Gough) and vicar Canon Parfitt (Geoffrey Chater). Dr. Clark has just given a lecture on the strangling death of a young woman, Felicie (Fiona Mathieson), who strangled herself, and Raoul has a distinctly different idea of why she did it. Thanks to Mathieson's eerie dual performance (as well as those by the veterans in the train car), the after-the-fact structure of the mystery (told in flashback) and somewhat open-ended ending allow this episode's unsettling ideas to linger in the air long after it ends.
Two of these episodes are based on Christie's character Parker Pyne, a retired statistician who uses his extensive knowledge of odds in the way people act to help them out of emotional ruts. Both episodes are fairly charming (the first turning marital suspicion on its ear), but I give the edge to the second, "The Case of the Discontented Soldier". Major John Wilbraham (William Gaunt) is struggling with the mundane routine of civilian life, having just returned from an exciting assignment in Africa. He spots Pyne's iconic newspaper advertisement -- "Are you happy? If not consult Mr Parker Pyne, 17 Richmond Street!" -- and is swept up in an exciting puzzle involving a lost African treasure, and the people trying to get the details from Freda Clegg (Patricia Garwood), the daughter of the man who buried it. Wilbraham is a charming character, and his miniature spy adventure is a bunch of fun (made possible thanks to the contributions of crime author Mrs. Oliver, played by Lally Bowers, who is clearly a Christie surrogate).
Other charming episodes include a couple of thriller comedies, "The Girl in the Train" and "Jane in Search of a Job". In the first, George Rowland (Osmund Bullock) is swept up into an unexpected request to tail a mysterious foreigner when he hides Elizabeth (Sarah Berger)in his train car, while the second follows Jane Cleveland (Elizabeth Garvie), who lands an unbelievable offer to pose as Princess Anna of Ostravia (Stephanie Cole) for a short time and a tall payoff. The former has the more interesting and unexpected payoff, while the latter has the more charming performances. Conversely, the only serious dud in the bunch is "Magnolia Blossom", a bland and remarkably dated story about Theo Trent (Ciaran Madden), trapped in an unhappy marriage. When her husband, Richard Trent (Jeremy Clyde), is suspected of criminal activities, he asks her to do something horrible, an activity which allows her to weather sexism from both directions. In addition to being ugly, it doesn't have much of a payoff, and the performances are on the stiff side.
"The Agatha Christie Hour": The Complete Series is packaged as two two-disc sets with a cardboard slipbox. All three artworks feature graphic design of fancy figures in silhouette, in front of an oddly sunny background. It's a little font-happy for my tastes, but otherwise fine. Inside the box, there is a leaflet advertising Acorn TV and other DVDs from the company.
The Video and Audio
The 1.33:1 full frame tape transfers for "The Agatha Christie Hour" are dated, but offer a little more stability than the transfer for 1980's "Why Didn't They Ask Evans?" Christie adaptation in the "Queen of Crime" collection, which was also released by Acorn. As with many analog transfers, vertical lines are constantly visible along the left edge of the frame, as well garish black edge halos that frequently surround the edges of people standing in front of bright backgrounds. Colors are a bit muted, and occasionally drift (blacks toward green) or bleed slightly. I also spotted a square in the upper right corner of the screen in two episodes, which a commenter tells me is an electronic cue dot signaling a commercial break. However, I think there are definitely textural details on clothes and skin that were probably not visible on TV, and on the whole there is less noise or softness than other dated TV presentations I've seen. Sound is a clean Dolby Digital 2.0 track that sounds just fine -- honestly, most of these programs feature almost no background ambiance to speak of, with dialogue and the occasional brief music cue surrounded by pure silence. English subtitles are included.
Nothing but a couple of text bios on Agatha Christie and Parker Pyne.
I had much more fun with these short stories, which vary greatly in tone and style, than I did with the longer mysteries in the other new Agatha Christie set. Although the video transfers, sadly, aren't very good, the content itself still earns a recommendation.
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