More lesser-known Agatha Christie short stories of intrigue brought to the small screen. Picking up where they left off last July, Acorn Media has released The Agatha Christie Hour: Set 2, a two-disc, 5-episode collection of the final offerings of that one-off 1982 English series (seen here in the States on PBS' Mystery!). Titles included are Magnolia Blossom, The Mystery of the Blue Jar, The Red Signal, Jane in Search of a Job, and The Manhood of Edward Robinson. Aside from one or two awkward clunkers, this is another charming set of low-profile Christie short stories which are sure to be of interest to her fans as well as to lovers of vintage British television. Let's look briefly at the five episodes.
At a party thrown by her husband, Richard Trent (Jeremy Clyde), beautiful, patrician Theo Trent (Ciaran Madden) looks for mystery guest Vincent Easton (Ralph Bates), to whom she was told by her husband to be "especially nice." Finding the solitary Vincent away from the party's inane hubbub, the two discuss their love of flowers and gardening, and in particular, Theo's rare hothouse magnolia. An instant rapport and attraction commences between the two, leading the passionate-but-stifled Theo to invite Vincent over the following day―an invitation the besotted Vincent readily accepts. Events move quickly for the two lovers, but when her husband's business takes a turn towards scandal, Theo has an impossible decision to make.
Not a good way to start this collection. With a screenplay by John Bryden Rodgers, based on Christie's short story which was first published back in 1926 (a short story, significantly, that never appeared in book form in the Christie-mad U.K. until this film adaptation was produced...which might be a clue in itself), Magnolia Blossom is a rather pointless, obvious love triangle exercise, put over in a surprisingly arch, almost comical manner. I've never read the original story, so I shouldn't comment on the faithfulness of this adaptation; however, perhaps Christie brought more shading to this conventional melodramatic love story of a lonely rich aristocrat, her cheating, weak husband, and the silent, decent lover who gives up his happiness to stay loyal to her. As it plays here, however, under the direction of John Frankau (the executive producer of The Agatha Christie Hour), Magnolia Blossom comes off like a parody of that melodramatic cliché we've seen countless times before in English films and television programs, with the good performers unaccountably stiff and stilted in their approach to the largely one-dimensional characters (then again, what else could the performers do with those bores?). While it's certainly interesting to see the dark undercurrents that typically inform even the most casual Christie work (here it's the sexual exploitation planned and hoped for by Richard of Theo, in order to retrieve the incriminating land swindle documents Vincent holds), it's difficult for that subtext to hit home in any meaningful way when we have little or no sympathy for the ciphers enacting the story. A complete misfire for the series (with the exception of energetic Jack May as the flirty Colonel Jaggers; he's the only one with some spark here).
The Mystery of the Blue Jar
Young Jack Hartington (Robin Kermode) is running himself ragged, what with early morning golf games with his crusty-but-kindly Uncle George (Derek Francis), before mad dashes to the train station where he rides into London for his clerking job at a barrister's office, only to come back to the country where he studies law late into the night. Practicing drives on his own one day, he hears a young woman screaming, "Help! Murder!" and he runs off to see who might be in trouble. Pretty young French girl Felise Marchaud (Isabelle Spade) is staying at a cottage right off the course, and she claims to have heard nothing. Jack confides in his Uncle, who isn't entirely unsympathetic to Jack's apparent supernatural encounter ("More things in heaven and earth"). Visiting author and "doctor of the soul" Dr. Lavington (Michael Aldridge) shows a keenness, though, to aid Jack in his extra-sensory investigation―an investigation that leads to romance and deception.
First published in The Grand magazine in 1924, The Mystery of the Blue Jar probably won't fool too many die-hard Christie fans who can guess―factoring in Christie's usual skeptical take on the supernatural―where the story is going, and who the real villains are here. It's not a particularly complex or even ingenious mystery; after all, once the notions of phantasms and ghosts are put aside...there can only be two people involved in the charade (scripter T.R. Bowen clunkily, too-rapidly wraps up the mystery through some out-of-the-blue deduction by unlikely sleuth Mr. Dodds, the bookseller, played amusingly by Hugh Walters). Luckily, director Cyril Coke keeps the events unfolding in a light, airy fashion, guiding his personable players to equally agreeable, fun performances. Robin Kermode hits just the right note of youthful confusion and earnestness, while Michael Aldridge is smooth as silk at the mysterious Dr. Lavington. And Derek Francis is an absolute delight as the friendly Uncle George, who seems more worried about spending a vacation with his wife rather than losing a priceless Ming jar (I love his entirely English bafflement at the purpose of vacations, what with the nuisance of "trains, luggage, and foreigners"). Light and easy to take, The Mystery of the Blue Jar is a fun little Christie treat.
The Red Signal
The wealthy Trents, Jack and Claire (Christopher Cazenove and Joanna David), are having a dinner party, and influential psychiatrist Sir Alington West (Alan Badel), his nephew Dermot (Richard Morant), and flapper socialite Violet Eversleigh (Carol Drinkwater) are invited...along with medium Mrs. Thompson (Rosalie Crutchley), whose séance will be the dinner's parlor game. Tensions are running high between uncle and nephew, however, not only because of the impropriety of Dermot falling in love with his best friend Jack's wife, Claire, but also because Dermot is under the impression from his doctor uncle that Claire is deeply disturbed. It's a pity that Dermot didn't listen to his preternatural "red signal" warning of danger before venturing out to the party....
A straight-ahead Christie murder mystery, told simply...but without much dash. The William Corlett adaptation of Christie's 1924 short story did successfully misdirect me as to who the real "looney" was (as he's referred to in the story), but whatever depth the characters may have had in the original seems rushed over in this too-short featurette. Director John Frankau keeps the story moving along, at least, engineering the trickiest part of the narrative―Dermot's discovery of the gun in his apartment and his subsequent escape from the police into the fog―with economy. However, the overall glum tone of the piece is puzzling, with a ho-hum, matter-of-fact approach to the story's central motif that seems lazy and unaffected. After all...the story is about a homicidal maniac; can't we have a little bit of energy here, or some effort to create some genuine suspense? Even some hokey music cues and clichéd camera angles would have been welcome by the time The Red Signal reached the half-way point. And the largely reserved, detached cast doesn't help matters much, either, with the usually enjoyable Badel curiously deadened and Morant failing to make much of a dent as the lead (the recently passed Cazenove is the only one who seems in on the joke). While The Red Signal is certainly enjoyable on a level of satisfying your need for basic genre conventions...but it doesn't do much more than that.
Jane in Search of a Job
Sweet Jane Cleveland (Elizabeth Garvie) is starving in London. With no job prospects and her landlady, Mrs. Northwood (Julia McCarthy), waiting for back-due rent, she'll jump at the chance to answer an ad brought by apartment neighbor, Nigel Guest (Andrew Bricknell), a police cadet. Arriving at the interview's address, Jane discovers through Colonel Kranin (Geoffrey Hinsliff), and later Count Streptitch (Tony Jay) and Grand Duchess Pauline (Amanda Redman), that she'll be impersonating visiting Princess Anna of Ostravia (Stephanie Cole) for a cool 3,000£ sterling. The threat of kidnapping and/or assassination does nothing to deter the money-hungry Jane from accepting the job. However, Nigel is worried the assignment might be dangerous―a concern Jane unwisely brushes off as she enjoys the hundreds of pounds advance she snagged for herself.
A rather bouncy adaptation of Christie's 1934 short story, Jane in Search of a Job sounds like the title of some "Girl's Own" adventure story, and in many ways, it is, with Jane experiencing the thrills (and inevitable double-backs) of many Christie heroines who break away from some restrictive environment (here, it's poverty for the thrills-seeking minister's daughter). Adapted by Gerald Savory and directed with a nod towards comedy by Christopher Hodson, this episode plays as light as a feather, with Elizabeth Garvie quite sweet and funny first playing a somewhat nervous pauper looking to make good, only to segue into a brassy imitation of a New York newspaperwoman as her "cover." Sexy Stephanie Cole is amusing, too, as the fake countess, along with her group of stock Ruritanian scammers who looked like they stepped out of some 1930s Paramount screwball comedy. Perfectly entertaining.
The Manhood of Edward Robinson
Meek, mild-mannered Edward Robinson (Nicholas Farrell) can't even buy one of the more expensive, down-front movie house tickets without his crushingly sensible fiancé of three months, Maud (Ann Thornton), gently chiding him for being profligate. She won't even accept his ring―after her mother, Mrs. Lithinglow (Margery Mason), demands one―claiming it's too expensive. Chance, however, is on Edward's side. Entering a magazine contest with his friend Herbert (Tom Mannion), Richard wins 500£...and promptly buys the little white two-seater Morgan he'd been lusting after ever since he saw it in a showroom window. Encouraged by Herbert (who can see what a snippy controller Maud is), Edward lies about having to go to Herbert's parents' estate in country, setting off on his own adventure. Sure enough, a cat burglar, stolen diamonds, and a beautiful, beautiful creature in white mink give Edward a new lease on life.
My favorite episode here, and worth the price of admission alone for The Agatha Christie Hour: Set 2. Spot-on direction by Brian Farnham of Gerald Savory's tight adaptation of Christie's story, The Manhood of Edward Robinson builds expertly to its impressively romantic finale. Farrell (not one misstep here), nervous and unsure of himself with the dull, sweetly-controlling Maud, expertly glides to cautiously excited about the spontaneous turn of events of his illicit vacation, to mastering the situation entirely when he "rejects" the heartbreakingly gorgeous Lady Noreen Elliot, played by one of my all-time favorites, the utterly captivating Cherie Lunghi (the one and only Geneviere in my book). After Edward takes off in the wrong car (which contains the stolen diamonds, and thus precipitates a meeting with Noreen), and a marvelous comedic bit on the dance floor where Noreen thinks Edward is the brother of her partner in crime (Farrell and Lunghi look "right" together doing the tango), Noreen breaks the news that she's not part of a gang of burglars but instead the instigator of a high-class party game involving "innocent" grand theft (rather like a treasure hunt...only you steal the treasure and give it back). Edward, delighted, plays along...until his cover is blown and Noreen assumes he's a real-life burglar. Offering herself to him and his (fictitious) way of life, Edward does the kind, noble thing and turns her down, while staying in character, giving himself a chance to act like all the movie and pulp fiction heroes he admires, and giving Noreen a memory she'll always cherish. This farewell, playing out on several different levels, is perfectly realized by the scripter, the director and the performers, creating a lovely, sad moment one didn't expect at all with the heretofore amusing story. Completely successful on every level, The Manhood of Edward Robinson is utter an delight.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.