Bet you thought I’d forgotten Hercule, didn’t you? Nah – I’ve just been busy again, but I could never forget Hercule. Slow as my progress is, I’m still working my way through the episodes. I’ll finally get to Curtain one day!
This post is part of my 2016
Beware: Here be Spoilers
The third episode of the fourth ‘series’ of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 19th January 1992 (have a look at this post to see why I’ve put scare quotes round ‘series’). It was based on the novel of the same name (aka Overdose of Death and The Patriotic Murders), which was first published in 1940. As always, my academic side wants to note the edition I’m using for this post:
Lol! Just kidding!
It’s the HarperCollins paperback edition published in 2016. Just as with The ABC Murders, when I came to do this post, I strangely discovered that I didn’t own a copy of One, Two, Buckle My Shoe. Not sure how that has happened, as I’m pretty sure I used to own a copy. Anyway, I’ve rectified that now.
There are a few particular episodes of Poirot that stand out for me as ones that I loved when they were first broadcast. Admittedly, there are some episodes that I don’t really remember the first time round (I was only ten when the series started, after all!), but 'One, Two, Buckle My Shoe' isn’t one of them. I can clearly remember watching it and loving every minute of it – it’s one of the episodes that cemented my love of the show.
The novel I came to later – probably during my Agatha Christie binge when I was working at an Oxfam shop after I finished my A-Levels. I mentioned this briefly in an earlier post, but I spent a year working at an Oxfam shop in the day and at Wilkinson's in the evening (some people go overseas to find themselves during their gap year… I found myself in Middleton). Most days, I had an hour and a half between jobs, and I filled it with reading Golden Age detective fiction (a lot of Christie and Sayers), bought for 29p-39p at Oxfam. Although I can remember reading a few novels before this point, I think this was the year when I really became a Golden Age fan.
Anyway, One, Two, Buckle My Shoe…
The book was published in 1940, so it sits in the second half of the Poirot collection. It was written after the best-known short stories – and after the ‘big’ books (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Murder on the Orient Express, etc.) – but before Christie wrote Curtain (so before she was thinking about the ‘end’). The book is in third person, and Hastings is absent. There’s no mention of Miss Lemon, despite her making her first appearance five years earlier. However, the novel does feature Japp (and George), so Poirot isn’t entirely flying solo.
The book begins, though, by introducing a different character: Mr Morley, a diminutive grumpy dentist who is critical of both the government and his secretary (who has been called away to a family emergency). A short section later, and we’re being introduced to a powerful man named Alistair Blunt, who has an appointment to see his dentist. Before I get on to the novel itself, just a brief eyebrow raise at this name… In Death in the Clouds, there’s a mention of another dental patient named Blunt – this time Colonel Blunt. Although the books were written five years apart, the adaptations were aired just a week apart. Reading the books in the order of the adaptations really does draw attention to this repeated name. In the Everyman’s Guide to the Mysteries of Agatha Christie, Bruce Pendergast highlights this curious coincidence of names, making the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that ‘the Blunt clan had a faulty tooth gene’ (and noting seven other individuals with the surname in Christie’s work – as Poirot says in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, ‘The name, after all, is not an uncommon one.’).
After we find out Blunt is going to see Mr Morley, we also find out a certain Belgian detective has a dentist’s appointment. When he later leaves Morley’s surgery, Poirot has a brief encounter with a woman in patent leather shoes, who manages to wrench one of her buckles off as she gets out of a taxi. Given the title of the novel, it’s pretty obvious that this fleeting moment is going to be significant later.
And sure enough, it’s only a couple of pages later that Japp comes round to break some news to Poirot – Mr Morley has (probably) shot himself. Why would the dentist have killed himself? Was the illustrious Mr Blunt the true target?
As the novel rolls on, the bodies start to pile up. A Mr Amberiotis – a new patient of Morley’s – is found dead at his hotel, and his death is ascribed to an overdose of adrenaline and novocaine given by the dentist. And then another patient, Miss Sainsbury Seale, disappears from her hotel. A body shows up in the flat of a Mrs Chapman, which is assumed to be that of Miss Sainsbury Seale, only for it to be revealed through dental identification as that of Mrs Chapman herself (she was another of Morley’s patients). Of Miss Sainsbury Seale (now the prime suspect in Mrs Chapman’s murder), there is no trace. What could it all mean? And why is Poirot so fixated on Miss Sainbury Seale’s (or is it Mrs Chapman’s) buckled shoes?
Lurking behind these dental shenanigans are repeated references to national and international politics. Even on the first page, we get a sense of political unease, as Morley peruses the morning news (someone’s got to do it in Hastings’s absence):
‘He glanced at the paper and remarked that the Government seemed to be passing from a state of incompetence to one of positive imbecility!’This backdrop – which includes a character who’s signed up to the Imperial Shirts (a fictional fascist organization, presumably based on Oswald Mosley’s Black Shirts) and repeated criticism/fear of ill-defined ‘Reds’ – leads to a glorification of centre-ground Toryism that is way more overt than in other Christie novels. Both small-c and big-c conservatism are lauded throughout the book and presented as the only way in which the ship of Britain can steer its way through such dangerous waters. We get impassioned outbursts such as:
‘You bet there are [people in Britain who would like to kill Blunt]. The Reds, to begin with – and our Blackshirted friends, too. It’s Blunt and his group who are standing solid behind the present Government. Good sound Conservative finance.’Standing solid! Strong and stable!
‘We’re very tiresome people in this country. We’re conservative, you know, conservative to the backbone. We grumble a lot, but we don’t really want to smash our democratic government and try new-fangled experiments. That’s what’s so heart-breaking to the wretched foreign agitator who’s working full time and over! The whole trouble is – from their point of view – that we really are, as a country, comparatively solvent. Hardly any other country in Europe is at the moment! To upset England – really upset it – you’ve got to play hell with its finance – that’s what it comes to! And you can’t play hell with its finance when you’ve got men like Alistair Blunt at the helm.’Long live England! Conservative to the backbone! The bankers will save us! We can trust the bankers!
Now, Agatha Christie’s personal politics are contentious, and different critics offer different interpretations. Comments in her autobiography often seem at odds with subtext in her fiction, but the latter itself is not always consistent (e.g. Poirot is generally anti-death penalty, whereas Miss Marple seems to mostly approve and actively mourns its abolition at one point). But whatever her personal beliefs, Christie was a mystery writer, and her books are all about playing tricks on the reader. Often, a character will seem to be the (left- or right-leaning) ‘voice of reason’ (like the ethically-minded NHS doctor Quimper in 4.50 From Paddington or the stolidly English racist Norman Gale in Death in the Clouds), only to be revealed as a callous and self-serving murderer in the end. Far from being a mouthpiece for Christie’s own beliefs, the ‘reasonable’ façade is a sleight-of-hand to make us think they couldn’t possibly be the murderer.
One, Two, Buckle My Shoe turns this up to 11. The political message seems so much clearer, more explicitly conservative, based against a backdrop of a Europe gone mad. Of course everyone is terrified of Reds and Blacks – these are major forces duking it out on the European stage, and their figureheads (Stalin and Hitler) are monstrous dictators. Of course Britain wants to preserve democracy, stability and moderation in the face of such horrifying alternatives. Conservative capitalism, as the book repeatedly tells us (way more directly than in most of Christie’s other novels), is the only reasonable path for the nation. And its figurehead, Alistair Blunt, is a screamingly rational alternative to the looming figures of Stalin, Hitler and a government veering from ‘a state of incompetence to one of positive imbecility’.
Obviously… obviously… Alistair Blunt is the murderer. And, appropriately, this is also turned up to 11. Blunt is a bigamist, who married his second wife for money and power; he shoots his dentist simply to allow himself the opportunity to kill Amberiotis (who was threatening to blackmail him); and he is involved with one of Christie’s more brutal murders, the death and mutilation of Mabelle Sainsbury Seale. (Although only the crooked leg and foot of the body of murdered Miss Sainsbury Seale is shown on screen in the adaptation, the idea of someone having their face so badly smashed in they can only be identified through dental records haunted my thirteen-year-old imagination.) He is also more than happy to see Frank Carter – ‘a wastrel’ – hang for his crimes.
Turns out, conservative capitalist bankers can be arseholes.
Before I move on to the adaptation, there are few minor character details that are worth noting in Christie’s novel.
Firstly, Poirot’s fear of the dentist is underlined early on:
‘He was a man who was accustomed to have a good opinion of himself. He was Hercule Poirot, superior in most ways to other men. But in this moment he was unable to feel superior in any way whatever. His morale was down to zero. He was just that ordinary, craven figure, a man afraid of the dentist’s chair.’
This is a facet of Poirot’s character that appears in both Christie’s stories and in the ITV adaptation. Mind you, given the last story we saw on screen was Death in the Clouds, I think there’s every reason to fear dentists. Elsewhere, though, we see a characteristic of Poirot’s that was resolutely not included in the TV show – he travels around London by Tube (the equivalent journey in the adaptation is taken by taxi, as Suchet’s Poirot is never shown travelling on the underground). Interestingly, in the TV version of ‘Four and Twenty Blackbirds’, these two characteristics also come up: Poirot’s Tube journey in the source text is removed, but his fear of the dentist is added in an alteration to Christie’s novel.
We also learn a couple of other things about our detective as well. He sometimes goes back to Belgium for short visits (first we’ve heard of it!), and he still hangs around with Joseph Aarons (at least, I assume that’s the ‘theatrical agent of his acquaintance’ he goes to see). Aarons, who I talked about briefly in the post on ‘Double Sin’ appears periodically in the Poirot stories – though often ‘off-screen’. Here, while we don’t see him (and he isn’t named), he provides Poirot with some important background information on the case.
Another blast from past here appears to be Countess Rossakoff, who I talked about in the post on ‘The Double Clue’. She’s not identified by name either, but I think it’s clear who this quote refers to:
‘He, Hercule Poirot, remembered women… One woman, in particular – what a sumptuous creature – Bird of Paradise – a Venus…’Four little bonus points:
1. Japp wears a bowler hat! (Bit hard to imagine Philip Jackson’s Japp rocking a bowler!)
2. Japp also uses some nice slang in this one. We get ‘all my eye and Betty Martin’ – a phrase with unclear origins – but also ‘Na Poo, my lad. Na Poo!’ This latter is a bit of a throwback: it appears to have originated amongst British soldiers in WWI France or Belgium as a corruption of il n’y a plus, and means ‘it’s finished’ or ‘there’s no more’.
3. There’s a curious reference to a film in the book… As the detectives look for the illusive Mrs Chapman, one of her neighbours states that she hasn’t seen Mrs Chapman ‘since we had spoken about going to see the new Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire the following week’. This clearly lets us know that the book isn’t set in 1940: 1939’s The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle was Astaire and Rogers last film together until 1949. Mind you, the fact that there’s no mention of the war in an overtly political story – never mind that the British Union of Fascists hasn’t been disbanded – are probably the more obvious clues that the book is set in the late 30s.
4. One of my relatives is mentioned in the novel! (Don’t know why I put an exclamation mark – it’s a bit grim, to be honest.) While they’re hunting for the lost Miss Sainsbury Seale, Japp wonders if they’ll ‘find her in a quarry, cut up in little pieces like Mrs Ruxton’. Isabella Ruxton (née Kerr) was murdered (along with her housemaid Mary Rogerson) by her husband Buck Ruxton in 1935. Both victims were dismembered and mutilated, and Ruxton even removed teeth to prevent identification by dental records. It was a pretty notorious case. Isabella Kerr was a relative of mine on my mum’s side.
On that bleak little detail, let’s move on to the TV version, shall we?
The episode was directed by Ross Devenish and written by Clive Exton. The first thing that strikes you – and this may be one of the reasons the episode stuck in my mind all those years ago – is the horror film-like opening credits sequence, in which slow-mo, distorted images are paired with ghostly children’s voices singing the nursery rhyme that the book is named after.
As we’ve come to expect from Exton’s work, this is a fairly faithful adaptation of Christie’s story. It’s true to the spirit and plot of the novel (Hastings and Miss Lemon are absent, but it remains a Poirot ‘n’ Japp adventure), but there are changes to the way the story unfolds. Specifically, the backstory of Blunt’s marriage to Gerda Grant is played out in front of our eyes, rather than being discovered (quite late) by the detective.
After the creepy-as-hell credits, the episode takes us to India in 1925 and a performance of Much Ado About Nothing. Amongst the cast, we see clearly, are Gerda Grant and Mabelle Sainsbury Seale. After the show, Alistair Blunt (played by Peter Blythe) calls into the dressing room to see the women, and later that evening he proposes to Gerda (Joanna Phillips-Lane). When Mabelle (Carolyn Colquhoun) runs into Blunt twelve years later, she explicitly refers to his wife as Gerda.
However, I don’t think this ruins the story as such. Obviously it doesn’t, or the episode wouldn’t have fascinated me so much when it was first broadcast. Exton’s script does explain some things up front (particularly Blunt’s relationship with Gerda), but it leaves a lot of things mysteriously unexplained (what happened to Gerda? how did Blunt end up married to Rebecca Arnholt? why does he let the detectives think Miss Sainsbury Seale knew Rebecca, when she was actually friends with Gerda?) And, of course, it retains Christie’s emphasis on a fancy buckled shoe to keep us pondering its significance.
Much of the politics is also retained. Many of those strident speeches on strong and stable conservatism are repeated word-for-word in the adaptation, though Blunt is a helluva lot more arrogant than his literary counterpart and makes much more of the fun he and Gerda have been having. In the episode, as in the novel, Poirot is not impressed with the idea that Blunt’s role in keeping the country stable is a get-out-of-jail-free card. Suchet’s Poirot gives a very similar summing-up to that found in the book:
‘I am not concerned with nations, Monsieur. I am concerned with the lives of private individuals who have the right not to have their lives taken from them.’While Poirot’s opinion of Blunt and his crimes remains the same, there is quite a dramatic change in his view of another character. We need to talk about Frank…
In Christie’s novel, Frank Carter, the Blackshirted boyfriend of Mr Morley’s secretary, is an unpleasant character whose fascist affiliation is presented almost as a symptom of his underlying nastiness. Blunt refers to him as ‘a wastrel’; Morley calls him ‘a wrong ’un’. Even Poirot, who is usually so repelled by even the thought of the noose, considers the possibility of letting Carter take the wrap for the murders:
‘He did not like Frank Carter. He disliked him very much. In his opinion Frank Carter was a bully, a liar, a swindler – altogether the type of young man the world could well do without. He, Hercule Poirot, had only to stand back and let this man persist in his lies and the world would be rid of one of its more unpleasant inhabitants…’Things play out differently in the TV version. Here, Frank (played by Christopher Eccleston, who interestingly was fresh from playing Derek Bentley in Let Him Have It) is more troubled and misguided than unpleasant.
When we (and Poirot) see Frank waiting to confront Mr Morley in his surgery, he seems anxious. The little Belgian detective’s curiosity is piqued, but there doesn’t seem to be any animosity or repulsion. Morley (Laurence Harrington) has previously stated that Frank is in with ‘that Black Shirt mob’, but other than that we have no suggestion that he is one of the world’s ‘most unpleasant inhabitants’.
The next glimpse into Frank’s story comes from his distraught girlfriend Gladys (Karen Gledhill). She consults with Poirot – more than once – because she is terrified of what will become of her fella. Poirot is touched by her concern and goes to see Frank with her – at a full-blown British Union of Fascists rally (complete with lightning bolt sign and black shirts galore). This version of Poirot seems determined to get Frank to just be honest and reveals a certain sympathy for the young man.
Now, don’t get this wrong, Poirot is certainly not letting fascist sympathies slip out. His conversations with Gladys explain the nuance here. Gladys speaks out against the fascist organization, claiming that it exploits young, working-class men like Frank. The Black Shirts manipulate these lads, convincing them that what they’re doing is patriotic. Poirot agrees, and seems as keen to save Frank from the insidious brainwashing of the extreme right wing as he is from the noose. Towards the end of the episode, Frank is reunited with Gladys, who promises to keep ‘a close eye’ on him, to keep him from being exploited by sinister fascist movements that prey on disillusioned young working-class men.
I don’t know for certain why Exton chose to make this change to the source material in early 1992, or why it was important to underline how exploitative the so-called ‘patriotism’ of right-wing movements can be. But I will say that the episode aired at the time of the creation of Combat 18, and just months after the formation of the Anti-Federalist League, which would become UKIP in 1993. Food for thought, n’est-ce pas?
As always, I’m going to end with a couple of more minor things from the episode…
I love the fact that Poirot pops round to see Japp at home. While Christie gave us Japp in a bowler hat, the TV version gives us Japp in his shirt sleeves cutting his privets.
Poirot’s acceptance of his friend’s hospitality is obviously difficult for him – we’ll see this again when he pops round for tea in ‘Hickory Dickory Dock’ – but Japp chides him for requesting tisane instead of tea: ‘Come off it, Poirot. This is Isleworth, not Juan-les-Pins!’
Still, at least it’s only a cuppa this time, and not faggots and mushy peas.
And finally (or almost finally), there’s a couple of weird little threads that connect the episodes in the fourth ‘series’. I’m particularly curious as to what led to the decision to make ‘Death in the Clouds’ and ‘One, Two, Buckle My Shoe’ back-to-back. Clearly, with so many of the short stories televised already and ‘Peril at End House’ having worked as an adaptation, someone made the decision to do a few adaptations of novels to mix things up. Perhaps the intention at this point was to solely focus on the novels, I don’t know. But with so many to choose from, why do one about the murder of a dentist and one about a murderous dentist at the same time?
I can only assume that someone in the production company was suffering from a pretty bad toothache. Dentistry was certainly playing on their mind when this ‘series’ was planned out.
(And just in case you think I’ve forgotten that ‘The ABC Murders’ was aired a couple of weeks earlier as part of the same group of episodes, there’s a nice connection with this one as well. It’s what I call the ‘hosiery as clue’ or ‘significant stocking moment’.)
And so, time to move on to 1993’s offerings and a return to the short storie… no, wait. I wasn’t going to say anything, but there’s something I want to get off my chest. I know you’ll probably think I’m taking this too seriously, given how fixated I got with a Daily Mirror headline in the last episode, but I’m curious about a phone call Poirot makes to Japp after his visit to see Frank Carter in prison.
With news to tell his friend, Poirot grabs the receiver and dials a number – but it’s clearly seven digits long. And, more confusingly, he appears to get straight through to Japp without speaking to an operator. Is that not a bit anachronistic?
In Christie’s novel, Poirot’s own phone number is given as Whitehall 7272 (though the TV series has Trafalgar 8137, according to his business card in ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’). Any aficionados of ITV’s Poirot or the made-earlier but set-later BBC Miss Marple adaptations will be familiar with the detectives picking up the phone and requesting the operator connect them with the number they require. So what’s the deal with Poirot’s crazy seven-digit dialling?
Well, from 1927 London began to roll out Director automatic telephone exchanges (beginning with Holborn). I’m not an expert in telephony systems, but I think this was when people could automatically be connected with numbers from neighbouring exchanges in a network, without the need to go through an operator to request the connection. A caller had to dial the first three letters of the exchange, followed by the four digits of the number they wished to connect to. So, Poirot’s phone number would be WHI 7272 or TRA 8137. The three letter codes would come to be translated into numbers with the advent of alpha-numeric phone dials (keypads would come much later, kids) – WHI = 944 and TRA = 872 – and then replaced entirely by the numbers with the advent of ‘all-figure dialling’ in 1966.
In 1934, Scotland Yard rolled out a new phone number for the public to use for emergency and non-emergency calls. It was Whitehall 1212 (later 944 1212). In 1937, the 999 emergency number was introduced, and so Whitehall 1212 came to be the number for reaching the information room, rather than reporting a crime in progress. However, Whitehall 1212 would surely have got you through to the switchboard of the Metropolitan Police; you would have had to request a switchboard operator to connect you to the individual person you wanted to talk to.
So, Poirot’s seven-digit dialling is perfectly plausible – it just shows he’s an up-to-date kinda guy, tech-wise (which I guess is plausible, in a way). The anachronism lies in the fact that those seven digits get him straight through to Japp’s phone without having to request a switchboard operator to transfer his call. I’m not happy about this at all.
Am I wrong here? Would a Scotland Yard detective in 1936/37 have had a direct phone number that could be reached automatically from an outside line on another exchange? Or did the programme-makers simply choose not to show the bit where Poirot politely asks to be connected to Japp? Does it matter? Answers in the comments section, please.
I’m sorry this post was so long. And I’m sorry I didn’t say anything about the characters that were missed out of the TV adaptation (I miss Colonel Arrow-Bumby) or Poirot’s own political statement at the novel’s close (a world with freedom and pity, thus avoiding the excesses of both left and right, capitalism and idealism), or the lack of any ‘Mrs Middleton effect’ in the presentation of Helen Montressor/Fake Sainsbury Seale (interestingly also narrowly avoided with Madeleine/Anne Giselle in ‘Death in the Clouds’). I just got so caught up in fascism and phone numbers I ran out of time.
Next up, I’ll be back to the short stories again with ‘The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb’