The Agatha Christie Hour – Set 1
Directed by Michael Simpson, Desmond Davis, Brian Farnham
Studio: Acorn Media
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Running Time: 257 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo/mono
MSRP: $ 39.99
Release Date: July 27, 2010
Review Date: July 20, 2010
During a writing career that stretched over more than half a century, Agatha Christie made a name for herself with a long string of baffling and ingenious mysteries and thrillers. So successful was she that she is now and has been for decades, apart from Shakespeare and The Bible, the best selling author in the world. Most people who know the name Agatha Christie think immediately of her two most well known creations: Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple. Christie wrote, however, quite a surprising amount of material not featuring either of these two celebrated sleuths. In her lifetime, she wrote several nonfiction books about herself and her husband and the adventures they shared as she traveled with him on his archaeological digs. She wrote plays, poetry, romance novels (under a pseudonym), and volumes of short stories which sometimes featured Poirot or Miss Marple but just as often did not. The five 50-odd minute episodes in this box set from The Agatha Christie Hour are dramatizations for five short stories that do not feature her famous detectives; in fact, none of them are really mysteries at all though there are elements of veiled motives and hidden agendas in all them.
These five Christie stories are more often than not slight, whimsical tales set in the distant past with Britishers who are troubled or looking for something out of life that has up to now been denied them. Occasionally there is a whiff of the supernatural (“In a Glass Darkly” certainly fits here as does "The Fourth Man"), sometimes there is romance involved, and two of the five tales feature Christie’s problem solver Mr. Parker Pyne, a worldly gentlemen who helps troubled people find happiness (for a fee, of course).
The collection begins with “The Case of the Middle-Aged Wife” as a lonely, bored housewife (Gwen Watford) seeks help when her husband (Peter Jones) begins straying from home with his young office assistant. Mr. Parker Pyne (Maurice Denham) lends a hand. Most interesting here is the presence of his secretary Felicity Lemon (Angela Easterling), the same Miss Lemon who would later go on to serve as Hercule Poirot’s secretary (though played by Pauline Moran, a different actress).
Next is “In a Glass Darkly,” a moody tale of a wounded World War I soldier (Nicholas Clay) who returns home traumatized by the war, cold to his loving wife (Emma Piper), and on the brink of a breakdown. The supernatural element of the story (a vision of potential murder the young man sees in a looking glass) gets a rudimentary, obvious resolution, one of the more disappointing of this set’s programs.
“The Girl in the Train” finds newly fired George Rowland (Osmond Bullock) deciding to take a lark on a train, meeting a mysterious young girl (Sarah Berger) who may be a fleeing princess, and following a suspicious man who seems eager to do her harm. The closest to an actual mystery, this is the best of the set’s five stories.
In “The Fourth Man,” a young man (John Nettles) in a train compartment with three professional men who had been discussing a weird case of multiple personalities offers up his own first-hand account of the subject, Felicie Bault (Fiona Mathieson): it was a spiritual possession by a selfish, controlling shrew Annette Ravel (Prune Clark) whom he had loved. Another of Christie’s quasi-supernatural tales, one can see the ending a mile away making the running time of the episode somewhat arduous.
“The Case of the Discontented Soldier” is the second episode in the set featuring the machinations of Mr. Parker Pyne, this time assisting a bored army major (William Gaunt) whose retirement had caused him no end of misery. With the help of crime novelist Ariadne Oliver (Lally Bowers), Pyne concocts a scenario where the major can become a white knight for a troubled young woman (Patricia Garwood) in another lighthearted spree that leads to romance. This was the first-ever appearance of the character of Ariadne Oliver, Agatha Christie's warmly satiric self-portrait, a character who would later go on to appear in more than half a dozen of Mrs. Christie's mysteries.
The programs are framed at 1.33:1. Shot on videotape, the look here is quite different from film and takes some getting used to. The image quality is sharp and clear enough but does appear quite dated with brownish, weak color and some occasional video dropouts. More problematic is the banding that infects several of the stories, especially "The Girl in the Train." Each program has been divided into 7 chapters.
The liner notes advertise the set as sporting Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound recording, but only the Freemantle Media screen logo is in stereo. The programs themselves were recorded in mono, and the 2.0 mono mix is decoded by Dolby Prologic properly into the center channel. Though usually clearly recorded, there are some incidents of muffled dialogue where one might need to engage the subtitles. Except for scenes where music plays a part in the storytelling (nightclubs, radio or records playing), the majority of the soundtrack is dialogue based. When there are sound effects (the World War I sequences, a train station), fidelity is limited.
There is a text-based biography of Agatha Christie which may be stepped through by the reader.
“Before Poirot” is a bit of a misnomer since this is a text-based summary of the character of Mr. Parker Pyne who plays a part in two of the tales. Mr. Parker Pyne did not, in fact, predate Hercule Poirot though Miss Lemon certainly did work for Pyne before she began working in Poirot’s service.
3/5 (not an average)
These five tales in The Agatha Christie Hour – Set 1 are all trifles: slight, somewhat engaging tales easily watched and easily forgotten. Most of the episodes can’t actually support their length with the inconsequentiality of the stories, but they do boast good actors, and fans of Mrs. Christie who missed these programs when they were first shown on PBS almost thirty years ago will undoubtedly be delighted to see them.