The ‘Lost’ Agatha Christie Adaptations

When I started to research Agatha Christie on Screen (which is available to pre-order at Amazon UK and US, since you ask) I was keen to find out more about the adaptations we rarely hear about. In a later post I’ll look at existing adaptations that are not in general circulation (and so effectively ‘lost’ for many), but this first article is a chance to talk about film and television productions that – as far as we know – there are no existing copies of.

My favourite part of writing any book is the research – especially if it’s archival, and I get the chance to look at material that hasn’t been published before. It’s fair to say that files in various archives contained pleasant surprises (full censor notes for the abandoned Zero Mostel version of The Alphabet Murders!) as well as disappointments (scripts missing from the place where they should be), but the piecing together of the available information is the best part of the writing process – especially when it comes to these ‘lost’ adaptations.

So, I thought I’d open the Agatha Christie on Screen blog with an article that highlights some of the more interesting productions that you won’t have seen, unless you were able to catch them at the time – this is far from a comprehensive list, but they’ll give you an idea of what we’re missing.

 

The Passing of Mr Quinn (1928)

Quinn

What is it?

The first Agatha Christie film adaptation, production of which just pre-dates the German take on The Secret Adversary.

What do we know about it?

Ostensibly this was an adaptation of the 1924 short story that would later be renamed ‘The Coming of Mr Quin’. Directed by Leslie S. Hiscott, this silent film was made as a ‘quota quickie’, following legislation that forced British cinemas to show a certain number of British films. One stipulation was that the story’s original author had to be British – and so Christie was an ideal candidate. In truth, only a few elements of the original story survived, and even the spelling of Quin’s name was changed.  The plot takes some bizarre and convoluted twists and turns (including a trek to a convent, and a completely illogical reworking of the title character as a disguised alcoholic), and was poorly received.

What exists?

A handful of publicity photographs, a detailed synopsis of the film via a novelisation (met with anger from Christie, and never reprinted as a result) and a few reviews give us a sense of the film, but no script or footage is currently known to survive.

How much do we want to see it again?

Quite a lot, although not for entertainment reasons. The whole thing sounds bonkers but as a result it’s difficult to know how it actually came across on screen. We know that it was distributed internationally, as far as Australia, and so there is a chance it may turn up one day.

 

Alibi and Black Coffee (both 1931)

1931 Black Coffee Ad Pos 1

What are they?

The first two films to star Poirot, here played by Austin Trevor, who was only 34 at the time, and did not don a moustache for the role. Both are based on stage productions, the first of which (by Michael Morton) was in turn based on the novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. The second, Black Coffee, was originally written for the stage by Christie.

What do we know about them?

Our best understanding of these two films come from the original stage play scripts, which don’t seem to have been heavily reworked for the screen. However, we can also gather a lot from the third film to star Austin Trevor as Poirot, 1934’s Lord Edgware Dies, which does exist. Unfortunately, it is also a lacklustre effort with weak performances (including a seemingly uncomfortable Trevor) and a marked lack of atmosphere. Given the generally poor reception of these two films from the press, we can reasonably infer that they were unlikely to have been any better. However, Trevor later reprised the role for BBC radio and had a cameo in 1965’s comedy Poirot film The Alphabet Murders, so we can assume he was fondly remembered by some of the audience.

What exists?

A few nice photos and advertisements are the only visual material known to survive, with no known copy of the script, so we can’t be sure exactly what changes were made in the transition from stage to screen.

How much do we want to see them again?

While the prospect of seeing the first screen appearance of Poirot is a tempting, in reality we can gather a lot about the films from the stage plays and Lord Edgware Dies, so they probably wouldn’t be too exciting.

 

The Wasp’s Nest (1937)

Wasps Nest

What is it?

The first appearance of an Agatha Christie story on television, Christie’s one act play made its world debut on the medium in a live performance starring Francis L. Sullivan as Poirot.

What do we know about it?

Christie’s script is a good piece of drama that closely mirrors the events in the short story of the same name (give or take an apostrophe and definite article). Some moments probably struggled to work well on screen – one character is forced into near-hysteria at one point, with dialogue that would have been difficult to convey convincingly – but it’s a strong story. Satisfyingly, in the end the whole thing feels like a neat trick that everyone has played an equal part in.

What exists?

A publicity photo or two, plus the full play script (although not the camera script, meaning that we don’t have an idea of exactly how it was shot), plus some broadcast documentation that gives us a few more titbits of information. This includes the fact that the opening music was Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Wasps Overture – what else?

How much do we want to see it again?

A lot – it’s a rarely performed play, with an excellent cast, and it was a televisual first to boot. Unfortunately, it also predates systematic recording of television broadcasts so I wouldn’t bank on someone finding a film recording in the back of a cupboard somewhere.

 

Three Blind Mice (1947)

Three Blind Mice

What is it?

The history of the 1947 radio version of Three Blind Mice is well known, of course – mainly because it was eventually reworked and considerably expanded to become The Mousetrap, a unique theatrical success. However, just a few months after the radio production, an almost unchanged script also formed the basis of a television production.

What do we know about it?

A reasonable amount. We have a full script, and production details including the commissioning process (the execs would have preferred And Then There Were None, but the 1945 film meant that this wasn’t possible), a floorplan of the studio and some transmission info. It opened with a shot of snowy Culver Street (recreated in studio), where we see the murderer (in disguise) home in on their victim. The television production deliberately attempted to mirror the radio version as much as possible. In years to come, several attempts were made to stage the play on British television again, but the rights were not available due to the ongoing success of The Mousetrap. It popped up elsewhere on occasion, though – including on American television.

What exists?

The aforementioned script and production documentation, which gives us a good idea of how the production worked on screen.

How much do we want to see it again?

A perfect story for live television, this would be great to see, but there’s no realistic chance that it was recorded.

 

Witness for the Prosecution (1949)

Witness

What is it?

This story was produced a few times for television, mostly predating Christie’s own adaptation of it into a play (which opened in 1953), and several years earlier than the exceptional 1957 film. Instead, these adaptations were based on her original 1925 short story. One of the more intriguing productions is this 1949 BBC adaptation.

What do we know about it?

The evidence indicates that this adaptation was a considerable embellishment on the original short story. We know this murder victim Miss French was a proper, credited role, while we also know that the production opened with a shot of her body (surely not enough in itself to give an actress such a prominent credit) and that sets included the balcony of a Swiss hotel overlooking a lake. Was this the setting for a flashback to a rendezvous between Romaine and Leonard? Unfortunately, the script hasn’t survived, so we can’t be sure. The production made use of just one film sequence, a specially recorded establishing shot of the Old Bailey.

What exists?

A reasonable amount of production documentation tells us quite a lot about some elements (casting, sets, etc) but frustratingly little about others. No footage is known to survive and the performance pre-dates systematic recording of BBC television broadcasts.

How much do we want to see it?

A lot. Any of the productions of the story that pre-date Christie’s own stage play are of interest, but the implication that this particular version opens out the (excellent) story beyond the original plot is an exciting prospect. Even a copy of the script would be a good find but, unlike many BBC productions, this one is not held by the corporation.

 

The Case of the Missing Lady (1950)

Missing Lady

What is it?

An American television adaptation of a light Tommy and Tuppence adventure, the really interesting thing about this production is that it starred Ronald Reagan as Tommy alongside Cloris Leachman as Tuppence.

What do we know about it?

Very little. We know that it was light hearted, and seems to have been a pretty close adaptation of the (very slight) original story. Reagan seems to have had fun in the role, playing a kazoo in a conscious echo of Sherlock Holmes’ efforts with a violin. Variety described it as ‘mildly amusing’, but then they also called it ‘The Case of the Blessing Lady’, so who knows how closely they were paying attention.

What exists?

Not much, but we do have several nice publicity photos of Leachman and Reagan. Unfortunately, no recording appears to survive, although we can’t rule out its existence as 1950s film recordings of American television shows do continue to pop up in unexpected places.

How much do we want to see it again?

The idea of a future president playing Tommy is enough to make this of interest to more people than Christie fans – it would be good to see how well he carried off the part.

 

Afternoon at the Seaside (1963)

Afternoon at the Seaside

What is it?

One of Christie’s ‘Rule of Three’ set of one-act plays, the BBC transmitted a live performance from the Duchess Theatre, with an audience in residence.

What do we know about it?

This seems to have been a straightforward outside broadcast of the play – there had been similar instances with extracts from plays shown due to key anniversaries or launch nights in previous years, but this was the first time a whole play was shown, albeit a short one. Critics were not kind – one asked if it was ‘part of some Machiavellian scheme to convince viewers that theatre standards are infinitely lower than those of even the worst television drama’. Viewers received it more warmly, however, with 67% of an audience panel giving it a grade of A or A+.

What exists?

Not a lot – a couple of reviews and a small collection of documentation, along with a few photos.

How much do we want to see it?

As a record of a performance of the play, it would be nice to see what the audience of the time saw – but it isn’t one of Christie’s more memorable pieces of work.

You can, of course, read much more about these productions – and lots of other ‘lost’ adaptations, including takes on Three Blind Mice, And Then There Were None and Witness for the Prosecution – in Agatha Christie on Screen, to be published in late 2016 by Palgrave Macmillan.

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