The Mystery of the Disappearing Adaptations

In a previous blog post I wrote a little about the Agatha Christie adaptations that are completely lost to us (as it currently stands) – in other words, those productions for which there is no known surviving copy. It’s always sad when a film or programme you want to see doesn’t seem to exist any more, but it’s worth noting that Agatha Christie adaptations are not particularly badly affected in this regard. However, what is more unusual is that in a market where works by, or based on, Agatha Christie are endlessly repackaged and re-released, there are a few adaptations that remain locked up in archives, inaccessible to most – so here is a glimpse of the adaptations currently missing in action.

Die Abenteuer GmbH (1929)

Of all the films on this list, this is the one that you are most likely to have the opportunity to see at some point. The second screen production of Christie’s works, this German adaptation of The Secret Adversary has had occasional screenings at festivals and even had a limited DVD release in Italy.

ab-intertitles

Nevertheless, there is surely a market for a proper release of the film – not only because of its historical significance, but because it’s also a lot of fun. Selfishly, it would also be great to have a release that uses English language intertitles, as the story gets rather difficult to follow during the impressive but lengthy chase sequence towards the end, and pausing the film every time the French and German text pops up to consult my foreign language dictionaries rather saps the enjoyment out of it.

Murder on the Nile (1950)

Agatha Christie’s mysteries popped up on American television many times in the decade or so from 1947 – sometimes these productions were original adaptations of her stories, but occasionally they were performances of existing plays. So it was that Christie’s Poirot-less stage adaptation of Death on the Nile, renamed Murder on the Nile (and sometimes Hidden Horizon), appeared in an abridged form on NBC in July 1950. Despite the fact that the recording of television programmes was not necessarily standard procedure at this time, a kinescope of the production was made and still survives. This makes Murder on the Nile the earliest existing Agatha Christie television adaptation.

The production itself is pretty unexceptional – abridged to under an hour, it rattles through the story so quickly that contemporary viewers may have struggled to keep up with the plot twists. On the whole performances are good, but some of the better supporting characters are reduced to near-cameos (the awful Mrs ffoliot-ffoulkes is particularly badly affected). Of course, the programme was live, and uses only a basic set that does nothing to make this of any particular visual interest, but aside from this unavoidable restriction it also lacks energy, with an over-reliance on characters relaying the plot to each other because all of the interesting character moments have been cut out to reduce the running time.

The production survives complete, including sponsorship promos, and is of a reasonable technical quality. To my knowledge it has not been seen outside of the archive since it was shown on television some 66 years ago.

They Came to Baghdad (1952)

They Came to Baghdad is a tough story to adapt by any measure. It’s one of Christie’s globetrotting thrillers, with multiple locations and a convoluted plot filled with double crosses and exotic locales. Resultantly, it is not an obvious candidate for live television – but nevertheless, in May 1952 CBS tried it and, thanks to a kinescope recording, it is possible to see their efforts. It seems likely that this story was chosen not only because it didn’t feature Miss Marple or Poirot (whose potential appearances on television were usually vetoed by Christie herself) but also because it was a new story, having only been published the year before, and therefore a title that may have been more familiar to the watching audience.

The adaptation saw several changes in plotting (some of which would be repeated when a script for a proposed TV movie of the book was written in the 1980s), but it is a confusing affair, and it often feels like the cast are having more fun than those watching. It is always enjoyable to see American productions try to depict England (as this does in the opening act) – it’s nearly as bad as when Britain tries to depict America.

The production survives complete, once more including sponsorship messages, and was briefly available from a small company selling alleged ‘public domain’ recordings on video in the early 1980s (despite the fact that the production is no such thing). Apart from this, it has remained unseen since its broadcast.

A Murder is Announced (1956)

One of the most famous early adaptations, NBC’s 1956 adaptation of A Murder is Announced saw the first screen appearance of Miss Marple, here played by Gracie Fields. This followed several years of plans for an appearance of Miss Marple on American television screens, with the original plan of a series, perhaps of original mysteries, starring Fay Bainter or Peggy Wood as Miss Marple, now living in Cape Cod. Christie’s strong objection meant that these ongoing plans never reached fruition.

murder-is-announced

The adaptation itself is good fun with a great cast, including Roger Moore and Jessica Tandy – the latter actually gets top billing, above Fields who, rather bizarrely, is given ‘Special Guest Star’ status. As is typical with television adaptations of this period, the pace is fast as the whole story is told in less than an hour, which is rather to its detriment.

For a long time this adaptation was considered lost, but a copy does exist in private hands.

[The] Spider’s Web (1960 & 1982)

Christie’s light-hearted mystery play was originally a showcase for Margaret Lockwood’s talents on stage, but it has made two screen appearances – both of which survive, but neither is available to buy in their original form.

The first is a 1960 colour film (called The Spider’s Web) starring Glynis Johns alongside a host of other familiar faces, and it’s a cheaply made but faithful version of the play. It is perhaps rather less fun on screen rather than on stage as so much of the story is effectively a farce, but as a depiction of the mystery it is perfectly decent. Unfortunately, it has pretty much disappeared since its release – the most recent screening on British television appears to have been in the Yorkshire ITV region in 1971. After this point, it simply disappears, no doubt for reasons linked to the winding up of the production company, helmed by the Danziger brothers. The film has been seen at the National Film Theatre in London, and even had a DVD release in Italy – but dubbed in Italian.

Twenty-two years later, the play made another screen appearance, this time on BBC2 in a largely studio-bound adaptation starring Penelope Keith. This fun production was well placed within the Christmas schedules, but has never had a VHS or DVD release.

The Adventures of Hercule Poirot (1962)

I’ve previously mentioned this 1962 CBS pilot for an unmade series, starring Martin Gabel as Poirot, in this blog post. This adaptation of the story ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’ is not without its faults – and the production paperwork for planned future adaptations shows a worrying disregard for what makes Christie’s stories so popular – but it is, nevertheless, an entertaining half hour of television.

Martin Gabel In 'Hercule Poirot'

Made on 35mm film, the pilot remains safely in the archives but has not been seen elsewhere since its only broadcast over half a century ago. It would be great to see this reach a wider audience today – perhaps packaged with the other unreleased television adaptations.

It isn’t just the case that older productions are the only ones to be lost from view, despite existing in the archives. A 1986 adaptation of Christie’s supernatural sort story ‘The Last Séance’ was made and shown as part of the Shades of Darkness series on ITV – however, it was pushed into a late night slot in most regions and was not included on the DVD release of the series. A more worrying fate may have befallen the charming Murder by the Book, which details a meeting between Christie and Poirot just as the writer is trying to kill off the Belgian detective. Starring Peggy Ashcroft and Ian Holm, the production was made on 35mm film by TVS, an ITV regional broadcaster whose productions are generally trapped in rights hell due to a later acquisition by Disney.

You can read more about these productions in Agatha Christie on Screen, available to order from Amazon US and Amazon UK as well as many other retailers.