Friday, 16 June 2017

Saving Bailey’s Wood, Manchester

This is a bit of an unusual blog post – don’t worry, I’m going to get back to blogging about Hercule Poirot very soon – but I wanted to write a bit about a new project that I’ve started, as I’m really quite excited about it.

In April, myself and a small group of residents from Charlestown in North Manchester decided to start a new Friends of Bailey’s Wood group to save and protect a patch of semi-natural ancient woodland that (we think) is pretty special. I’ll be posting about upcoming activities and projects on the group’s Facebook page as we go along. But this is a bit more of a personal post, because I wanted to write about why I think Bailey’s Wood is so special.

Where is Bailey’s Wood?

Since this blog is read by some people who don’t live in Manchester (or even in the UK), I’d better start with the basics. Bailey’s Wood is in Blackley in North Manchester – specifically, it’s in the area historically known as Charlestown, just opposite Boggart Hole Clough (it’s also in Charlestown Ward according to current municipal boundaries).

To be honest, even a lot of people in North Manchester don’t know where Bailey’s Wood is. Boggart Hole Clough is pretty well-known, but Bailey’s Wood just isn’t (and this is a big part of the problem – and I’ll say a bit more about this below).

What is Bailey’s Wood?

Bailey’s Wood is one of Manchester’s last remaining semi-natural ancient woodlands. It runs through a steep ravine, carved out over millennia by a little brook (and more on that shortly as well). It’s a regional site of biological importance, with birds (such as the greater spotted woodpecker and the nuthatch), bats and butterflies making it their home. At the moment, there’s very little information about the flora and fauna of Bailey’s Wood, as there hasn’t been any sustained surveying done for some time. Some conservation work has been done by Manchester City Council’s Irk River Valley Project (as the brook is a tributary of the River Irk), but the project has tended to focus on sites around the Irk itself. There’s still an awful lot to be discovered about what lives in Bailey’s Wood.

A Brief History of Blackley

So… now for the bit that gets me really excited. Here comes the history part…

Once upon a time – okay, in the three centuries following the Norman conquest – the township of Blackley was a deer park, an enclosed area that was regulated by the king’s forest law and kept by the nobility for the purposes of hunting. Medieval deer parks were enclosed by wooden fences (known as ‘park pales’), and often included pasture land and woodland, as well as hunting grounds. In 1322, we have a record of the Blackley deer park that measured it at seven miles in circumference (it took in what is now Blackley, but also much of Crumpsall, Harpurhey and Moston, and also Heaton Park and Alkrington Wood). There was pasture land for 240 cattle, as well ‘eyries of eagles, herons and hawks’.* It was also still partially wooded, staying true to its name – ‘Blackley’ probably derives from the Old English words blaec and lēah, meaning ‘the dark clearing in the woods’.

These are not medieval deer. Nor do they live in Blackley. But you get the idea.

In the early fourteenth century, Blackley township was in the barony of Manchester, so the deer park would have been a hunting preserve for the lords of Manchester. But this wasn’t to last. Around 1355, areas of pasture land in the park began to be granted by indenture, and the forest was cut back to make room for farmland. By the fifteenth century, Blackley was no longer under the domain of a single lord, instead being shared by a number of landowners – including families that will be familiar to anyone who knows their Manchester history, such as the Asshetons and the Byrons. In the following century, John Leland would bemoan the deforestation of what had been the Blackley park, writing:
‘Wild bores, bulles, and falcons, bredde in times past at Blakele, now for lack of woode the blow-shoppes [forges] decay there.’*
The Byrons continued as the subinfeudatory lords (technical term) of Blackley until the beginning of the seventeenth century, when it all started to go a bit tits up (probably not a technical term) for them. Sir John Byron inherited the Blackley lands in 1566, but wasn’t fantastic with money, and so the Blackley lands were sacrificed so that the family could afford to keep their properties elsewhere. By 1603, the Blackley estate was vested in the hands of Peter Legh of Lyme, Richard Assheton of Middleton (and his son) and John Holt of Stubley, and it began to undergo an alienation (i.e. it was now possible for the lands to be carved up and sold from one party to another, rather than remaining as a hereditary estate).

Booth Hall

The alienation of the Blackley estate saw it divided up between a number of well-to-do families. Blackley Hall and its demesne was owned by the Asshetons, and then sold to the Leghs of Lyme (after that it had a weird and sordid little history until it was eventually haunted and destroyed brick-by-brick by persons unknown in the mid-1800s). Alkrington Wood and its estate was sold to the Lever family in 1627, who erected Alkrington Hall (still standing, and my absolute dream house) on the estate. The Heaton estate (including Heaton House) was owned by the Hollands, and then inherited by Thomas Egerton (later 1st Earl of Wilton), who swelled his estate by marrying the daughter of Sir Ralph Assheton and acquiring most of the Crumpsall portion of the old Blackley estate (and, most notably, Heaton Park, in which he constructed Heaton Hall).

In the early part of the 1600s, Humphrey Booth of Salford, a wealthy fustian merchant, purchased part of the Blackley estate. As well as being a very successful businessman, Humphrey Booth the elder was also a philanthropist. During his lifetime, he made several grants of land for the benefit of the poor in Salford, and his legacy lives on in the various charities he and his grandson set up. Booth endowed a chapel-of-ease in Salford, which is now the Sacred Trinity Church. Before his death in 1635, Humphrey Booth the elder made over the estate to his son (also called Humphrey), who built a mansion house on the site of an older farmhouse – the house was probably completed in 1640, as there was a timber beam bearing the legend ‘HB AB [Ann Booth, wife of Humphrey-the-son] 1640’ on the front of the original building.

The original Booth Hall was a two-storey gabled house, built in brick. One description of the house stated that it stood ‘on a beautiful site which is screened from the waggon way which passes its garden boundaries by prosperous woods’. William Crabtree’s ‘Plan of the Booth Hall Estate’ (1637) gives an indication of what the site looked like just before the construction of Booth Hall – two buildings form a farmstead, which is surround by pasture land and bordered by a line of woodland at its northern-most edge. Comparison with William Johnson’s later ‘Plan of the Parish of Manchester’ (1818-19) shows that the woodland follows the line of a small brook, which sits in a deep, unfarmable ravine.

I don’t have images of Crabtree or Johnson’s plans, but this slightly later map by George Hennet (1829) gives you the idea:

Between 1640 and 1700, Booth Hall and its estate were owned by the Booth family (I won’t go into details about this – suffice to say it’s Humphreys all the way down). At the end of the seventeenth century, the final Humph (the son of the cousin of the grandson of Humph I) sold part of the estate to Reverend John Legh of Tyldesley and leased another portion to John Knowles before dying childless. When Rev. Legh died in 1714, Knowles acquired the entirety of the estate.

If the sixty years of Humphs were confusing, the next hundred years are almost impossible to get your head around. It looks as though the estate was split for a time, with one part (the outlying portion of the estate) passing from Knowles through a serious of indentures and leases to men named Ralph Seddon and William Patten, until it was bought for £240 by John Diggles, a linen draper. The other portion, which contained the ‘capital messuage and demesne’ (i.e the bit with Booth Hall on it), went through an even more baffling series of mortgages and leases, being at one point the property of Richard Worthington, who was John Diggles’ brother-in-law. By 1719, John Diggles appears to have owned the entire estate (including the hall). He bequeathed it to his son Thomas, who bequeathed it to his nephew John, who bequeathed it to his nephew Thomas Bayley (along with a gold watch, an amethyst ring and a chamber organ with eight barrels).

Thomas Bayley died on 22nd November 1817, leaving his property to his three sons. They promptly put the Booth Hall estate up for auction. There were no takers, but the estate was later sold to Dr Henry (Thomas Bayley’s son-in-law) for £9000. Clearly Dr Henry didn’t much fancy living in Blackley (or he only bought it so he could sell it on and stick one in the eye to his late father-in-law), as he sold it to Edmund Taylor of Salford within a couple of years.

I promise it gets easier now… The Taylor family owned the Booth Hall estate for most of the rest of the nineteenth century, and expanded the estate by purchasing more of the surrounding land. By the 1870s, it was the property of John Taylor (who I think was the grandson of Edmund), who seemed to have a terrible time of things.

He was robbed by a servant:

Manchester Evening News (22 Aug 1871)

And one of his staff got in trouble for blowing an engine whistle on Oldham Street:

Manchester Evening News (24 Nov 1871)

And that’s not to mention the servant who drunkenly confessed to a murder he hadn’t committed or the prize fight on the estate that attracted over 300 spectators.

Perhaps part of the problem was that, at some point, John also acquired an estate in Wiltshire – I’ve not had the time or energy to work out whether this was an inheritance or a purchase – and so seems to have been splitting his time between Booth Hall and The Rocks in Marshfield, where he was known as ‘Squire John’ and had considerably less trouble with his servants.

John Taylor died in 1881, aged just 37, and his estate passed to his son Darcy Edmund, who was still only a child. From what I can see, the family had pretty much decamped to Wiltshire by then, as when Darcy had his coming-of-age party in 1890, the papers reported that he and his mother had ‘resided wholly’ in Marshfield since John’s death. Sure enough, that same year, Darcy and his mother auctioned off all the furniture at Booth Hall (oh no, not the walnutwood drawing-room suite!) and announced their intention to let out the hall.

Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser (17 May 1890)

In 1893, the whole estate, including the mansion house, was put out to auction. And a surprising customer came forward: Manchester Corporation purchased 145 acres of the estate for £10000, with the intention of turning the land into a ‘pleasure ground’ and ‘health resort’ for the people of North Manchester. This portion of the estate was Boggart Hole Clough, which is still a council-run park. The corporation didn’t buy the northerly portion of farmland or Booth Hall itself (because no council in its right mind would buy a park that included an old mansion house).

Darcy Edmund Taylor continued to own the now-empty Booth Hall until 1902, when the Prestwich Poor Law Union (or Prestwich Guardians) purchased the house and 33 acres of land for around £8300. The Prestwich Guardians bought the land for the construction of a new infirmary to care for the sick of the Prestwich Union Workhouse (now North Manchester General Hospital). Humphrey Booth’s house was pulled down, and a new hospital building (costing around £71000) was erected and opened in 1908.

I’m going to leave the history of Booth Hall there, because its life (and much-protested demise) as a hospital has been recorded and celebrated by people far better than me. It’s enough to say that anyone who lived in North Manchester before 2007 will have some story to tell you about Booth Hall Children’s Hospital. The hospital was closed in 2007, and the main buildings were demolished in 2014. The hospital’s gatehouse was the last building to be removed, this year. There is now a Taylor Wimpey housing estate on the site.

A sidenote

Before I return to the forest, I just want to have a final moment of bafflement. The fight to save Booth Hall Children’s Hospital was waged throughout the 80s and 90s, and I remember clearly being told when I was younger that the hospital was named after its founder, Humphrey Booth.

It seems that this is a common story, and it has been replicated in some surprising places. The story goes that a certain Humphrey Booth, a man soaked through with the milk of human kindness, bought and donated a piece of land in Blackley for the purposes of building a free hospital for the poor. Perhaps the weirdest version of this story is found on the NHS Central Manchester Foundation Trust’s website, which not only gives Humphrey Booth a ‘caring nature that has passed through generations’, but also a birthdate (1851) and an epitaph. An exhibition at the People’s History Museum offered further details: this Humphrey Booth bought the land in 1909 because his family had previously owned the property, but he gave it to the sick and poor of North Manchester.

As you can see from the pointlessly detailed history I’ve given above, this is an utter work of fiction. The Booth family died out in 1700, and while I’ve no doubt Humphrey Booth the elder had a ‘caring nature’, he didn’t even live to see the construction of the mansion house, let alone the children’s hospital (which was first conceived of some three hundred years after Humph I bought his land in Blackley).

No. Boggart Hole Clough was bought by the corporation, and Booth Hall was bought by the Prestwich Poor Law Union. And both of them paid market value for the land, as the vendor was a wealthy landowner who wanted shot of his Manchester estates so he could spend more time in Wiltshire.

But the myth of Humphrey Booth persists. In a lot of ways it’s similar to another piece of North Manchester fiction. There is a persistent story that, at the turn of the twentieth century, the Earl of Wilton donated a part of his estate (Heaton Park) for the recreation and enjoyment of the people of North Manchester – some people will even tell you that the earl placed a covenant on this gift so that the evil council could never take this wondrous bounty from the poor people he cared so much about.

No. This is another fiction. In the 1790s, the Earl of Wilton had bankrupted himself repeated, and offered up his land for sale at auction. When there were no takers, his son begged Manchester Corporation (repeatedly lowering the price) to buy the land, suggesting that they could knock down his Georgian mansion and build new houses – or even use the land for coal mining. Eventually, the corporation purchased Heaton Park and Heaton Hall (oh… turns out a council would buy a park that included an old mansion house after all) in 1902. But they didn’t pull down the hall, and they didn’t use the land for housing (or mining). Heaton Park, like Boggart Hole Clough, is still a council-maintained park, and Heaton Hall is now a Grade I listed building. Admittedly, the council hasn’t really been able to look after the hall as well as we might have liked – but at least it’s not a bloody coal mine.

The invention of the 1851 Humphrey Booth and the myth of the benevolent Earl of Wilton reveal a bizarre faith in the philanthropy of the gentry. I find it fascinating and frustrating at the same time. I get that people might find it easy to imagine the council as a bureaucratic municipal overlord (part Ministry of Truth, part Kafka’s Castle) – but, and this cannot be stressed enough: rich people in the past just weren’t as nice as you think they were. When they were skint or they wanted to move to Wiltshire, they gave no more thought to poor people than they did to their walnutwood drawing-room suite.

Back to Bailey’s Wood

This lengthy history of the Booth Hall estate in Blackley is actually a history of Bailey’s Wood. As you’ll have spotted, the presence of woodland around Booth Hall is a constant feature of its history since the 1600s. Early maps show a sprinkling of woodland around the hall, particularly around the banks of the brook that sits in its steep ravine.

When the Ordnance Survey charted the land, the wood was more clearly defined. Here it is in 1845 (present, but unnamed):

Note the line of trees along the brook that rises at Dam Head farm (one of the longest-surviving farms, which was finally cleared for a new council estate in 1974), and also the thick semi-circle of forest that surrounds the fields at the back of the hall. You can also see the attempted encroaching of industrialization to the west – there’s a bleach works next to the Rochdale Road (Hennet’s 1829 admittedly less accurate map showed this area as fields).

By 1891, the woods had acquired a name:

The name Bailey’s Wood doesn’t appear in any of the wills or indentures attesting to the ownership of Booth Hall. This Ordnance Survey map, which wasn’t published until after the Taylors had left the building, is the first evidence of the name I can find. It’s possible that the map-makers were following some local tradition of naming the woods – perhaps Bailey was a farmer from Lea Grange or White Moss Farm – but perhaps it’s more a throwback to one of the hall’s previous occupants.

Perhaps the OS surveyors had seen this map (sorry for the image quality):

This is taken from William Yates’s 1796 map of Lancashire, considered to be the earliest accurate map of the county. As the map was being prepared, landowners were offered the opportunity of paying a guinea to have their names inscribed under their estates.* You can just make out Ashton Lever’s name underneath Alkrington Hall at the top – and there, underneath Booth Hall, is the name ‘T. Bayley, esq.’

Acquiring a name (whether it was from Thomas Bayley or some forgotten farmer) didn’t actually change the woods all that much. Comparing OS maps surveyed in 1906, 1915 and 1938 shows an area that is plodding its way to modernity – but the semi-circle of forest remains resolutely unchanged.

The coming of the hospital did little to change Bailey’s Wood, and you can catch a glimpse of the forest in some early pictures of the nurses hostel (which was built much closer to the treeline than the main infirmary buildings).

Thanks to Tricia Neal for this image

In the second half of the twentieth-century, the remaining farmland was given over to council housing. A school (St John Bosco’s RC Primary School) now sits at the edge of the forest, bordering the remnants of the old farmland. Booth Hall is now a new housing estate. But the forest is still there… in fact, after the demise of the bleach works (and its afterlife as a mill and then a factory), the forest has swallowed up even more of the land. Bailey’s Wood now stretches out to Rochdale Road and is bigger than it’s been for centuries.

So why do we need to save it?

Surely, with such an incredible pedigree stretching back to the days of a medieval deer park – never mind the fact that it’s a semi-natural ancient woodland and regional site of biological importance – Bailey’s Wood must be a much-prized green space enjoyed by the local community and visitors alike.


Here’s how you’re welcomed to Bailey’s Wood when you enter by the Grange Park Road entrance:

And here’s how you’re welcomed when you arrive by the Ranby Avenue entrance on Crosslee:

The woods have been sorely neglected and painfully mistreated for the past few decades. The lack of signs or proper entrances are only the beginning… the site is a mecca for fly-tipping and anti-social behaviour, and the edges (on the site of the old bleach works, which is now in private ownership) have recently seen all the trees felled without license.

And that little brook, tributary of the River Irk, that carved out the ravine? It was part culverted in the 1930s when Charlestown Road was constructed. And now the culverts are blocked and streambed is silted over. You can see there’s meant to be a stream there, but no water flows.

It’s absolutely gutting.


As I said at the beginning of this post, myself and a small group of local residents have decided it’s time for a change. We’ve set up a Friends of Bailey’s Wood group, and will be doing our first community clean-up event on Saturday 15th July at 10am. We have big plans for the future – we want to clean up the mess, we want to survey the flora and fauna, we want new signs and entrances, and we want to get the brook flowing again. We want children and families to enjoy the woods again, and we want the local area to celebrate and appreciate its history.

It’s a big job, but we think it’s worth it. We do need more support though, so if you’d like to join in or just support us from afar, please like our Facebook page or consider joining our group.

* Some of the information here is taken from the booklet, Booth Hall and Boggart Hole Clough: From Medieval Private Deer Park to Urban Public Park, which was commissioned by Taylor Wimpey and prepared by Fiona Wooler and Richard Newman of Wardell Armstrong Archaeology.

* And some of the information here is taken from the Rev. John Booker’s A History of the Ancient Chapel of Blackley in Manchester Parish, published in 1854.

* Thank you to Paul Hindle for introducing me to this map, and for explaining the landowner names.

Monday, 20 March 2017

OUT NOW: Into the Woods (Hic Dragones, 2017)

A new collection of eighteen sinister sylvan tales, edited by Hannah Kate. Available now in paperback and eBook.

“They were only trees, after all. Only trees.”

A magical place steeped in mysticism. A foreboding place of unspeakable terror. The forest is a place of secrets, a place of knowledge, a place of death, and a place of life. What resides within its shadows? Demons, fair folk, that man the adults warned you about… and the trees. The trees are everywhere. Is it safer to stay at home? Or are you ready to take a journey… into the woods.


'In the Dirt, Under the Trees' by Megan Taylor
'The Collectors' by Jaki McCarrick
'Forgotten Falls' by Cameron Trost
'The Crying Tree' by Patrick Lacey
'The Trees on Bundam Hill' by Rachel Halsall
'What's Mine is Yours' by Magda Knight
'The Green Road' by Tracy Fahey
'Dear Hearts' by Jessica George
'In the Trees' by Ramsey Campbell
'Long Stay' by S.A. Rennie
'In the Hidden Hollow' by Ross Smeltzer
'Where You End and I Begin' by Martin Cornwell
'A Winter's Tale' by Nancy Schumann
'Cord' by Jan M. Flynn
'Guests' by James Tawton
'Knotweed' by Hannah Kate
'St Erth' by Tim Major
'I Bury my Bones' by Jane Bradley

For more information, or to buy a copy, please visit the Hic Dragones website.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Into the Woods Launch Party

Come and join us at the launch party for Into the Woods, a new collection of short stories from Hic Dragones.

Friday 17th March 2017, 7-9pm
International Anthony Burgess Foundation
3 Cambridge Street
Manchester M1
United Kingdom


Into the Woods - eighteen sinister sylvan tales

A magical place steeped in mysticism. A foreboding place of unspeakable terror. The forest is a place of secrets, a place of knowledge, a place of death, and a place of life. What resides within its shadows? Demons, fair folk, that man the adults warned you about… and the trees. The trees are everywhere. Is it safer to stay at home? Or are you ready to take a journey… into the woods.

“They were only trees, after all. Only trees.”

Join us at the launch party on Friday 17th March. Readings by: Ramsey Campbell, Tracy Fahey, Jane Bradley, Magda Knight, Martin Cornwell, Hannah Kate, Megan Taylor and Nancy Schumann

Free wine reception, giveaways and launch discount on the book.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Poirot Project: The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge (review)

This post is part of my 2016 Poirot Project. You can read the full story of why I’m doing this in my Introduction post. The previous post was a review of ‘The Affair at the Victory Ball’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The tenth – and final – episode of the third series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 10th March 1991. It was based on the short story of the same name, which first appeared in The Sketch in May 1923.

Reluctantly, this post comes with a bit of an admission. When I first began this project, I imagined that I would spend 2016 rereading and rewatching the Poirot stories, and that I would reach Curtain by Christmas. Well… it’s now the 23rd December and I haven’t even reached The ABC Murders yet. This has been a much bigger undertaking than I imagined – partly due to my tendency to obsessive completism, which has led to my posts becoming more and more detailed, and partly due to the fact that this year has been a very very busy one. So, sadly, I think I have to admit that ‘The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge’ will be the last post in my Poirot Project in 2016.

But have no fear! I’ll be back on it and tackling The ABC Murders as soon as the festive season is over. I reckon I’ll totally get to Curtain by Christmas 2017. ;-)

Another slightly reluctant admission… I think the 2016 phase of this project is going to go out with a whimper, not a bang. ‘The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge’ is an okay Poirot story, but it’s not one of the best. After the delights of ‘The Affair of the Victory Ball’ and the complexities of ‘The Theft of the Royal Ruby’, the final story in Series 3 is a bit of an anti-climax.

This is especially galling as the story promises so much with its first line:
‘“After all,” murmured Poirot, “it is possible that I shall not die this time.”’
But this turns out to be just the little Belgian exaggerating as usual. He’s got the flu, and is sitting in bed, dosing himself up with a tisane and ‘a neatly graduated row of medicine bottles’. His good friend Hastings treats this occurrence with good humour, particularly when Poirot reads out a paragraph in Society Gossip announcing the detective’s illness to the world:
‘Go it – criminals – all out! Hercule Poirot – and believe me, girls, he’s some Hercules! – our own pet society detective can’t get a grip on you. ’Cause why? ’Cause he’s got la grippe himself!’
Throughout the Sketch stories, there are little moments that remind us of how famous Poirot is in London. In some stories – like ‘The Submarine Plans’ and ‘The King of Clubs’ – this is shown by the way government officials and royal personages seek the little Belgian out to solve their problems. But elsewhere – like in ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’ – we see Poirot’s fame more as ‘celebrity’, with socialites and fashionable types asking the detective for help with their asinine catastrophes. The paragraph in Society Gossip appears to belong to the latter category.

But all this talk of influenza and gossip columns is really just a way to immobilize Poirot so that the story’s conceit can play out. This is going to be a case to which the detective is physically unable to attend – and so it’s going to be down to Hastings to be his eyes and ears. This isn’t the first time Christie has removed Poirot from the actual investigation so as to showcase his cerebral powers: ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’ also used this plot device. However, while the earlier story had Poirot remove himself in order to win a bet, here he is genuinely unable to investigate. Moreover, the stakes are a little higher here, as Poirot’s mental capacities are challenged by the flu – can he still solve a case while he’s ill?

Wait a minute… what case are we even talking about?

The answer to that question comes almost immediately after Poirot has read out the little column in Society Gossip. The men’s very own Mrs Hudson announces a visitor, a Mr Roger Havering, who has come to consult with them on a matter of urgency.

Poirot consults Who’s Who, which tells him that Havering is the second son of the fifth Baron Windsor, and is married to Zoe, daughter of William Crabb. Hastings has a different line on the man:
‘I rather fancy that’s the girl who used to act at the Frivolity – only she called herself Zoe Carrisbrook. I remember she married some young man about town just before the War.’
We never do find out anything more about Hastings’s old visits to the Frivolity, but it paints a rather cheeky picture.

Roger Havering has called on Poirot because he wants the famous Belgian to investigate the murder of his uncle. It is, he says, imperative that Poirot returns with him to Derbyshire to take the case. Hastings explains that Poirot isn’t able to travel, and offers to take up the investigation himself. To this, Poirot readily agrees – probably because he’s too ill to argue:
‘You want to go yourself, is it not so? Well, why not? You should know my methods by now. All I ask is that you should report to me fully every day, and follow implicitly any instructions I may wire you.’
And so… Detective Hastings is on the case.

Fortunately, things are helped along by two factors. (1) When Hastings arrives in Derbyshire, he finds that Japp is also investigating the murder; (2) It’s not really the most complicated case they’ve worked on, and it has a twist at its heart that’s not massively dissimilar to the one found in ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’. Not that Japp and Hastings spot the similarity, of course.

The murder took place at Hunter’s Lodge in Derbyshire. Havering’s uncle, Harrington Pace, was at the lodge for the shooting season, and on the night of the murder he was in the house with Havering’s wife Zoe and the housekeeper Mrs Middleton (Havering himself had been unexpectedly called away to London).

According to the two women in their separate statements, a visitor called at the house shortly after dinner and was shown into Pace’s gun-room. Neither woman recognized the stranger, but they both gave an almost identical description of the man. After a short time, they heard the sound of raised voices, and then a shot. As the door was locked from the inside, they had to run around the house to reach the window – it was then that they discovered Pace had been shot, and the murderer had fled the scene.

Despite the running commentary via telegram from Poirot, Hastings is distinctly underwhelmed by his investigations:
‘I may as well confess at once that they were rather disappointing. In detective novels clues abound, but here I could find nothing that struck me as out of the ordinary except a large blood-stain on the carpet where I judged the dead man had fallen.’
While it’s rather comical seeing Hastings play detective again, I have to agree with him that the case is a bit disappointing. Although there is a neat riddle at the heart of it, there isn’t really much to get your teeth into. There are a few clues, and a couple of red herrings, but there aren’t really any suspects apart from the two people who turn out to have committed the crime in the end.

Instead of narrowing down a list of suspects, it’s more like we’re supposed work out what, exactly, has happened at Hunter’s Lodge. More importantly, we’re supposed (like Hastings) to decipher the cryptic messages from Poirot, who has apparently worked things out from his sick bed.

Ultimately, Hastings and Japp are able to piece together the deductions of their illustrious friend, but aren’t particularly excited by his conclusions. Hastings listens ‘fascinated’ to Poirot’s explanation of how the murder was carried out, but there’s a general feeling of deflation at the end of the story. Perhaps this is partly because there isn’t a bonkers Poirot denouement, but perhaps it’s also because there’s no arrest at the end of the story. Although Poirot has worked out what’s happened, he doesn’t really have any evidence and so has to just pass his findings on to Japp. The policeman is unable to arrest the killers, but the men later find out they were – karmically – killed in air crash a short time later.

As I say, it’s all a little bit of a let-down, really. I much prefer the jovial banter of ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’, which I think is a much stronger take on the ‘detective can solve a case without leaving his room’ theme. Poirot with the flu just isn’t the same as Poirot winding Japp up for a bet.

Ah well… can’t win ’em all, I guess. Let’s have a look at how the adaptation approaches things…

This episode was directed by Renny Rye and written by T.R. Bowen. And first thing’s first… after the disappointingly snowless scenes of ‘The Theft of the Royal Ruby’, ‘The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge’ immediately treats us to some pretty impressive snowy vistas.

As with many of the early episodes, the events of the short story are slightly altered to insert the detective into the scene of the crime (rather than have him hear about it after the fact). In ‘The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge’, Poirot and Hastings are actually attending Pace’s shooting party, and so are able to get a sense of the key players before any skulduggery has taken place.

One thing I will say for this episode is that it is very good at evoking the effects of the weather. As the hunters crunch over snowy ground, and the women (and Poirot) muffle themselves up to observe, you really can feel the cold seeping into your bones. I’m writing this with a stinking cold, and this has really increased my sympathetic shivering with Poirot as he huddles in the cold to await the end of the shoot (equipped with a shooting stick and earplugs, of course).

The opening pre-murder sequence allows us to get a good idea of the ways in the writer has expanded on Christie’s short story. In the original, Pace was a rich American who didn’t get on with Havering’s father, but who was on reasonable terms with his nephew and his wife. The TV version of Pace (played by Bernard Horsfall) is now Irish, and has made his money from swindling his associates.

The TV Pace is distinctly not a nice man. He has an illegitimate brother who works as his gamekeeper (Jack Stoddard, played by Roy Boyd); he treats Stoddard with contempt, and refuses to give him money to enable him to marry. The cast is also augmented by the inclusion of Archie Havering, Roger’s cousin, a poor schoolteacher who’s disgusted by Pace’s shameless displays of wealth. As Archie points out, Hunter’s Lodge lies empty for most of the year, while some of his pupils ‘live six to a room’. Suspiciously, Archie has still agreed to take part in the shooting party, despite despising his host.

In addition to Jack Stoddard and Archie Havering, the list of suspects now also includes an unidentified ‘Bolshie’ who appears to be hounding Pace and, as the detective quickly discovers, probably anyone else who ever met the horrible man.

Following the shooting party, Poirot succumbs to a bout of flu. He really does seem to be very ill, and it’s quite sweet to see Hastings rush to his friend’s aid when the little Belgian is unable to get out of bed without falling.

Initially, Poirot’s illness does allow for Hastings and Japp to take over the investigation as in Christie’s short story. Again, there isn’t anything like the humour of ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’, and there’s little sense of competition or rivalry between the two men. We do get to see little glimpses of Hastings in detective mode, but it’s just not as comically dramatic as in stories such as ‘Mr Davenheim’ or ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’.

Moreover, Poirot isn’t incapacitated for the entire case. In fact, he’s able to start interviewing suspects quite quickly. In particular, he focuses on the testimony of Mr Anstruther (played by Arthur Whybrow), a railway worker who had his bike pinched by a man matching the description of Harrington Pace’s mystery visitor. Poirot takes it open himself to retrieve Mr Anstruther’s bicycle, despite the fact that his associates can’t see any relevance in this to the case as a whole.

By the end of the investigation, Poirot is up on his feet again, ready to hunt down the missing bicycle and perform a slightly more dramatic denouement than that found in Christie’s short story (both of which feats involve the assistance of a helpful tracker dog, loaned to the detective by Stoddard).

These final scenes are probably the most entertaining in the episode. The return of Mr Anstruther’s bicycle is done with the humour that’s characteristic of the early series. And the sniffer dog denouement is more entertaining – and more typical of Poirot’s theatrical tendencies – than the anti-climactic explanation offered in the episode’s source material. The TV version of the story also throws in a reminder of Poirot’s repeated association with conjuring in the finale (something which is absent from Christie’s story) – as he offers a bag of clothes to the tracker dog’s nose, he promises ‘to make Madame Middleton appear in our midst as if by magic!’ In a way, this feels like a much more Poirot ending to the story than the one written by Christie.

There’s one other bit of the ending that I really like. After Poirot, Japp, Hastings and Stoddard discovers the unfortunate Mr Anstruther’s bicycle, there’s a brilliant shot of the men triumphantly returning from the field (in that epic almost slo-mo that’s used for portraying returning heroes). It’s only a short little sequence, but it’s very well-done and manages to be both dramatic and comical at the same time.

Now, I’ve got this far, and I’m really close to finishing up this post, but I need to talk about the elephant in the room. I hope you noted the spoiler alert at the beginning of this post, because there’s no way of discussing this particular pachyderm without giving away the story’s twist.

The fact is, ‘The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge’ involves one woman pretending to be two different people. And these two people are almost seen in the same place at the same time, and so the audience has to be thoroughly distracted from the fact that they’re the same person.

In Christie’s short story, this isn’t a problem. Obviously, we never see Zoe Havering or Mrs Middleton. We just have Hastings’s brief descriptions of the two women. He believes they are two different women, so we are led to conclude the same thing. But a TV episode is a different kettle of fish, and for this version of the story to work, the audience has to see both women with their own eyes.

And I just don’t think it works.

Don’t get me wrong, a lot of effort has been put into making Diana Kent look drastically different in her two guises. But, perhaps, the difference is just too drastic. Because we’re watching the action unfold in front of our eyes, it’s just too noticeable that Mrs Middleton is always out of the room when Zoe Havering is in it (and vice versa). And, unlike in ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’ (where careful camera angles are used so we never get a good clear look at either Mr Davenheim or Billy Kellet’s face), we get enough shots of Mrs Middleton to see that something isn’t quite right.

Even when I first watched the episode as a twelve-year-old – which was some time before I read the short story – I knew from the very start that Mrs Middleton was wearing a disguise. It’s not that she looked like Zoe Havering; it’s that she looked like she was wearing a costume.

Do you what it is that gives her away? It’s the glasses. No one in a TV programme has ever worn glasses that thick unless they were part of a disguise. And as soon as you twig this, you know she must be Zoe Havering, because there aren’t any other female characters who could get away with pretending to be the housekeeper.

This isn’t the first episode that has had to deal with showing a disguise that was described in Christie’s text – as I’ve said, it’s a key point in ‘Mr Davenheim’, but also in ‘The Dream’ and ‘The Million Dollar Bond Robbery’ (although that disguise was actually invented for the episode, rather than taken from Christie’s story) – and it certainly won’t be the last. Some episodes – including one that I’ll be coming to very soon – manage to get away with it better than others. Sadly, ‘The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge’ is not one of the more successful ones.

And so… on that slightly disappointed note, I come to the end of Series 3 and the last post of 2016. I’ve not reached Curtain as quickly as planned, but it’s been a lot of fun trying. My next post will be in 2017, when I’ll be rereading/rewatching The ABC Murders.

See you next year!

Poirot Project: The Affair at the Victory Ball (review)

This post is part of my 2016 Poirot Project. You can read the full story of why I’m doing this in my Introduction post. The previous post was a review of ‘The Theft of the Royal Ruby’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The ninth episode of the third series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 3rd March 1991. It was based on the short story of the same name, which was first published in The Sketch in March 1923.

After the madness of the last couple of posts – ‘The Mystery of the Spanish Chest’ and ‘The Theft of the Royal Ruby’ turned out the be a lot more complicated than I was anticipating – it’s nice to end the series with two reasonably straightforward adaptations of classic Poirot short stories.

‘The Affair at the Victory Ball’ was Christie’s first Poirot short story, written after Bruce Ingram, the editor of The Sketch, encouraged her to revisit the characters she’d created for The Mysterious Affair at Styles. The story is interesting for the way in which it develops certain aspects of Poirot and Hastings’s character that were hinted at in the 1920 novel, but also for the way it sets the template for the subsequent series of short stories. It’s also a very entertaining read, and I’ve always been very fond of this story and its adaptation.

The story is narrated by Hastings, and the first paragraph gives us a very brief resume of what has happened in the years since The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Apparently, Poirot’s success in that earlier case ‘brought him notoriety’, and so he has decided to settle in London and set up as a private detective. Hastings himself was invalided out of the army after being wounded on the Somme – a fact hinted at, but never stated explicitly, in Styles – and so ‘finally took up [his] quarters with [Poirot] in London’. (It’s interesting to see this said so clearly, as many of the other short stories are a wee bit circumspect about the men’s living arrangements. It’s also intriguing that Hastings says he ‘finally’ took up residence with Poirot – Christie would come back to the question of what Hastings did before he took this decision in ‘The Lemesurier Inheritance’ at the end of 1923… but it’ll be a while before I get to that story.)

In case we’ve forgotten Hastings’s Watson-esque role as Poirot’s chronicler in Styles, he reminds us of it here:
‘Since I have first-hand knowledge of most of his cases, it has been suggested to me that I select some of the most interesting and place them on record.’
As in the earlier novel, Hastings never really tells us who suggested this – or where this record is being placed. But that doesn’t really matter… it’s just a literary conceit after all. (Every fan bone in my body just ached as I wrote that sentence.)

‘The Affair at the Victory Ball’ begins with a scene that will become very familiar to readers throughout the run of the Sketch stories – Hastings has completed his Perusal of the Morning News, and shares a curious report with his illustrious friend. He has been reading about ‘The Affair at the Victory Ball’ – i.e. the murder of Lord Cronshaw and the subsequent death of Coco Courtenay from an overdose of cocaine – and is keen to engage his friend in a bit of armchair detection.

Poirot doesn’t take the bait, though, as he’s too busy admiring the new pomade he has bought for his moustaches.

Before things can go any further, the men’s domestic scene is interrupted by the landlady, who announces the arrival of Inspector Japp. And the Scotland Yard man has a proposal for Poirot:
‘I’m on a case that strikes me as being very much in your line, and I came along to know whether you’d care to have a finger in the pie?’
Ah ha! The game is afoot…

As Japp explains, the murder of Viscount Cronshaw took place the previous week at a grand fancy dress ‘Victory Ball’. Cronshaw had attended with his friends – ‘Coco’ Courtenay, Mr and Mrs Davidson, Cronshaw’s uncle the Honourable Eustace Beltane, and an American widow named Mrs Mallaby. The party had worn the costumes of the Commedia dell’Arte, modelled after a set of china figures in Beltane’s collection. Cronshaw was Harlequin, Coco was Columbine, the Davidsons were Pierrot and Pierrette, and Beltane and Mrs Mallaby were Punchinello and Pulcinella.

At some point during the evening, Cronshaw and Coco had a falling-out, and the actress was taken home by Chris Davidson. After this Cronshaw became moody and withdrawn, before finally disappearing completely. He was spotted briefly at around 1.30am, but not seen again. Eventually, his friends decided to look for him, and that’s when they discovered the body of the murdered Harlequin – he’d been stabbed through the heart.

To make matters worse, the following day Coco Courtenay was found dead in her flat. A known user of cocaine, the actress was believed to have taken a fatal overdose. But did this have anything to do with Cronshaw’s death?

‘The Affair at the Victory Ball’ is an absolute classic. The clues are nicely subtle, the misdirection is almost imperceptible, and the cast of characters is intimate, but diverse enough to give you something to ponder over. And the Commedia dell’Arte costumes add a touch of theatrical glamour to the proceedings. (Incidentally, I absolutely love the Commedia dell’Arte, so that might be part of the reason why I’m so fond of this story. Christie, too, seemed to be rather fond of Harlequin, as one of her less well-known detective creations was a certain Mr Harley Quin – but more on him another time.)

In addition to the Poirot-Hastings reunion and the well-crafted puzzle, this short story also offers us a reminder of Poirot’s infuriatingly efficient grey cells, and our first taste of the detective’s penchant for ludicrously elaborate dénouements.

In the case of the former, it appears that Poirot gets his first inkling as to the puzzle’s solution before Japp has even finished outlining the facts. Hastings spots that his eyes are ‘shining with the green light I had learned to recognize so well’ as the policeman comes to the end of his narrative. But, of course, Poirot isn’t quite ready to share what he has deduced just yet. When pushed to explain his thinking, he simply says:
‘Ah, mon ami, you know my little weakness! Always I have a desire to keep the threads in my own hands up to the last minute. But have no fear. I will reveal all when the time comes.’
This doesn’t go down brilliantly with his associate, of course. It never really does, does it?
‘“Poirot,” I cried, “one day I shall murder you! Your habit of finding everything perfectly simple is aggravating to the last degree!”’
More hints of the way the relationships between the men are going to develop come when Poirot asks Japp if he ‘play out’ his resolution of the mystery in his own unique style. Not only does this give us a hint of the elaborate game the detective is planning to play, but it also allows for a really lovely response from Japp, which really gives you an idea of how the poor old policeman sees his mad Belgian friend:
‘“That’s fair enough,” said Japp. “That is, if the dénouement ever comes! But I say, you are an oyster, aren’t you?” Poirot smiled. “Well, so long. I’m off to the Yard.”’
Now, I’ve talked about some of Poirot’s bonkers dénouements before – the ones involving almost life-size ventriloquist’s dummies and fake séances complete with blood-stained hands and wandering ghosts – but this one is quite the sight to behold. It seems that, in the early days, Poirot actually has a team of guys on hand to help him create his bizarre little performances:
‘The preparations greatly intrigued me. A white screen was erected at one side of the room, flanked by heavy curtains at either side. A man with some lighting apparatus arrived next, and finally a group of members of the theatrical profession, who disappeared into Poirot’s bedroom, which had been rigged up as a temporary dressing-room.’
Japp’s reaction to all this? ‘Bit melodramatic.’

Of course, like many of Poirot’s escapades, this complicated endeavour is actually almost completely pointless. The ‘performance’ itself takes just a couple of minutes, and is merely intended to prove that it’s possible to hide a Harlequin costume under a Pierrot costume – something that’s surely blinding obvious to anyone who has seen the outfits. But still… it’s always fun watching Poirot playing the game, isn’t it?

So… how does the TV adaptation stack up?

The ITV version of ‘The Affair at the Victory Ball’ was directed by Renny Rye and written by Andrew Marshall, and it’s a fairly faithful interpretation of Christie’s story, with just a few alterations to fit the format and style of the TV series.

We have a little pre-Poirot scene, as we do in a number of episodes, but, unlike in ‘The Adventure of the Clapham Cook’ or ‘The Mystery of the Spanish Chest’, this doesn’t give anything away that wasn’t said up-front in the short story. The opening scenes include a voiceover from Poirot explaining the characters of the Commedia dell’Arte, and we see a bit of the relationships between Cronshaw and his friends. In order to establish Coco Courtenay as an actress, but also as a druggie, we see her (played by Haydn Gwynne, in the first of her two appearances on the show) arriving late to a radio performance on the BBC National Programme (you know, in case we’d forgotten it’s the 1930s…)

Given that the short story already contained quite a bit of Hastings and Japp, there’s no real attempt to change their roles particularly in the adaptation. As with a number of the early episodes, though, Miss Lemon is added to the episode. Sadly, poor old Pauline Moran doesn’t really get much to do here, except demonstrate Miss Lemon’s familiarity with how the radio works. She doesn’t seem very impressed with Deadly Alibi by Desmond Havelock Ellis (the play in which Coco is performing) though – clearly it’s not as good as Raffles, the Gentleman Thief (who, as we all know, Miss Lemon adores).

Another change made to the story – and, again, this is quite a common one for the series – in the insertion of Poirot and Hastings at the scene of the murder. As in ‘The Mystery of the Spanish Chest’, Poirot is actually present at the party where the murder takes place.

However… he nearly isn’t at the party. Although Hastings is over-the-moon about attending a costume ball, Poirot initially appears to have forgotten all about it. When his friend bounds in, clutching a large box containing his costume, Poirot is resolutely unimpressed. He can’t go to the ball, he says. Why?
‘I’m afraid I must rearrange my stamps in order of size.’
Hastings twists his arm, and they reach a compromise. Poirot will go to the party, but he won’t wear fancy dress. I don’t think this matters though, as Hastings has more than enough costume for the two of them.

Hastings has already given us a hint of what he will wear when he burst into Poirot’s study shouting, ‘They seek him here, they seek him there…’ But I love the fact that Hastings actually seems to be dressed as Sir Percy Blackeney, rather than his Scarlet Pimpernel alter ego – there’s something quite cute about Hastings dressing a mild-mannered fellow whose mask of stupidity hides the truth about his daredevil character. It’s how I imagine Hastings likes to think of himself.

Much as I love Hastings’s costume, the real stars of the Victory Ball are, of course, the Harlequinade. And the costumes in the episode really are gorgeous.

Finally, as might be expected from the series, there is a slight expansion of the puzzle aspect of the story in order to better fit the format of the TV show. A straightforward clue from Christie’s story is altered to create a bit more confusion (the cocaine boxed that was engraved with ‘Coco’ in the short story is now marked with a more ambiguous ‘C’); an additional red herring is added in the form of a cryptic note saying ‘Lowestoft’; and there’s a slight alteration in the meaning and motivation behind the pompom cut from Mrs Davidson’s costume after the ball. However, none of these really amount to massive changes, and so the story itself remains very close to Christie’s original.

Saying that, there is one further alteration that should be mentioned. Poirot’s staged dénouement plays out a little differently in the adaptation, which sort of makes sense given the shift from theatre to radio acting earlier in the episode. The TV finale is still bonkers – just in a different way to that of the short story.

In a bold – and probably illegal – move, Poirot decides to perform his unveiling of the murder live on the BBC. He enlists the help of producer James Ackerly (played by Andrew Burt) to help with the technical side of things (replacing the gang of lighting technicians and actors he employed in Christie’s story). And he brings along the set of china figures to help aid his little play.

It’s a somewhat toned-down version of the source story’s finale, as Poirot mostly narrates events, rather than revealing fully-clothed versions of the characters. I’m also not sure it works as piece of radio – Miss Lemon listens at home enraptured, but I’m not convinced Poirot’s monologue would be as engaging without the visual aids he has in the studio. Given that he also can’t show the dramatic costume switch that revealed the mechanism of the murder in Christie’s story, the unveiling of Davidson has to rely on yet another new detail: Poirot (clearly forgetting the constraints of radio) suddenly throws a china figure at Davidson (Nathaniel Parker), who catches it in his left hand and gives away the fact that he was the fake Harlequin witnessed by Mrs Mallaby at the Victory Ball.

It’s a bit flimsy, to say the least. Perhaps he should’ve hired that lighting rig after all.

Anyway, despite the slightly weakened ending, ‘The Affair at the Victory Ball’ is one of my favourite episodes from the early series. It’s just got everything you’d want from a Poirot story, and it’s a fitting adaptation of such a significant story in the Poirot canon.

One final detail that I really like comes about halfway through the episode, as Poirot, Hastings and Japp discuss aspects of the case. They walk past a newspaper boy who is selling issues of The Star: the front page headline is about the case, but specifically about Poirot’s involvement in the case (and his apparent inability to get to the bottom of it).

It’s not a particularly important detail – Poirot shrugs it off and makes a dismissive comment about safeguarding his ‘reputation’ – but it does remind us of Hastings’s words at the beginning of Christie’s short story: Poirot really has gained a fair bit of notoriety.

Time to move on the final episode in this series: ‘The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge’.

Poirot Project: The Theft of the Royal Ruby (review)

This post is part of my 2016 Poirot Project. You can read the full story of why I’m doing this in my Introduction post. The previous post was a review of ‘The Mystery of the Spanish Chest’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The eighth episode of the third series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 24th February 1991. It was based on the short story of the same name (aka ‘The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding’), which was first published in the collection entitled The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding in 1960. In its turn, this story was based on a shorter story of the same name (aka ‘Christmas Adventure’), which was first published in The Sketch in December 1923.

It’s pretty cool to be writing about this story in the run-up to Christmas, as it’s the first of two Christmas Poirot stories, so it feels seasonally appropriate. As well as this, ‘The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding’ is one of my favourite examples of how seemingly minor details shift from an earlier Sketch story to a longer piece by Christie to an ITV adaptation, giving subtle little comments on the changing context of their creation.

Let’s begin with the earliest version of the story…

‘The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding’ was the penultimate story in the second series of ‘The Grey Cells of M. Poirot’ published in The Sketch in 1923 (and it’ll be a long time before I get to the very last one in the series… you’ll have to watch this space for ‘The Lemesurier Inheritance’). The 1923 version of this story isn’t included in The Complete Short Stories, but it is in While the Light Lasts (under the title ‘Christmas Adventure’), so that’s the version I’m using.

‘The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding’ differs from the other stories published as ‘The Grey Cells of M. Poirot’ (first and second series) in one very important respect: it isn’t narrated by Hastings. In fact, Hastings isn’t in the story at all, as he has emigrated to South America.

Now, readers of Christie’s novels would already know this, as Murder on the Links was published earlier in 1923; however, the short stories in The Sketch had studiously avoided any reference to Hastings’s marriage up until this point. A week before ‘The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding’ was published, ‘The Double Clue’ was the story of the week, in which it’s business as usual for the dynamic duo (albeit with a certain Russian countess appearing as a distraction). Prior to that, it was ‘The Cornish Mystery’, which gives no clue at all that anything has changed in the men’s relationship. So, ‘The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding’ comes a little bit out of the blue, as it’s the very first time we’ve seen Poirot without Hastings.

The story opens with Poirot staying at an old country house for Christmas. We’re introduced to Miss Endicott – an elderly spinster – and a gaggle of ‘young people’ who are visiting the house for Christmas. It’s snowing – ‘[r]eal Christmas weather’, as one of the boys describes it – and the party are looking forward to a traditional English Christmas.

The first hint of intrigue comes very early on in the story, when Poirot is handed a note by the butler: ‘Don’t eat any plum-pudding,’ the anonymous missive reads.

This is immediately followed by the next hint of intrigue (and bear in mind that we still don’t have a clue why Poirot is visiting this house for Christmas): Poirot notices one of younger visitors – Evelyn Haworth – sitting alone, looking pensive and fiddling with her engagement ring. Poirot attempts to question the young woman on the cause of her sadness, and the way he gets her to open up is by revealing that he is also sad. It’s very moving and, again, comes completely out of the blue after ‘The Double Clue’:
‘No, you are not happy. Me, too, I am not very happy. Shall we confide in each other? See you, I have the big sorrow because a friend of mine, a friend of many years, has gone away across the sea to the South America. Sometimes, when we were together, this friend made me impatient, his stupidity enraged me; but now he is gone, I can remember only his good qualities.’
Don’t worry, Hercule. He’ll be back again very soon! (Seriously… ‘The Unexpected Guest’ was published in The Sketch on 2nd January 1924, and this story begins with Hastings arriving at the white cliffs of Dover, impatient to see his old friend again.)

Okay… so that’s Poirot’s sadness, but what about Evelyn’s?

Evelyn is engaged to a man named Oscar Levering, but she is really in love with Roger Endicott (eldest nephew of Old Miss Endicott). Victims of circumstance, Evelyn and Roger were unable to start a relationship and, while Roger was away working in Australia, Oscar befriended Evelyn and helped out her family financially. As the young woman felt very much in his debt, Evelyn accepted a marriage proposal from Oscar – but now Roger’s back, and she’s struggling with her feelings.

Poirot understands. Of course.

After this slightly melancholic interlude, we cut back to the Christmas fun. The young people are building a snowman that looks like Poirot and wondering how to make the most of having a famous detective staying in the house. They decide to stage a fake murder as a prank, to see how Poirot will react. It’s all going to be such jolly fun.

Roger Endicott isn’t so sure though… he has an important question that is surely shared by the reader at this point:
‘“I was just wondering,” he said quietly. […] “Wondering what M. Poirot was doing down here at all.”’
So this is the set-up to the mystery – albeit a rather unusual one. The snow fun is then interrupted by the gong, signalling both Christmas dinner and the beginning of the story’s action:
‘It was a real old-fashioned Christmas dinner. At one end of the table was the Squire, red-faced and jovial; his sister faced him at the other. M. Poirot, in honour of the occasion, had donned a red waistcoat, and his plumpness, and the way he carried his head on one side, reminded one irresistibly of a robin redbreast.’
A gigantic Christmas pudding is brought it, and slices are served still flaming. Despite having received his anonymous note, Poirot decides to risk eating his slice. But it’s the Squire who finds something untoward – there’s a lump of red glass in his piece. Poirot discreetly pockets this.

Now, I could go through the rest of the plot in this much detail, but that would take all day. And what I want to focus on is the transformation that the story goes through to get from ‘The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding’ (a 1923 short story that is mostly concerned with Christmas pudding, snowmen and children’s games) to ‘The Theft of the Royal Ruby’ (a 1991 TV episode that is mostly concerned with hunting down a jewel thief and retrieving an Egyptian prince’s ruby). All three versions are recognizably the same story, but there’s a shift in emphasis from one to the next that’s quite interesting. And it all revolves around puddings and rubies…

After the ‘red glass’ is discovered, the 1923 story plays out with the children staging their fake murder mystery (but with a macabre twist added by Poirot himself), the ‘glass’ being purloined by Oscar Levering during the course of the charade, and then Poirot offering a lengthy explanation of his presence in the house (and the backstory to the events that have transpired).

The 1923 story is about the theft of a royal ruby – Poirot explains that he has secured an invitation from Mr Endicott because he is tracking down a thief who, with the help of her brother, managed to relieve an unnamed European aristocrat of a valuable stone – but this narrative is utterly overshadowed by the ‘Christmas Adventure’ part of the story. The revelation that Oscar Levering and his sister are the jewel thieves is almost secondary to the happy reconciliation of Evelyn Haworth and Roger Endicott, and much of the story is taken up in describing the murder mystery charade staged by the younger guests. This is hardly surprising, as the note at the end of the story in While the Light Lasts explains that Christie’s inspiration for ‘The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding’ came from memories of childhood Christmases spent at Victorian Gothic Abney Hall in Stockport, which she described as ‘a wonderful house to have Christmas in as a child’, and which she used to explore with the other visiting children. It’s easy to imagine, then, that she originally envisaged this story as being about the children’s ‘Christmas Adventure’, in which a real-life detective comes to stay one snowy Christmas and reveals the exciting story of a stolen ruby hidden in a gigantic Christmas pudding.

So… what becomes of this story in 1960? Where did Christie take it when she decided to expand it?

Well… this is a much more complicated expansion than we saw with ‘The Mystery of the Spanish Chest’. The bare bones of the plot are the same, but there are significant differences in the set-up, the significance of the ruby, and the version of Christmas being presented.

Firstly, the 1960 story begins with Poirot being asked – almost instructed – to travel to Kings Lacey (the name of the country house) by a Mr Jesmond. We are told up front that Poirot is to undertake this journey in order to track down a stolen ruby – and so the theft part is immediately foregrounded over the Christmas part.

The importance of the ruby is expanded here as well, and it’s given a political significance that it lacked in the earlier story. In the 1923 version, the unnamed aristocrat was worried that the theft would cause a scandal that would threaten his marriage to a European princess. Here, though, there are even deeper ramifications.

The ruby belongs to a ‘young potentate-to-be’, whose country has been ‘passing through a period of restlessness and discontent’. The prince’s father is described as ‘persistently Eastern’, and the young prince has faced widespread disapproval of his ‘Western’ follies. He is now betrothed to a young woman who has been ‘careful to display no Western influence’, but who will, according to Jesmond and the prince, be a progressive reformer once she is married and her husband inherits the throne. (In case you’d missed it, Western=progressive for the purposes of the story.) If it is discovered that the prince lost the ruby (which was to be a wedding gift) during a night out in London with an English girl, the scandal will destroy all the royal couple’s plans to enact widespread developments in education and democracy throughout their country. This is a far cry from the trinket lost by a rich man in the 1923 story. As we are told:
‘The ruby was something more than a ruby, it was a historical possession of great significance, and the circumstances of its disappearance were such that any undue publicity about them might result in the most serious political consequences.’
All this before we even get a whiff of plum pudding!

Poirot eventually relents and travels to Kings Lacey, where he meets Colonel and Mrs Lacey (replacing Squire Endicott and his sister), and their gaggle of ‘young people’. Evelyn Haworth is replaced by Sarah, the Laceys’ granddaughter, who has taken up with Desmond Lee-Wortley (a man with ‘a very unsavoury reputation’). Mrs Lacey would much rather see her granddaughter marry David Welwyn, a family friend, but Sarah is completely infatuated with Desmond.

So, the emphasis here is slightly different as well. Sarah is less a victim of circumstance than a headstrong young woman who is trying to break from her family’s traditions and make her own life; Desmond is more obviously a wrong ’un than Oscar Levering, and Poirot is being actively encouraged to steer the young woman away from him (as opposed to in the 1923 story where the detective simply takes it upon himself to do a bit of festive matchmaking).

Finally, after all this, we get our two additional plot points that were so central to the earlier story: the kids decide to stage their fake murder play, and Poirot receives an anonymous note (this time reading, ‘Don’t eat none of the plum pudding. One as wishes you well.’)

Again, I’m in serious danger of running away with the details of this one. You can always read the stories yourself if you want to find out more. What really interests me (given that I’m writing this post on the 22nd December) is the way that Christmas has changed in the years between the two stories being written.

In the 1923 story, there’s a sense that the Endicotts’ Christmas is a little bit dated, but nevertheless there’s a feeling of continuity with the past. The celebrations are done in the way they’ve always been done, and there some nice little moments where characters reminisce about Christmases past. Miss Endicott, in particular, offers a charming little story about Christmas puddings that really sets the scene:
‘Christmas puddings ought to be made a long time before Christmas. Why, I remember when I was a child, I thought the last Collect before Advent – “Stir up, O Lord, we beseech Thee…” – referred in some way to stirring up the Christmas puddings!”
In the expanded version, this type of old-fashioned Christmas is being replaced by more modern celebrations. Mrs Lacey explains that their festivities are very old-fashioned, and that most people now prefer to go out to a hotel and dance on Christmas Day. Social changes are also reflected in the differences between the stories. In the earlier version, the Endicotts’ household comprises a number of live-in servants, including a cook and butler. But in 1960, the Laceys find it a little harder to run a manor house:
‘Of course, one cannot expect to be looked after and waited upon as one used to be. Different people come in from the village. Two women in the morning, another two to cook lunch and wash it up, and different ones again in the evening. There are plenty of people who want to come and work for a few hours a day. Of course for Christmas we are very lucky. My dear Mrs Ross always comes in every Christmas. She is a wonderful cook, really first-class. She retired about ten years ago, but she comes in to help in an emergency.’
The Laceys’ butler, Peverell, also comes out of retirement for the festive season, so that the family can keep up a pretence of continuity with the past.

At the heart of all of this change is the Christmas pudding, and even that isn’t completely immune. It’s still the flaming centrepiece of a lavish festive dinner, but there are little reminders here and there that the times they are a changin’. There’s no sixpence in this pudding, for instance, because the coins aren’t made of pure silver anymore (instead, there’s a bachelor’s button, a thimble and a ring – as well as the unexpected ‘red glass’). When Poirot visits the kitchen to pay his compliments to Mrs Ross (and subtly get a bit of information), he questions whether the pudding was homemade or shop-bought – surely such a thing wouldn’t have crossed his mind in 1923. At least the retired cook provides a little link to the past, as she delivers the same anecdote about the ‘Stir up, O Lord’ Collect that Miss Endicott gave in the earlier story (though there’s absolutely no doubt in Mrs Ross’s mind that this was a signal to start stirring up the Christmas puddings).

So… what we have here are two rather different Christmases and two very different rubies. The result is a pair of stories that, while similar in overall plot, differ greatly in their tone and emphasis. The first is a cosy Christmas tale of make-believe and excitement; the second is a story of political intrigue that invades the fragile peace of a decaying way of life.

Time to throw a third version of the story into the mix…

‘The Theft of the Royal Ruby’ was directed by Andrew Grieve and adapted by Anthony Horowitz and Clive Exton. Generally speaking, it follows the 1960 version of the story, with its emphasis firmly placed on the political ramifications of the jewel theft, with the Christmas part of the adventure simply forming a rather charming backdrop.

In this version, the ruby is the possession of Prince Farouk of Egypt (played by Tariq Alibai). It’s stolen in the opening sequence by a woman named Iris Moffat (who we don’t see), after the prince takes her out for a night on the town. Prince Farouk is a much more dissolute and obnoxious young man than his literary counterpart – he is much more concerned about his own position than about educational reforms or democracy – but the ruby now comes to represent East-West relations in a way that has implications for control of the Suez Canal. As Poirot is told, Prince Farouk succeeding the throne is ‘imperative to British interests’ and getting the stone back must be his primary focus.

Poirot’s stay at Kings Lacey is once again orchestrated by Jesmond (played by David Howey), but there is a more direct connection between the family and the theft in the adaptation. Colonel Lacey (Frederick Treves) is a prominent archaeologist who is close friends with the prince’s father and, prior to the theft, the prince had been a visitor at Kings Lacey where he’d shown the ruby off. (This is, of course, a bit of a problem, as Colonel Lacey doesn’t recognize the stone when he discovers it in his plum pudding – just one of the ways that the adaptation is a little disappointing.)

As in the previous two versions, Poirot wangles an invitation to visit the family at Christmas in order to track down the jewel thieves. In a way, given that it’s set in 1935, the adaptation’s version of Christmas should be closer to the 1923 story than the 1960 one.

And it kind of is… there’s no more talk of Christmas dinner in a hotel, and Mrs Ross (played by Susan Field) is back to being a live-in cook, part of a household of servants. There aren’t any conversations about how the Laceys’ traditions are relics of the past, and everything is pretty much presented as ‘standard’ for the festive season.

However, although the characters need no introduction to a traditional Christmas, viewers in the 1990s might need a couple of pointers. Most importantly, they might need some information about why Mrs Ross makes two Christmas puddings (and, of course, this is utterly integral to the plot, so it couldn’t just be dropped from the adaptation).

In the 1923 version, there’s no explanation given for the two puddings – it’s just the way things are done. In the 1960 version, Mrs Ross makes four Christmas puddings (two large ones for family gatherings at Christmas and New Year, and two smaller ones for Colonel and Mrs Lacey when the family are absent). Although she explains this to Poirot, it’s all very matter-of-fact, as though this is a totally normal thing for a cook to do. But in the 1991 version, the existence of multiple puddings is explained very carefully, as though there’s an assumption the audience might not be familiar with the practice. (The ‘Stir up, O Lord’ story is also gone – presumably it was considered to be a little too cryptic for the hip cats of 1991. Sigh. Some of us still observe Stir Up Sunday, you know.)

Okay, so I mentioned above that there were a few disappointments in the episode. The main one for me is the TV version of Kings Lacey – it’s just not right at all.

As I said, the Endicotts’ house in the 1923 story was probably inspired by the Victorian splendour of Abney Hall. In the 1960 version, Kings Lacey is even older – it dates back to the fourteenth century, and the thought of its draughty old corridors fills Poirot with an abject horror. Jesmond seeks to put the detective’s mind at rest by informing him that, for all its medieval history, the manor house has ‘oil-fired central heating’ and ‘a splendid hot water system’.

So which house did the programme-makers choose to represent this glorious old medieval/Victorian manor house?

That’s right… Joldwynds, the 1932 modernist house built by Oliver Hill, which previously appeared in the ITV series as the home of the eponymous businessman in ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’.

It’s just all wrong! This is nothing like Abney Hall, and nothing like the Kings Lacey of Christie’s later story. It sets a completely different tone – goodbye Gothic Christmas adventures, hello well-travelled archaeologist with impeccably modern tastes – and further downplays the festive focus of the 1923 story. It’s not even snowing, for goodness sake! When Poirot is led to the scene of the kids’ staged mystery, the body of young Bridget (Alessia Gwyther) is lying in a sandpit rather than a snow flurry.

Although the changes don’t sit well with me, Poirot seems a lot happier at this version of Kings Lacey. He nods in approval when he sees the house, and immediately settles in to charming Colonel Lacey by showing him how to correctly serve a mango. (‘The fellow’s an absolute marvel with a mango!’)

But one thing that confuses me… given that the setting has been altered so dramatically, why does Jesmond still use the presence of central heating as a selling-point to persuade Poirot to take up the case? I’ve never understood why this line was kept in the adaptation, given that there’s now no reason for Poirot to assume the house will be lacking in mod-cons. Ah well… perhaps this is a mystery I’m not meant to understand.

Despite all this, though, all three versions of the story have one very important thing in common. Whether it’s the story of a country house Christmas, of a cunning jewel theft, or of a potential international incident, ‘The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding’ is always a story of Poirot flying solo. None of the regular recurring characters appear in any of the versions.

In Christie’s short stories, the absence of the ‘gang’ isn’t explained. Aside from the melancholy comment on Hastings’s absence in the 1923 story, there’s simply no mention of any of the detective’s associates. Obviously, for the TV version, we need a bit more of a clue as to why Poirot is looking forward to Christmas on his own (with a demi-kilo of fine chocolates for company), so we’re informed briefly that Hastings has gone to Scotland (why? no clue!) and Miss Lemon is visiting an aunt in Torquay (because Miss Lemon only has family who live on the coast… Folkestone, Frinton, Torquay… do no Lemons live in-land?) This isn’t the only early episode in which the gang are entirely absent – ‘Triangle at Rhodes’ also has Poirot on his lonesome – but it’s still quite an unusual occurrence. And it’s in this that the TV episode comes closest to capturing the tone of the odd little story from 1923, in which Poirot is seen without his sidekick for the very first time.

Alright… time to finish up now… but before I go, just one more thing. (Oh wait, that’s Columbo, isn’t it?)

There is one other little detail that changes from one version of the story to the next. It’s nothing to do with the ruby or the Christmas pudding, and it doesn’t seem to be anything to do with the changing social context (perhaps it’s more to do with the author’s changing age and attitude towards young working women?). It intrigues me though…

I want to talk about Annie…

In all three versions of the story, Annie is the housemaid who is revealed to have written the anonymous note warning Poirot away from the plum pudding. At the end of each story, we are told that Annie overheard Oscar/Desmond discussing Poirot with his ‘sister’ and telling her that he would put ‘it’ into the Christmas pudding mix. Annie believes that ‘it’ is poison, and that the dastardly pair are planning to do away with the detective. Once the truth comes out, Poirot thanks the young woman for her attempt to protect him.

In the TV version, this is quite a simple scene. Poirot looks stern as Annie (played by Siobhan Garahy) confesses, but melts into the twinkly gentleman we know and love: ‘You have the gratitude most sincere of Hercule Poirot,’ he tells the relieved young woman with a kindly smile.

His gratitude is even more sincere in Christie’s 1960 story. After Annie tells her tale, the detective surveys her ‘gravely’, and then we get the following little exchange:
‘“You see too many sensational films, I think, Annie,” he said at last, “or perhaps it is the television that affects you? But the important thing is that you have the good heart and a certain amount of ingenuity. When I return to London I will send you a present.”
“Oh thank you, sir. Thank you very much, sir.”
“What would you like, Annie, as a present?”
“Anything I like, sir? Could I have anything I like?”
“Within reason,” said Hercule Poirot prudently, “yes.”
“Oh sir, could I have a vanity box? A real posh slap-up vanity box like the one Mr Lee-Wortley’s sister, wot wasn’t his sister, had?”
“Yes,” said Poirot, “yes I think that could be managed.”’
While this is very sweet, and make the detective seem even more personable than the TV version, it’s nothing compared to the wonderfully bizarre display of gratitude with which the 1923 story ends. Once again, Annie reveals herself to be the author of the note, and once again Poirot takes his time before responding to her. This time, however, he knows exactly what gift he wants to give the maid:
‘“You read too many novelettes, Annie,” he said at last. “But you have a good heart, and a certain amount of intelligence. When I return to London I will send you an excellent book upon le ménage, also Lives of the Saints, and a work upon the economic position of woman.”’
Merry Christmas, Annie!

Okay… so this festive post turned into a ridiculously long essay. You’ll be glad to know the next two episodes are a little bit more straightforward. Onwards to ‘The Affair at the Victory Ball’