Agatha Christie mystery fans were dancing on tabletops across America tonight, when David Suchet returned as their favorite fastidious Belgian super sleuth Hercule Poirot, in Masterpiece Mystery’s opening episode of Six By Agatha – Hercule Poirot: Cat Among Pigeons on PBS. It was more than worth the wait for this long time Masterpiece Mystery fan. What an elegantly produced production it was; superb British casting, classy costumes, period locations, masterful direction and an excellent adaptation of Christie’s classic 1959 novel, all culminating into giant culture rush for this Anglophile/mystery lover. Swoon!
As the music started with the opening credits, I smiled in recognition of how much the Harry Potter movies have premeated into our culture. Here is a scene of children arriving for school term and the music is so similar to the whimsical children’s choral piece that opens the Harry Potter movies that I laughed out loud and thought the producer a cheeky monkey for slipping in that subliminal message! I wondered what other things they might borrow to make Hercule Poirot into Harry Potter! Anyway, our super sleuth has been invited to Meadowbank Girls School by his friend the headmistress Miss Bulstrode, played by Harriet Walter, who Austenites will remember portrayed Fanny Dashwood in the 1996 movie adaptation Sense and Sensibility. The progressive Miss Bulstrode has built up the school’s reputation, but now would like to retire. Doubtful that her co-founder Miss Chadwick (Susan Wooldrige) will be able to take over, she asks Poirot’s for his expert advice at character analysis to help select her replacement. No sooner than he has arrived the physical ed teacher Miss Springer (Elizabeth Berrington) is killed violently with a javelin through the heart in the school gymnasium sending the young ladies, including Princess Shaista (Amara Karan) sequestered there after a revolution in her country, into a panic of concern. She reveals to Inspector Kelsey (Anton Lesser) and Poirot that she is certain that she will be killed next. The first suspects are the new staff members at the school, a gardener Adam Goodman (Adam Croasdell), the secretary Miss Rich (Claire Skinner who was Fanny Dashwood in the 2008 Sense and Sensibility) and a French teacher Mlle Blanche (Miranda Raison).
Another teacher is killed, sending the parents and the board of governors into a frenzy. Poirot suspects that there is a connection between the murders and Princess Shaista. One clever student Julia Upjohn (Lois Edmett) aides in the discovery of a valuable treasure connected to the Princess hidden in a tennis racket smuggled out of her country after the revolution. Could this be the motive for the murders? When Princess Shaista is kidnapped, Miss Bulstrode and Miss Chadwick watch their students pulled out of school by panicked parents, and years of hard work and the school’s reputation erode away. Poirot suspects everyone, but reveals little until his signature final roundup of suspects into the drawing room as he deconstructs his logic and reveals the killer. He had me guessing to the last.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of watching these British productions for me is the face hunt, as I sleuth out actors from their previous roles on Masterpiece or movie roles. And so the mystery becomes an inner mystery of me – hopefully all resolved by the end of the production. In Cat Among Pigeons there were some challenging faces to match to previous roles; one in particular who kept my “grey matter” churning until the very end. Like the great super sleuth Hercule Poirot, it took me ninety minutes to solve my own mystery – that Miss Chadwick, the deputy headmisstress of Meadowbank School was in fact Miss Daphne Manners from the 1984 Masterpiece Theater production of The Jewel in the Crown. No small coincidence that both roles were the axis of each story.
Masterpiece Mystery continues through July 26. Next week, another Hercule Poirot mystery, Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, followed by four new Miss Marple episodes staring Julia McKenzie. Oh my. Where are my smelling salts?
Images courtesy © 2009 MASTERPIECE