Monday, June 23, 2014

Poirot: “The Clocks” (BBC-TV, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After Stolen from the Womb I watched the next episode of Agatha Christie’s Poirot — to give the series its full official title — on KPBS, and according to this episode, “The Clocks,” was actually shown before the one they ran last week, “Three Act Murder.” It was also considerably better; based on a book Christie wrote either during the early days of World War II or just before that — at a time when, at least according to this story, the prospect of another brutal war between Britain and Germany was a hot topic of discussion in the drawing rooms and on the streets of the U.K. — “The Clocks” is a considerably more resonant story than most of Christie’s mechanical concoctions. Lt. Colin Race (Tom Burke) is an agent of MI6 (the “MI” stands for “Military Intelligence” and MI6, which is usually involved in actual espionage, is generally considered the British equivalent of the CIA — while MI5, which deals with counter-intelligence, is sort of the British FBI), though this story has him basically doing MI5’s work: trying to ferret out a German “mole” inside the British secret service. He learns who the “mole” is but loses track of him when the “mole” kills Race’s girlfriend, Fiona Hanbury (Anna Skellern, who gets an awful lot of screen time for a character that’s killed in the first few minutes — thanks to Colin doing an awful lot of flashbacking about her). A blind woman named Miss Pebmarsh (Anna Massey), who works at a photography studio (I’m not making this up, you know!), stumbles across a dead body in her living room right after the arrival of Sheila Webb (Jaime Winstone), a secretary from Miss Martindale’s (Lesley Sharp) temp agency, who was summoned and told that Miss Pebmarch had specifically requested her services, where the real Miss Pebmarch had not only not requested a secretary but had never heard of Sheila Webb. The usual stupid police, headed by Inspector Hardcastle (Phil Daniels) and his sidekick, Constable Jenkins (Ben Righton), immediately jump to the conclusion that Sheila was the killer, and that she impersonated Miss Pebmarch and placed the call to Miss Martindale so she’d have a quasi-legitimate reason to be at the murder scene.

Fortunately Hercule Poirot (who in this episode, even more than in most, is quick to correct people who refer to him as French — he was Belgian and Christie made him a retired officer with the Belgian police), played (as usual in this series) by David Suchet, is on the scene. Lt. Colin Race, the MI6 agent, is immediately smitten with Sheila Webb and convinced a) that she didn’t kill the man (whoever he was) and b) that the murder is somehow linked to the spy ring he’s investigating. The cops, of course, are equally convinced that Lt. Race is thinking with his dick and Sheila is the killer — and the evidence mounts up against her, including the four non-working clocks, all set to 4:13 p.m., that were found on the murder scene along with the cuckoo clock that was the only one on Miss Pebmarch’s premises that she actually owned. A coroner’s inquest is held and another woman, Nora Brent (Sinead Keenan), calls the police after it’s over and says, “She was lying,” then is herself knocked off — the police, once again, assume she means Sheila, especially since one of the clocks was formerly her property, a gift from her mom with the name “Rosemary” on it (that was actually her original given name but she chose to use her middle name, Sheila, instead). Suspicion also falls on a pair of rather bookish intellectuals, a brother and sister named Matthew (Guy Henry) and Rachel (Abigail Thaw) Waterhouse, especially when Poirot deduces from their speech patterns that they are German, but when he asks them what they’re doing in England they make the chilling reply, “Wir sind Juden” — they’re Jewish refugees from the Nazis who took non-Jewish Anglo-sounding names because anti-Semitism wasn’t (and indeed isn’t) confined to Nazi Germany. Poirot and Lt. Race discover the German spies — an upper-class couple who are deliberately conspiring to pass secrets to the Nazis to keep Britain weak and thereby subservient to Germany instead of getting involved in a war that will lead to even more casualties than the Great War (which is what World War I was usually called before there was a World War II) — but Lt. Race turns out to be wrong about the mysterious murder at Miss Pebmarch’s having a connection with the spies; instead its cast of characters turn out to have more prosaic motives than that. (Though I just watched this show last night I can’t for the life of me remember whodunit, except that it was a middle-aged man who was unveiled as the killer after Poirot briefly suspected Miss Pebmarch.)

I liked “The Clocks” considerably better than “Three Act Tragedy,” the Poirot episode KBPS had shown the previous weekend (though in the original British run of the series “The Clocks” came first), partly because it seemed to have more story depth — the subplot about pro-Nazi English people spying for the Germans gave it more dramatic interest than Christie’s puzzle-box murder plots usually had — and partly because it seemed to have more genuine emotion: the oddly diffident relationship between Lt. Race and Sheila (hampered not only because he’s on the rebound from his dead fiancée but because she’s been, in the argot of the time, a “loose” woman, having a sexual affair with a professor who engaged her as a secretary and made her his lover as well, as well as other casual relationships), the honestly and emotionally depicted plight of the Waterhouses, and the disgusting rationalizations offered by the people who actually turn out to be the Nazi spies all add muscle and sinew to the bones of an otherwise rather typical Christie plot. Raymond Chandler generally couldn’t stand Agatha Christie’s work — she was the sort of mystery writer he was talking about when he praised Dashiell Hammett for giving “murder back to the people who commit it for reasons, not merely to provide a corpse” — but at least in this story the murders are committed for reasons, and Christie’s insertion of some of her real life (like the real Christie, the fictitious Miss Pebmarsh served as a volunteer nurse on the front in World War I — the recent Extraordinary Women episode on Christie said that work gave her an in-depth knowledge of poisons which figured extensively in her novels, including this one: the mystery victim is killed by stabbing, but an autopsy later reveals he was drugged with chloral hydrate before he was stabbed) also adds to the quirky appeal of “The Clocks.”