This episode was based on the novel The Big Four, first published in 1927. It was adapted for television by Mark Gatiss and Ian Hallard, and directed by Peter Lydon.
Script versus novel
The Big Four is generally considered to be one of Christie's most controversial (and least successful) novels. She finished the novel in 1926, in the wake of her traumatic divorce and the death of her mother. The story is based on a series of short stories that she worked into a novel in order to earn some much-needed money. The plot is quite ridiculous at times, with exploding mountains, caricature villains, racist Chinese manservants and global conspiracies. Unsurprisingly, the novel has been considered unfilmable. The wide range of locations (England, France, Italy, America etc) probably didn't help in that respect either. All in all, I'm not surprised this novel was left until the final series. It's as if the production team have been waiting for it conveniently disappear. (I don't usually go into aspects like the background of the novel and the context of the adaptation, but I think it's absolutely necessary here. It demonstrates what a complete challenge Gatiss and Hallard were facing.)
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The scriptwriters had to come up with a way to streamline the narrative. This is an incredibly busy story that has Poirot travelling far more than he ever did in the early years, and now he’s even approaching retirement. They also had to include Hastings and Japp, who both appear in the novel. Ideally, they needed to find a way to include Miss Lemon as well. The Poirot fans (me included) would be very upset had Hastings and Japp been deleted from the adaptation. Since they last appeared in 2002, the Christie estate have repeatedly stated that the characters would only appear in the novels that they were originally in; they would not be added. So it naturally follows that they would return for the remaining stories that did include them. Finally, Gatiss and Hallard had to find a way to make the plot believable. I, for one, could never bring myself to believe in Christie's plot. It was too out-of-character for Poirot. Multinational villains fighting for world domination? Twin brothers? (Okay, that one could have worked! More on that later) Radium thieves? A faked death? A mountain explosion and a miraculous escape? You get the point. How could this really be the same character who solves quiet, psychological puzzles in English country houses? (I know some fans will disagree with me here).
Gatiss and Hallard decided to open the episode with the return of Poirot's three friends, thus reassuring the fans. Personally, I think the opening scenes with Hastings and Miss Lemon are absolute perfection. Hastings exclaims the (by now compulsory) 'Good Lord!' and Miss Lemon (who is added to the story) complains about the late arrival of the mail. Both lines perfectly encapsulate those two characters. Japp is in Poirot's flat writing letters to Poirot's friends (we get a glimpse of the letter to Miss Bulstrode, a lovely references to Cat Among the Pigeons, also scripted by Gatiss). These scenes culminate in Poirot's funeral. This event doesn't occur until much later in the novel, but it makes sense to introduce it here. Poirot's funeral is perhaps the only event that would believably bring Hastings, Japp and Miss Lemon back after such a long absence. Of course, Hastings could always be back on business or on holiday, Miss Lemon could be living somewhere in London and Japp could have an interesting case to discuss with Poirot. But remember that it's been 17 (18) episodes since we last saw them! If they simply returned for an everyday event, then viewers would ask themselves why they hadn't visited him before. The wake scene that follows wasn't in the novel, but it's been perfectly scripted (with Hastings' overwhelming grief and the toast to their old friend). By the way, I think it's a very sensible decision not to be too specific about why or how long they have been absent (Poirot simply says to Japp in a later scene: 'It's been too long. Far too long!').
Now, some fans have reacted negatively to the reduced role of Hastings in this episode. Japp and a new character, Tysoe, replace him through most of the novel. This is partly because of the restructured plot (i.e. Hastings returning for Poirot's funeral, just one day before Poirot's big denouement) and partly because the press (i.e. Tysoe) is integral to the new solution, which I will come back to later. As much I would love to see Hastings and Poirot investigate together, I think it's a sensible decision to emphasise the chemistry between Japp and Poirot here (giving Philip Jackson an appropriate swan song). As mentioned, the funeral is the best plot device to bring both Hastings and Miss Lemon back, and this means Hastings can't be present in the earlier investigation (oh, and he does, after all, return from Argentina, so that element from the novel is there). Also, bear in mind that Hugh Fraser gets an emotional swan song with Curtain.
Several of the 'cases' Poirot investigates in the novel have been deleted. These include 'The Unexpected Guest', 'The Man from the Asylum', 'Disappearance of a Scientist', 'The Woman on the Stairs', 'The Radium Thieves', 'In the House of the Enemy', 'The Baited Trap', 'The Mouse Walks In', 'The Terrible Catastrophe' (apart from the 'fatal' explosion), 'The Dying Chinaman' (apart from the funeral description), 'Number Four Wins a Trick', and 'In the Felsenlabyrinth' (replaced by a new denouement). The incidents that are deleted (the radium plot, the events at Abe Ryland's estate, the secret Chinese hide-away) are all fairly far-fetched, placing Poirot in situations that can hardly be described as 'typical Christie'. More significantly, though, they mainly serve one purpose; to reveal the different members of the Big Four. Now, Gatiss and Hallard manage to maintain the essence of this in the three remaining 'cases'; Leg of Mutton is linked to Li Chang Yen, Yellow Jasmine to Madame Olivier, and Chess Problem to Abe Ryland (I'll get back to how they do this later). With this in mind, I'm not too upset about the deleted chapters.
As to the characters that are deleted, most fans will be disappointed not to see Countess Vera Rosakoff and Achille Poirot. To be honest, I always thought Rossakoff's connection with the 'Big Four' was a bit too much. A jewel thief? Yes. An adversary to villains seeking world dominance? Probably not. Similarly, Achille always seemed completely unbelievable to me. It's a great twist, and it would have been fun to see it brought to life, but I find it difficult to believe that anyone (let alone master criminals) could be fooled into thinking that someone as unique and distinctive-looking as Hercule Poirot could have a twin. Christie seems to dismiss the idea, too, in the final pages of the novel, and in The Labours of Hercules:
‘Brother Achille has gone home again – to the land of the myths. It was I all the time. It is not only Number Four who can act a part.’ (The Big Four) 'If I remember rightly - though my memory isn't what it was - you had a brother called Achille, did you not?'Poirot's mind raced back over the details of Achille Poirot's career. Had all that really happened? 'Only for a short space of time', he replied. (The Labours of Hercules)
The remaining 'cases' (Mutton, Jasmine, Chess), and two characters that appeared in sections of the novel that have been deleted, i.e. Ingles and Flossie Monro, are tied together to make a more or less believable plot. I'll try to outline the plot in the next couple of paragraphs before I add my final thoughts. (You can skip the next six paragraphs if you already know the plot).
After Poirot's funeral, the narrative jumps four weeks back in time. Tysoe, who is a journalist, visits Ingles to inquire about the 'Big Four'. Ingles was a 'retired Civil Servant of mediocre intellect' in the novel, but here he is a senior official at the Foreign Office. Unlike in the novel, he dismisses the idea of the Big Four as 'Bulldog Drummond', complete nonsense. 'The world-wide unrest, the labour troubles that beset every nation, and the revolutions that broke out in some' that he attributed to Li Chang Yen in the novel are here presented by Tysoe, who thinks his unnamed 'correspondent' might be right. This is the first sign that Gatiss and Hallard are taking the adaptation in a different direction. The change is perfectly understandable. If they are attempting to make the story more believable, then the first step on the way would be to have the authorities (i.e. Ingles) dismiss the rather ludicrous idea that there is a group of master criminals seeking world domination.
Next up is the Chess Problem. The set-up is essentially the same as in the novel, but we get to witness the actual chess match. Japp, who has become Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard (how he managed to climb the career ladder that quickly, from 1936 to 1939, is beyond me), is in charge of security at a society event. The event is hosted by Abe Ryland, who has become a respected member of a ‘Peace Party’ (founded by Li Chang Yen) that is working for world peace at the brink of war. This was not in the novel, but it links the story to the coming war and provides a somewhat believable cover for a (supposed) 'Big Four'. Poirot is also present, possibly because of his interest in chess (actually, he declares in the novel that he doesn't play chess, but we've seen his chess set at Whitehaven – it first appeared in Third Girl – and seen him play in The Chocolate Box, so this is an acceptable change). There is a lovely scene in which the two friends are reunited (reminiscent of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd). They also briefly touch upon the subject of retirement ('Time, it catches up with us all. Perhaps also for Poirot the shadows are lengthening and the moment it has come to think of a life that is quiet'). Present at the chess match is also Mme Olivier (not be confused with Mrs Oliver!), a brilliant French scientist who specialises in the nervous system (she was more interested in radium in the novel). Like Ryland, she is a member of the Peace Party. She is joined by her friend and ally of the Party, Stephen Paynter (from 'The Yellow Jasmine Mystery'), and his personal physician Dr. Quentin (a local doctor in the novel). Even Tysoe has managed to enter the event. In the game of chess, Ryland substitutes Gilmour Wilson and challenges Savaronoff, but it's Savaronoff who is murdered. Consequently, Sonia Daviloff and the scenes in Savaronoff flat are deleted. As Poirot and Japp start investigating, Poirot is intrigued by Tysoe's mention of the 'Big Four'. Tysoe explains that he has received letters with this information, as well as information on Ryland's past. Poirot goes on to solve the chess murder more or less like in the novel. Ryland is suspected, and he disappears shortly thereafter.
Then there's the Leg of Mutton. Jonathan Whalley was 'a lover of all things Chinese' who wrote a biography on Li Chang Yen, the Peace Party founder (in the novel, he was just interested in China). The stolen jade figures have become ivory figures, but the plot remains the same (even with most of the dialogue intact). Poirot solves the murder, more or less exactly as in the novel, and he suspects that the Big Four are involved. Shortly afterwards, Tysoe finds a stabbed man in the street (a clear warning that he should stop his investigation into the Big Four). The scene is somewhat reminiscent of the warnings Hastings receives in the novel after Poirot's death, and the dying Chinaman he encounters. Tysoe, frightened by the warning, comes clean to Poirot and Japp and reveals a set of playing cards that displays the Big Four (a Chinese card for Number One, a chance card from Monopoly for Ryland, a French Dame card for Mme Olivier and La Mort (Death) for Number Four). This is reminiscent of the dying words of Mayerling in the novel.
The next case is Yellow Jasmine (but the twist here is 'gelsemine', mentioned in the novel). In the novel, Paynter had written a book on Li Chang Yen ('The Hidden Man in China' – that’s been attributed to Whalley in the adaptation), but as mentioned earlier he has become a friend of Mme Olivier and a supporter of the Peace Party here. The murder is essentially the same (the Chinese manservant, Ah Ling, is even there, but he doesn't get to speak at all). However, a wife, Diana Paynter, and Mme Olivier, are added to the plot, and the nephew Gerald is made the prime suspect (Paynter wrote 'G', not 'Yellow Jasmine' in ink). The wife suspects her husband of having an affair with Mme Olivier. Gerald, Dr Quentin and Mme Olivier are interviewed, and Poirot begins to suspect her (gelsemine falls into her field of research). She later disappears.
Poirot then returns to the scene of the Mutton crime, the Whalley household. Jonathan Whalley had an estranged nephew who used to live with him, Albert Whalley, and Poirot searches the attic for clues as to his whereabouts. He finds a scrapbook with clippings from the Methuselah Theatre (as an aside, this means 'man of the dart/spear' or 'his death shall bring judgment' - a hint to the final solution). This leads Poirot to get in touch with former actors from the theatre, and he eventually tracks down Flossie Monro. Their conversation is incredibly well scripted, with just the right amount of sadness and humour. Unlike in the novel, Flossie is not murdered but will serve an important role later on. Shortly afterwards, Claud Darrell, another of the actors, calls Poirot and invites him to meet him. Poirot enters an apartment and is seemingly killed by an explosion (reminiscent of the scene with the match box in the novel). All that is left is Poirot's burnt-out walking stick. This leads us back to the day of the funeral, in which Hastings, Japp and Miss Lemon discuss their old friend. Hastings want to continue tracking down the Big Four (like in the novel), but the others disagree and he leaves the flat in anger.
Finally, there's the denouement scene. In short, the scene takes place in the Methuselah theatre (not the Felsenlabyrinth). Claud Darrell, aka Dr Quentin and Albert Whalley, has captured Flossie Monro and explains that he did everything for her. She rejected him fifteen years ago, when they were still acting at the theatre, because she wanted to be with 'someone the whole world will remember'. Poirot appears, revealing that he was not killed in the explosion after all. He explains that the Big Four never existed, that Mme Olivier and Abe Ryland had been taken prisoners by Albert Whalley/Claud Darrell. Whalley committed the murders to implicate Ryland (Chess), Olivier (Yellow Jasmine) and Li Chang Yen (Mutton), and create a sense of hysteria and fear around the world - all in an attempt to be remembered and be loved by Flossie. Once revealed, Whalley threatens to detonate dynamite that will blow up the entire theatre (reminiscent of the Felsenlabyrinth in the novel), but Poirot persuades him that he can't kill Flossie. In the end, he pretends to surrender before threatening Poirot with a gun. Tysoe, who has appeared on the scene with Japp, then brings the curtain down on him (literally speaking), and he is killed. The end scene sees Poirot, Japp, Miss Lemon, Tysoe and Flossie celebrate their 'victory' before Hastings appears, confused about Poirot's reappearance. That scene is wonderfully evocative of the early episodes.
Several fans have claimed that Gatiss and Hallard have changed too much of the novel and that the new ending is completely unbelievable. Personally, I think the restructuring of the plot and the new ending is a brave attempt at streamlining the narrative and, actually, making the ending more believable. The new ending is still far-fetched. Most viewers would say that the scheme is far too complicated for a madman who wanted to attract the attention of the woman he loves. There are aspects here that I struggle to accept. However, bearing in mind the source material they had to work with (as outlined in my introduction), I think Gatiss and Hallard have found a more or less sensible way to humanize the culprit.
I could never truly believe in the idea of master villains controlling the world. Admittedly, Poirot stories are fiction – and anything could happen in fiction – but they are always based on the real world, particularly in the TV series, which has consistently incorporated historical events. These master criminals wouldn’t exist in the real world. A lunatic, however, would. That has been evidenced time and time again. Even elaborate lunatics like Whalley. By making the plot a personal tragedy of sorts, Gatiss and Hallard almost manage to make us feel sorry for Whalley. Orphaned, estranged from his uncle, rejected by his one true love. Also, the decision to emphasise the similarities between Whalley and Poirot (‘We are more alike than you think, Poirot’) is an interesting one, because it highlights Poirot’s less endearing qualities (his showmanship, his self-assuredness). It’s also something of a foreshadowing of Curtain. All in all, then, I’m inclined to accept all the changes Hallard and Gatiss have made, because they have managed to make a more or less coherent story out of what Gatiss has described as ‘an almost unadaptable mess’.
Direction, production design, locations, soundtrack
Peter Lydon’s direction is wonderfully effective. The back of Hastings’ head, the close-up of letters, the grey funeral scenes, the camera zooming in on Poirot’s empty chair, the hooded figures of the Big Four – and that’s just the opening shots! I particularly enjoy the shifts of scenes in the interviews at the Paynter household, the ‘Poirot must think’ sequence (seemingly inspired by Sherlock’s ‘mind palace’), the clock motif throughout (reminiscent of The Clocks), and the flashbacks of the denoument scene (such a complicated plot explained in a matter of seconds). The colour grading is particularly well done throughout as well. The production team have created some wonderful props, including the playing cards, the Big Four lair set, and the miniature theatre with the ‘Big Four’ characters that Poirot finds in the attic. The locations used include Syon House, Brentford (the chess game scene), Hughenden Manor, High Whycombe, Buckinghamshire (the home of Jonathan Whalley and the prison gates), Nuffield Place, Henley-on-Thames (the Paynter house), The Undercroft of Lincoln's Inn Chapel, London (the scene with Tysoe and Poirot), and Hackney Empire (the theatre). Christian Henson’s soundtrack is perfect for the episode, sombre and dark for the emotional scenes and cheerful and nostalgic in the investigation scenes (notice the several references to the Poirot theme, particularly in the scene where Poirot tries to find Flossie Monro, and in the end scene.
Characters and actors
Gatiss and Hallard have added numerous references to the early episodes in this episode. I’ve already mentioned Hastings’ ‘Good Lord’ and Miss Lemon’s complaints about the late arrival of the post. Miss Lemon also has a cat called Marina, which is reminiscent of the episodes The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman and The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb. Moran is given some wonderful lines in the few scenes she appears in. I particularly enjoyed the ‘he always liked things just so, didn’t he’ as she straightens Poirot’s chair. This is a wonderful reference to their shared sense of order, not to mention his constant nagging about the tisanes. She certainly had to get used to his many quirks and habits over the years. Similarly, Fraser’s few scenes are very reminiscent of a number of early episodes (apart from his moving breakdown at the wake), e.g. his determination to pursue the Big Four (and antagonism towards Japp), followed by his ‘What do I do now, old chap?’, addressed to the dead Poirot, and his re-appearance in the final scene (completely confused and made to look stupid).
Philip Jackson gets a series of wonderful one-liners as Japp. The ever-present in-joke between him and Poirot on his career (Inspector – Chief Inspector) has now become Chief Inspector – Assistant Commissioner, the repeated mentions of Mrs Japp (I would have preferred ‘Emily’, but I realize that most viewers wouldn’t understand who he as talking about) – particularly in connection with the tarot cards, and the no-nonsense action in the denoument scene.
David Suchet also gets to add a reference or two. I particularly enjoyed the dispatch case containing ‘the tools of my profession’, which we haven’t seen since The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and the aforementioned ‘think’ scene. David Yelland’s present was a nice nod to the later years. Ariadne Oliver would have been a welcome addition, to complete the references. Apparently, her character was included in an early draft, but she later had to be deleted, presumably because of costs or Wanamaker’s availability.
The guest stars all make the most of their scenes. Patricia Hodge is wonderfully over-the-top as Madame Olivier (even if she sounds like Edith from ‘Allo ‘Allo), Barbara Kirby is great fun as Mrs Andrews (thanks to the good script), Teresa Banham manages to create a moving mini-portrait of Diana Paynter, and Nicholas Burns creates a humorous caricature with Inspector Meadows. Tom Brooke is acceptable as Tysoe, and Simon Lowe isn’t too bad as Whalley/Darrell/Four, but he seems to struggle to find the right balance between camp and moving (but he is exactly as bland as he should be in the rest of the episode). However, the star performer for me is Sarah Parish as Flossie Monro. The character is very minor in the novel, and it mainly serves to elucidate the plot. Here, Flossie is the reason for the entire crime, and her character is made more tragic (in a sense). The scene between her and Poirot at Whitehaven is perfection itself. She tries to impress him with her acting roles, while Poirot obviously realizes that she is an aging, failing actress. He hasn’t seen any of her performances, but he tries to save the situation by claiming that he has seen her in Share My Cab at the Duke of York (he would never be seen at a play with a name like that!). But she only played the accordion. It probably doesn’t sound like it from my description of it, but it’s a very moving scene.