Monday, 21 October 2013

Episode-by-episode: Elephants Can Remember

This episode was based on the novel Elephants Can Remember, first published in 1972. It was adapted for television by Nick Dear and directed by John Strickland.

Script versus novel
This was the last Poirot novel that Agatha Christie wrote (Curtain was written in the 1940s). It's not her most successful novel. It's been criticised as rambling, chatty and out of focus. Some even suggest that it shows early signs of Alzheimer's. With this in mind, Nick Dear faced a challenge. He needed to re-structure, trim and re-focus the plot and make it work as two hours (or 89 minutes, to be precise) of exciting television. I think he has been reasonably successful. Let's look at the obvious changes first. Obviously, the setting is moved from the 1970s to the 1930s. In fact, that makes hardly any difference. Yes, there are a few references to post-war objects and events in the novel, but the main plot could easily be set in the 30s.

A much more significant change, however, is to introduce a new subplot. Dear decides to flesh out a backstory that involves Dr. Willoughby (who was in the novel for a chapter). His elderly psychiatrist father (who was dead years ago in the novel) is found murdered in the basement of the Willoughby Institute, and Dr. Willoughby appears to be the only viable suspect. Dear also makes him a longtime friend of Poirot's. Someone suggested online that Poirot had been brought out of retirement in this episode, but this fact proves that he is still just taking cases that (a) interest him or (b) concern friends of his (Mrs Oliver gets him involved with the 'elephants', Willoughby with the death of his father. I think that's why Dear decided to make him a friend of Poirot's in the first place. The same goes for Inspector Neale, who is investigating the case. (He seems to partly substitute Superintendent Spence here, which is a shame, but the reason could be availability issues I suppose). Poirot was never really retired anyway (apart from the Ackroyd case), he has just entered a state of semi-retirement (which is in keeping with the later novels). I think The Labours of Hercules, due to be broadcast soon, will probably see him entering retirement for good. But back to the subplot. Dear adds an 'American' secretary/lover for Dr. Willoughby (later revealed to be Canadian, thanks to some fairly obvious hints in the script), and even ties the Institute and Dr. Willoughby's practise to the backstory of Desmond Burton-Cox. Poirot is only too keen to investigate the Willoughby case - so keen, in fact, that Mrs Oliver has to manage the 'elephants' case more or less on her own for about half the episode (which is a good thing - I'll come back to that later).

I think the subplot works well. It's a clever way to make the story more 'active' (a full-length episode solely concerned with Mrs Oliver's 'elephant' interviews could become a little tedious). I even suspect that is one of the reasons behind this change; Poirot gets a much more active role than the 'provider of information' he becomes in the novel. It also helps to distinguish the story from Five Little Pigs, a story it shares more than a passing resemblance with. Instead, the episode is tied more neatly to cases like Mrs. McGinty's Dead and Hallowe'en Party, that deal with intertwined cases from the past and the present. (I must say, though, that I find all these retrospective, psychologically driven investigations some of the most fascinating of Poirot's cases. There are no fingerprints, (usually) no murder weapon and no bodies. We really get to see his main investigative method - the study of human behaviour - at its best). Still, it should be said that the last link between the subplot and the main plot seems a bit forced. The culprit SPOILER is revealed to be Marie, Dorothea Jarrow's long lost daughter (briefly mentioned in the novel), out on a personal vendetta to take revenge on the psychiatrist and Celia. For one, I thought Dorothea disliked children, so why would she still send her daughter letters, telling her the truth? And why didn't she speak up sooner? (She explains that she was 'a poor secretary' who had to earn money to get to the UK from Canada, which would be true in the 30s, but still). Also, she was present at Overcliffe and just happened to overhear the crucial conversation between Zelie and General Ravenscroft? Then again, the plot is in keeping with Christie storytelling (double identities, the secretary, mistakes made in the past), and the actors make it believable.

As mentioned earlier, Mrs Oliver is left to investigate the Ravenscroft case (more or less) on her own for about half the episode. This main plot and the subplot are intertwined throughout the episode. Nick Dear has written wonderfully for Wanamaker and Suchet before (I particularly enjoy the interaction in Mrs McGinty's Dead). The 'cold case' isn't too interesting in itself, but Ariadne's approach is a complete joy to watch, and the conversations with the 'elephants' are fun ('In this part of the world, Ariadne, one either hunts or one has affairs'). Poirot (who is really only interested in the Willoughby case and has to be persuaded to give advice) helps her along, urging her to look for a motive in the past. In this sense, Mrs Oliver becomes his apprentice, since Poirot isn't too keen to investigate himself (reminiscent of quite a few cases with Hastings in the past, e.g. 'The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim' and 'Double Sin'). Ironically, Mrs Oliver describes Poirot as her 'assistant' (the look on Suchet's face is hilarious) to Mrs Burton-Cox.

Dear has had to make several changes to the original plot. Most sections have been shortened down (the literary luncheon, conversations between Poirot and Ariadne, and between Ariadne and the elephants. Desmond has become a pianist (which allows for a lovely concert scene I'll come back to later). Mrs Buckle helps out at Mrs Matcham's place, and her daughter is deleted. Mr Goby has been removed (Beale takes over his tasks), which is in keeping with all the other adaptations of stories he appears in. Madame Rouselle and Mademoiselle Zelie Meauhourat have been merged into Zelie Rouselle (a very sensible decision). Most significantly, perhaps, is Desmond's new backstory. We are told that he 'formed an attachment to someone', who is later revealed to be Zelie. His adoptive mother Mrs Burton-Cox persuaded psychiatrist Dr Willoughby to take him on, and it is later revealed that he fell in love with her. He was 15, she was 25. Personally, I think this backstory can be deduced from the novel (he certainly viewed her as a friend, and they stayed in touch), so I'm not too surprised. Apart from these changes, the plot is kept more or less intact, and several scenes have been lifted almost word-by-word from the novel.

Finally, I have to comment on a script error. A commenter on the IMdB board, 'brucekaren136' said: 'I was left wondering if the plot contained a major goof. I might be wrong but 1) it was clearly stated that the 'suicide/murder' had happened 13 years previously, 2) that Desmond Burton-Cox had had a crush on Zelie when he was 15 which presumably was before the suicide etc and that 3) Desmond's birth mother in leaving him a fortune had stated that he could not inherit the money until he was 25 years old or got married, whichever came sooner. Surely taking 1) and 2) together Desmond was already 28 and should already have inherited the money that his adoptive mother was trying to prevent him from getting by getting married.'. I'm sure the mistake wasn't intentional, but it's a bit careless all the same.

All in all, I think Dear's script is fairly successful. He manages to bring a slightly pedestrian story to life by adding a subplot, changing a few backstories and focus the attention on the force of nature that is Ariadne Oliver. In the end, this makes for an enjoyable 89 minutes of television.

Directing, production design, locations, soundtrack
John Strickland's direction should be particularly commended. The way he introduces Poirot (with the clock, the radio and the cigarette in Whitehaven is a good example. So are the scenes in the Willoughby basement, in which the shadows are allowed to create a particularly chilling atmosphere. The transitions between scenes are particularly well done. For instance, a shot of Garroway adding sugar lumps to his coffee is intercut with the fall of 'Dorothea' from the cliff (white sugar versus woman in white). Similarly, a scene in front of Poirot's Whitehaven fireplace transforms into a scene with the Ravenscrofts by a fireplace at Overcliffe. A part of the denouement has a similar shift from the present to the past in the Ravenscroft office. (These directoral choices remind me of several of the recent Sherlock episodes). I'd also like to point out the train sequence in which Poirot travels to Paris (we even get a tiny glimpse of his passport!). The production team have done particularly well here. For the first time since 2005, they've been back at Florin Court (aka Whitehaven Mansions) to shoot exterior scenes, and I love these (Ariadne arriving in her car, the conversation between Beale and Ariadne, Desmond arriving etc). Some of the camera angles are inventive, too, and we get to see the building from slightly new perspectives. They've even added a decorative elephant sculpture in Poirot's window, which is good, too (thought slightly obvious symbolism). Also, Zelie's Parisian shop is beautifully continental and perfectly in period.

I particularly noticed the colour grading in this episode, and I discovered this interview with Dan Coles, the colour grader on the episode:
“Poirot aims to give TV audiences a cinematic experience, so in the grading we made the images look rich and beautiful with filmic contrast levels,” says Coles. “In this episode we accentuated the art deco feel in Poirot's flat with vibrant red and orange tones, while maintaining cooler tones in the shadows. We decided to go for warmer colours of the spectrum for most scenes, for example using golden hues for interiors. We contrasted this overall look with a stark and steely blue shades for the first murder sequence.

“Much of the episode was shot using green screen, and composited later on so we had to take great care grading foregrounds and backgrounds using supplied mattes. An antique de-saturated look was applied to the flashback material, along with occasional defocused vignettes.”
Now, I have to comment on the use of green screens. I understand that this is a necessity to keep costs down, and I'm normally not too bothered. The glimpse of 1930s Paris was quite acceptable, for instance. However, when this episode was broadcast on ITV, there was a major green screen mistake! When Poirot visits Dr. Willoughby's episode for the first time, a massive green screen is visible in the window! I sincerely hope that this will be fixed for the DVD/Blu-ray releases. It's completely unacceptable and shouldn't happen on a show that prides itself on its production values!

The locations used for the episode include The Park Lane Hotel (last seen in The Mystery of the Blue Train, here used for the literary luncheon scenes), Greys Court in Oxfordshire (Julia Carstair's house), Netherwhylde Equestrian (mostly used for Ariadne's driving scenes I think). Most of the other scenes are shot at Pinewood and Shepperton Film Studios. Christian Henson's soundtrack is absolutely perfect for the episode. It doesn't draw too much attention to itself, but it accompanies the scenes well. I also like the use of Bach's Goldberg Variations (for the concert scene) and Chopin's Nocturne #7 (for the end credits).

Characters and actors
Poirot (and Suchet) is back in investigative mode here. There are certain character continuities worth commenting on. I've already discussed his semi-retirement and his friendship with Willoughby. There's also an amusing incident with Poirot and a passing taxi (Sacre!). Most importantly, though, there's the scene between him and Zelie in Paris. The interaction between Suchet and Elsa Mollien is exceptionally well done. I particularly like two of Poirot's comments: 'Neither you nor I are married (*he touches her ring finger*). We may never be married. But they should be', and 'It is easier to hate when you have once loved than to remain indifferent'. Both lines touch upon the loneliness in Poirot's life, the longing for a life companion that can never be fulfilled.

The actors are all (more or less) perfectly suited for their roles. Zoë Wanamaker is as brilliant as ever as Mrs Oliver. Greta Scacchi is great as the conniving adoptive mother. Caroline Blakiston is absolutely enjoyable as Julia Carstairs. So is Hazel Douglas as Nanny Matcham, and Maxine Evans as Mrs Buckle. Ruth Sheen is perfect in the cameo as Madame Rosentelle, and Iain Glen manages to come across as almost sympathetic as Willoughby. Ferdinand Kingsley (Desmond) and Vanessa Kirby (Celia) don't quite stand out, but they suit their characters. Alexandra Dowling (Marie) is faced with a challenging role with many layers, and she is reasonably successful. I have been told her Canadian/American accent isn't quite convincing, though.

Finally, I'd just like to comment on what is a major quibble to me on the actor front. Why couldn't they have brought David Yelland back as George? I realise that the reason might be scheduling difficulties, but it's so obvious that they have filmed and scripted scenes so that the character is conveniently out of sight. Poirot asks him to pack his bags (and gets a 'Yes, sir' in reply that clearly isn't Yelland, and we catch a glimpse of a stand-in opening the door for Desmond (but he clearly has black hair and doesn't at all look like Yelland. Still, I'm glad they didn't just forget that Poirot has a manservant and actually made the effort to make it seem as if he was there.


  1. The screenwriter should be given a pat on the back for making a boring book a lot more entertaining, unfortunately the central plot itself is weak. The Flipside of TAKEN AT THE FLOOD where they take a good book and make it boring.

    Zoe Wanamaker takes centre stage here, it’s really her movie. I have to admit when she first appeared I didn’t like Ariadne Oliver (probably becuase of Jean Stapleton in that awful Ustinov movie), but over the years my opinion has changed a lot, Zoe Wanamaker has made the character a bit more than just a loud parody.

    1. Certainly, Nick Dear deserves praise for an admirable and fairly successful attempt, given the source material he had to work with. Almost an impossible task. And he's become something of an expert on writing good scripts for Mrs Oliver over the years (not that that's a difficult task, with someone as brilliant as Zoë Wanamaker to play the part!). I think Wanamaker has completely claimed that part. Like you said, she has made the character into something more than a loud parody. In fact, she portrays an eccentric that you could almost believe excisted. Personally, at least, I now have her voice at the back of my head when I read the novels, just as I do with Suchet.

  2. Since series 13 was filmed out of order, where did this episode fall in the production line? Was this one the second to be filmed, with "Curtain" first? Actually, I'd be interested to know the filming orders for both series 12 and series 13, if anyone can help.

    1. Series 13 was filmed in the following order: CURTAIN (October/November 2012), ELEPHANTS (January/February 2013), BIG FOUR (February/March 2013), LABOURS (April/May 2013), FOLLY (May/June 2013).

      Series 12 was (if I remember correctly) filmed: CLOCKS (May 2009), TRAGEDY (Summer 2009), HALLOWEEN (October/November 2009), MOTOE (November/December 2009).

    2. Ah, thanks! I remember now that "The Big Four", "The Labours of Hercules" and "Dead Man's Folly" were filmed this year, in that order. Wasn't sure which way round the other two were filmed, and had no idea about series 12. Thanks for confirming it.

      By the way, I just saw "The Big Four" on ITV - it was excellent. The cast were great, especially Sarah Parish. The music stood out to me too. Having that big reveal (if you've seen the episode you'll know what I mean) three quarters of the way through instead of closer to the end was surprising.

    3. I enjoyed the biog four too, understandably it's toned down a lot from the book, no M15 agent, no secret lair, no mini cigar blow pipe, no Mycroft Holmes parody, no slightly racist Chinese menservants and no world domination radium plot. Instead we get a new “peace party” plot to frame things in, It still has a very silly and over the top ending, but not in the same vein as the book.

      The chess match, yellow jasmine and The leg of mutton (the jade figures becoming ivory) mysteries are all fairly intact, but now they are more interconnected with each sharing an amalgam of cast members.
      It serves as a nice little swansong for Japp and (to a lesser extent) Miss Lemon if nothing else. Japp gets both his own and most of Hastings part from the book, with the newspaper reporter getting another share of Hastings stuff.

    4. Yes, I'll be back with an episode-by-episode look at 'The Big Four' soon, but I really enjoyed it. Gatiss and Hallard had a very difficult (almost impossible) novel to adapt, and they did a great job. Some purists will probably react negatively to all the changes, but as is evident from Danny's comment, the novel is so over the top that I'd say it would be completely unfilmable in its original form. The music was excellent. I'm really pleased with Christian Henson, he's the next best thing to Chris Gunning (no one can replace him, obviously).

    5. It was a great adaptation indeed, though the main reasoning at the denouement felt a bit unbelievable, which was a bit of a let down for me, otherwise the build up of the story was superb!

      Loved the throwbacks to the past- Poirot's toolbox, the jokes about inspector- chief inspector, other parts of the dialogue, which were once again extremely well- delivered by Pauline Moran and Hugh Fraser, the newspapers sequences (another technique quite common in the past). I would have loved more scenes with Miss Lemon and Hastings, but with all said- the episode had the feeling from the past, from seasons 1-5, when the case would open in Poirot' flat and would end with our big four. Nice touch! The music was great, the cinematography had also some visions from the past. also the production team did an amazing job as always with the sets etc. (a lot of nice pictures were tweeted by Agatha Christie account i think)

      To be honest also got few negative comments- wasn't really sold on the Flossie Monro- Claude Durell aspect, I guess the idea was that for love, people can do great, but horrible things; Well, the scaling didn't match for me such a big world conflict lol), but again based on the source material they still made entertaining hour of TV. Would have preferred more involvement of the gang- for example to have Miss Lemon explaining the cards, based on her occult interests in the past, or Captain Hastings being friends/member of the party etc. (and thus perhaps reduce the Tysoe involvement).
      And there was one continuity error that annoyed me, because it was really obvious- when conducting the 'interviews' with the actors you could see that the sequence Poirot was scratching the names was out of order,

      Conclusion- great script by Ian Hallard and Mark Gatiss, the performances were great, the music was on spot and to me was a very nice touch to the beginning of this wonderful series so many years ago :)


    6. And another references that brought me back:

      When i saw the monopoly card- "The lost mine"- again with some Chinese back story, as was last night's installment.
      Together with the toolbox- the words of the maid about the second murder, had this 'racist' flavour as in "The Veiled lady"
      Again the same words, brought up again the life path of being not married, reflecting again Poirot's life. (another one as a possible build- up to "Curtain" were the words of Mr. Durell how much they're alike in the denouement, and the word curtain was so much in there haha)


    7. Oh, certainly. I suspect the ending is what will divide the fans. It's unbelievable, but I think the ending in the novel was even more unbelievable (at least for Poirot at this stage in his life). Your negative points are absolutely valid, and I think few would disagree. As a whole, though, it's a fascinating take on an 'unfilmable' novel.

      I agree with all the throwbacks to the past you mention, Evgre. I was overjoyed by the newspaper sequences - a trademark of the earlier series. And I'm delighted that the AC Twitter account tweeted all those production photos! I hope they'll do the same for the remaining three! I think you're right about Darrell possibly being a build-up to Curtain (though that adaptation should be something quite different in style and flavour). Haha, the curtain thing was so obvious that it must have been intentional! Loved that little hint ;)

  3. I can't help thinking ITV edited some stuff out of the episode, First the Mrs Andrews interview when they shoot from behind her head her mouth doesn’t match the dialogue, nobody told Poirot what day the butcher normally delivers.
    And then later in the episode the interview with the manservant Ay Ling is weird, they shake hands and the scene blends / dissolves into the next one.

    1. It's possible, yes. But would they edit their own episodes? Surely the production company is given a time limit to work with from the start (Series 12 and 13 have about 89 minutes as a limit)? But, like you said, Poirot seemed to pull that butcher clue out of the blue, so you never know.

  4. The adaptation reminded me of The Pale Horse, with the head of the organisation committing the actual murderers. I haven't read the Big Four, so I'm not sure if this was something Gatiss and Hallard emphasized more than was in the original novel. Reading the press release for The Labours of Hercules, it seems ITV may be going in a similar direction when tying together all of the short stores.

    1. It does have a few similarities with The Pale Horse, that's true. Well, in the novel all four are actively involved, so they've changed the premise. I think you're right in assuming that "Labours" might be going in a similar direction. We should know more about that one when the press pack and the trailer/clip is released :)

  5. does anyone know the location used for "Overcliffe"?

    1. I saw this episode yesterday too - and was wondering the same thing :-) I've tried to find reference to it on Poirot sites with no success but think it's the same beach as used in Broadchurch, which makes it "West Bay, Dorset" (according to the Broadchurch site) but as I live in Australia it's pretty much guess work on my part, so I'd love to know for sure

    2. I've been looking all over for the house at Overcliffe. It has been on Call the Midwife too I think, it is so unique looking with the door opening as it does.

  6. The green screen error in the first visit to the Willoughby Institute is, I believe, a village green or swathe of grass. It worked for me as such, at any rate.

    1. Stuart Farquhar13 July 2015 at 20:44

      Watching it on DVD, in both scenes in the house all the shots though the windows show heavy snow falling, even though there's none in the exterior scenes. Normally this would suggest either that the interiors and exteriors were shot at different locations (or the same location but with a drastic change in the weather), as certainly both interior scenes would be shot at the same time, accounting for the snow in both. However, there's nothing that could be mistaken for either a green screen or a village screen, so presumably a screen was erected outside(perhaps because the view through the window was unsatisfactory, or maybe it was shot in studio). Strange, though, that they added snow for both scenes, especially when it doesn't match the exterior shots. It's also surprising there was any money to correct it for the DVD, considering the series was finished, the production office would have been shut down and there would be no production budget for this. There doesn't seem to be any other explanation, though, as there's definitely nothing on the DVD that would account for what you both saw. I don't remember seeing the screen myself on initial broadcast, but at least one review on imdb mentions it too.

  7. another failure in the series.
    adopters make a bad story worse because they stick to cristie's spirit.

    instead trying deny and ignore the holes and faults, if fans pay attention, they will see that in the episode poirot and oliver in fact discover almost nothing, as usual. whole of the 'solution' for early murders comes from the mouth of zelie rouxelle, with no supporting evidence.

    but what does zelie say? she actively conspired to murder dorothea, after she has concealed another murder and actively taken part in an impersonation (that improbable cristie cliché is here too). she also suppresses evidence by packing victim's child off to a lonely fate in another culture regardless of her feelings. these actions, indicate zelie is a monster. where is poirot's/oliver's psychology?

    now what if zelie was lying? what if she and general murdered the wife and forced the impersonation on sick woman. then decided to kill her too (and commit suicide in case of general) when she demanded her daughter to be brought to house as price of cooperation? that is as good an explanation as what comes from zelie's mouth.

    remember also the odd fact that she is in correspondence, 'as a friend' she insists, with the man who as a teenager had an obsession with her. but this correspondence, and her whereabouts, are actively concealed by both from his fiancée, who has as much, non obsession, childhood links with her as him, and has sought their renewal.

    after all that, poirot completely trusts and empathizes with this admitted criminal, but pontificates with and aggressively show contempt for victim's abused child seeking revenge? moral blinkers anyone? in this adopters were certainly in line with cristie's spirit.

    now let us consider the new murder, an addition by adopters. poirot indeed discovers that secretary is not who she is, but he does not really break her alibi, no evidence for drugging the doctor is produced (or even mentioned until this is referred to at the end, in a classic mystery story 'cheat'). and why should she try to recklessly kill desmond? how does she find about him and his connection to her family(remember he has no medical records with doctor)? if she is willing to take huge risks to kill desmond, why doesn't she try to kill celia, who she knows about, with much less risk, earlier? seems psychologically and factually inconsistent. of course structuring story as it is presented, allows for a cheap throwing over the balcony and rescue thrill.

    one of the best things about this series from start was the art direction, but this episode spoils that too, by use of obvious fake backgrounds in paris and overcliffe scenes.


About Me

I'm a passionate fan of Poirot, Agatha Christie and the ITV series. If you have any questions, comments, suggestions or requests, please e-mail me at, post a comment on one of my blogs, or get in touch on Twitter @pchronology. (I used to call myself HickoryDickory)