Mais ouis, we have a tale this week of international espionage, kidnapping, blackmail, and murder – and all at the most prestigious girls’ school in England! This is the part where if I were a complete hack I would write something like, “Does it make the grade???”, so let’s just get on with the bidness and avoid that particular pitfall.
Well, for starters there’s a coup in the Middle Eastern country of Ramat, and we see the target of the coup, Prince Ali and his bestie Bob (no, really) make a last stand in Ali’s bedchamber right before getting gunned down by revolutionaries.
…aaaaaaaaaand then it’s a hard cut to Meadowbank School for Girls, somewhere north of London. where the girls are arriving for the new term. The head of the school, Miss Bulstrode, is contemplating retirement, and as such has asked her good friend Hercule Poirot to evaluate the other teachers as possible replacements. Our Belgian is there to deliver a lacrosse award called the Pemberton Shield, which, whatever.
Oh, did I mention that Princess Shaista, Prince Ali’s daughter and heir to the throne of newly-coup’d Ramat is attending? No? Well, she is. As is the aforementioned Bob’s daughter. Well, then.
Also: someone’s sticking pins in a homemade voodoo doll of bullying, spiteful phys ed teacher Miss Springer.
Only a day or two into the term, wouldn’t you just know it, but someone has speared ol’ Springer with a javelin in the phys ed building. Poirot, of course, investigates, but before he can make much headway Princess Shaista is apparently kidnapped on her way to lunch with her uncle the Emir. Shortly thereafter, someone coshes another teacher in the same phys ed building, and the French teacher Miss Blanche is killed in the boathouse (although, fair play, she was trying to blackmail the killer).
Well, basically all the school staff. In addition to Elderly Teacher Who Might Hold A Grudge On Account Of Not Getting The Headmistress Job, there’s Teacher Who Recently Returned From A Mysterious Leave Of Absence, Teacher Who Makes Voodoo Dolls, Alcoholic School Nurse, Secretary Who Might Be An Escapee From An Insane Asylum, and Hunky Gardener With A Secret. I couldn’t be bothered to keep track of the names.
Wot I Liked:
Honestly, the best parts of the episode were the two amateur sleuth schoolgirls, Jennifer (Bob’s daughter) and Julia, who sort of unwittingly sidekick for Poirot and discover
a tennis racket full of smuggled Ramat rubies
Wot I Not Liked:
…but let’s face it, Dame Agatha was never at her best writing espionage stories (I’ll give a special exemption for The Clocks, though) and this is, at its heart, an espionage story. There are two big problems here:
- Virtually everything explaining the murders is handed to Poirot at the end via Secret Files from the Foreign Office and Hunky Gardener
(revealed to be an secret agent undercover about a third of the way through the episode).[collapse]
- There are three shedloads worth of coincidences and implausibilities here as filmed.
Springer is killed because she overheard a parent hinting at recognizing someone who resembles nefarious mercenary agent-for-hire “The Angel” at a loud, crowded reception. Elderly Teacher gets up the gumption to cosh fellow Teacher Recently Returned From Mysterious Leave Of Absence over jealousy. Blackmailing French Teacher knows enough to blackmail the killer… how exactly? And they manage to track down the parent who had been on a bus to Turkey and bring her back to the school in a couple of days? And she’s a secret agent too? Don’t get me started on the Princess’ faux kidnapping, a completely irrelevant red herring that the episode spends too much time on.[collapse]
But frankly my biggest gripe is that the driving forces and relationships that matter (and some of the characters) all happen mostly off-screen. We’re constantly told about Prince Ali, Bob, Bob’s girlfriend, Jennifer’s mother, the Ramat Revolution, and so forth, but it’s all handed out like the exposition that it is. Between that and trying to keep track of the names of all the teachers (which, again, I gave up on) being talked about, it’s just sort of a mess narrative-wise, a collection of scenes rather than a satisfying story.
And you can tell this is one where Poirot was absolutely shoehorned into the running time – the story would have been much better served focusing entirely on the interpersonal stuff between the teachers and the students for a good while, bringing in Poirot near the end (as the book did) to tidy things up and perform a little deductive magic.
That said, I didn’t entirely hate the episode – but it is pretty forgettable outside of the rarely-seen-in-the-wild Murder By Javelin. Aside from the children, only Elizabeth Berrington as the harpooned Miss Springer really stands out acting-wise, and although the school setting is a great setup for a classic Christie, the adaptation just seemed (wrongly) more interested in its hero than in the drama and characters populating its singular environment.
Next Week, on Poirot: A might-be-crazy-heiress (are there any other kind?) thinks she might have killed someone, and asks Poirot for help. Luckily Ariadne Oliver is on hand to eat a few apples and toss a few bon mots as our heroes try to discover what’s going on with… “The Third Girl”!