The BBC's listings for 10th September 1983 indicate that the scheduled Saturday Night Theatre for that day was an adaptation of Agatha Christies "Ordeal by Innocence".
The recording had been made and finalised, however at the very last minute the broadcast was pulled. As far as we know it has never been broadcast and it is not certain if it is even still in the BBC archive.
Author : Agatha Christie
The movie, stage, and television adaptations of Christie’s work are well known and often discussed amongst Christie fans. A fourth medium, radio, is much more obscure and often ignored. Two of the major overviews of Christie’s work and adaptations of it, Dick Riley and Pam McAllister’s The New Bedside, Bathtub & Armchair Companion to Agatha Christie, and Dennis Sanders and Len Lovallo’s The Agatha Christie Companion, discuss the movies, plays, and television adaptations, but both ignore the radio dramas.
This is a terrible shame, because some of the best and most interesting adaptations– as well as some of the worst and most facile takes on Christie’s work– appear in the realm of radio drama. Although the history of Christie tales on the radio is a long and complex one, here is a brief overview of some of the highlights and lowlights of Christie adaptations for the radio. This is certainly not a complete listing of all of Christie’s forays onto sound-only drama, but hopefully it will give inquisitive readers a better understanding of the various ways that Christie stories have entertained fans.
Christie wrote a number of radio plays herself. In 1930, she contributed to the Detection Club (a society of England’s best mystery writers) series Behind the Screen with the episode Something is Missing. Soon afterwards, Christie contributed to a similar project titled The Scoop. In these mysteries, each mystery writer contributed chapters in a serial mystery, much like they did for the novel The Floating Admiral. Christie read her work herself in the broadcasts, although her retiring demeanor made the experiences uncomfortable for her.
The Yellow Iris (1937) is based on the Poirot short story of the same name, where the case of a wealthy woman’s presumed suicide at a trendy restaurant is revisited years later, and new revelations emerge. Interestingly, the radio play is a musical, but Poirot does not reveal the killer through a power ballad. The mystery is set in a restaurant, and the establishment’s cabaret punctuates the detection with songs.
Before The Mousetrap became the world’s longest-running play, Christie wrote the radio play Three Blind Mice as part of Queen Mary’s special eightieth birthday celebration in 1947. The nursery stage title had already been used, so the “Mousetrap” title, inspired by a line from Hamlet, was inserted when the transition was made to the stage.
1948 saw the release of Butter in a Lordly Dish, part of a series scripted by members of the Detection Club. Butter is loosely based on the Biblical story of Jael. Here, a philandering barrister specializing in prosecutorial work recalls one of his most famous cases, where he sent a serial killer to the gallows. As the play unfolds, it is revealed that there is more to the case than previously suspected, and the play ends with an uncharacteristically grisly twist that is perhaps best suited for radio.
Personal Call, Christie’s final radio play, was produced in 1954. The story revolves around mysterious death and seemingly inexplicable phone conversations, and is notable for bringing back the character Inspector Narracott, who had previously appeared in The Sittaford Mystery. Christie’s original radio plays remain rather obscure except to die-hard fans, although new versions of the plays have been broadcast on occasion over the years.
The legendary Orson Welles starred in a 1939 radio adaptation of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd for the Campbell Playhouse, a critically acclaimed series that adapted classic works for the radio. Intriguingly, Welles played a double role in this production, taking on the parts of both Poirot and as Dr. Sheppard. Careful attention to the script reveals that the play has been crafted so that Poirot and Dr. Sheppard’s lines never immediately follow each other, so that Welles always had a chance to switch his accent from Belgian to British. Either another character’s lines punctuate a conversation between Poirot and Sheppard, or a brief musical interlude interrupts the dialogue. Much of the novel’s plot is incorporated into the hour-long show, although certain clues and character revelations are dropped, making the storyline somewhat confusing for people not familiar with the book, and the denouement is slightly disjointed, although fans of the novel will find much to entertain them with this show. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is downloadable on numerous websites.
Throughout the middle of the twentieth century, Suspense was one of America’s most beloved radio programs. Classic short stories and original thrillers were adapted into half-hour productions, and popular episodes were remade multiple times. At least three Christie stories appeared on this program. In the half-hour 1943 version of The ABC Murders, Charles Laughton plays the hapless Alexander Bonaparte Cust, and Elsa Lanchester plays his sympathetic love interest. The book’s plot is pretty much eviscerated for the sake of time, and Poirot and Hastings do not appear– another character unravels the mystery. Despite the fact that the episode plays like the Cliff’s Notes of the Cliff’s Notes of the Cliff’s Notes of The ABC Murders, husband-and-wife duo Laughton and Lanchester make the episode worthwhile thanks to the same wonderful chemistry that they displayed in the film version of Witness for the Prosecution.
Philomel Cottage, the tale of a newlywed wife who discovers that her husband may be much less wonderful than she previously thought, was broadcast three times on Suspense, in 1942, 1943, and 1946. Orson Welles starred in the 1943 version. Finally, Where There’s A Will, the tale of a ne’er-do-well willing to take unusual steps to secure his inheritance, was broadcast in 1949. Where There’s A Will is the American title of a story published as Wireless in England, and the episode featured James Mason.
Christie tales made other one-off appearances on certain radio shows during the 1940’s. The short-lived Murder Clinic made a thirty-minute version of the Poirot story “The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor” in 1942 starring Maurice Tarplin. Witness for the Prosecution became a half-hour episode of Radio City Playhouse in 1949, which interestingly allowed for justice being done in a way that was very different from how Christie envisioned it.
During 1945 to 1947, Harold Huber took on the title role in the series Hercule Poirot. Despite the famous name, Huber’s take on Poirot was substantially different from Christie’s stories. Despite his declaration that “Time and the little grey cells… they will always catch the criminal,” Huber’s Poirot’s often engaged in hurried chases and plenty of action in order to catch killers, rather than the use of psychological investigation. Heavy emphasis was placed on his bowler hat and big moustache.
Most of the mysteries were original stories, although Christie’s original material does make an occasional appearance. “Rendezvous With Death” is a heavily abridged version of Death on the Nile, with about three-quarters of the characters and eighty percent of the deaths deleted. Most of the stories revolve around original mysteries, revolving around situations such as Poirot’s search for a new apartment, and the corpses he discovers during his foray into the real estate market, or a good friend of the detective being falsely accused of a crime. In some cases, such as “The Deadest Man in the World,” the identity of the guilty party is revealed early on, Columbo-style, and the adventure revolves around Poirot bringing the criminals to justice.
Only a few episodes of Hercule Poirot are widely available for download or purchase today. Those who listen to it will note some major changes. In the premiere episode, Poirot moves to New York City. Poirot’s status as a “fish out of water” is frequently played for comedy as he struggles with American culture clashes. Captain Hastings, Chief Inspector Japp, Miss Lemon, and Georges are absent (at least in the surviving episodes). Early on, Poirot hires a new secretary, Miss Fletcher, although her tenure with the great detective seems to be a very short one.
Despite the radical departure from her source material, Christie introduced the first episode of Hercule Poirot (“The Careless Victim”) with a brief speech. Perhaps she didn’t know the liberties the creative team would take when she said:
“I feel that this is an occasion that would have appealed to Hercule Poirot. He would have done justice to the inauguration of this radio program, and he might even have made it seem something of an international event. However, as he's heavily engaged on an investigation, about which you will hear in due course, I must, as one of his oldest friends, deputize for him. The great man has his little foibles, but really, I have the greatest affection for him. And it is a source of continuing satisfaction to me, that there has been such a generous response to his appearance on my books, and I hope that his new career on the radio will make many new friends for him among a wider public.”
The BBC has had a long reputation for producing some of the best radio adaptations of Christie’s work. And Then There Were None was played for listeners in the late 1940’s. In 1953, Richard Attenborough and Shelia Sims played Tommy and Tuppence in a thirteen-part version of Partners in Crime. From 1993 to 2001, June Whitfield played Miss Marple in adaptations of all twelve Miss Marple novels. Many Poirot novels have been adapted by the BBC as well. Maurice Denham played Poirot in The Mystery of the Blue Train in a miniseries broadcast from 1985 to 1986, and Peter Sallis took on the role in 1986 for Hercule Poirot’s Christmas. John Moffatt played the great detective from 1987 onwards, when most (although not all) of the Poirot mysteries were adapted, generally with significant artistic success. Some stories that did not include recurring detectives also received adaptations, During the 1980’s and 1990’s, radio adaptations of The Unexpected Guest, The Sittaford Mystery, Crooked House, The Pale Horse, and other nonseries books made their way onto the airwaves. More recently, a handful of Christie’s mysteries, romance stories, and supernatural work became radio dramas in 2002, and in 2003 several more stories were updated to the present day.
The BBC adaptations of Christie novels are for the most part a Christie purist’s dream. Ranging from about ninety minutes to two and a half hours, the Whitfield and Moffat Miss Marple and Poirot mysteries generally stay extremely faithful to the books, including most of the stories’ minor details and most of the cast of characters. Fine voice work adds to the quality of these highly entertaining productions. Philip Jackson, known for his work on the David Suchet television series, reprises his role of Chief Inspector Japp in several episodes of Moffatt’s Poirot broadcasts.
The 2003 story adaptations are another matter. Somehow, a lot of the Christie charm is lost in the move to the twenty-first century. The supernatural story “The Dressmaker’s Doll” seems somehow crippled when set in the modern fashion industry; where olive juice martinis, body piercings, and references to horror movies blunt all of the creepiness and suspense of the original tale. “The Perfect Carer,” an update of “The Perfect Maid,” is somewhat better. Miss Marple is deleted in favor of a thoroughly modern young real estate agent, and the sound of clicking computer keys and a subplot about selfish executives pillaging their employees’s pensions are inserted. The voice work by the actresses playing the two sisters renting a flat is the high point of this episode, but unfortunately, as is so often the case with Christie, change for the sake of change is a disappointment.
Regrettably, the rise of movies and television has substantially undercut the audience for radio drama, which is a great shame. Nevertheless, as some of the BBC productions illustrate, radio theater is still alive and entertaining audiences. Since there are still several Christie novels and dozens of short stories awaiting adaptation, coupled with comparatively low production costs of radio, it’s fairly safe to say that Christie adaptations will continue to entertain fans of radio drama for some time to come.