How about some more theatre memories? April 1984 – February 1985

Another plunge into history…

  1. Poppie Nongena – Riverside Studios, London, April 1984

Poppie NongenaThis arrived at the Riverside Studios, Hammersmith with much expectation, and, although I can’t remember too many details about the show, I know I really enjoyed it and so did my friend Dave who came with me. Based on Elsa Joubert’s acclaimed novel, which has only recently also been made into a film, it tells the story of a South African woman born in the 1930s and the journey of her life. Poppie was played by Thuli Dumakude who won the Laurence Olivier Award for Actress of the Year in a New Play for this performance. The cast and crew had all come to London following the successful original production of the play in South Africa.

  1. Mr Cinders – Fortune Theatre, London, 14th May 1984

This hugely successful little production had already been playing for over a year when I finally saw it.  Written in 1928 by Clifford Grey and Greatrex Newman, with music by Vivian Ellis and Richard Myers, this is a Cinderella story with the roles reversed – Mr Cinders is the downtrodden menial help and the Prince Charming role is a young, forceful woman. This production started at the King’s Head theatre then quickly transferred to the Fortune, originally with Denis Lawson in the main role, but I saw it shortly after a cast change and Jim was played by Lionel Blair, and Jill by Carole Brooke. I remember it being absolutely charming, beautifully played, very funny and a completely winning little show. Looking back, I wonder how on earth they crammed a cast of twenty on the tiny Fortune stage. But they must have somehow!

  1. 42nd Street – Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London, 28th July 1984

I’m always keen to see the big names of musical theatre history, so I was really looking forward to seeing this giant of a show, staged at my favourite London theatre, with my friends Mike and Lin and Lin’s mum Barbara. I was so disappointed – in fact, I was really bored by it and pretty much hated it. Despite a fantastic cast led by Georgia Brown, it commits the cardinal sin that only a musical can: it tells a bit of story, then everything stops for a song. Then it picks up the story, then it stops again. There’s no flowing movement. It’s all façade and no sincerity. Happy never to see this show again!

  1. The Ratepayers’ Iolanthe – Phoenix Theatre, London, 1st September 1984

Ned Sherrin and Alistair Beaton adapted Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe to reflect the current political wranglings between Tory PM Margaret Thatcher and the London GLC’s leadership by Labour Ken Livingstone. The result was a very clever and witty political parody and I enjoyed it a lot. Looking back, it was a tremendous cast of West End stalwarts: Gaye Brown, Lorna Dallas, David Firth, Doug Fisher, David Kernan, Michael Robbins, Gay Soper, Dudley Stevens, Sally Bradshaw, Myra Sands and Jenny Wren. Very much a thing of its time, there’s no way this would ever be revived!

  1. Little Shop of Horrors – Comedy Theatre, London, 24th November 1984

Moving over a production of Ira Levin’s Deathtrap at the Bournemouth Playhouse starring Gareth Hunt as Sidney Bruhl (only because I’ve already mentioned the original West End production) my next show was the original London production of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s Little Shop of Horrors, the cult classic ridiculously funny musical with an out of control man-eating plant. This had already been running for a year when I saw it, and had undergone a change of cast with Ellen Greene leaving the role of Audrey, and now being performed by Claire Moore; and on the matinee that I saw, Audrey was performed by her understudy Susie Fenwick. The cast also included some other great performers, including Barry James, Harry Towb, David Burt and Dawn Hope. Huge fun, brilliant staging – including at the end when plant tentacles dropped down from the ceiling and brushed the heads of everyone in the stalls, much to our combined surprised horror!

  1. Stepping Out – Duke of York’s Theatre, London, 24th November 1984

Richard Harris’ delightful and successful play about a group of women who learn to tap dance together won the Evening Standard Play of the Year award before being made into a film. Thoroughly enjoyable play, given a very good production directed by Julia McKenzie. Barbara Ferris and Diane Langton led the cast. Not much more to say, really!

  1. Trumpets and Raspberries – Phoenix Theatre, London, 15th December 1984

After Accidental Death of an Anarchist I was a huge fan of Dario Fo and this production of his 1981 play was a must-see. Another of his left-wing farces, it starred Griff Rhys-Jones playing the dual roles of Agnelli, the head of Fiat Motors, and Antonio, who rescues Agnelli from a kidnap attempt. When Agnelli’s face is reconstructed to look like Antonio – typical farce ensues. Very funny and thoroughly enjoyable, with a great supporting cast including Gwen Taylor and Gavin Muir.

  1. The Hired Man – Astoria Theatre, London, 2nd February 1985

Passing over a concert by Jacques Loussier at the Royal Festival Hall that I saw in January 1985 with my friends John and Paul, the next show I saw was the brilliant – and still frequently performed (I’m pleased to say) The Hired Man, Melvyn Bragg and Howard Goodall’s adaptation of Bragg’s own original book, charting the life of John and Emily, high up on some fell, Jackson, who betrayed John’s friendship by a dalliance with Emily; and, as time goes by, the adventures of May and Harry their children, culminating in Emily’s death and John’s return to working on the land. A production whose strength came from, not only the brilliance of the material but the simplicity of its staging; and I remember being completely blown away by a mesmerising performance by Paul Clarkson as John, who I always thought would go on to be the biggest thing in the West End – but it didn’t quite work out that way. Oh – and the music is sensational. One of the best shows ever.

  1. She Stoops to Conquer – National Theatre, Lyttelton Theatre, London, February 1985.

Giles Block’s wonderful production of Oliver Goldsmith’s classic, this was a riot starring Tom Baker and Dora Bryan, Tony Haygarth and Hywel Bennett. This had enjoyed a lengthy and successful tour and would go on to appear in some more regional theatres before finally closing. Great fun!

  1. Me and My Girl – Adelphi Theatre, London, 25th February 1985

The Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle was always a sucker for anything nostalgic about the good old days of London, so a show featuring The Lambeth Walk would always be high on her priority list. We both really enjoyed this fantastic production, which breathed new life into an old show and has kept it in the public’s wish list ever since. A great cast album too!

Heading the cast was the amazing Robert Lindsay who revealed song and dance abilities I had no idea he had, and he continues to give great performances to this day. Emma Thompson was a delightful Sally, and with a supporting cast including names like Frank Thornton, Ursula Smith, Robert Longden and Richard Caldicot, this was always going to be a great production. Low down the cast list was Rosemarie Ford, who would become better known as Bruce Forsyth’s assistant on the Generation Game (what’s on the board, Miss Ford) and who would also become known as Mrs Robert Lindsay.

Review – Another Comedy Crate Night at the Black Prince, Northampton, 8th October 2020

Comedy CrateAs the nights begin to draw in and the thermometer starts to plummet there was still time for one last Comedy Crate night in the garden of the Black Prince before it simply gets just too damn chilly. We were accompanied by our friends Doctor Eurovision (not a real doctor) and the Duke of Dallington, who was dipping his toes into the local comedy scene for the first time. Fortunately, the entertainment was more than enough to keep us (relatively) toasty before Johnson’s curfew fell upon us all.

Tom HoughtonOur host for the night was Tom Houghton, whom we saw at Spank! last year – who knows if and when that’ll ever happen again – and he’s a very jovial chap with a slightly posh boy accent and an air of natural authority. He handled the extremely varied crowd with great aplomb and really grew into MC role as the night progressed. Great stuff.

Eleanor TiernanWe’d seen two of the acts before but they’re all good for a re-watch, especially post Covid-lockdown, which inspires everyone with fresh ideas. First up was Eleanor Tiernan, who has a gently Irish lilting style that can conceal a few hard-hitting punches. Her material is intelligent and quirky, with a few surreal insights about hair dryers and responding to unexpected requests in a taxi. I really enjoyed her take on the perils and pitfalls of coming out as gay at the start of the pandemic. A very enjoyable start to the show.

Josh PughNext came Josh Pugh, whom I thought we had seen before, but I was wrong! He comes on, all guns blazing, with some brilliantly funny material that had me in hysterics pretty much all the way through. He had a great sequence about how far do you take philosophical responses to break-ups, plus Jesus falling back on his carpentry skills and unmentionable things with hoovers. Hilarious, inventive and very down-to-earth without being overly coarse – we really enjoyed his act and I’d be very happy to see him again.

Noise Next DoorHeadlining were The Noise Next Door, an improv act whom we saw at the Leicester Comedy Festival last year when Johnny Vegas just about gave them enough time to do a bit of their act before the theatre had to close up for the night. They seek ideas and examples from the audience and then incorporate them into comedy songs and sketches – and their brains work in amazing ways! They do a great sequence where they speak alternate words (or even letters) in a foreign accent: this time it was Hungarians explaining antidisestablishmentarianism. Constantly surprising us with their improv skills it’s a great act – and I even bought a t-shirt afterwards.

Enormous fun as always. Their next show is on 5th November at the Picturedrome. Should be fireworks!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Hickory Dickory Dock (1955)

Hickory Dickory DockIn which Hercule Poirot is brought into make sense of some strange thefts and minor acts of vandalism at a students’ hostel managed by his secretary, Miss Lemon,’s sister, Mrs Hubbard. But when the thefts turn into deaths, his job is to discover who is behind a series of very serious crimes and prevent more murders from taking place.  As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to reveal whodunit!

MouseThis is the first book written by Christie to bear no dedication since Crooked House was published in 1949. However, even that book started with a foreword. This is the first book to launch straight into the first chapter without any preamble since Sparkling Cyanide in 1945. Hickory Dickory Dock was first published in the UK in six abridged instalments in John Bull magazine, from May to July 1955. In the US, the novel was first serialised in the Collier’s Weekly in three abridged instalments between October and November 1955 under the title Hickory Dickory Death. The full book was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club on 31st October 1955, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in the following month.

detectiveI had been looking forward to re-reading Hickory Dickory Dock and for the most part it did not disappoint. In many respects, it’s the classic Christie gripping read – a sequence of deaths occurring in a closed environment, and, although there’s no reason why the murderer should not be someone from outside, you really hope that it is one of the obvious suspects and not some unexpected external influence. The characterisations are good, and you really get a feel for how they behave individually. It’s very difficult – if not impossible – for the reader to ascertain the reason for all the individual thefts and minor crimes that Poirot is initially consulted on – in fact, you don’t try, you just let Poirot’s intelligence wash all over you. As far as the identity of the murderer is concerned, it’s curiously both obvious and completely obfuscated. I remember when I first read this book as a child that I guessed who had done it and was both chuffed to have got it right and disappointed not to enjoy a big surprise.

Mouse Ran up the ClockAs with many of her other books, the title is taken from a nursery rhyme or well-known quotation. It’s a great title; but to be fair it’s lazily applied. For example, there’s no relevant mouse or clock involved in the story. Its only relevance is just the fact that the name of the street where the students live is Hickory Road. You can tell that the title came first. The book begins and ends with a couple of old characters whom we’ve met before. Poirot’s super-efficient secretary, Miss Lemon, appears in the first chapter, startling Poirot by making mistakes in her letters. This is not the Miss Lemon that he has become used to over the years, and nor do we expect her mind to be elsewhere when she is “on the job”. We first encountered her in Parker Pyne Investigates, as one of that super-sleuth’s industrious bank of general staff. By 1947, she has joined Poirot’s team, as we reacquaint ourselves with her in The Labours of Hercules. The opening scene, where Miss Lemon makes a (shock!) mistake with the typing, is written with heaps of humour and is a delightful and very funny introduction. At the end of the book, Poirot catches up with “old Mr Endicott” with whom he had worked on the Abernethy case. This refers to After the Funeral; but whether it’s by error or judgment Christie has slightly changed the details from that previous book, where the family’s name was spelt Abernethie and the solicitor in the case was old Mr Entwhistle. Those changes of name seem very curious to me.

LiegeThere are a few other callbacks to other Christie novels in this book. For example, there is the repetition of the name Mrs Hubbard, who is Miss Lemon’s sister who works at the students’ hostel, but is also one of the American guests travelling on the Orient Express in Murder on the Orient Express. When the students are expecting the arrival of Poirot to give a lecture, one of them says “there was a man who was condemned to death for the murder of a charwoman and this detective got him off at the last moment by finding the real person” – that’s the story of Mrs McGinty’s Dead. Poirot also refers to a soap manufacturer from Liège – that’s Sir Joseph Hoggin in The Nemean Lion, part of The Labours of Hercules. Inspector Sharpe remembers Poirot from a previous case – “remember that business down at Crays Hill?” This doesn’t seem to be a definite reference to any of the other works though. Poirot himself is reminded fleetingly of his beloved Countess Vera Rossakoff – being so much more splendid a woman than these drab young students. The Countess featured most heavily in The Big Four but also appears in The Labours of Hercules and will reappear in an early short story, The Double Clue, which we won’t get to read until Poirot’s Early Cases will be published in 1974.

OratorApart from his rather lacking love-life, is there anything new for us to learn about Poirot in this encounter? Not much. We last saw him two years before in After the Funeral, but of course Poirot never really ages; he started off elderly in The Mysterious Affair of Styles and appears to have been frozen in time ever since! The students in Hickory Road have heard of him, of course, when Mrs Hubbard invites him to give an address, and he displays all his well-renowned oratory skills. “Poirot rose to his feet and spoke with his usual aplomb. The sound of his own voice was always pleasant to him and he spoke for three-quarters of an hour in a light and amusing fashion, recalling those of his experiences that lent themselves to an agreeable exaggeration. If he managed to suggest, in a subtle fashion, that he was, perhaps, something of a mountebank, it was not too obviously contrived.”

Mind Your LanguageWe do also get to meet Inspector Sharpe. Personally, I don’t warm to Inspector Sharpe much. He thinks a lot of himself, on the quiet. He’s very patronising, calling Geronimo “sonny”; he’s very ham-fisted in his attempts to be racially fair (at times in Hickory Dickory Dock, you feel like you’ve been transported to that old ITV 70s sitcom Mind Your Language, in its unsubtle treatment of foreign nationals!) Sharpe prides himself on his ability to get information out of people by conversation and by his general amiability; but I think he’s just big-headed, to be honest. However, he does get the job done and is a careful and thoughtful sleuth with good insight and ability. He doesn’t reappear in any other Christie books – and I can’t say that I’m disappointed.

WriterIn Destination Unknown, Christie uses her usual tactic of writing short chapters, or short divisions within chapters, to increase a sense of speed, excitement and tension. She does this in the opening part of the book and it works extremely well. In Hickory Dickory Dock, she uses the same technique but later in the book. At times, she sets up a veritable frenzy of short scenes, which really keeps the pace driving forwards. It’s quite filmatic (is that the word?) in style, where you see a series of unconnected events one after the other and they build up to an overall picture of many people’s activities all at the same time. It’s a very exciting technique. Another successful technique is when a character is involved in a conversation with another character but Christie doesn’t tell us who that second character is – and for good reason, because that second character is just about to murder the first. That works extremely well in this book.

Dramatis PersonaeHickory Dickory Dock has a relatively high number of cast characters. Apart from Poirot and Sharpe, Miss Lemon and George, and a couple of other police/security types, all the other characters live or work at Hickory Road – and there are at least seventeen of them. So there’s a wide range of characters who have to be introduced fairly rapidly to the reader. Christie employs the device of introducing the list of petty acts of theft or vandalism early on and then having Mrs Hubbard explain which of the characters was most affected by each little crime. It’s a very clever way of introducing such a large cast of characters and associating each one directly with one aspect of the case. It also offers the reader plenty of options as to whom they think might be responsible for the crimes; however, as I mentioned earlier, although there are many possibilities, suspicion largely falls on a limited number of residents – and it’s not a hard one to guess.

LondonNow we’ll look at some of the references in this book. I would normally start with the locations, but, almost uniquely in the Christie oeuvre, there’s only one location in this book apart from Poirot’s own apartments, and that’s the student hostel in Hickory Road. No surprise that this is a completely made up address; there is a Hickory Road in London, but it’s London, Ontario! The only other Hickory Road in the UK that I can unearth is in Lincoln. So we can assume it’s purely an invention.

CortesThere are quite a few other references though, some more intractable than others. Of Miss Lemon, Christie notes that “on questions of surmise, she was lost. Not for her the state of mind of Cortez’ men upon the peak in Darien.” That one perplexed me. But that was poor, I needed look no further than my copy of Keats. “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”: “I like some watcher of the skies/ When a new planet swims into his ken;/ Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes/ He stared at the Pacific—and all his men/ Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—/ Silent, upon a peak in Darien.” But that still doesn’t explain who Cortez was or where Darien is. I’ll hand you over to Wikipedia: “Hernán Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro Altamirano, 1st Marquess of the Valley of Oaxaca was a Spanish Conquistador who led an expedition that caused the fall of the Aztec Empire and brought large portions of what is now mainland Mexico under the rule of the King of Castile in the early 16th century.” The Darien in question is a province in Panama, at the far east of the country. To be honest, I’m not remotely surprised Miss Lemon didn’t worry about it.

Sherlock Holmes“The parsley sinking into the butter on a hot day” murmurs Poirot to himself, intrigued by Miss Lemon’s lack of concentration. He explains to her that it’s a quotation from Sherlock Holmes but he doesn’t tell us more. “You will remember, Watson, how the dreadful business of the Abernetty family was first brought to my notice by the depth which the parsley had sunk into the butter upon a hot day.” This is from the short story The Adventure of the Six Napoleons from the book The Return of Sherlock Holmes. So now you know. Although I’m still not sure what relevance butter and parsley have to anything. It’s been a long time since I’ve read any Holmes.

Girls Own BookWhen Poirot is presented with the list of items that have been either stolen or vandalised, he says it reminds him of a game he was forced to play by young friends during Christmas, called The Three Horned Lady. He explains that it’s a memory game and if you forget the items in your list you get awarded a horn. Then you become a one-horned lady. If you forget two more times you become a three-horned lady and you’re out. I’d never heard of this particular game, but Google shows that it was described in The Girl’s Own Book dated 1844 – I don’t know if that’s its first time in print, but that shows that it was at least 100 years old when Christie wrote about it.

FulbrightSally Finch is said to be studying in the UK on a Fulbrite (sic) scholarship – The Fulbright Programme is designed to improve intercultural relations, cultural diplomacy, and intercultural competence between the people of the United States and other countries through the exchange of persons, knowledge, and skills. It was started in 1946, with the first UK – US exchange taking place in 1948, and it still continues to this day. In a breakfast argument between Valerie and Nigel, she refers to The Oxford Group – again I point you towards Wikipedia: “The Oxford Group was a Christian organization first known as First Century Christian Fellowship founded by the American Lutheran Christian priest Frank Buchman in 1921. Buchman believed that the root of all problems were the personal problems of fear and selfishness.” Over the years the Oxford Group became Moral Re-Armament, and in 2001 became Initiatives of Change, which is still active today.

Annie Get Your GunValerie jokes that “you can’t get a man with a gun” – which of course I am sure you are aware is a song that comes from the 1946 musical Annie Get Your Gun. Mrs Nicoletis is described as being “cheese-paring”, a phrase that was new to me, meaning “extremely careful with money”. I guess the derivation is that if you pare the cheese, it goes further. Elizabeth Johnston strongly disapproves of the American “witch hunts, their hysterical spy mania, their obsession over Communism.” In 1955, America was just getting over the worst of McCarthyism. “I know two things about the horse and one of them is rather coarse”, quotes Sharpe, much to Poirot’s surprise. This amusing little rhyme was by Naomi Royde-Smith and was published in the Weekend Book of 1928. Patricia’s paperweight depicted a Lion of Lucerne – which is a rock relief in Lucerne, Switzerland, that commemorates the Swiss Guards who were massacred in 1792 during the French Revolution, when revolutionaries stormed the Tuileries Palace in Paris. It is one of the most famous monuments in Switzerland. But I’ve never seen or heard of it. And that completes the references for this book.

PoundRegular readers will know that I like to consider any significant sums of money in Christie’s books and work out what their value would be today, just to get a feel of the range of sums that we’re looking at. Len Bateson bets Nigel Chapman £5 that he couldn’t obtain three different types of poison by three different methods. Nigel wins his bet. £5 in 1955 would be worth £91 today so that’s quite a lot of money for a spontaneous bet. Superintendent Wilding confirms that “you can pack ten or twenty thousand pounds’ worth of heroin in a very small space”. I’m no expert on the street value of heroin today, but ten to twenty thousand pounds in 1955 equates to a massive £1.8m – £3.6m today. And the five or six thousand pounds’ worth of drugs that Wilding estimates could be easily imported on one simple journey is the equivalent of £91,000 to £110,000 today. Not bad pocket money.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Hickory Dickory Dock:

Publication Details: 1955. My copy is a Fontana paperback, fifth impression, dated June 1972, with a price of 25p on the back cover. The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows a green-lit face with big staring eyes looking out at a mouse perched on top of a hand, with a dazzling jewelled ring on one of the fingers. Only the jewel has any relevance. It’s an atmospheric image but not overly appropriate!

How many pages until the first death: 55 – but there’s been plenty of other crime and investigation already by then.

Funny lines out of context: basically, to find these funny, you have to have a dirty mind. But I think I know my readers well enough.

“Sergeant Cobb said “Good morning Madam,” and produced his credentials.”

“…he now proceeded to take the drawers out and turn them upside down. He uttered an ejaculation of pleasure. “Here we are, my lad” he said.”

Memorable characters:

This book is very strong on all its supplementary characters. You’ve got the brash Valerie, the immature Nigel, the constantly perplexed Akibombo, the aggressive Colin, the assertive Elizabeth, and the ghastly Mrs Nicoletis. The dialogue between the students is lively and well captured, and  you get an excellent insight into many of their characters.

Christie the Poison expert:

Christie would have dug deep to bring to mind the several poisons that are cited in this book. One death is caused by morphine tartrate, which today is used as part of the active ingredients in an injection of Cyclimorph, used to relieve moderate to severe pain. A drug named Vegenin is referred to a couple of times, which is a mixture or paracetamol, codeine and caffeine; I’d never heard of it but it is still sold as a proprietary brand today. Liquor arsenicalis, or Fowler’s Solution, is mentioned; this is a pharmacopoeial preparation made by boiling arsenious acid and carbonate of potassium in water, and then adding compound tincture of lavender. It is highly poisonous, but was very useful in small doses in certain skin diseases and in some forms of dyspepsia. Originally produced by Thomas Fowler in 1786, this has been out of regular use for a very long time.

When Nigel collects his three poisons, in addition to the morphine tartrate he also obtains hyoscine tablets and a bottle of tincture of digitalin. Hyoscine is a common drug used against motion sickness, and postoperative nausea; it can also be used in cases of irritable bowel syndrome or colic. You can buy it under the brand name Kwells. Digitalin is obtained from the foxglove and has been used in medicine for almost 250 years, primarily in cardiac treatment. However, the wrong dose can be fatal. Chandra Lal uses boracic for his eyes – from borax, this is a crystalline salt; they also refer to sulphuric acid which of course is another lethal compound used mainly in cleaning products and for industrial use. Finally there is Medinal, the first commercially available barbiturate, used as sleeping aid from 1903 until the 1950s. There is probably more poison in this book than in any other Christie!

Class/social issues of the time:

One social issue that was raised in Destination Unknown continues in this next book – that of Communism. It’s introduced gently in the early stages of the book, with just some hearsay about the causes why the police were called to the hostel in the past. “”It wouldn’t be the first time,” said Mrs Hubbard, recalling various unpleasant incidents. “There was that West Indian student who was wanted for living on immoral earning and that notorious young Communist agitator who came here under a false name…”

Sally agrees with Sharpe that there is something of which she is afraid: “The whole place […] isn’t what it seems. No, no, Inspector, I don’t mean Communists. I can see that just trembling on your lips. It’s not Communists I mean. Perhaps it isn’t even criminal.” Sharpe clearly betrayed a small sense of knee-jerk suspicion about Communism, which Sally refutes. We’ve already seen that Elizabeth strongly condemns American McCarthyism. However, when it is discovered that she is a card-carrying member of the Communist party herself, Poirot, interestingly, swings to the opposite conclusion. “I should think she was a valuable recruit to the Party […] she is a young woman of quite unusual intelligence, I should say.” Sharpe continues: “It was interesting to me […] because she has never paraded those sympathies, apparently, she’s kept very quiet about it at Hickory Road. I don’t see that it has any significance […] but it’s a thing to bear in mind.”

Jean Tomlinson, however, offers the other view. ““Of course, one isn’t surprised at anything Colin McNabb does […] I’m sure he’s an atheist and a most disbelieving, mocking, unpleasant young man. He’s rude to everybody. It’s my opinion that he’s a Communist!” “Ah!” said Inspector Sharpe. “Bad!”” Communism is clearly seen as something to be feared, an intellectual but illegal and immoral activity; but one with which, maybe, Poirot has some sympathy?

Race and xenophobia often turn up in Christie’s works but perhaps not so regularly as they do here. Having a hostel full of students of all nationalities is bound to stoke some opinions that today feel extremely uncomfortable. Fortunately, the N word never appears, but the C one (as in coloured) does on a few occasions. As part of Miss Lemon’s opening anxiety about the welfare of her sister Mrs Hubbard, she tells Poirot, “She’s always been fond of young people and good with them, and having lived in the East so long she understands racial differences and people’s susceptibilities. Because these students at the hostel are of all nationalities; mostly English, but some of them actually black, I believe.” Interestingly, she goes on to observe: “half the nurses in our hospitals seem to be black nowadays […] and I understand much pleasanter and more attentive than the English ones”, which is perhaps not an opinion that one might have expected. But this book would have coincided with the growth in the NHS and the search for nursing staff from overseas. Plus ça change…

 Even Mrs Hubbard is not immune from the xenophobia. When Mrs Nicoletis accuses the Italian cook of swindling her, Mrs H steps in: “I can assure you that no foreigner is going to put anything over on me”, with an implication that foreigners are either less intelligent or less adept than the indigenous Brits and it’s a matter of honour for them to be seen as top dog. West Indian Elizabeth is given the nickname “Black Bess” by all the housemates, and it’s seen as an affectionate term – Black Bess was of course the name of Dick Turpin’s horse. Today we’d consider that potentially insensitive at the very least. Christie doesn’t help matters by giving the Italian cook and housekeeper the name Geronimo, who was originally an Apache leader, and comedy catchphrase – it’s what someone might have yelled in a 60s cartoon before jumping into the abyss. Perhaps even more extraordinary, the West African student is named Akibombo, which sounds like an onomatopoeic ridiculing of the language from that region. In his defence, at least Akibombo comes across as a relatively decent and likeable character. Christie can’t resist a little bit of fun-poking when she writes: “owing to his colour, Mr Akibombo was not able to blush, but his eyelids blinked in a discomfited manner.”

There’s a sweeping statement about the behaviour of some racial minorities; Jean again, who isn’t the most forward thinking of the students: “I think it’s much more likely to be Mr Akibombo […] Jealousy. All these coloured people are very jealous of each other and very hysterical.” Christie also puts these words in the mouth of Mr Chandra Lal: “Deliberate oppression of native races. Contempt and prejudice, colour prejudice. It is here well authenticated.” I really can’t see an Indian student of political science using the phrase “native races.” However, despite all these examples of uncomfortable use of language, I don’t think you come away from this book feeling that it’s actively racist. It’s definitely a child of its time, and Christie is exploring a number of attitudes to the coming together of people from all over the world.

One interesting little subject that rears its ugly head ever so slightly is that of pornography. Christie, with the utmost gentility, reveals that “Mr Achmed Ali has some extremely pornographic literature and postcards which explains why he went up in the air over the search”. Such postcards today would be collectors’ items. My guess is that they were probably just pin-up girls from the movies… but who knows?

The final – again minor – subject that reappears is that of inherited insanity. It’s revealed that one character has a father who is a certified patient in a Mental Hospital. Again, the detectives affirm that it probably has no bearing on the matter but that they will bear it in mind. The sins of the fathers are indeed visited upon the sons.

Classic denouement:  No, not a classic in the sense of Poirot herding everyone into a room, raising the suspicion with one person only to fox us with a j’accuse of someone completely different. It is however, a very successful denouement, and possibly unique in the Christie canon; and a long one, running over several chapters. The identity of the murderer is revealed in a discussion purely between the detectives, and is then confirmed by Poirot’s discussion with a third party, an additional revelation made about another of the characters, followed by a follow-up chapter where you see everyone else’s reactions. It’s one of those denouements where you never actually get to see the culprit get accused – which is slightly disappointing.

Happy ending? Moderately, yes. An engagement is announced between two young people and a third is delighted to be asked to be Best Man.

Did the story ring true? From the plotting, the interactions between the detectives and between the suspects, there’s something about this book that feels surprisingly very realistic. So yes, I believe this story completely!

Overall satisfaction rating: Re-reading this book alerted me to one or two areas in which it disappoints you slightly; the unusual denoument, the fact that you guess whodunit (well, I did), the uncomfortable racial language. Nevertheless, there’s just something about this story that makes it a personal favourite and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of re-reading it. So for me, it’s a 10/10.

Dead Man's FollyThanks for reading my blog of Hickory Dickory Dock and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is Dead Man’s Folly, and the return of both Hercule Poirot and the redoubtable Mrs Oliver, no doubt festooned with apples. I don’t have much memory of it, so I’m looking forward to tackling this one over the next few weeks. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it as soon as I can. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

Lockdown Armchair Travel – Malta – August 2012

It’s been a while since I’ve done a lockdown armchair travel post – and, for most of us, we’re still not going anywhere exciting in a hurry. So M is for Malta, and a lovely sunny week in the summer of 2012 (plus a couple of old snaps from our stay in March 1993). We stayed in the resort that I think is probably the best place to be based in Malta –

St Julian's Bay

St Julian’s Bay. It’s chic, elegant, close to Valletta but also a good springboard to other parts of the island. And considerably more attractive than Bugibba, which is where we stayed in 1993. You can spend hours here just drinking in the scenery.

It’s also an easy walk to Sliema, with its beautiful views overlooking Valletta.

They love a good parade in Malta. When we were there in 1993 it was carnival time, and we watched the arrival of King Carnival (to a very repetitive but upbeat pre-recorded soundtrack).

King Carnival

Meanwhile, in 2012, we were in St Julian’s at the same time when an effigy of the saint is paraded around the town.

St Julian

To a live band accompaniment, of course.

Live band

One of my favourite places in Malta is Mosta, with its incredible Dome Church.

It’s notable for having survived a bomb attack during the Second World War when a bomb fell through the hole at the top of the Dome – but didn’t explode.

Dome

That was a lucky break. (Or God was on their side, whichever you prefer).

Mosta Dome

From Mosta it’s easy to carry on to the beautiful and blustery old capital of Mdina.

Mdina

The wind really whistles around your wotsits when you’re perched up there, even in full summer.

Mdina Gate

Lion statues guard against you – or welcome you, depending on how you see yourself – as you wander round this quaint and very narrow old town.

Mdina

But the views are stunning.

View from Mdina

Of course you have to pay a visit to the modern capital, Valletta, with its steep streets.

Valletta

St John’s Co-Cathedral is a must-see.

Cathedral

The Hospital of St John perches near an attractive outcrop

The Hospital of St John

A harbour cruise is also worthwhile

Harbour cruise

This is a picture of the so-called Three Cities taken from a harbour cruise in 1993 – very moody

The Three Cities

I’d also recommend a trip to Gozo. Full of charming sights.

Gozo

Here’s stunning Ramla Bay

Ramla Bay

And lovely Xlendi

Xlendi

We did a boat trip to the Azure Window

Azure Window trip

It was a stunning sight

Azure Window

Sadly no longer there

A Window

The islands are also littered with ancient temples. Here you can see Altar Niches at the Ġgantija Temples

Altar Niches

Here’s an interesting thing: Maltese horse races are the “trot” variety!

Horse Racing

I could bore you with many more pictures, but that wouldn’t be fair. Here’s just a few quirky parting shots.

Mussels in SmellsMussels in Smells?

No construction worker would be seen dead without his parasol

No construction worker would be seen dead without his parasol

 So pleased to see Michael Gove has got a proper job

So pleased to see Michael Gove has got a proper job

Synchronised drinking

Synchronised drinking?

Who's captain of this ship?

Who’s captain of this ship?

I’ll leave you with an image of me nicking some chocolate almost thirty years ago.

Chocolover

Let’s hope we can go on holidays safely again soon!

Yet Another Bunch of Theatre Memories – April 1983 to March 1984

It’s been a while since I checked out the old shows, so try these for size!

  1. Key for Two – Vaudeville Theatre, London, 20th April 1983

Key For TwoJohn Chapman and Dave Freeman’s farce had already been running for about eight months when I finally saw it. A fantastic cast headed by Moira Lister and Patrick Cargill, this was a typical 80s sex comedy, the like of which you rarely see today. I don’t have very strong memories of it, but I’m sure it was thoroughly entertaining!

  1. Fiddler on the Roof – Apollo Victoria Theatre, London, 19th July 1983

It was still traditional that I would go and see a summer show with the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle, and she was very keen to see this production, as it starred the one and only original Tevye, Topol. And it would indeed be an incredibly privileged experience to see this star in the role for which he was synonymous. The production followed the original 1960s direction and choreography by Jerome Robbins. Very enjoyable, as you would expect. Thelma Ruby was an excellent Golde, and Maria Charles a memorable Yente.

  1. Underground – Prince of Wales Theatre, London, 27th July 1983

I don’t think this thriller by Michael Sloan, directed by Simon Williams, got great reviews, but I really enjoyed it – it definitely raised a respectful cap to Murder on the Orient Express, if you get my drift. Set on a tube train in London that slowly grinds to a halt and goes no further, it was also a chance to see some famous and well-regarded TV stars. The cast was headed by Raymond Burr – yes A Man called Ironside – and Peter Wyngarde – yes Jason King – as well as Alfred Marks, Gerald Flood, Elspeth March and Freewheelers’ Ronald Leigh-Hunt. I’m pretty sure this didn’t last long but I have very fond memories of it.

  1. Happy Family – Duke of York’s Theatre, London, 9th September 1983

Giles Cooper’s final play, originally produced in 1966, had a strong cast of four – Stephanie Beacham, Ian Ogilvy, Angela Thorne and James Laurenson; and was directed by Maria Aitken. Based on the contradictory motivations of a dysfunctional family, I can’t remember much about it, but I think it was pretty good. According to my ticket stubs, I saw this with three other people, but I haven’t a clue who they were!o

  1. May Days – Royal Shakespeare Company at the Barbican Theatre, London, October 1983.

David Edgar’s political reflections from England 1945 to England and Russia 1981, this follows the allegedly typical swing from left-wing young people becoming right-wing older people; not sure how accurate that is today. One of Edgar’s grandly sweeping plays, I remember feeling that it was outstanding at the time but, on reflection, the memories of it have faded. John Shrapnel, Antony Sher, Alison Steadman, Lesley Sharp and the late Bob Peck made it an outstanding cast.

  1. An Evening for El Salvador – Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank, London, 4th December 1983

I went to see this fundraising revue for the El Salvador Solidarity Campaign with my friends Mike, Lin and Dave. An amazing line-up included favourite comedy group at the time The Joeys, Emma Thompson, Julie Christie, The Flying Pickets, and Peggy Seeger and Ewan McColl. Oh, for the days of being a lefty activist.

  1. Tchaikovsky Evening with the London Symphony Orchestra, 26th February 1984

Missing out my second trip to see the brilliant Poppy once it had transferred to the Adelphi, my next show was a classical night at the Barbican, with the London Symphony Orchestra under the impressive baton of Claudio Abbado, and the Band of the Irish Guards. This programme of Tchaikovsky music included extracts from Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake and Nutcracker, but concentrated on the Piano Concerto No 1 with soloist Anthony Goldstone, and culminated with the 1812 Overture. I remember it being thoroughly entertaining!

  1. Ballet Rambert – A Programme at Sadler’s Wells, London, 15th March 1984

I saw this performance by Ballet Rambert with my friends Mike and Lin. The programme consisted of Frederick Ashton’s Capriol Suite and Five Brahms Waltzes in the manner of Isadora Duncan, Christopher Bruce’s Concertino, and Robert North’s Entre dos Aguas. At the time Rambert was under the direction of Robert North, who also danced in the programme – as did current director Mark Baldwin, plus great names such as Catherine Becque, Lucy Bethune, Frances Carty and Ikky Maas. It was thrilling!

  1. Blondel – Aldwych Theatre, London, 23rd March 1984

Tim Rice and Stephen Oliver’s brilliant musical about the 12th century minstrel Blondel, and Richard the Lionheart’s European escapades. Paul Nicholas took the main role, and excellent he was too; Stephen Tate was a very kingly Richard I, and the now disgraced Chris Langham as the Assassin. I quickly bought the soundtrack album because it has some great comedy songs. Tim Rice has continued to fiddle with this show and it’s now called Lute! although it’s somewhat gone to ground. I really enjoyed it.

  1. Snoopy the Musical – Duchess Theatre, London, 29th March 1984

Larry Grossman and Hal Hackady’s delightful musical was great fun, totally charming, and pure escapism. In a very intimate and simple setting, it was one of those delicate theatre moments that was fun and didn’t pretend to be anything it wasn’t. A brilliant cast who would go on to do even better things included Mark Hadfield as Linus, Teddy Kempner as Snoopy and the late great Robert Locke as Charlie Brown.

Review – Romantics Anonymous, Bristol Old Vic Online, 23rd September 2020

Romantics AnonymousIn another of these inventive and innovative stage moves, this week the Bristol Old Vic are performing Wise Children’s production of Romantics Anonymous, to an empty auditorium but streamed through the magic of the Internet to your home – and it’s about as close to the sense of a real theatrical experience as most of us are going to get during these Covid times. Mrs Chrisparkle and I tuned in on Wednesday as that was the broadcast that was specifically geared to the Midlands, with proceeds benefiting not only the Bristol Old Vic but some Midland theatres including our very own Royal and Derngate here in Northampton. At £15 a ticket (we played fair and bought two) it’s a very reasonable price for what could – hopefully – be a tremendous theatrical experience.

 

AngeliqueAnd it is! Romantics Anonymous – a musical by Michael Kooman, Christopher Dimond and Emma Rice – is based on the French 2010 film Les Emotifs Anonymes, and is the story of Angélique, hopeless in relationships, devoid of confidence, but an absolute whizz at creating the perfect chocolate. When her boss M. Mercier, chocolate provider to the French cognoscenti, dies, Angélique applies for a job at The Chocolate Factory, where owner Jean-René is as awkward and hopeless as she is. However, the company is going under because they haven’t kept up with the times. Can Angélique turn around the company’s ailing fortunes – indeed, will she confess that she is the famous Mercier chocolatière – and can she and Jean-René scrape together enough self-confidence to win each other’s hearts? You’ll have to watch to find out!

 

Angelique and Jean-Rene at dinnerRomantics Anonymous originally played at the Globe in 2017, and this production opened at the Bristol Old Vic in January 2020, to great reviews, shortly before the world fell apart. This streamed production features largely the same cast, although with a little shifting of roles. With a compact but fantasy-glamorous set by the one and only Lez Brotherston, amusing and charming choreography by New Adventures’ Etta Murfitt, a classy and witty band performance led by Nigel Lilley and crackingly quirky direction by Emma Rice, this is a delightful exploration of love and social terror that warms the cockles of your heart and makes you cheer on the characters as you encourage them to find happiness. I’m sure it was splendid to watch in the flesh, but catching it through the Internet is definitely the next best thing, and I hope that at least one of the broadcasts will be recorded for future entertainment over the years.

 

Les Emotifs AnonymesThere are so many amusing and winning aspects to the show as a whole – here are a few of my own favourite moments. I loved how it abruptly changes from French to English; Jean-René’s hopeless attempts at self-improvement home yoga; the running gag about the Mumbler and how he unexpectedly comes to Angélique’s rescue; and the Health and Safety Advisory song at the Interval. The songs are either charming, delicate and heartfelt, or incredibly funny; two songs called (I think – difficult to identify without a proper programme) Je suis émotif, and Savoir faire specifically come to mind.

 

 Les Emotifs AnonymesAs you might expect in a production led by Emma Rice, the cast work together seamlessly as a beautiful ensemble, but with everyone’s individual talents flashing out from the stage like a series of twinkling lights. Angélique is played by the fantastic Carly Bawden, who was stunning in Sheffield’s My Fair Lady a few years back, with her gloriously pure voice and terrific stage presence. You can absolutely believe that she is a chocolate maker supreme (indeed, she proves it in the first few minutes of the show!) and she gets you on her side to will her on to greater self-confidence as the evening progresses. Angelique and Jean-ReneShe is matched by the brilliant Marc Antolin, whom we loved in Emma Rice’s Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, as the tetchily awkward Jean-René. Employing all his expert clowning skills, Mr Antolin gives a superb physical performance conveying all the character’s social anxieties, but delightfully understated so that less is more. Simple effects like his deliberate flatfoot walk to and from the restaurant toilet, or his restrained facial expressions allowing his body to reveal the character’s thoughts, are just wonderful to watch.

 

RestaurantI also really enjoyed the wide range of characterisations by Me’sha Bryan, including her wonderfully Brummie HR lady Suzanne, and Mimi in the Emotifs Anonymes self-help group. Sandra Marvin is as glorious as usual as the anxious dermatologist and Angélique’s dominating mother, and Harry Hepple’s constantly chirpy presence brings a lightness of touch to his roles as Ludo and Remi. Gareth Snook gives a great all-round performance as the magnanimous Mercier, the outrageous Marini and the hilarious Mumbler. But every member of the cast pulls out all the stops and delivers a fine and thoroughly enjoyable performance. I should also point out that the camera work that delivers these fine performances to your living room is absolutely spot on, framing scenes so that you get an overall impression of how the cast and set are interacting, and even encouraging a couple of slightly fourth-wall-breaking moments.

 

TogetherIf Angélique creates the Jesus Christ of French Desserts, then (forgive my blasphemy) Romantics Anonymous delivers a whole gospel’s worth of positivity and love. There are still tickets available for the rest of the week here – not only do you get to see a great show, you get to support the theatre community and keep the arts alive in these perilous times. A Montelimar of magic, a Fondant of fun, a Noisette of… I dunno…. niceness. Do your heart a favour and see this show!

 

Production photos by Steve Tanner

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Destination Unknown (1954)

Destination UnknownIn which Hilary Craven, suicidal after the loss of her child and abandoned by her husband, is offered an adventure which may prove fatal – so what has she to lose? All she has to do is impersonate the wife of a missing scientist. What could possibly go wrong? Not a whodunit as such, but more a what, why and howdunit, and, as usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to reveal its main secrets!

The MousetrapThe book is dedicated “To Anthony, who likes foreign travel as much as I do”. This Anthony is Anthony Hicks, the second husband of Christie’s daughter Rosalind. Christie was clearly very fond of her new son-in-law. In her autobiography, she writes: “I do not know what I would do without him in my life. Not only is he one of the kindest people I know – he is more remarkable and interesting character. He has ideas. He can brighten up any dinner table by suddenly producing a “problem”. In next to no time, everyone is arguing furiously.” She also reveals that Anthony came up with the title “The Mousetrap” so she clearly owed him something! Destination Unknown was first published in the UK in five abridged instalments in John Bull magazine, in October and November 1954. In the US, the novel was first serialised in the Chicago Tribune in fifty-one parts between April and June 1955 under the title Destination X. The full book was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club on 1st November 1954, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company later in 1955 under the title So Many Steps to Death.

Lively girlDestination Unknown is one of those curious Christie concoctions that concentrates on espionage rather than murder. Her first attempt was a rattling good read in the form of the Man in the Brown Suit; and three years before Destination Unknown she created the sparklingly entertaining Victoria Jones in the brilliant They Came to Baghdad. In comparison with these two books – both of which contain lively and spirited female leads – Anne Bedingfield and Victoria Jones – Destination Unknown is rather a damp squib. The main problem is that Anne and Victoria are such fascinating and lively characters right from the start, full of spirit and daring and not remotely scared to take risks and be, frankly, naughty. Hilary Craven, however, is a very different kettle of fish. She starts the book as a shadow of her former self (a former self that we, obviously, never meet), and when she begins to liven up as a character, it’s only because she is pretending to be someone else. So Hilary doesn’t come across as a character in her own right until much later in the book, by which time a sense of uninterest in her has kicked in. It’s not coincidental that Destination Unknown remains one of Christie’s few books yet to be adapted into TV or film.

Hammer and SickleIt’s very much a book that relies on its themes rather than its characters or, indeed, its story. Christie takes the opportunity to fantasise about how a secret Communist “paradise” might present itself; a hidden, nearly Utopian environment that has no hope of succeeding because of the controls placed on the individuals concerned by the Big Brother bosses. Much has been made of the fact that the book clearly gained inspiration from the real-life scandal of involving the defection of Italian scientist Bruno Pontecorvo from his work at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell, to the Soviet Union. Pontecorvo’s colleague Klaus Fuchs was also arrested for espionage, imprisoned for nine years and on his release emigrated to East Germany where he continued his work as a nuclear physicist. Christie cannot conceal her own political leanings with the invention of her hidden desert laboratory, and indeed the whole structure of the book is to send Hilary into this den of iniquity and somehow reveal its secrets to the British Secret Service in a joint act of loyalty and betrayal.

Lion's denIn many ways this is a book of two halves. The first half sets up the story, introduces us to the characters, and Christie employs much lightness of touch to keep us entertained as we delve deeper into the story. However, once the story takes us to Morocco, and Hilary – in her disguise as Olive Betterton – has to survive in the lion’s den, it’s as though Christie takes her foot off the accelerator and we just coast to a not very interesting denouement. Yes, we do find out who is in charge of the operation, and yes we do discover who is guilty of what crimes (although it’s never clear in the first half of the book that we will eventually find these things out – Destination Unknown indeed), but the surrounding characters are too under-written and/or irrelevant for us to care.

Man behind a deskThat early lightness of touch deserves a little exploration, as it’s probably the best part of the book. The first few pages introduce us to a character who Christie calls “the man behind the desk”. Obviously some form of secret agent, his identity is deliberately kept from us. Many times Christie could give us his name, but still she gives him this deliberately mysterious identity. It’s only when Mrs Betterton arrives and wants to speak to him that Christie reveals that he has a name. “Oh, Mr Jessop, I do hope – is there any news?” But even then she next refers to him as “the man called Jessop”. You’re never really sure if it’s his real name or just a nom d’espionage. It’s very nicely done.

Three ladies waitingAs the first part of the book gets underway, Christie employs her usual style of writing short chapters, or short divisions within chapters, to increase a sense of speed and urgency, of excitement and building tension – and it works extremely well. There’s an amusing sequence where we’re introduced to Mlle Jeanne Maricot, seen seated in the Hotel St Louis, alongside Miss Hetherington and Mrs Calvin Baker, both of whom have important roles to play in the story. Mlle Maricot, however, is just biding her time and planning an augmentation to her sex life. She has absolutely nothing to do with the plot, but Christie gives her her moment in the sun, shares her inner thoughts and then “with long graceful steps Mademoiselle Maricot walked out of the small salon and out of the story.” It’s a lovely, artistically detached moment where the author confides in the reader that there’s, basically, nothing to see here. We don’t entirely believe Christie and keep expecting her to pop up in surprising moments, but she doesn’t.

FontanaThere’s another stylistically self-conscious moment, where Miss Hetherington is seen “at a small table against the wall eating her dinner with a Fontana book propped up in front of her”, just as the reader might well be doing precisely the same thing. She’s teasing with us! But that lightness of touch ends with the dramatic bombshell that Hilary and her companions have arrived at the Communistic desert paradise laboratory ranch – and it’s a real shame. There’s evidence from Christie’s notebooks that she was planning They Came to Baghdad and Destination Unknown at the same time – and all the good bits went into the first book, sadly.

Depressed womanLet’s go back and examine the character of Hilary Craven. When we first meet her, she is escaping the misery of her day to day life by taking a flight to Paris. “Out of the greyness, the coldness, the dead numb misery. Escaping to the sunshine and blue skies and a new life. She would leave all this weight behind, this dead weight of misery and frustration.” But that escape is self-delusion. A few paragraphs later: “Hilary thought, “Perhaps the plane will crash… Perhaps it will never rise off the ground, then that will be the end, that will be the solution to everything.” And when she discovers that the plane to Casablanca that she should have taken from Paris – but they couldn’t get there because of fog – crashed and the passengers were killed, her first reaction is “blinding anger […] Why wasn’t I in that plan? If I had been, it would have been all over now – I should be dead, out of it all. No more heartaches, no more misery. The people in that plane wanted to live. And I – I don’t care. Why shouldn’t it have been me?” OK, we understand that Hilary has endured a huge amount of sadness and disappointment. But to present this character as the heroine of the story is very underwhelming to the reader. Rather than feeling sorry for her, or having empathy with her situation, instead you just want her to buck up her ideas and become one of Christie’s usual jovial types. It somehow just doesn’t feel right.

Palais Jamai Now we’ll look at some of the references in this book, starting with the locations. As well as using the big names of London, Paris, Casablanca and Fez, plus Heathrow and Beauvais airports, Christie bases Betterton’s workplace at Harwell, just like the real-life Pontecorvo and Fuchs. Harwell is, of course, a large village to the west of Didcot in Oxfordshire. In Casablanca, the Hotel St Louis, where Mlle Maricot pauses to regroup, appears to be a creation of Christie; but the Palais Djamai was a grand mansion in Fez that had been turned into a luxury hotel, and even today it’s still a notable member of the Sofitel chain of hotels. But otherwise there are surprisingly few locations mentioned in this book.

Niels BohrAs for other references: perhaps the most vital element of the story, the book refers to the discovery of ZE Fission. This is going to come as a shock, but I’m no nuclear scientist. But a quick Google suggests that Ze is a charge originally discussed by Bohr and Wheeler in 1939. I’m going to just leave that there. Olive Betterton’s last words, on the other hand, are a little clearer to understand: “Snow, snow, beautiful snow, you slip on a lump and over you go”. Whilst there are a couple of old songs that include the lyrics “snow snow beautiful snow”, I can’t find anything that includes going over a lump. So that’s a mystery to me, unless you know better?

Bell SongHere’s another quote: “le long des lauriers roses révant de douces choses” – an overheard snatch of French opera, as Christie puts it. This is the Bell Song, from Lakmé, written by Leo Delibes and premiered in 1883. And there’s another: “as a garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse” – a line remembered by Hilary – which is actually Chapter 4, Verse 12 of the Song of Solomon in the Bible. Hilary is asked if she has heard of “leucotomy” – “that’s a brain operation, isn’t it?” she replies. Indeed it is – it is the surgical cutting of white nerve fibres within the brain, especially prefrontal lobotomy, formerly used to treat mental illness. It’s another word for a lobotomy, now banned by most countries.

Twelfth Night“I sent Hilary Craven off on a journey to a destination unknown, but it seems to me that her journey’s end is the usual one after all” concludes Jessop at the end of the book, in an allusion to Shakespeare. In Twelfth Night, Feste the clown sings “Journeys end in lovers meeting” – so you can already guess that it has a happy ending.

PoundRegular readers will know that I like to consider any significant sums of money in Christie’s books and work out what their value would be today, just to get a feel of the range of sums that we’re looking at. However, this is not that kind of a book, and there are no sums of any significance mentioned – even though the desire for great richness is a key to the why and wherefore of the plot.

 

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Destination Unknown:

Publication Details: 1954. My copy is a Fontana paperback, sixteenth impression, dated June 1976, with a price of 60p on the back cover. The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows a surreal, Dali-esque landscape with figures in the mountainous backdrop (which could evoke the Atlas Mountains), a trail of pearls – which is significant – a figure with a deathly stare (might be Adams’ impression of a leper, unsure) and some frog/toad images which I don’t understand in the slightest.

How many pages until the first death: 37 – but it really isn’t that kind of book at all.

Funny lines out of context: just one, involving Christie’s favourite “E” word.

“”God bless my soul,” ejaculated the American Ambassador.”

Memorable characters:

Again, this is where the book severely falls down. Its characters are solidly one-dimensional, acting out their roles within the structure of the book but without ever bursting into interesting or remarkable life.

Christie the Poison expert:

Again, poison plays a very minor part in one aspect of the book but it’s fairly general and I don’t think Christie had to research much to include it.

Class/social issues of the time:

As discussed earlier, much of the book concentrates on what was seen as the growing threat of Communism and Christie’s imagination creates a Communist paradise where everything in the world looks good outwardly but actually is a façade, and a society that stifles and suppresses creativity. On the surface, the scientists have everything they need to perform amazing work, but in reality they find it hard to be inspired. Even the non-scientific Hilary can sense this: “she had felt first, when introduced into the Unit, a blinding panic, a horrible feeling of imprisonment and frustration, and the fact the imprisonment was camouflaged in circumstances of luxury had somehow made is seem all the more horrible to her.”

The book starts in the Secret Service offices, so the political element of the book is there right from the beginning. Jessop says of Betterton that he had the “usual left-wing tendencies at the period when everyone had them”, revealing a dismissive attitude to socialism that’s present throughout the book. When we start to meet the other team members who will be based in the Atlas Mountains secret paradise, their politics are highly questionable. Fräulein Needheim refers to the local Berber women as “a slave race. They are useful to serve their betters, but no more.” When questioned by Hilary as to the harshness of this judgment, she goes on “I have no patience with sentimentality. There are those that rule, the few; and there are the many that serve.”

It’s not just Needheim who repels Hilary with their views. Dr Barron affirms that he could destroy a continent with the poisonous content of one little phial. “She had said to him: “But could you ever do that? Actually really do it?” And he replied, looking at her with faint surprise: “Yes. Yes of course, if it became necessary.”” She accuses Peters of wanting to destroy an old world, as a result of his declaration that “we’ve got to have World Peace, World Discipline, World Order.” And Ericsson affirms to her “we must conquer the world. Then we can rule […], we few who count. The brains. That is all that matters.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are a few instances of xenophobia in this book. Miss Hetherington believes that hotels abroad should only be inhabited by the English and she gets most upset when she discovers foreigners also use them. The observations made about the members of the party flying to the Atlas Mountains are very much seen in terms of their being French, American, Norwegian, German and English. There’s also a post-war throwback regarding Miss Jennson, when Andy Peters asks “did I, or did I not, catch a hint of the Heil Hitler there?”

In what is more an observation on current social issues, I was amused that there were only six people on board the flight. It’s as though they were in their own Covid times!

It doesn’t show a great sense of empathy with mental health to suggest that going on a reckless mission where you might die is a good alternative to suicide!

Classic denouement:  No, it’s a weak fizzle. Not that there’s much to “dénoue” anyway. The brains behind the Communist camp are revealed relatively early, and the final twists in the last few pages are of comparatively low interest, and if you’re looking for an unexpected individual to be responsible for some grand deception – you’ll be disappointed.

Happy ending? I guess so – Hilary finds a reason to live, which has got to be a positive outcome. And love may be on her horizon.

Did the story ring true? From my own perspective, it’s utter balderdash and complete nonsense.

Overall satisfaction rating: Despite a pacy start and some nicely written early passages, Christie quickly gives up on the narrative and I couldn’t wait for it to end. A generous 5/10.

Hickory Dickory DockThanks for reading my blog of Destination Unknown and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is one of my all-time favourite Christie books, Hickory Dickory Dock, and I can’t wait to get back into its tale of deception and murder within a student’s hostel community. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

Review – The Comedy Crate back in the Garden of the Black Prince Pub, Northampton, 17th September 2020

Comedy CrateIt was only two weeks ago that we last came to the Black Prince to watch a comedy night in their back garden courtesy of The Comedy Crate. But two weeks is a long time in live comedy, so it was a delight to return for another show last night. I’m still working out whereabouts is the ideal position to sit, and, for this show we sat centrally but four tables back – and on reflection that was probably a little far from the performers for Optimum Atmosphere. Note to self: get closer next time. Still, our table was a riot, with Mrs Chrisparkle on the gluten-free beer, and Lord and Lady Prosecco together with Prinz Mark von Köln tucking into the drinks delicacies on offer from both bars. I, of course, was abstemious… ahem.

 

Will DugganOur MC this week was Will Duggan, someone we’ve not seen before, but he’s a lively spark and an amiable chap who strikes up a great rapport with the crowd. He devoted his stage time largely to getting to know the people near the front, and they were the usual motley crew of out-of-work singers, retirees and apparent prison inmates (not really, I’m sure.) There was also a chap who took a couple of the acts by surprise by his incredibly boyish features despite being the grand old age of 23. Indeed, he really did look like this was way past his bedtime. Mr D kept things moving at a nice pace and set up a few cunning callbacks for the comics to pounce on later.

 

Sarah CallaghanOur first act was Sarah Callaghan, who has a nicely confiding (and confident) style, letting us in to the secrets and undercurrents of her domestic life, with her close relationships with both her niece and her mother – and the wisdom of being a smoker under such circumstances. Lots of intelligent but funny family-type observations, and she’s proud to be a pessimist which creates some more good sequences. She has her own take on the #metoo movement, and I very much enjoyed her parting material about flying over the Grand Canyon. We’ve seen her a couple of times before including in Edinburgh where she mixed comedy with poetry – very successfully. Perhaps she didn’t think Northampton to cope with poetry! Anyway, her act was very enjoyable and nicely paving the way for what was to come.

 

Bobby MairSecond up was the brilliant Bobby Mair; we’d seen him at a Screaming Blue Murder three years ago. And although his characterisation is the same – that of your friendly local psychopath who can be trusted to say the wrong thing if at all possible – I’m pretty sure it was all fresh new material and absolutely top quality stuff. I particularly relished his routines about mental health – a subject matter on which many comics might teeter perilously – but he totally smashed it. One member of the audience suggested that we all have some mental illness, which was the cue for him to do a perfect putdown using a brilliant analogy. I loved his observations about narcissists and Trump (yes, the two in the same breath) – and I didn’t want him to stop. Fantastic.

 

Paul SinhaOur headline act was the sublime Paul Sinha, whom we’ve seen a few times before, and was indeed the recipient of the Chrisparkle Award for Best Screaming Blue Murder Stand-up for both 2010 and 2012. Ever since he’s been a big name on TV’s The Chase, he’s referred to the show as part of his act to some extent, and so he did this time too. However, you could say that a lot has happened in his life over the past few years – including getting married and being diagnosed with Parkinson’s – and he’s come up with a very creative way of funnelling all that personal material into the act; by telling the story of the past few years by means of verse and (occasional) song. If the prospect of that might make you cringe a little, rest assured it works superbly. It’s such a deftly-written and structured routine, full of wonderful side cultural references, with the full range of modern day heroes from Priti Patel to Gemma Collins (I use the word heroes inadvisably on purpose) – and we all absolutely loved it. Full of hilarity but also full of pathos – an irresistible combination. After it was all over, we left the venue on a warm mental comedy high.

 

One more Comedy Crate night at the Black Prince coming up on 8th October, including the Noise Next Door whom we saw at the Leicester Comedy Festival last year and are incredible. You have to come too!

Review – The Comedy Crate at the Black Prince Northampton – again, 3rd September 2020

Comedy CrateAs this wonderful year whirls its merry way into September, a few more live events continue to emerge from the mist. Hurrah that this includes the second visit of The Comedy Crate team to the extensive back garden at the Black Prince pub in Northampton, for another night of comedy. This time Mrs Chrisparkle and I were not only accompanied by Lord and Lady Prosecco, together with heir to the Prosecco estate, Prinz Mark von Köln, but also our friend Dr Eurovision (one of our few friends to have their own nickname and not one supplied by me!) Fortunately the rain decided to give us a break but in any case we would have been protected by that big marquee so your only chance of getting wet is queueing for a beer or a Sauvignon Blanc.

 

Archie MaddocksThings started a little late as, by 7pm, scheduled kick-off time, our headline act hadn’t actually left home yet – a mere 90 miles away. Therefore we had a couple of changes, but comedy thrives on the seat of its pants! Our MC for the evening was the irrepressible Archie Maddocks, whom we’ve seen three times before doing spots at the Edinburgh Fringe (ah, Edinburgh Fringe… Où sont les neiges d’antan?) and he’s always terrific fun. He sparked off the punters in the tables closest to the stage (I say stage, I mean patch of grass) and over the course of the evening kept us entertained with his quirky observations including how he resents sharing his name with a member of the Royal Family, the behaviour of his elderly grandad, and a wonderful new take on Toy Story.

 

Lindsey SantoroOur first act was Lindsey Santoro, a new name to us, a Birmingham lass with pink hair and no inhibitions. She brims with confidence as she regales us with some terrific material, mainly about sex, including a brilliant physical performance of shenanigans in a jacuzzi. Very very funny and she got the evening off to a cracking start.

 

Ben BriggsNext up, and in a change to the advertised programme, was local comic hero Ben Briggs, whom we last saw a few months ago at the Leicester Comedy Festival (let’s hope that comes back next year but I remain doubtful at the moment!) Coaxed back to perform for us with just an hour’s notice, he admitted he was completely unprepared but his natural sense of performance and back catalogue of brilliant material still provided a very funny set of tough-delivered, heavily ironic and biting comedy. He’s in his element when bantering with the crowd and did a terrific job.

 

Ivan BrackenburyOur headline act was Tom Binns, in his alter ego as Hospital DJ supremo Ivan Brackenbury. Although he’s been around for a while and has had a number of TV appearances, we’ve never seen either Mr Binns or Mr Brackenbury before – our bad. He had us in riots of laughter from the very start with his appalling tactless mix of revealing the patients’ embarrassing conditions and then playing a totally inappropriate record for them. But it’s a much more clever – and funny – act than those bare bones might suggest. Like the ghastly love child of Timmy Mallett and Jonathan King, Brackenbury is a brilliant comic creation – totally convincing, terrifically creative, and more excruciating than Matt Hancock defending Tony Abbott. I didn’t want him to stop.

We all had a marvellous time, and, guess what, there’s another one in two weeks headed by the magnificent Paul Sinha. See you there!

Lockdown Armchair Travel – Latvia – A December Weekend in Riga, 2006

L is for Latvia and a weekend in Riga in December 2006 to celebrate Mrs Chrisparkle’s birthday. My overriding memory of Riga in December is that it was TOTALLY UTTERLY COMPLETELY FREEZING COLD – in fact, I’ve never felt that level of cold before or afterwards. Apart from that it was a fascinating mix of the Western and the Soviet, set in a beautiful old town that is small and delightfully compact, to walk around easily. I don’t have that many photos from that weekend but I hope this gives you a flavour of what it was like.

So what do you think of, when you think of Riga? I’ll always think of this….

Snow in RigaSnow everywhere! It’s a beautiful, stately city. Perhaps its most impressive sight is the House of the Blackheads, which isn’t anything to do with poor facial hygiene, but a 14th century guildhall for unmarried merchants, shipowners, and foreigners in Riga.

House of the BlackheadsMore modern buildings include the Freedom Monument, constructed to honour the soldiers who died in the Latvian War of Independence (1918-1920)

Freedom Monumentand the Rainis Monument, commemorating the Latvian poet – and yes he does look like Lenin,

RainisRiga has plenty of attractive bridges over the river Daugava

Bridge over riverPlus generous open spaces

Open spacelike this area beside the one of the many ornate churches. There are also stunning views from the top of St Peter’s Church

View of the cityIn many directions!

More viewsAs it was near Christmas, they had a lovely Christmas market too!

Thanks for joining me on this little travelogue. Stay safe!