Last Night's Television: Finding the Plot Is What Matters ; Agatha Christie - a Life in Pictures BBC2 Grand Designs Abroad C4

By Sutcliffe, Thomas | The Independent (London, England), September 23, 2004 | Go to article overview
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Last Night's Television: Finding the Plot Is What Matters ; Agatha Christie - a Life in Pictures BBC2 Grand Designs Abroad C4


Sutcliffe, Thomas, The Independent (London, England)


ONE OF the minor perks of celebrity is that you always look good for your posthumous appearances. In life, Agatha Christie was no great beauty, but on screen, in Richard Curson-Smith's Agatha Christie - a Life in Pictures, she looked like Olivia Williams. This kind of thing has happened to her before, as well. In Michael Apted's 1979 film, Agatha, she ended up looking a lot like Vanessa Redgrave, and in both cases, the standard biopic face-lift added a factitious mystery to the genuine one around which the films were built - the novelist's 12-day disappearance in 1926.

What on earth was Archie Christie, Agatha's husband, thinking of? True, last night's film didn't let us have a look at Nancy Neele, the mistress who was supposed to have precipitated Agatha's breakdown, but that was beside the point, really. Anxious to present their heroines at their best, such accounts inevitably make you think the worst of those who have betrayed them.

Curson-Smith's biography of the crime writer was a kind of Russian-doll affair. The outer casing was an anniversary celebration for The Mousetrap, complete with giant mousetrap-shaped cake and a press call. Inside this explanatory device was a more probing and intimate interview with a psychiatrist, with Christie attempting to recover from the bout of amnesia that she always claimed had been part of her disappearance. And inside that were yet more flashbacks - to her childhood and married life before she drove away from her home and into tabloid notoriety.

It could have been a complete mess, but it wasn't. As a director, Curson- Smith is a fine stylist, so there was something genuinely eerie about the way that he'd incorporated Christie's recurring nightmare - a pale-eyed vagrant with a gun - into the bleached footage of her childhood. He had good ideas, too. At one point, Christie conjured Poirot into existence in front of our eyes, the raw material being a ragged Belgian refugee she had helped to delouse while working as a volunteer nurse in the First World War.

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