‘That Awful Static Box!’ Agatha Christie’s Attitude to TV
It is well-known that Agatha Christie hated televisions, referring to her secretary’s TV as an ‘awful static box.’ She rarely allowed TV adaptations of her work to go ahead and video footage of the Queen of Crime is like the plot twist she never attempted: almost non-existent. However, I wish to challenge some pre-conceptions about Christie and TV. I don’t think her hostility to the medium was purely conservative, but had to do with shrewd PR and a little misogyny.
- Christie liked television and worked with the BBC
In her final years, Christie often watched television, and in the decades before that she stuck her grandson in front of the box. So she didn’t object per se. Perhaps it was like people nowadays moaning about dishwashers while loading theirs up. Oh, wait – she had a dishwasher, too. In the 1960s. In fact, I wonder if her secretary’s ‘awful static box’ was just a bad model.
Christie wrote the screenplay for an early television play, broadcast live in 1937. The Wasp’s Nest featured her friend Francis L. Sullivan as Poirot. As you can see from the picture, she was not content to watch from the wings, but became actively involved in the production. Well into the 1940s, she was penning scripts for TV plays – including a musical based on ‘Triangle at Rhodes’(!) – but never took them to producers. They were almost a hobby.
Her work appeared on the radio in the UK and, more commonly, in the States, throughout her life. BBC productions included one-offs to mark big events. The most famous radio production was ‘Three Blind Mice’, a play that became The Mousetrap, written for Queen Mary’s eightieth birthday, at the queen’s request.
There was one more live BBC broadcast – a 1949 version of the record-breaking bestseller that we now call And Then There Were None. By all accounts the broadcast was a disaster. Although several USA television programmes followed – most famously adaptations of They Came to Baghdad in 1952, A Murder is Announced in 1956, and Murder on the Nile pretty much non-stop throughout the 1950s – there were no more for the BBC. Christie appeared on BBC television, however, in the 1960s when she featured in an episode of This is Your Life devoted to her friend Richard Attenbourgh.
- Christie was a shrewd business-person, and a control freak
Meanwhile, Christie’s agent gave the greenlight to two US television series – a ‘tough guy’ version of Poirot starring Harold Huber, whose radio series Christie had introduced, and a homely American version of Marple starring a well-known actress whose name I can’t reveal. Christie was furious and stopped both of these from happening.
What does that tell us? That she was happy for ‘one-offs’ but not for TV series, which would inevitably take liberties with her characters and creations. The one-offs got her name out there; the series took advantage of and acted in it. It ties in with a famous misconception about Christie and the cinema. The camp 1960s films featuring Margaret Ruteherford as Miss Marple, made by MGM, were considered ‘very inferior’ by Agatha Christie. They featured Rutherford as the elderly sleuth, but she was essentially playing Margaret Rutherford, and the slapstick plots had nothing to do with the books on which they were based. But – and this is important – she did not try to stop them. OK, Christie famously did terminate her contract with them after five of the planned twelve films (a Poirot story, The Alphabet Murders, with Tony Randall) but this was not because she objected to the films being made.
In fact, having seen Murder, She Said in 1961, Christie dedicated her next Marple novel, The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side, to Rutherford, ‘in admiration.’ Although the book was originally planned as ‘the Council House Murder’, to reflect on 1960s social change, the plot later became more melodramatic and photogenic, involving movie stars and secret pasts … I think she envisaged it being filmed. Christie also wrote to several friends around this time stating that she had absolutely nothing against the Rutherford films; they just had nothing to do with her. It was more snobbish disinterest than actual horror.
Two things led to Christie terminating her MGM contract: (a) the film company fell through on its side of the deal, and scrapped Christie’s screenplay for a film of Dickens’ Bleak House; and (b) Christie received a lot of fan mail from people who had only seen the films. She did not like being considered their author. Unlike Arthur Conan Doyle, who hated Sherlock Holmes and told an early dramatist to ‘marry him, murder him, do what you will’, Christie was fiercely protective over her creations. Her famous dislike for Hercule Poirot is a myth: she was massively protective over how the character was handled, to the extent of writing Poirot’s Last Case for posthumous publication in the late 1930s, lest anyone take up the reins upon her death. My point, then, is that Christie knew how to brand herself. And she explored television, like radio and cinema, as a means to an image.
- The BBC was a boys’ club
The BBC editor J.R. Ackerley worked with Christie on the radio serial The Scoop in 1930. By now, Christie had become infamous with publishers for interfering at every stage of the process, and would later be described by theatrical producer Hubert Gregg as ‘a sceptic bitch’ along the same lines. She did not take kindly to being given ultimatums by the BBC, and would reply to every bullying letter from producers exactly in kind! There was something of a clash of egos with Ackerley, well-known among his peers for being ‘puritanical, priggish, [and] narcissistic’. Asked for professional recollections of the Queen of Crime much later, Ackerley simply recalled: ‘she was surprisingly good-looking and extremely tiresome.’ I think that this remark encapsulates the difficulties faced by professional women trying to be taken seriously in the early 1930s.
Of course, Christie could not avoid the BBC but she only really allowed projects to go ahead when they were for people she really liked: the radio play for Queen Mary, the TV tribute to Richard Attenbourgh, and so on. I wonder if these early meetings, where she was not the Queen of Crime, the Author-above-the-title, but a cog in a sexist machine, had a part to play in that.
The BBC has been Christie’s media home for longer than I’ve been alive. The famous Miss Marple series; all those stunning radio adaptations; the highly anticipated And Then There Were None and Partners in Crime … and of course it is through BBC America that many international fans access the ITV series Poirot and Marple. The majority of available audio recordings of Christie’s voice are held by the BBC. But all of this is posthumous. We’re accustomed to thinking of Christie as a little old lady, scared of change, who would have relented if she’d seen Joan Hickson play Miss Marple. But I wonder if she was altogether more canny, realistic, and vain for that ever to have happened.