Tag Archives: Agatha Christie

In the saddle

Director Leonora Lonsdale takes DQ behind the scenes of The Pale Horse, the fifth Agatha Christie adaptation from the BBC and writer Sarah Phelps.

The last time three witches caused such a fuss, a murderous Macbeth was acting on their prophecy that he would become king in Shakespeare’s tragedy.

But another trio close to the dark arts are now taking centre stage in The Pale Horse, an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1961 novel that marks the fifth collaboration between the BBC, producer Mammoth Screen (World on Fire), Agatha Christie Limited and writer Sarah Phelps (Dublin Murders).

The two-parter stars Rufus Sewell (The Man in the High Castle) as Mark Easterbrook, who attempts to uncover the mystery of why he features on a list of names found in a dead woman’s shoe. His investigation leads him to the peculiar village of Much Deeping, and The Pale Horse, the home of a trio of rumoured witches.

Word has it that the witches can do away with wealthy relatives by sinister means. But as the bodies mount up, Mark falls under the suspicions of Detective Inspector Lejeune (Sean Pertwee). Mark’s past then collides with the present as he discovers links to three witches – played by Sheila Atim, Kathy Kiera Clarke and Rita Tushingham – but are they as powerful as they seem?

Director Leonora Londsdale took on a TV series for the first time with The Pale Horse

On that question, director Leonora Lonsdale isn’t giving anything away. “They could be ordinary women or you could feel there’s a more sinister or a darker quality,” she says. “We always said that with this trio of women, you didn’t know if they lived together five years or 500 years. They could just be eccentric ladies living in a village or real witches whose power you don’t know if they use for good or evil.”

Lonsdale was immediately drawn to Phelps’ “vivid, brutal and beautiful” take on Christie’s novel, which Phelps describes “a shivery, paranoid story about superstition, love gone wrong, guilt and grief.”

“I immediately felt like felt there was an interesting idea about beauty and horror, and how horror can sometimes be best hiding in plain sight,” Lonsdale says. “I was looking at these kind of very dark, psychological films of the 60s – Repulsion, Belle du Jour and Rosemary’s Baby – where you have all these beautiful actresses and beautiful apartments, but the secrets are kind of festering underneath.

“I really liked the idea in the script that you have Mark’s world, which is full of glamour, sexiness and fun, but underneath is this terrible past he hasn’t dealt with, and there are these witches in it. It seemed there was enormous scope to have fun visually.”

With a background in commercials and short films, Lonsdale’s work on The Pale Horse is her first for a TV show. She had originally met with Mammoth Screen about another project but was later called by her agent to say they wanted her to come back to discuss this Christie adaptation.

The Agatha Christie adaptation stars Rufus Sewell

“I had 24 hours to read the script and do my pitch in front of [executive producers] Damien Timmer and Helen Ziegler, and Addo Yoshizaki Cassuto, the producer,” she recalls. “I didn’t sleep much but I prepared this big visual document. I really connected with the material, so luckily I didn’t think too much about it. I had interviews with Mammoth, the BBC and Agatha Christie Limited and it went from there.”

The director says she was encouraged to be quite bold with her visual style from the outset – notable in some of the stylistic depiction of 1960s London – with the belief that The Pale Horse was a different type of Christie story in the sense that it was among her later books and features magic, a characteristic that has also featured in novels such as Miss Marple story Nemesis, Endless Night and Murder is Easy.

“Certainly we weren’t afraid of this being a piece that could let go, be quite experimental and be quite dark,” Lonsdale says. “Sarah’s very clever because she’s probably as subversive as Christie was in her day. Christie herself delighted in exposing the kind of dark underbelly of these characters, exposing the polished veneer, in a way Sarah does so brilliantly.

“It was important to us that it’s set in 1961, so it’s on the brink of two decades. You have the war-torn London that’s still recovering from the 1950s and the Second World War, and the London on the brink of change. Those two different worlds we wanted to have embedded in the first episode, so you see Soho and you see these kind of shady revue bars, but then you’ve also got the poverty-stricken East End streets.”

Lonsdale also sought to immerse viewers in the story as much as possible. “We had the idea that the camera would be like death, so you build this sense of creeping dread and the camera sneaks up on them [the characters],” she says. “With Rufus’s character, we started with these fairly composed, quite choreographed settings. And then, as the story develops into episode two, we go into this slightly more free, mad journey or a kind of descent, where the camera becomes more handheld, [reflecting] his paranoia.”

Lonsdale on set with actor James Fleet, who plays Oscar Venables

Filming took place around the South West of England, particularly in Bristol and at the city’s Bottle Yard Studios. The village of Bisley, in Gloucestershire, was transformed into Much Deeping.

On set, Lonsdale maximised the limited amount of time available to rehearse. “Just being able to have a conversation about how we saw these characters, how we saw their worlds and what the dynamics were was invaluable,” she explains.

“In terms of how I like to work, it depends [on the] actor. Rufus is a very instinctive actor. Usually, he and I would have a conversation and, most of the time, we would be very much on the same page. I trusted him, so a lot of it was just about giving him space. I would let the cameras roll in between takes and he would just keep going and going and, eventually, we would know when we hit the sweet spot. We had a really good connection and it allowed us a sense of freedom.”

A traditional pagan parade that rolls through the centre of Much Deeping in episode one provided one of the challenges facing the director, with “many, many” extras brought in to fill out the crowd scenes. “But my costume designer Charlotte Mitchell just went mad for it and was bringing in animal masks, creating them herself and designing different costumes,” Lonsdale says.

“We spoke about the formation of the parade, how it would move and what would happen within the scene while all of this giant procession was going on. We sketched it out and spent a lot of time planning camera moves, because you have very limited time to shoot it. There was a lot of organisation and a lot of rehearsals, and it was fun in the end.”

The Pale Horse’s pagan parade scene

The Pale Horse, coproduced in the US by Amazon Prime Video, follows in the footsteps of Phelps‘ previous Christie adaptations – And Then There Were NoneThe Witness for the Prosecution, Ordeal by Innocence and The ABC Murders. Lonsdale says the latest in the series, distributed by Endeavor Content, stands apart for its 60s period setting and its compelling characters.

“We’ve got such an incredible cast – Rufus is incredible, Kaya [Scodelario as Hemia] is amazing, Sean Pertwee and the witches. It’s really the sunshine horror of the quintet,” she says. “I think and hope there’s a beauty to it and that it’s a really entertaining and interesting psychological look at Mark Easterbrook.”

But not even witches could see where this story is heading. “It’s going to surprise a lot of people,” Lonsdale adds. “I don’t think you can imagine where it’s going to take to you.”

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Christie takes drama into the digital age

With her characters’ penchant for unravelling mind-boggling murder mysteries, has Agatha Christie now solved the conundrum of digital drama? Michael Pickard investigates.

Television drama has long had a rough ride creating a name for itself in the digital space. While entertainment and reality programmes can invite fans to take part in online games, Twitter polls and Facebook discussions as the show airs, the very nature of scripted series means using a second screen at the same time often detracts from the main event.

That’s not to say dramas haven’t tried to embrace digital as part of various efforts to expand shows beyond the small screen.

US series Heroes was among the first to embrace additional content, through web series, comic books, novels and games, while Doctor Who fans will be familiar with extra scenes and stories posted online as well as numerous novels. Syfy drama Defiance, recently cancelled after three seasons, broke new ground when it partnered with Trion Worlds to release a video game that tied into the show’s storyline.

The 'experience' stars Gethin Antony
The ‘experience’ stars Gethin Anthony as Mr Satterthwaite

European crime drama The Spiral also used online extras, social media and live events to bring to life the story of a group of thieves who steal priceless paintings from museums across the continent. After the artworks were taken in the show, they were also removed from the real-life galleries.

The future of digital drama could be about to change, however, with The Mysterious Mr Quin – an app “experience” that doesn’t serve simply as an extension to a traditional broadcast series.

Based on Agatha Christie’s short story The Coming of Mr Quin, it is set during an exclusive party hosted by Lady Laura, who plans to unveil her new online venture, a journalism website called truth.ai, to a group of her friends.

But the party takes a sinister turn when magazine editor Mr Satterthwaite’s live blog is infiltrated by the mysterious Mr Quin, who appears to be guiding the group towards a dark secret – the truth behind the suicide of their mutual friend, Derek Capel.

It is the first contemporary adaptation of one of Christie’s works and stars Gethin Anthony (Game of Thrones, Aquarius) as Mr Satterthwaite.

Now available to download on iTunes for £2.29/US$2.99, and with desktop and Android versions due to follow, viewers who log onto the app follow the drama through a social network timeline, following messages sent by the characters in the build up to the party and as events unfold.

Video, pictures and web links posted throughout the timeline fill in more of the story and the characters’ background for users awaiting the next updates as the plot hurtles towards its conclusion.

In total, there are 530 messages, 44 video clips containing 26 minutes of film, 91 photos and 17 images/GIFs for users to navigate, most uploaded by Mr Satterthwaite.

The project was filmed using mobile devices
The project was filmed using mobile devices

For the project, Agatha Christie Limited (ACL) partnered with entertainment mobile platform Tell Player to find a way to bring Christie’s stories to a new generation of fans.

Kenny Emson was brought in to write the series, working alongside Tell co-founder Kev Moss, while Pia Furtado directed the actors – filmed from the viewpoint of personal devices such as mobile phones to add an extra layer of voyeurism for the viewer. Up to 200 people were then invited to test the app before it was released.

“It’s very experimental for us,” says Julia Wilde, director of business development and marketing at ACL. “We’d been looking for something interesting in the digital space for a while but nothing was particularly exciting. A lot of the time it felt like digital was being used to promote something else that existed, so what we love about Mr Quin is it stands on its own. It felt so exciting and is perfect for Christie.”

Wilde says that in Christie’s 12 short stories featuring the pair, Mr Quin and Mr Satterthwaite are on a level footing compared to many of the character-and-sidekick duos that feature in her novels.

“Kev and Emma (Foster, Tell co-founder) were really inspired by this dynamic and how the mystery of Mr Quin felt like a ghost in the machine. For this platform, you never see Mr Quin on camera. He’s a glitch, guiding other characters towards finding the truth about what happened to their friend. When he starts sending you notifications as you go through the app, it gets quite creepy.

“In Christie’s stories, you never quite know if Mr Quin is a real person or a figment of Satterthwaite’s imagination, like a Jekyll and Hyde-type personality. Quin only ever appears where Satterthwaite is and you never get an account from a third party. It’s all through dialogue or Satterthwaite’s reporting.”

Users can choose whether to view on-demand or participate in a ‘VIP experience’

She adds: “That lack of clarity around Quin and what he stands for is quite interesting, and he can be a lurker on social media and be a bit of a troll. He’s always for the greater good but he’s chipping away and getting into people’s heads. It’s a really interesting dynamic that lends itself to this kind of platform so well.”

As the story progresses through the characters’ messages, users can look at their profiles, or visit websites such as Mr Satterthwaite’s, but it always brings you back to the main stream of messages.

“Naturally it will appeal to people who are very used to social media but we’ve done it in a way that’s fairly intuitive. When we were testing it, we tried to get a range of people to use it but primarily it’s going to be people who are used to these social environments who use it so it should be very easy for them to pick up. We’ve been quite clear about what it is – it’s an experience, it’s not as interactive as a game. Explaining it before people see it is probably they hardest part. When they do see it, they tend to get it.”

The app offers users two different types of experience. They can decide whether they take part on-demand or during one of several VIP events, where they can join other users in commenting on the story as it plays out at a set time.

“On-demand is a response to consumer choice and lack of time – you can watch it whenever you want,” Wilde explains. “You dive into a mid-point of the story so you get a sense that it’s bigger than you, that things have happened before you joined in. You can then navigate your way through the story.

“For the VIP shows, you register to comment and you can have your own profile and share it with your own friends. Our moderation teams will be watching all of the activity and weave any interesting comments into the story. What we suspect will happen is people will experience the on-demand version and then want to be part of the VIP shows. We’ve also added a lot more content that isn’t in the on-demand version so you get a different show. It will be like you’re attending a party these people are going to.”

The project’s success will be measured in terms of the number of app downloads and the response of core Christie fans, particularly women aged 25 to 34 in the UK and slightly younger in the US. It is also available worldwide, with VIP shows set to take place in three timezones for the US, UK/Europe and Australia.

If the drama is successful, Wilde says there could be a series of three or four more stories produced for the app, with plans for worldwide editions also in mind.

“Christie is a global author,” she says. “She has a strong following pretty much everywhere around the world so when you’re developing something like this, that’s quite a scary prospect. If we look at how we would expect a market to adopt it, we’re probably looking at Spain, Portugal and Latin America as the next likely steps, but we may see some interest in some European markets, though they tend to speak a lot of English. We’ll see how it goes.”

Watching The Mysterious Mr Quin feels a bit like falling down a rabbit hole. Once you start, there are lots of different avenues to explore as you follow the story, impatiently checking for new updates as if you were waiting for an advert break to end and every message or video upload is another cliffhanger until the denouement is reached.

With Mr Quin, ACL has tapped into something people do every day – follow their friends’ updates on social media, tap links and watch videos – and found a way to introduce Christie to a whole new generation of amateur sleuths.

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And then there was Sarah…

Sarah Phelps
Sarah Phelps

Sarah Phelps has been at Mipcom in Cannes this week, promoting And Then There Were None, her adaptation of Agatha Christie’s classic thriller for the BBC and Lifetime.

Explaining the appeal of the project, she says: “Until I read this, I had never read any Agatha Christie before. I knew about Marple and Poirot so I thought of her work as a camp treat. When I read this book it took my breath away. It wasn’t anything like I expected. I was sideswiped by its coldness and savagery. It was surprising and shocking but also thrilling.”

For Phelps, the project seemed to both foreshadow the horrors of World War Two and, at the same time, echo a Greek Tragedy: “I kept thinking of Electra. It’s a story where there is nowhere to hide. You can make all the excuses you want, but it doesn’t make a difference. The characters have broken some pledge in their essential humanity and now they are before the ferocious eye of God. It’s a story that has a really ancient idea of judgement. There is no ambiguity, reasoning or mitigation.”

While a superb film adaptation of And Then There Were None was released in 1945, starring Barry Fitzgerald, Phelps says she has “a hard and fast rule” to not look at previous versions. “When adapting, I only look at the books – otherwise it is someone else’s interpretation. It has to be a pure response.”

On the set of And Then There Were None
The cast take a break from filming on the set of And Then There Were None

In terms of making the story relevant, the writer says it wasn’t too difficult to make an emotional connection between the sombre mood on the eve of WW2 and the current air of danger and despondency that exists in Europe. “We don’t change in our lusts and enmities and pettiness and jealousies – we just get wifi. What you have to do to stay relevant is invest your story with all the passions and complexities you’d expect from your characters. If you try too hard to be relevant, you’ll fail because the world around you is shifting all the time.”

Phelps laughs when she is referred to as an adapter of novels: “A couple of years ago, I wouldn’t have expected to be talking about adaptations today. I was writing EastEnders, a production for which I have a massive passion. I then got a call from the BBC asking if I would consider adapting Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. I said yes because I like writing about London and have a fruitiness of language that was right for the project. And I’m quick at writing scripts, which was important because this was a late call in terms of the production schedule. Anyway, I really enjoyed reading the book and then telling the story as it was in my head. It felt like something that came naturally, and it wasn’t that dissimilar to working on a show like EastEnders.”

Part of the excitement for Phelps is working with source material that many people don’t actually know quite as well as they might think. “People think they know Oliver Twist but not many have actually read the novel. And there is a lot of surprising stuff in there. It was the same when I adapted Great Expectations. For example, it has become the norm to present Miss Haversham as an old witch – but show me the page where it says she has to be like that. The story has always been regarded as having a fusty familiarity but it’s actually a brutal tale of failure that carries with it this plot centred on a corrupt, sexualised education.”

Great Expectations
Great Expectations

Phelps is at her most passionate when talking about EastEnders: “I was always devoted to it. I grew up watching it and was thrilled to bits to work on it. Some people are dismissive of soaps but it’s an incredibly important show – and when it hits its note, it sings. The show doesn’t shy away from doing incredibly serious stuff but it can also be lots of fun and really entertain the audience.

“It plays an important role in the early evening when people have just come home from work and are tired. It says, ‘Stick with me and I’ll tell you a story… you won’t be alone.’ It’s the fire in the cave and you’re the storyteller. And when people are moved by it, you walk on air.”

Phelps is not a writer who has a problem introducing diversity to her projects. She’s been doing it since she wrote radio drama Westway for the BBC World Service and always tries to avoid the easy option when shaping a character.

“I think things have changed in my time because so many good people have been challenging on this issue. We don’t have to automatically assume a character is white. I was bouncing off the walls with excitement when Sophie Okonedo was cast as Nancy in my adaptation of Oliver Twist. I really liked the recent drama Danny and the Human Zoo (from Red Productions) – and I also liked the fact it had a black female director.”

Oliver Twist
Oliver Twist

Phelps is very much in demand as a writer now. She tries to get back and pen an episode of EastEnders when she can but also has new projects coming through. She is, for example, one of a number of writers working on Red Planet’s Hooten and the Lady, an adventure series with a touch of Indiana Jones about it.

“It’s going to be an extravagantly fun romance/action adventure. I like darkness and brow-furrowing but I also really like shows with lots of gags and banter and swinging through the air finding treasure. We all need stuff that makes us laugh and makes us feel like we’re in the company of good mates.”

And Then There Were None will debut on BBC1 in the UK later this year to coincide with the 125th anniversary of Christie’s birth.

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BBC partners Agatha Christie to bring crime caper to TV

DQ takes a closer look at the forthcoming BBC1 show Partners in Crime, starring David Walliams and Jessica Raine and based on a series of novels by celebrated author Agatha Christie.

In the crowded world of TV detectives, a new drama featuring the crime-solving capers of a married couple has ambitions to bring a mix of thrills and humour to the genre.

Set in a 1950s Britain thrust from the aftermath of the Second World War into the early throes of a new Cold War, BBC1’s forthcoming series Partners in Crime (main image) sees husband-and-wife team Tommy and Tuppence inject some adventure into their marriage when they stumble their way into a world of murder and conspiracies.

David Walliams (right) came up with the idea of bringing the story to TV
David Walliams (right) came up with the idea of bringing the story to TV

Described as Agatha Christie meets Indiana Jones, the six-part series is based on the celebrated author’s first two full-length novels to feature the pair – The Secret Adversary and N or M?

Tommy and Tuppence are played by David Walliams and Jessica Raine respectively, and it was Walliams who first approached Agatha Christie Productions with the idea of bringing the couple to the small screen. Once the BBC was on board, Endor Productions was signed up to deliver the series, which is distributed by RLJ Entertainment.

Little Britain star Walliams says: “I’ve been a fan of Agatha Christie since I saw the movie of Murder on the Orient Express as a kid, when I was about eight, and I was completely blown away by the story and haunted by it for a long time afterwards.

“I’ve read a lot of Christie’s work and recognised these characters hadn’t been done for quite a while – there was a TV series in the 1980s but in recent times there hadn’t been many adaptations, and I thought there was a good opportunity to have a new version.

“There was something for me that really appealed about a husband-and-wife detective duo, and I thought there was something really delicious at the centre of it. You’d have Agatha Christie’s brilliant box of adventures but at the centre of it you’d have a human story. These are characters who are not genii in the way of a lot of book detectives like Sherlock Holmes or Poirot – these were normal people in that situation.”

The Secret Adversary was Christie’s second novel, published in 1922 after The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which first introduced readers to Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. Tommy and Tuppence then appeared in a further four stories through Christie’s career.

“My grandmother was very fond of them,” says Mathew Prichard, Christie’s grandson and chairman of Agatha Christie Ltd. “They featured in her second book and, 50 years later, in her last book. Occasionally throughout her career, when she felt she needed a rest and she needed to lose herself in something, she wrote about Tommy and Tuppence. The Secret Adversary, the first story we’re treating, came in 1922, and N or M? in the middle of the Second World War in the 1940s.

“Tommy and Tuppence represent something entirely different from Poirot or Miss Marple. They represent a partnership, and the most important thing for me is that when I watch them, they are intrinsically Agatha Christie. They are very much the person that I knew in the 1950s, where these films are set, and I can’t help watching them with a considerable sense of nostalgia, affection and recognition of the person whom I respected and loved so much. Dare I say it, I hope we do some more.”

The TV adaptation, timed to coincide with the 125th anniversary of Christie’s birth, plants the action in the 1950s, bringing together elements of the Tommy and Tuppence novels that span half a century.

And for both Walliams and Raine, best known for her work in Call the Midwife and Fortitude, it was the relationship between the crime-solving couple that attracted them to the project. While Tuppence is a woman who sees adventure round every corner, her husband is decidedly more cautious.

Walliams says: “I like that Tommy has to defer to Tuppence, which I think a lot of viewers will recognise, and it will have a lot of appeal that the woman is in charge. The woman is definitely running the show and she’s more intelligent and heroic than he is.

“The idea of Tuppence saving the day and being the more forthright, heroic one is definitely there (in the books), and she’s the one yearning for adventure. We definitely wanted to be true to the spirit of it. I’m the damsel in distress.”

Raine says the “team element” was key to her taking on the role of Tuppence. “It was the way they were equal. There’s not really any sidekick element. I really liked how front-footed she is, how quick-witted. She’s quite funny, intelligent. She’s all of these things you want to be in real life, and I liked how Tommy is more on the back foot, while Tuppence is quite nosey and curious. Putting characters in alien situations is always very attractive because you get to play that. It was irresistible as soon as I read the script. There’s no hint of sadness, she’s a very confident woman. It was really refreshing – she’s incredible.”

Jessica Raine (left) in Call the Midwife
Jessica Raine (left) in Call the Midwife

With a host of TV crime dramas focusing on the hunt for serial killers who prey on women, both Raines and Partners in Crime director Edward Hall said it was pleasing to portray a woman who wasn’t playing the victim.

“Tuppence is really modern for a woman in the 50s,” says Raine. “She was, I felt, a little frustrated at where her life had got to. I don’t think of her as a typical woman of the 50s, if there is such a thing. It was so nice to play a woman who isn’t in any way put-upon or a victim. That was a massive appeal for me.”

Hall adds: “It’s very hard to find heroines in TV drama who are heroines for reasons other than overcoming some kind of physical or sexual violence, or something else that makes them a victim. You very rarely see women coming in and saving the day. I thought that was a particularly good thing about this project.”

Unlike so many crime dramas on television, Partners in Crime seems to slip effortlessly between tension-filled scenes and the touches of comedy rooted in Tommy and Tuppence’s relationship, which are heightened by Walliams’s comedy instincts.

“What we were trying to achieve in the making of this is a swing in tone from thriller to high comedy sometimes, wrapped up with all the characteristic joys of a good Agatha Christie story,” Hall explains. “It all starts and finishes with the scripts. We had some fantastic scripts from Claire (Wilson, who adapted N or M?) and Zinnie (Harris, who wrote The Secret Adversary), and that guides you.

“If something had a degree of jeopardy, you wanted to make it as scary as possible so that it felt real. And if something was funny, you could swing back at the drop of a hat. There’s a moment in episode five when Jessica has a farce moment with a maid in a corridor, trying to get to a room. The music’s quite fun, it’s quite a funny moment. She gets to the door, she opens the door, and then the atmosphere completely changes when she walks into this room. She’s not meant to be there, it’s very serious – it’s life and death. We just tried to be alive to those changes in tone.”

Executive producer Hilary Bevan Jones, founder of Endor Productions, said the characters’ high energy and spirit was key to the way the series was conceived as “Agatha Christie meets Indiana Jones.”

Hilary Strong, CEO of Agatha Christie Ltd, adds: “A great story is a great story, whenever it’s told, and I think people forget, because Christie’s stories have been around a long time, that she was a really contemporary writer. She was a very contemporary woman of her time.

“One of the fantastic things about Agatha Christie is that her work has always really appealed to young readers. With this piece of work we wanted to get back to that, to have something that’s useful and fun and where people could really see the joy in Christie’s work with those great storylines underneath. Tommy and Tuppence is the perfect way to refresh, to bring Christie back.”

But what would the celebrated author herself think of this new take on Tommy and Tuppence, which will launch on BBC One later this month?

“I’m sure she would have loved it,” says Prichard. “The uniqueness of this project is that you’re almost seeing my grandmother at a certain age on the screen. There’s all the humour, energy and vitality, and it really isn’t like Poirot, even though she wrote a Poirot book a year before.

“This is much more natural, much more realistic. We all know a Tommy and Tuppence, but we don’t know a Poirot.”

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