Saturday, July 31, 2010

Wolfgang Dauner’s Et Cetera “Knirsch”

Knirsch is pianist/keyboardist Wolfgang Dauner’s 1972 follow-up to the eclectic free-jazz/rock improv collective Et Cetera, which was also the rather too anonymous name of a 1971 album issued in Germany on the tiny Global label and reissued on CD in 2008 by the German Long Hair Music label.

That album carried through what Dauner started on his groundbreaking album, The Oimels (MPS, 1970), also with guitarist Sigi Schwab, bassist Eberhard Weber and drummer Roland Wittich, and presented some of the finest and spaciest German jazz rock – now called “Krautrock” – of the day.

With its follow-up, Knirsch, which is German for “crunch,” as alluded to by the trippy “bite” cover art of Frieder Grindler, who also designed ECM and Mood Records covers in the 1970s, the starry group was out and Dauner reconnected with MPS to hook up with American guitarist Larry Coryell (Chico Hamilton, Free Spirits, Gary Burton) and British drummer Jon Hiseman (aka John Hiseman, co-founder of the jazz-rock bands Colosseum and Tempest and, later, with Wolfgang Dauner, the all-star band United Jazz + Rock Ensemble).

Here, Dauner is also supported by German bassist and composer Günter Lenz (who appears on Krzysztof Komeda’s original recording of Astigmatic and has recently provided arrangements for Placido Domingo), the Detroit-born Fred Braceful (1938-95), who lived in Germany for most of his life and was Dauner’s drummer from 1963-73, and the mysterious Richard Ketterer who provides occasional “sounds” and “voice” on “Yan.”

Recorded at the MPS Studios in Villingen, Germany, in March 1972, Knirsch probably out ranks Et Cetera for classy experimentalism at a time when “fusion” wasn’t trying to sell records as much as it was trying to embark on a journey toward a creative direction that only very few artists in jazz or rock ever found.

One could argue that if Wolfgang Dauner hadn’t exactly “found” what he was aiming for (he quickly abandoned this style of music shortly afterwards), he had certainly come pretty close. Knirsch suggests that, perhaps, the world just wasn’t ready to make the trip that jazz-rockers or rock-jazzers were making at the time. There is a lot of great playing and terrific ideas mixed up in this maelstrom of a program, featuring four Dauner originals and Larry Coryell’s “The Real Great Escape,” also the title track to the guitarist’s own 1972 Vanguard album (done here without horns).

The nearly heavy metal-like “The Real Great Escape” sounds a little out place on this program; maybe too straight-ahead, like so much other Hendrix-derived rock of the day. It’s very much Coryell’s show here, whereas the rest of the album finds the keyboard-led program featuring the guitarist clearly as the guest – sounding more like Carlos Santana meets John McLaughlin than he has elsewhere.

By the same token, Dauner sounds positively Herbie Hancock-like on the exploratory “Sun,” a spiritual slice of creative fusion that probably could have gone on longer and more meaningfully than its six and a half minute playing time allows. Coryell and Dauner engage in a creative duel here that istruly exciting to hear.

The 13-minute “Yan” comes closest to recalling the earlier Et Cetera album and suggests a more percussive version of what Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi band was aiming for at the time (check out “Rain Dance” from the 1973 album Sextant). While Larry Coryell is hardly audible here, Richard Ketterer’s additions point the way to some of the music John Zorn would later explore, particularly with Naked City.

The fusion of the eleven-minute “Tuning Spread” is a terrific template for the same kind of suggestive musical melodrama that the Italian prog-rockers Goblin (especially when the group was still known as Cherry Five) made famous in Eurothrillers during the mid to late seventies. Dauner lays down a particularly intoxicating groove with acoustic piano, clavinet and electric piano, inspiring Coryell to take a magisterial solo of epic jazz-rock proportions. It’s no wonder Dauner became a famed composer on German television. “Tuning Spread” indicates that Dauner and his partners know how to bridge a scintillating, eerie base of malevolent mayhem (that would have worked particularly well in 1973’s The Exorcist or any number of its Euro knock-offs) with an especially creative amount of jazz improvisation.

The album’s closer, “Yin,” pairs Dauner’s multiple keyboard explorations with Coryell’s varying guitarisms overtop a rhythm driven by Braceful’s remarkable conga work. “Yin” finds Dauner absolutely inspired, layering sound atop sound – as he’d learned to do so well (and would perfect as time went on) – to create an absolutely perfect jazz-rock synthesis that brings Coryell to some of his best playing in a creative rock environment (something that he evinces on several other occasions elsewhere).

Recently reissued on CD in a beautiful LP-like package by the German HGBS label, Knirsch is one of the more significant monuments to jazz-rock that ever came out of Germany. It is absolutely essential for fans of Larry Coryell, particularly those who prize his jazz-rock phase, and valuable to hear “Tuning Spread” and “Yin” alone. Et Cetera was only named for one more album - Live (MPS, 1973), also with Fred Braceful – so it was clear this sort of thing didn’t have as much life as the interesting music presented here suggests. Check it out.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Gene Ludwig - R.I.P.

I just learned the sad news that the great organist Gene Ludwig, from my hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, died at age 72 on July 14, 2010. Gene Ludwig was an exceptional proponent of the Hammond B-3 organ and while he could be heard with such greats as Arthur Prysock, Sonny Stitt and fellow Pittsburgher Jimmy Ponder, he was devoted to the Pittsburgh music scene and even scored several local Hammond hits.

Please check out my friend Jason Malls's terrifically comprehensive overview of Gene Ludwig's storied career on his recently-launched I Dig Pgh blog, where he keeps "record" of Pittsburgh's unrecorded recorded history. And visit Gene's own home on the web for more detail about another great jazz organist who has left us for higher ground.

What follows is the obituary which appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

Gene Ludwig / Legendary jazz organist in Pittsburgh music scene:
Sept. 4, 1937 - July 14, 2010

Friday, July 16, 2010
By Rick Nowlin, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

When Gene Ludwig was 21, he flipped a coin to determine which career path he would follow. Heads, he would continue the job he had at the time as a civil engineer. Tails, music would win out.

The coin came up tails -- and a legend was born.

Mr. Ludwig, a leading figure in the Pittsburgh jazz scene for half a century and internationally regarded as one of the titans of the Hammond organ, died Wednesday in West Penn-Forbes Regional Campus. The Monroeville resident was 72.

The cause of death was undetermined pending an autopsy.

Born in Twin Rocks, Cambria County, and reared in Wilkinsburg and Swissvale, Mr. Ludwig began taking piano lessons at age 6. Originally influenced by big-band music, his musical direction switched after listening to the R&B that disc jockey Porky Chedwick played on WHOD.

"He was playing a lot of Ruth Brown, Big Joe Turner and organ players like Bill Doggett and Wild Bill Davis," Mr. Ludwig said in an 2003 interview. "I just fell in love with the groove, and I started trying some of that on the piano."

After graduating from Swissvale High School in 1955, he attended what is now Edinboro University of Pennsylvania to study physics and mathematics but was forced to leave because his father was on strike at Westinghouse Electric. Returning to Pittsburgh, he took a job at Fuller Construction and began performing with vocal groups around town on the side.

Mr. Ludwig had his epiphany while visiting the Hurricane, a Hill District nightclub that featured a lot of organ trios, popular in the 1960s, to hear Jimmy Smith. Consequently, he decided to buy a Hammond organ, first an M100 and then a C model. After a 1964 gig in Atlantic City, N.J., on which they shared a bill, Mr. Smith influenced Mr. Ludwig to buy a B-3.

Despite the heft of the organ, about 400 pounds not including the obligatory Leslie speaker, "he never jumped quickly for that synthesizer [substitute]," said George Heid, a drummer and Aspinwall resident who met Mr. Ludwig when Mr. Heid was still in high school and went to see him play every chance he got -- which wasn't often in those days because Mr. Ludwig was working the "chitlin' circuit" of black clubs that featured jazz and R&B artists. Later, Mr. Heid and Mr. Ludwig would do several years of gigs together.

"He would haul that instrument, and he'd do it alone," Mr. Heid said. "He absolutely stayed loyal to the music," of late still traveling along the East Coast and even to Columbus, Ohio, to perform.

Tom Wendt, of Lawrenceville, Mr. Ludwig's most recent drummer, also noted that Mr. Ludwig sacrificed financially to maintain his artistic integrity.

"It could have been very easy for him to take another musical avenue that could have gained him notoriety," Mr. Wendt said. "He played jazz, he played rhythm and blues, and he never deviated from that."

Mr. Heid said Mr. Ludwig was "superhonest, fair as can be" and displayed "compassion and respect for those that joined him" on the stand. Eschewing the custom many band leaders had of taking the lion's share of gig pay, "Gene divided the money equally."

Though not known as a recording artist, Mr. Ludwig released numerous albums and CDs as both a sideman and leader. In 1969, he appeared on saxophonist Sonny Stitt's "Night Letter" and released "Now is the Time" about a decade later. He signed a record deal in 1997 with Blues Leaf Records and cut several CDs for that label, the most recent with the Bill Warfield Big Band in 2007.

His stature as an organ legend led to marriage, as his wife of nearly nine years, Pattye, was a fan of jazz organ. She was a volunteer at the Pittsburgh Jazz Society, which at the time held its weekly Sunday concerts at Foster's Bar & Grill at the Holiday Inn in Oakland. He played there in April 2000, and "I sold his CDs for him," she said. Later, he began showing up at other PJS concerts -- but not just for the music.

"He [was] just an old-style gentleman," Mrs. Ludwig said. "They don't really make them like that anymore -- I fell pretty hard for him." They were married in September 2001.

Tenor saxophonist Eric DeFade of Reserve also noted that Mr. Ludwig "was very supportive of younger musicians -- he'd let anyone sit in. He wasn't someone who would cut people or 'teach them a lesson.' " In fact, at the time of his death, "he was still learning new tunes -- he never stopped trying to advance himself."

Mr. Ludwig left no other survivors.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

“Blues in Hoss’ Flat” by Count Basie

Frank Foster’s magnificent “Blues in Hoss’ Flat” was written for Count Basie and performed on the 1958 Roulette Jazz album Chairman of the Board. Basie is accompanied beautifully on this March 28, 1958, recording by Thad Jones, Snooky Young, Wendell Culley and Joe Newman on trumpet, Henry Coker, Al Grey and Benny Powell on trombone, Marshal Royal on clarinet/alto sax, the composer on alto sax/flute, Billy Mitchell and Frank Foster on tenor sax, Charlie Fowlkes on baritone sax, Freddie Green on guitar, Eddie Jones on bass and Sonny Payne on drums.

The tune, also known as “Blues in Frankie’s Flat,” was played (and recorded) by Basie throughout his career and has also been recorded by Sammy Davis, Jr. (with Count Basie), Duke Ellington (with Count Basie), Stanley Turrentine and Gene Harris.

But it never sounded as beautiful as it did in its original incarnation, which Jerry Lewis brilliantly used in a scene from his 1961 film The Errand Boy. Lewis, as can be seen, lip synchs the horn parts (and solos) in an absolutely hilarious effort to pretend he’s an executive running a meeting.

Family Guy replicated this scene – and Basie’s original – for an episode of the program. Perhaps the scene went on longer than the show allowed or the reference was so obscure (though William Shatner’s “Rocket Man” was kept!) that it was deleted from the episode it was intended for.

It finally appeared as an outtake in the show’s controversial 150th episode, “Brian & Stewie,” which first aired on May 2, 2010. Peter Griffin’s performance so closely replicates Lewis’s original that some talented video editor out there synched the two performances up on YouTube and created a hilarious tribute (you'll have to double click on the video to experience it in its full view).

It’s a total gas and it is presented here for your entertainment (Lewis is remarkably funny) and enjoyment. “Blues” truly is one of the greats from the golden age of big-band jazz.

Monday, July 26, 2010


This utterly hilarious FX Network series features the exploits of super spy Sterling Archer (H. Jon Benjamin) and his teammates at ISIS (International Security Intelligence Service), a counterintelligence agency run by – of all people –Sterling’s mother, Mallory (the stupendously terrific Jessica Walter).

The half-hour animated show is sort of James Bond-meets-The Office with a lot of twisted sex, drinking, “hostile work environment” insults, drinking, sex in the workplace, drinking, covert action (also pretty twisted), drinking, makeshift drugs, drinking, gunplay and drinking.

Sterling is shot at least once in almost every episode, but it never seems to faze him from bitching about his $900 turtlenecks, berating Woodhouse, his butler (George Coe), believing his busty ex-girlfriend with “man hands” and fellow agent, Lana Kane (Aisha Tyler) just can’t get over him, accidentally killing hookers (they’re “call girls” when they’re breathing), getting grossed out by his slutty mother or grossing out everyone with his weird sexual thrills and particularly anal peculiarities.

Mallory and Sterling – whose middle name is Mallory, by the way – are joined in each episode by Cheryl/Carol/Cristal (Judy Greer), a secretary who keeps changing her name to suit her sexual appetites, which apparently involve being strangled; comptroller Cyril Figgis (Chris Parnell) who clings to girlfriend Lana tighter than Saran Wrap; and Pam (Amber Nash), the heavy-set lesbian HR director who actually maintains a blog – with video! – revealing all of the ISIS personnel’s dirty laundry.

Created by Adam Reed and Matt Thompason, the demented brains behind Frisky Dingo, Sealab 2021 and Space Ghost Coast to Coast, this irreverent animated series is one of the most original – and funny – shows television has had in the last few years.

In only ten episodes, Archer has managed to capture a lot of cult attention and with good reason. It grabs the viewer – especially those adults who appreciate Monty Python-like potty humor – from the very first episode (“Mole Hunt”) and proceeds to get better as it goes on.

By the fifth episode, “Honeypot,” where Archer has to seduce a gay operative to recover an incriminating sex video of his mother, it’s funny just thinking about Archer. The quick wit, the witty quips and the almost unbelievable offend-anyone-for-any-reason humor is just laugh out-loud funny.

The animation style is marvelous, like a comic book version of Mad Men with remarkable detail paid to cool cars, city streets, abstract paintings, beautiful kitchens (even food!), stylish penthouse suites (and closets!) and female bodies.

The enemy caricatures, especially the recurring KGB leader Maj. Nikolai Jackov (Peter Newman), who may be Sterling’s father, and ISIS competitor ODIN’s leader Len Drexler (Jeffrey Tambor), make Archer imminently engaging. With all the Bonds, Bournes, spy knock-offs and parodies out there, Archer has enough material to warrant a long, inspiring run (for those with long memories, Archer’s terrific retro opening strongly recalls the great opening titles of the Robert Wagner spy spoof of the sixties, It Takes A Thief). Here’s hoping that happens.

While the initial ten episodes which aired on FX Network earlier this year have not yet appeared on Blue Ray or DVD, all ten episodes are available to view on Hulu, Netflix and IMdB or to purchase through iTunes and

Tony Allen “Secret Agent”

Tony Allen—best known for his work as drummer and musical director for Fela Anikulapo Kuti, one of Africa’s most influential artists—launches his latest attack of infectious Afrobeat groove music with his World Circuit / Nonesuch release of Secret Agent. Following its European release in 2009, Secret Agent, The Guardian proclaimed, “There is no question that Tony Allen is a genius, one of the greatest percussionists in the history of popular music,” while Observer Music Monthly said, “If you’re wondering why Afrobeat is hip, start here.”

Secret Agent is probably Allen’s best work since his brilliant and groundbreaking Black Voices (Comet, 1999). There is a lot of great music here, although there are a lot more vocals here than usual and a lot more lyrics in English than usual too. But the tracks are pure Afrobeat, with the huge horn parts, great funk lines and Allen’s original and patented rhythms. It’s hard to believe this guy came up on Gene Krupa and Art Blakey. But he takes what they did into a whole new direction that’s like nobody else in the world.

Together with Fela Kuti, with whom he played for 15 years, Allen co-created Afrobeat—the hard-driving, horns-rich, funk-infused, politically insurrectionary style that became such a dominant force in African music and is now one of Africa’s most popular styles among international listeners.

Allen produced Secret Agent, which was recorded with his touring band of musicians from Nigeria, Cameroon, Martinique and France. The music is four-square in the Afrobeat tradition—rhythmic tenor guitar, funky keyboards, call-and-response vocals, and full-throated horns—with a few twists (including keyboard player and arranger Fixi’s accordion on some tracks). Allen’s playing, meanwhile, draws on four different styles—highlife, soul/funk, jazz, and traditional Nigerian drumming. At Afrobeat’s heart is the beat, even more prominent now than it was in Fela Kuti’s legendary Afrika ‘70 band.

Secret Agent is Allen’s first release since he became a founding member of The Good, The Bad, and The Queen (alongside Damon Albarn, Paul Simenon, and Simon Tong). This association has helped encourage a recent upsurge of interest in Afrobeat. Over the years, Allen has appeared on dozens of albums, and his continued relevance—fans of hip-hop, funk, and jazz clamor for his recordings—speaks to the staying power of the Afrobeat music that he helped create in the 1960s.

A beautiful piece of African music that will appeal to jazz listeners as well as funk devotees.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

“Coco Loco (La Guajira)” by Herb Alpert

A truly wonderful song and a scintillatingly superb performance, Diego Verdaguer’s “Coco Loco (La Guajira)” is the highlight of Herb Alpert’s fine 1982 album Fandango. Featuring a lovely trumpet line performed by Alpert – who has probably never gotten the credit he deserves for his supple, lovely playing – and highlighting a superbly lithe arrangement from Bill Cuomo, “Coco Loco” is a masterpiece of easy going South of the Border dance music.

Alpert is featured along with Bill Cuomo’s keyboards, synthesizers and a delicious strings arrangement, Miguel Peña’s guitar, Victor Ruiz Pazos’s bass, Carlos Vega’s drums and session master Paulinho DaCosta’s perfectly realized percussion. The group crafts a positively hypnotic groove here that one wishes could have exceeded its two minute and 54 second playing time.

The clip included here isn’t the best. You’ll have to turn it up to hear it properly. And, the poster doesn’t seem to know exactly what they are posting. But, surprisingly, there are no other samples of “Coco Loco” on YouTube and, of course, the song is not readily available on CD or iTunes (for the record, Diego Verdaguer’s own version of the song can be found on Inolvidable, which is on CD and iTunes).

This one almost breathes of the finest vacation you can imagine.

Here is Diego Verdaguer’s wonderful original:

Jonas Gwangwa

Jonas Mosa Somobunu Gwangwa was born in Johannesburg, South Africa into a musical family. He himself was a musical enthusiast and began to play trombone in what was the first and only African high school band in South Africa. Self taught as he was, he managed to become the best, if not one of the only, jazz trombonists in all of South Africa.

In 1956, he recorded with another up and coming South African superstar, young Hugh Masekela, as part of Father Huddleston’s band and went on to record and tour South Africa in 1959 with American pianist John Mehegan’s band. Gwangwa later formed his own group, the Jazz Epistles, which featured later lights Hugh Masekela, Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim) and Kippie Moeketsi, before leaving for London in 1961 to perform with the renowned King Kong jazz opera.

Like so many of his country’s musicians, once Jonas Gwangwa left South Africa, he found it difficult to go back. He left King Kong to travel to the United States on a music scholarship given by the African Music and Drama Trust. This enabled him to enroll at the Manhattan School of Music through the influence of famed violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who was impressed by one of Gwangwa’s performances heard months earlier in Africa.

Jonas studied for four years at the Manhattan School of Music and obtained a bachelor’s degree. Meanwhile, he had reacquainted himself with Hugh Masekela, who was also now in the United States and a student at the Manhattan School of Music and had married the world famous South African singing sensation, Miriam Makeba.

Jonas Gwangwa’s first U.S. recordings were in the company of Miriam Makeba and included The World of Miriam Makeba (RCA, 1963) and Makeba Sings (RCA, 1964). In early 1965 Gwangwa appeared on Hugh Masekela’s first definitive solo album Grrr (Mercury), which also featured the trombonist/arranger’s own “Kwa-Blaney” and arranged, adapted and conducted the program for the Grammy Award-winning album An Evening With Harry Belafonte and Miriam Makeba (RCA).

Later that year, Jonas Gwangwa participated with Makeba, Masekela, Caiphus Semenya and Letta Mbulu in “The Sound of Africa ’65” concert, produced by Harry Belafonte Enterprises for the African American Institute at New York City’s Carnegie Hall on December 15, 1965.

In 1966, Gwangwa and his wife of time, Mamsie, who had a somewhat successful group of her own, Mamsie and the Velvettes, partnered with Caiphus Semenya and his wife, Letta Mbulu, to form the group Letta and the Safaris and produced one very little-known single on the Columbia Records label called “Walkin’ Around,” which was co-written by Jonas Gwangwa and Hugh Masekela’s business partner, producer Stewart Levine.

Gwangwa went onto to serve as musical director and trombonist for Miriam Makeba’s vaunted performance at New York’s Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City, which yielded the album Miriam Makeba In Concert! (Warner Bros., 1967) and contributed trombone to Marc Levin’s little-known free-jazz album The Dragon Suite (Savoy, 1967), an obscure record featuring bassist Cecil McBee that’s unlike anything else Gwangwa ever participated in.

Nineteen sixty eight saw Gwangwa issue the first single under his own name, “Goin’ Home (Bum DiDi Sunshine)” b/w the awesome instrumental “Afradelic” (Decca, 1968) as Jonas Gwangwa/African Explosion. It’s hard to say whether a whole album was planned to support the single, but unfortunately, the song got no notice (until DJs discovered “Afradelic” many years later) and this was the only thing Decca ever issued under Gwangwa’s name. Gwangwa also contributed horns, vocals and the great “Noyana” to Hugh Masekela’s legendary Africa ‘68 (Uni, 1968) and provided arrangements to the Howard Roberts Chorale album Let My People Go: Black Spirituals, African Drums (Columbia, 1968).

Finally in 1969, Jonas Gwangwa and African Explosion issued its first full-length album, Who (Ngubani)?, on pianist Ahmad Jamal’s short-lived independent Jamal label. Featuring a full program of Gwangwa originals, including the exceptional “Dark City” and the single release, “African Sausage” (b/w this album’s festive “Szaba Szaba”), the program features Mamsie on vocals and bountiful contributions from the great South African saxophonist Dudu Pukwana (1930-98), who adds an edge that makes much of this music utterly timeless.

Predictably, Who (Ngubani)? didn’t become the hit it deserved to be nor did Gwangwa’s brand of African jazz storm America like Hugh Masekela’s surprise hit “Grazing in the Grass” did just a year before.

In 1971, Gwangwa reteamed with Masekela to complete the wonderful Hugh Masekela and the Union of South Africa (Chisa, 1971), a marvelous return to form for the South African trumpeter/vocalist and a reasonably decent feature for Gwangwa’s trombone. The album features Gwangwa’s memorable “Shebeen” and the definitive “Johannesburg Hi-Lite Jive,” co-written with Eric Songxaka and recorded again by Masekela as “Johannesburg” on his 1982 album Home.

During Gwangwa’s last years in the United States, he seems to have waxed very little work other than some overdubs to Robin Kenyatta’s Terra Nova (Atlantic, 1973), which also featured Masekela’s former girlfriend, Betty Davis, and as the main arbiter of Herb Alpert and Hugh Masekela’s terrific and little-known Main Event – Live (A&M, 1978), which featured Gwangwa’s “She-Been” (again), “Kalahari Nights,” “Foreign Natives” and the exceptional “Shame The Devil.”

He toured Botswana with Letta Mbulu in 1976, Nigeria in 1977 and the United States with Herb Alpert and Hugh Masekela in 1978 before departing the U.S. for Britain (?) and truly global work including serving as composer, arranger and musical director of "Amandla", the much heralded worldwide ANC cultural ensemble tour to which he devoted ten years of his life, contributing to Johnny Dyani’s Born Under The Heat (Dragon, 1983), featuring on the spectacular “Free Nelson Mandela” by The Special AKA, collaborating with composer George Fenton on the score to the Richard Attenborough film Cry Freedom (MCA, 1987) and performing at Nelson Mandela’s 70th Birthday Tribute at Wembley Stadium in 1988.

Jonas Gwangwa finally returned home to South Africa in 1991 and has actively played a part in his country’s musical heritage, maintaining a relentless touring schedule as well as becoming known as one of his country’s foremost composers, having composed the theme music to South Africa’s Olympic Bid (1997), the score to his own biographical performance piece, Jonas (1998) and the anthem to the African American Summit (1998). He has also contributed many scores to such South African films and TV programs as Night Moves (1994), Soweto Green (1995), Generations (1995) and E.TV News (1998).

Fortunately, Jonas Gwangwa resumed his recording career in South Africa, releasing such notable discs as A Temporary Inconvenience (Sony, 1999), the superb Flowers of a Nation (Sony, 2001) featuring the excellent “Barungwa,” “Ledimo,” “Time Up” and a new take on “Shebeen” and Sounds From Exile (Sony, 2002), featuring the great “Hamba Ngiyeza,” “Emaxhoseni,” “Morwa,” “Back to Orlando East” and a new take on “Foreign Natives.”

Gwangwa has also since released Live At The Standard Bank International Jazz Festival (Sony, 2006) on CD and DVD and Kukude (Lapho Si Vela Khona) (Sony, 2008), but unfortunately I have not heard either one of these.

There is something ethereal and earthy about all of Jonas Gwangwa’s music, like it’s all part of the air that we breathe or the sounds that make us move. It defies labels and genres. It just is. There is an unmistakable joy of life and love or people in all of Gwangwa’s music. Like a signature, it’s recognizable throughout a career that stretches over a half a century of music. The music doesn’t sound the same. But it feels the same. It’s soulful, joyful, peaceful and full of everything that makes life good.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Hugh! The Best of Hugh Masekela: Presented by Till Brönner

Late last year, I proposed a compilation of Hugh Masekela’s African-oriented recordings to Universal Music, which owned almost all of the recordings the South African trumpeter waxed between 1963 and 1978. To my great surprise, the company gave me the OK, even allowing me to avoid the obvious best sellers (“Grazing in the Grass,” etc.) that had been captured on so many previous - and to my mind, pointless – Masekela compilations.

Earnestly, I went about crafting what I considered a truly fine set that honored the great legacy of world music that trumpeter, vocalist, songwriter, arranger and producer Hugh Masekela has contributed to the modern music lexicon. My set, tentatively titled African Groove, was a powerful introduction to a signature music style that was not quite jazz, not quite pop, not quite African but quite definitely intoxicating and wonderful and like no one else in the world except Hugh Masekela himself.

”Win the World” video by Till Brönner & Hugh Masekela featuring Livingston.

Then, German trumpeter/vocalist and Universal Music recording star Till Brönner partnered with the legendary South African trumpeter and vocalist to record “Win the World,” a “We Are the World” styled-anthem tied to the 2010 FIFA World Cup competition held in South Africa. The higher-ups at Universal Music decided they needed a Masekela compilation to help promote the song.

Not quite satisfied with my seemingly unmarketable project, the head honchos OK’ed a budget increase, commissioned an original design, new liner notes, another compiler to be brought aboard and several remixes that were created especially for this suddenly very special project.

Hugh! The Best of Hugh Masekela: Presented by Till Brönner is the result and, all in all, it is a glorious presentation; certainly the best and most comprehensive compilation of Hugh Masekela’s music – and influence – ever put together and one that in some small way I am proud to have been a part of.

The June 10, 2010, World Cup opening concert featuring Hugh Masekela performing “Grazing in the Grass” and Lira adding a tremendous vocal to “Pata Pata.”

The producers left in some of my choices – “U, Dwi,” “Umaningi Bona,” and “Phatsha-Phatsha" from the 1965 album Grrr, “Unhanhia” from 1968’s The Lasting Impression of Hugh Masekela, “Johannesburg Hi-Lite Jive” and “Dyambo” from 1971’s Hugh Masekela and the Union of South Africa, “Languta” from 1973’s Introducing Hedzoleh Soundz, “Excuse Me Please” from 1975’s The Boy’s Doin’ It, and, most significantly of all, the extraordinarily lovely and otherwise unavailable “In the Market Place” from 1974’s I Am Not Afraid - and added some excellent choices of their own, including “Masquenada” from the 1966 album The Americanization of Ooga Booga, Larry Willis’s “Inner Crisis” from 1972’s Home Is Where The Music Is and the perennial “Skokiaan” from the 1977 album Herb Alpert/Hugh Masekela.

The inevitable hits are here (“Grazing in the Grass,” “Ha Lese le Di Khanna,” “Stimela (Coal Train)”), plus the surprisingly 11th hour addition of “Win the World” – which, to be fair, sounds a little out of place here as it might on just about any Hugh Masekela or Till Brönner album – and some peculiar vocal choices including “Child of the Earth” and the absolutely dreadful “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” (I would have preferred this album's "I Can't Dance" if something from this record had to be chosen).

Jonas Gwangwa’s terrific “She-Been” is also included here, but the intended version from the great and little-known 1978 Herb Alpert/Hugh Masekela album Main Event - Live was accidentally replaced here with the version Gwangwa performed with Masekela on the 1971 album Hugh Masekela and the Union of South Africa.

The generous two-disc compilation benefits particularly by four Masekela remixes especially commissioned for this compilation. The highlight is undoubtedly Götz Bühler and Nils Wülker’s tremendous “Languta (Afrocool Remix)," perfectly highlighting the right affectations and elements of Masekela’s great Fela-inspired piece while adding a strong contemporary groove worthy of the great Tony Allen (with whom Masekela recently recorded) and several bits of Masekela’s monologue from the 1965 Village Gate recordings that yielded The Americanization of Ooga Booga and The Lasting Impression of Hugh Masekela. Götz Bühler, incidentally, compiled the final set, so his thoughts on a great Masekela tune are particularly noteworthy.

Also noteworthy is Jazzanova’s invigorating take on “Stimela (Jazzanova Remix),” which keeps enough of Masekela’s original to matter and adds enough aural elegance that is absolutely right for the story that Masekela is trying to tell.

“In recent years,” says Jazzanova’s Stefan Leisring, “we have concentrated on writing completely separate, new songs and also presenting this material live with a band. Therefore, we have made very few remixes over the last three years. For us, it was a challenge to add appeal to Hugh Masekela’s ‘Stimela.’ The number has inspired us so much that we just had to do a remix of it.”

Samon Kawamura’s KaHeDi so completely makes over “U Dwi (KaHeDi Mix)” that it’s difficult to recognize the original in there. Still, it’s a tremendously fun little dance piece that seems somehow more inspired by Masekela than representative of him or his music in any way. Same goes for the altogether unrecognizable “In The Market Place (In The Market Dub)” by Moritz von Oswald, which like too much dub is a sound all its own and maybe something that isn’t quite right for a lot of Hugh Masekela’s work.

While it might not have been the set I would have done (I certainly would have gone with a better title), Hugh! The Best of Hugh Masekela is one of the best compilations that anybody has thus far attempted of Hugh Masekela’s music.

The set represents only a small fraction of the South African trumpet player’s music, but it takes in his most prodigious and productive years, mostly in America, during his exile from his homeland, and captures a lot of the music he is best-known for to this day.

Such a career retrospective is important for someone who has been recording and performing for over half a century (!) and has contributed much more to world music and the world of music than his available recordings would seem to indicate. Viva Bra Hugh!

“I Need Love” by Capricorn

Today's disco discovery: Finally, here is one of the great tracks from the early 80s, when the great keyboardist/composer and former Goblin founder, Claudio Simonetti, was in his disco prime. Simonetti left Goblin after crafting some distinctive work with the group in Dario Argento’s Profondo Rosso/Deep Red (1975), Suspiria (1977) and Zombi (the European version of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead) to pursue an interest in disco that led to much great Eurodisco by Easy Going, Vivien Vee, Kasso, Capricorn and others.

“I Need Love” from 1982 came pretty much at the end of Claudio Simonetti’s disco vacation. Giving up on his dancefloor vocation, the composer returned to film permanently in 1984 and, like his father, Enrico, went onto to some notable work for Italy’s preeminent genre filmmakers: Lamberto Bava, Umberto Lenzi, Sergio Martino, Ruggero Deodato and, of course, Dario Argento.

The song - which probably features the sexy Simonetti himself on spooky vocals - was originally featured on a Delirium 12-inch record, with a 5:55 extended vocal mix on side one and a same-time instrumental version of the song on side two. A six minute and 13 second instrumental version of “I Need Love” popped up on the 2004 Irma CD compilation I-Robots: Italo Electro Disco Underground Classics but the vocal version has, to my knowledge, criminally escaped notice on any legitimate CD collection. (Seems some adventurous soul could have jazzed this up nicely too.)

Both versions of the song can be downloaded here.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Zero Patience

This is a great song from a strange, little-known semi-musical film called Zero Patience. It has many catchy South African mbaqanga-styled touches that make it live and breathe beyond this film and its seemingly dated concerns. It’s an awkward video, as can be seen here. But it’s a great tune that should have become much better known – for the right reasons – and one that stands up well today, some two decades later.

The catchy music is by Glenn Schellenberg, who acquired his PhD in Psychology at Cornell the same year as this film was made and went into academia. At last report, he is a full professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto. His research focuses on music learning and music cognition.

Zero Patience is a 1993 Canadian musical film written and directed by John Greyson (Urinal, Queer as Folk). The film examines and refutes the urban legend of the alleged introduction of HIV to North America by a single individual, Gaëtan Dugas. Dugas, better known as Patient Zero, was tagged in the popular imagination with the blame in large measure because of Randy Shilts's history of the early days of the AIDS epidemic, And the Band Played On. The film tells its story against the backdrop of a romance between a time-displaced Sir Richard Francis Burton and the ghost of "Zero" (the character is not identified by Dugas' name).

Victorian adventurer and sexologist Sir Richard Francis Burton (John Robinson), following an "unfortunate encounter" with the Fountain of Youth in 1892, is 170 years old and living in Toronto, Canada. Burton, now living and working as the chief taxonomist at a Museum of Natural History, is searching for a centerpiece display for an exhibit in his Hall of Contagion. He comes up with the idea of featuring AIDS and the Patient Zero hypothesis. Accepting the popular belief that Zero introduced the virus to North America, Burton sets out to collect video footage from those who knew Zero to support the hypothesis. When Zero's doctor (Brenda Kamino), mother (Charlotte Boisjoli) and former airline colleague Mary (Dianne Heatherington), who is now with ACT UP, all refuse to demonize Zero, Burton manipulates the footage to make it appear as if they do and includes doctored photographs of Zero showing signs of Kaposi's sarcoma. He presents this preliminary version to the press.

The ghost of Zero (Normand Fauteux) materializes at a local gay bathhouse. No one can see or hear him, until Zero runs into Burton while Burton is spying on Zero's friend George and realizes that Burton can, although Zero does not show up on Burton's video camera. The two strike a deal; Zero agrees to help Burton with his Patient Zero exhibit if Burton finds a way to make Zero appear.

The two return to the museum where Burton makes a ridiculous attempt to seduce Zero to ensure his participation. Rejecting his advances, Zero examines some of the other exhibits (including displays on Typhoid Mary and the Tuskegee syphilis study) before finding an African green monkey, another suspected early AIDS vector. The monkey (Marla Lukofsky) angrily denounces Zero for scapegoating her just as he has been scapegoated. Zero turns to Burton and they make love.

Under pressure from his director and the exhibit's drug manufacturer sponsor, Burton steals Zero's medical records in hopes of discovering new information. Zero and Burton examine an old blood sample of Zero's under a microscope and discover Miss HIV (Michael Callen), who points out that the original study that was used to label Patient Zero as the first person to bring HIV to North America did not prove any such thing, but instead helped prove that HIV was sexually transmitted, leading to the development of safer sex practices. Under this interpretation, Zero could be lauded as a hero for his candor in participating in that original study. As Burton ponders this, an unknown fluid squirts from the eye pieces of the microscope, drenching Zero and making him appear on video. He joyously declares his innocence on tape but the effect only lasts five minutes before he fades away again. Zero angrily accuses Burton of not caring for him at all and only wanting to use him for the exhibit, then storms out.

Burton fails to complete the revised Patient Zero exhibit before its scheduled opening date. The museum curator substitutes the original presentation instead over Burton's protests, leading to a renewed rush of press scapegoating Zero. The night after the exhibit opens, Mary and other ACT UP members break into the Hall of Contagion and trash the exhibit. Zero returns and Burton explains that he tried to stop the exhibit. Zero forgives Burton but says he wants to disappear again completely. Zero merges with his disfigured video image and, smoking a cigarette inside the video, sets off the fire alarm. The sprinklers destroy the video player and Zero vanishes.

A major subplot involves George (Richardo Keens-Douglas), a French teacher and former intimate of Zero's. George is losing his sight to cytomegalovirus and is taking a drug that is manufactured by a company that, as a member of ACT UP, George is protesting. George struggles through the film to resolve his conflicted feelings over this, his guilt over abandoning Zero during the final days of his illness and his fear that the same thing will happen to him.

Zero Patience won a number of prestigious Canadian film awards. The film has been the subject of critical attention in both film theory and queer theory and is considered part of the New Queer Cinema movement.

Shutter Island

Watching Martin Scorsese’s surprisingly engaging Shutter Island recently proved more impressive than I could have possibly imagined. The director’s first “horror” film since Cape Fear, which features the same unspeakably pervasive air of dread throughout, Shutter Island stands out on Leonardo DiCaprio’s particularly notable performance, a genuinely excellent cast of notable actors, the often stunning (yet mostly computer-generated) visuals, the homage to so many great films of the past and, most significantly, the provocative music – a collection of some of the most interesting modern classical pieces imaginable.

In 1954, Federal marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCarprio) and his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are dispatched to Shutter Island, a fortress for the criminally insane, to investigate the disappearance of Rachel, a patient incarcerated there for killing her three children. Teddy struggles with the Nazi atrocities he witnessed during the war and vivid memories of his dead wife. The island’s remote and rough terrain – particularly during a sudden hurricane – adds to the officer’s sense of vexing isolation and vertiginous dislocation. Teddy is dumbfounded that Rachel could simply vanish from the island and he cannot be sure whether the island’s patrons, Dr. John Crawley (Ben Kingsley) and Dr. Jeremiah Naehring (Max von Sydow), are helping him or misleading him for reasons of their own. As Teddy learns more about Rachel and Shutter Island, he slowly realizes he is on a quest to understand himself.

This is the sort of film one doesn’t picture Martin Scorsese making, much less even wanting to make. The overtly commercial premise isn’t unlike Sydney Pollack or Francis Ford Coppola directing films of John Grisham novels. Mass market books usually spell the end of a great filmmaker’s journey. But nothing about Shutter Island feels like pandering to the teenaged masses or hack-for-hire work. It is a testament to the artistry of Martin Scorsese. Certainly, it’s no Taxi Driver or Raging Bull, yet neither is it something that could be called Scorsese-esque. Simply imagine what Terry Gilliam would have done with the story.

And yet, very few filmmakers could have achieved what Martin Scorsese makes of all this pulp, taking what is essentially a movie of effects (which far too many American films are nowadays) and providing a deeper sensitivity to well-worn psychological tropes and a positively profound questioning of reality.

The director achieves all of this not through scripting dialogue or telegraphing emotions, but rather by communicating the well-understood visual language of great films of the past such as the film noir classic Out of the Past (1947), The Stranger (1946), several Fritz Lang noirs (Woman in the Window, Secret Beyond the Door, etc.), Battleship Potemkin (1925), The Cabinet of Dr. Calgari (1920), Gaslight (1944), The Spiral Staircase (1945), The Haunting (1963), Angel Heart (1987) and a lot of Hitchcock.

Most notably, the overt – and obvious – use of green screens recalls Hitchcock as he visualized the stilted world of Tippi Hedren’s titular character with stilted painted backdrops and noticeable rear-screen projection in the hugely underrated and unappreciated Marnie (1964). The unreal skies overwhelmed by menacing storm clouds, the storybook quality of oddly shaped rooms, the imagined gestures of people that may or may not be there and the shafts of light that cannot relieve the darkness all add to a disquieting sense of disequilibrium that will challenge the most emotionally sensitive viewer. Indeed, Martin Scorsese is a master of emotional cinema and Shutter Island is a masterpiece of visceral emotion.

Like a Brian DePalma film, Shutter Island abounds in Hitchcock references, from Foreign Correspondent (the fear of Nazis pervading regular society) and Vertigo (Teddy’s blackouts, his horrific dreams and, of course, the dizzying cliffs) to Psycho (the malevolent niceness of authority figures) and The Birds (the boat’s approach to the island and the difficulty of escaping unknown and unpredictable forces). Unlike a Brian DePalma film, though, Scorsese doesn’t copy or restage scenes as Hitchcock might. Scorsese presents the feel of it all by suggesting moods that recall certain moments in the older films.

It’s the sort of visual poetry with which Scorsese is masterful, painting a convincing portrait of Teddy Daniels’s terribly haunted world without ever suggesting what any of it means (or whether it has to have meaning to anyone other than Teddy). DiCaprio, who gives one of his most mature and insightful performances yet, is a blank slate who fights off unspeakable anguish and unknowable remorse with frightening dreams and disturbing illusions but never betrays his own sense of the truth. He turns in a real performance here.

The film teaches us that words are mostly unreliable, so by the end it’s hard to know what really happened or whether anything really happened at all. What’s so remarkable is how Scorsese and DiCaprio get you to think about how one man struggles to make sense of the world and whatever that means during the post-war time period of the late 50s when manhood, fatherhood, husbandry and heroism were perceived a lot differently than they are now so that the inevitable “twist” isn’t what matters about the film.

Shutter Island is spooky not necessarily as it unspools, but as its ramifications unspool within you after the movie’s over. The script portends to present a pretty open and shut case by the end (the film’s “twist” is hardly unexpected). But – and that’s a big but – the narrator has not been reliable, so what is revealed near the end is hardly dependable. The “facts” elude the viewer as much as they do Teddy. But once you visit Shutter Island, it’s pretty hard to shake off.

The Music

Like the outstanding soundtracks to The Exorcist (1973, a film which also featured Max von Sydow) and The Shining (1980), the Shutter Island soundtrack is a compilation of mostly modern classical pieces that are more supremely evocative than music that might have been “composed” specifically for the film. It goes to show how much film music has probably influenced so many 20th Century composers.

“This was the first time Marty [Scorsese] called me,” said Robbie Robertson, producer of the Shutter Island soundtrack, in a February 12, 2010, Facebook posting, “and said, ‘I don't have any ideas where to start musically.’ After I read the script I suggested that instead of a traditional score, I put together some music by modern classical composers with a few songs from the film's time period sprinkled in. Marty felt it really connected and we went on a mission of doing something unlike anything we'd ever done before.”

Robertson, who, as part of The Band, was a featured performer in Scorsese’s 1978 film The Last Waltz, has supervised many of the director’s soundtracks since then and hand-selected this particular collection himself. He says with pride that "This may be the most outrageous and beautiful soundtrack I've ever heard."

The film’s most memorable music is certainly Ingram Marshall’s impressionistic “Fog Tropes” (which, as the title suggests, would have been ideal for John Carpenter’s The Fog) and Krzysztof Penderecki’s stunning “Symphony #3: Passacaglia - Allegro Moderato,” something that appropriately recalls Bernard Herrmann’s intensely emotional Hitchcock obligatos. Pendrecki’s music is so marvelously cinematic that it’s truly surprising that the composer hasn’t done much work for film - although the composer’s exceptional “Polymorphia” was used for both The Exorcist and the 1994 Jeff Bridges film Fearless. Gyorgy Ligeti’s elegant “Lontano” will sound familiar to listeners of The Shining soundtrack and it sounds just right here too.

Other highlights include Morton Feldman’s appropriately haunting “Rothko Chapel 2,” Lou Harrison’s Suite For Symphonic Strings: Nocturne, Brian Eno’s “Lizard Point” (written by Eno with Axel Gros, Bill Laswell and Michael Beinhorn), John Cage’s “Root of an Unfocus” and Ingram Marshall’s “Prelude – The Bay,” which again provides a thick and appropriate fog of musical mayhem.

Several pieces are jarring enough in this presentation to point out and include Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight,” which seems like a twisted version of Pachelbel’s “Canon in D,” the not altogether out of place and out of time Mahler quartet (which is actually discussed a bit in the film) and the brilliant, yet trying “Christian Zeal and Activity” – which makes a certain retrospective sense to the film – suggesting that hindsight might not be 20/20.

The period music (“Cry,” “Wheel of Fortune” and “Tomorrow Night”) works well within the film. But the three pieces sound horridly out of place on the two-disc Rhino soundtrack, breaking the eerie mood of suspense, tension and ambient disquiet the otherwise remarkable program establishes:

Disc 1
1. Ingram Marshall: Fog Tropes (Orchestra of St. Lukes, conducted by John Adams)
2. Krzysztof Penderecki: Symphony #3: Passacaglia - Allegro Moderato (National Polish Radio Symphony, conducted by Antonio Wit)
3. John Cage: Music For Marcel Duchamp (Philipp Vandre, prepared piano)
4. Nam June Paik: Hommage a John Cage (Nam June Paik)
5. György Ligeti: Lontano (Wiener Philharmoniker, conducted by Claudio Abbado)
6. Morton Feldman: Rothko Chapel 2 (UC Berkeley Chamber Chorus)
7. Cry - Johnny Ray
8. Max Richter: On The Nature Of Daylight (Max Richter)
9. Giacinto Scelsi: Uaxuctum: The Legend Of The Mayan City Which They Themselves Destroyed For Religious Reasons - 3rd M (Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra; Peter Rundel, conductor)
10. Gustav Mahler: Quartet For Strings And Piano In A Minor (Prazak Quartet)

Disc 2
1. John Adams: Christian Zeal and Activity (Edo de Waart & San Francisco Symphony)
2. Lou Harrison: Suite For Symphonic Strings: Nocturne (The New Professionals Orchestra, conducted by Rebecca Miller)
3. Lizard Point - Brian Eno
4. Alfred Schnittke: Four Hymns, II For Cello And Double Bass (Torleif Thedeen & Entcho Radoukanov)
5. John Cage: Root Of An Unfocus (Boris Berman)
6. Ingram Marshall: Prelude - The Bay (Ingram Marshall)
7. Wheel of Fortune – Kay Starr
8. Tomorrow Night - Lonnie Johnson
9. This Bitter Earth – Dinah Washington mixed by Robbie Robertson with On The Nature Of Daylight - Max Richter

Still, it’s a quibble. The music works exceptionally well for the film – which is the point – and the soundtrack represents the film most marvelously. The CD booklet is chock full of beautifully iconic shots from the film and a few well-chosen quotes are provided (“You can never take away all a man’s memory, never,” “You came here for the truth. Here it is” and “God help you”), giving one the great sense that, as the film poster warns, “someone is missing.”

Very highly recommended.

Always Coca-Cola

This terrific TV commercial dates back to 1993 and is probably one of the few memorable commercials I’ve ever seen. Oddly, I’d only caught it once or twice back at the time (probably on commercial breaks during the much-missed Buddy Faro). But the terrific graphics and insanely catchy song (which was also done in Spanish and other languages too) always stayed with me. It’s one of the best commercials Coke ever did and one of the best commercials of its time. Wish I knew who wrote and sings the jingle and this refreshing refrain "The stars will always shine, the birds will always sing..."

Here's the swinging holiday version…

Agatha Christie’s Poirot - Series 11

Agatha Christie’s Poirot – An Introduction
Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 1
Agatha Christie’s Poirot – Series 2
Agatha Christie’s Poirot – Series 3
Agatha Christie’s Poirot – Series 4
Agatha Christie’s Poirot – Series 5
Agatha Christie’s Poirot – Series 6
Agatha Christie’s Poirot – Series 7
Agatha Christie’s Poirot – Series 8
Agatha Christie’s Poirot – Series 9
Agatha Christie’s Poirot – Series 10

1. Mrs. McGinty’s Dead (first broadcast September 1, 2008): Mrs. McGinty, a charwoman (cleaning lady) in the small village of Broadhinny, is found murdered and robbed of several pounds. Her lodger, an unemployed young man named James Bentley, is immediately arrested, tried, found guilty and sentenced to death for the crime. During the course of the trial, Superintendent Spence, who investigated the murder and arrested Bentley, becomes increasingly unconvinced of the young man’s guilt but has no evidence to the contrary. After Bentley is sentenced, Superintendent Spence shares his doubt about Bentley’s guilt with his friend Hercule Poirot and appeals to the detective to determine whether there is any evidence that either proves or disproves Bentley’s guilt. Poirot travels to Broadhinny to learn more about Mrs. McGinty and discovers that several days before her death, the charwoman, who was not a letter writer, bought a bottle of ink and cut out an article from a tabloid newspaper asking whatever became of several women of notorius tragedies from years past. Poirot tracks down the writer of the article only to discover that Mrs. McGinty had written a letter to the reporter claiming to have previously seen one of the pictures included in the article somewhere before. Mrs. McGinty had asked whether the paper was willing to pay for the information and, if so, how much. Since Mrs. McGinty was brutally murdered before a reply could come, nothing ever came of it. Meanwhile crime writer Ariadne Oliver arrives in Broadhinny to work on an adaptation of one her books with the young playwright Robin Updward. Mrs. Oliver literally bumps into M. Poirot and the detective reveals the purpose for his being in the small village. He goes about determining which of the women from the newspaper article might have been in Broadhinney back when Mrs. McGinty was murdered. He finds out that Mrs. Upward, Robin’s mother, recalls one of the photographs from the article. But she can’t place how or where she knows it. Poirot suspects Mrs. Upward knows more than she is saying. She is then discovered strangled to death and the clues point to a female suspect. Is it one of the women from the newspaper article? Poirot senses a pattern to the crimes but cannot see it until several more clues emerge.

First published in 1952, Mrs. McGinty’s Dead also appeared under the strangely inappropriate title of Blood Will Tell. Like The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) and Dumb Witness (1937), Mrs. McGinty’s Dead returns Hercule Poirot to the quiet English village, the murderous stomping grounds of the author’s other famed sleuth, Jane Marple. Investigating a crime that already has a murderer sentenced to death, Poriot races against the clock unraveling an unusually complex plot that takes in an uncooperative innocent on death row, a village peopled by working-class strangers to Poirot and a newpaper article musing on the fate of several women with murderous tragedies in their past (all of the past crimes are based on actual murders but one of them, involving a man named Craig, is based on Dr. Crippen’s notorious murder of his wife Cora in 1910, with Eva Kane modeled on Crippen’s mistress, Ethel Le Neve). This maze subjects Poirot to yet another post-War English landscape, though the War has less to do with the plot’s machinations here than Christie’s constructs of Taken at the Flood (1948) and After the Funeral (1953). Here, though, Christie quotes a number of English poets (Robert Browning, twice, Lord Alfred Tennyson and William Ernest Henley) to, perhaps, trumpet England’s rich and proud artistic heritage.

Parentage, as it so often does in Agatha Christie’s work, plays a significant part in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead (Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, “Dead Man’s Mirror,” “The Case of the Missing Will”). But here the author doesn’t murder off the mothers as she does in, say, Sad Cypress (1940) or Ordeal by Innocence (1958), even though these mothers and those that are referenced do worse by their offspring in this particular telling. Mrs. McGinty’s Dead also employs a significant plot twist on the nature of names, similar to important name games that Agatha Christie used to turn the plots of Peril at End House (1932) and the clever Miss Marple novel of two years earlier, A Murder Is Announced (1950).

The author, who initially considered but abandoned including “2 young men who live together” among the group of suspects, presents a primary suspect, James Bentley, who is likely a closeted homosexual, certainly, at least a “mama’s boy.” Regardless of Bentley’s unknown and unimportant sexuality, the author proposes a fascinating scenario not terribly dissimilar to the one Franz Kafka devised for The Trial’s Joseph K., where the entire village of Broadhinny judges the poor young man guilty of the ultimate crime of murder for his criminally “queer” nature alone. It’s also easy to conclude that the novel’s real killer, a most flamboyant and curiously single individual (heterosexual indifference is a coded way writers can suggest homosexuality), is indeed homosexual, which, for the deeply contextual reader, curiously reinforces the cultural stereotype that “queer” equals “crime(s) against humanity,” as significant a ramification as the author’s and/or her characters’ frequent equation of “foreigners” as undesirable “others.”

Mrs. McGinty’s Dead was first filmed in 1964 as Murder Most Foul, replacing Hercule Poirot with Margaret Rutherford’s wacky Miss Marple. The film, which might be one of the best of Rutherford’s four Miss Marple films, makes a number of reasonable references to Shakespeare (notably the film’s title), The Lodger and several ficticious references to Agatha Christie herself. Murder Most Foul maintains the story’s basic premise of the lodger being tried for the murder of Mrs. McGinty, though changes almost everything else, including Miss Marple’s insertion into the thread of the plot and the typical way Rutherford’s character makes deductions from similar crimes found in books and stage plays. Still, of course, she gets it right in the end, even if it has little to do with detection.

Mrs. McGinty’s Dead was scripted by Nick Dear in his third Poirot film following The Hollow (2004) and Cards on the Table (2005) and simplifies the text most remarkably to its barest possible essentials – though it may take several viewings to understand how it all unfolds as it does. Dear maintains a great deal of the author’s crisp and incisive dialogue but excises the nasty Wetherbys and their daughter, Deirdre Henderson (a possible love interest for James Bentley, at least as far as the regrettable matchmaker Poirot is concerned), minimizes the sub-plot of the anonymous letters Mrs. Rendell receives (and the nature of those letters), changes who pushes Poirot in front of the train (and why), reduces the number of crimes from Pamela Horsefall’s article to only two (a good idea), changes Charles Bentley’s reclusive and introspective nature into a poet’s temperament and recasts Maude from Poirot’s undercover agent (similar to what Miss Marple does in 4.50 from Paddington) to more of an independent sleuth with her own mysterious objective.

The film is directed by Ashley Pearce who also directed this series’ Appointment with Death (2008) and casts an eerie – and singularly unusual – dark pallor over the proceedings that is much in tune with the book’s surprising darkness. Pearce is careful about catching or crafting dark, foreboding skylines into his mise en scene. He accomplishes this with a careful composition of iconically staged shots, which significantly underscore the important ambiguity of photographs, and many overhead camera angles (“God shots”) that give the viewer the questionably uncomfortable omnipotence of peeking into everyone else’s lives and judging them like a detective might. Stephen McKeon’s score, a surprisingly successful mix of Philip Glass and John Williams, is remarkably effective in achieving these ends, though the curious use of the melodica, a keyboard instrument, now suggests the music of the Harry Potter films a bit more than is appropriate. Refreshingly, the score does offer several hints of Christopher Gunning’s Poirot theme, which hadn’t been heard in any of the films for quite some time.

A number of people returned to Mrs. McGinty’s Dead from previous Poirot films, including the recurring characters Ariadne Oliver (Zoë Wannamaker) from Cards on the Table and both Superintendent Spence (Richard Hope) and George (David Yelland) from Taken at the Flood. Also returning to Poirot are actors Catherine Russell (Pamela Horsfall) from the 1991 Poirot film How Does Your Garden Grow, Richard Lintern (Guy Carpenter) from the 1993 Poirot film Dead Man’s Mirror and Simon Shepherd (Dr. Rendell, who also appeared in the 1985 Miss Marple film A Murder Is Announced) and Simon Molloy (District Judge), who both appeared in the 1993 Poirot film The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan. Sarah Smart (Maude) also appeared in the 2009 Marple film They Do It With Mirrors while Mary Stockley (Josie Turner) appeared in the 2004 Marple film The Body in the Library and Paul Rhys (Robin Upward) appeared in the 2010 Marple film The Blue Geranium.

2. Cat Among The Pigeons (first broadcast September 8, 2008): Meadowbank is considered one of the finest girl’s schools in all of England. After many years of success, though, something about this term seems very different, almost amiss, to those who’ve been part of the school for a while. The headmistress and founder of Meadowbank, Miss Bulstrode, is considering retiring from her position and is troubled by choosing a successor who is best suited to carry on leading the school in the innovative tradition that she has established. There are also several teachers and staff members that are new to Meadowbank this term, which leads to some turmoil and conflict as well. Meanwhile, a political revolution in the small country of Ramat in the Persian Gulf several months earlier also has significant impact on the girl’s school. The country’s democratically-oriented ruler, Ali Yusuf, is slain and the ruling family’s riches seem to disappear from the country shortly before he is killed. Coincidentally, the country’s young Princess Shaista comes to Meadowbank as a student this term and another one of the school’s students, Jennifer Sutcliffe, was actually in Ramat with her mother at the inception of the revolution but was evacuated just hours before the uprising occurred. Suddenly, late one night at Meadowbank, the games mistress, Miss Springer, is discovered murdered in the school’s sports pavilion. The panic is minimized until other foul play ensues, forcing parents to withdraw their children from the school. Poirot investigates, piecing together various clues that lead him to determine the motives and the perpetrators of the strange happenings at Meadowbank.

First published in 1959, Cat among the Pigeons is a pondering curiousity; much more complex and longer than most Agatha Christie novels, it mixes then-in international intruigue (which the author had dabbled in as far back as 1927’s The Big Four and as recently as 1951’s They Came to Baghdad) with murder in yet another microcosm, in this case, most uniquely, a girl’s school. It’s an intruiging idea that might have been a bit too ambituous for its own good. But while it’s a little slow to get going or envelope the reader, the book finally ends up packing a wallop of a punch in its last half. A curiously lengthy prologue is followed by an elaborate set-up that prevents the first murder – or any sort of real grabber – until the eighth chapter. It’s just too much of a set up. The famous Belgian detective is never even mentioned or introduced until about two thirds of the way through the book in the 17th chapter, which suggests that the author was probably forced against her will to include Poirot in the story – although the bumbling investigation goes on a bit too long for even the most patient of murder mystery readers.

Written by actor/writer/producer Mark Gatiss, who would go on to act in the 2008 Poirot film Appointment with Death and write the 2010 Poirot film Hallowe’en Party, the film of Cat among the Pigeons is a reasonably short-handed version of the original novel that captures enough of what it needs to make its questionable points. Gatiss wisely introduces Poriot into the story much, much earlier than the author does as a long-time friend of Miss Bulstrode and guest presenter of the school’s MacGuffin-like “Pemberton Lacrosse Shield” (in the book it is Julia Upjohn, whose mother is friends with Mrs. Summerhayes from Poirot’s adventures in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, that brings Poirot into the story much later in the plot). Gatiss does away with many of Christie’s characters including Col. Pikeaway, the mysterious Mr. Robinson, Briggs the gardener, Denis (Ann’s boyfriend), Henry Sutcliffe and, most significantly, Eleanor Vansittart (though Miss Rich’s character inherits some of her fate and her characteristics) and, wisely, adds, two more students to the mix: Patrica Forbes and Hsui Tai. The script also changes the nature of a significant witness in Ramat from peeping-tom neighbor to one-time lover, (needlessly) adds an effigy doll of Miss Springer, changes Shaista’s status from cousin of Ali Yusuf to fiancé, does away with Mlle. Blanche’s identity theft and the questionable ownership of the jewels and deletes a character who has nothing to do with the story at the end of the novel that ends up with the rights to the missing jewels. Interestingly, the novel never details any of the murders. They occur between chapter breaks. But Miss Springer comes to an altogether different and more gruesome end in the film than in the book, where she is merely shot. Her demise here is also more visually appealing – and considerably more satisfying, given her repellant nature – to horror-film aficionados than the typical shotgun murder.

Cat among the Pigeons is directed winningly by James Kent in a subtle and appropriate mix of Suspiria and Harry Potter, a sort of popular-film shorthand of the childlike terrors and bizarre adult hindsight romanticism of school life. It’s professionally mounted, with many elegantly staged sequences such as the choreography of opening day, the rainy night of Miss Springer’s murder, the dark passages of the school and the seemingly menacing sports pavaillon. But the story’s cleverness is more in its telling than its performance, despite some exceptionally good performances here, notably Harriet Walter as Miss Bulstrode, Susan Woolridge as Miss Chadwick, Natasha Little as Ann Shapland and, most especially, Lois Edmett as Julia Upjohn. It looks good, but sadly it’s really not among the most memorable of Agatha Christie’s stories and, as a result, not one of the greatest of the Poirot films.

Harriet Walter (Miss Bulstrode) also appeared in the 2006 Marple film Sleeping Murder while Carol MacReady (Miss Johnson) also appeared as Mrs. Croft in the 1990 Poirot film Peril at End House and Mrs. Pierce in the 1982 TV film Murder is Easy. Claire Skinner (Miss Rich) also appeared in the 2005 Marple film A Murder Is Announced, SusanWooldridge (Miss Chadwick) also appeared in the 1986 TV film Dead Man’s Folly, Pippa Haywood (Mrs. Upjohn) also appeared in the 2007 Marple film Ordeal by Innocence, Jane Howe (the drunken Lady Veronica) also had a brief scene as a gossipy party goer in the 2005 Poirot film The Mystery of the Blue Train, Don Gallagher (Mr. Forbes) also appeared in the 2010 Marple film The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side and the pretty Jo Woodcock (Jennifer Sutcliff) also appeared in the 2007 Marple film Towards Zero.

3. Third Girl (first broadcast September 15, 2008): A young woman arrives unannounced at Hercule Poirot’s apartment claiming she thinks she may have committed a murder. Before she elaborates any further, she suddenly departs. The meeting worries Poirot and the detective contacts his old friend, the crime writer Ariadne Oliver, who reveals that it was she who suggested the young woman consult Poirot. The young woman turns out to be Norma Restarick, a scion of a wealthy family and the “third girl” sharing a London flat with two other girls. Together, Mrs. Oliver and M. Poirot set out to find the girl and learn the truth behind her claim. Poirot looks into the background of the girl’s family and encounters an elderly uncle and her father, who left her and her now decesased mother many years before for another woman. Meanwhile Mrs. Oliver seeks to learn more about the girl’s friends and roommates, discovering that she is in love with a young man named David, someone the girl’s father thoroughly disapproves. It is sometime before Poirot discovers a death that occurred in the girl’s apartment building and, suddenly the pattern of the puzzle becomes clearer.

First published in 1966 in the UK and in 1967 in the US, Third Girl is a decent potboiler that’s built upon one too many coincidences to be believable. By the denoument, some of the revelations seem so preposterous that they can only bear Mrs. Oliver’s quip that “it sounds like…an old-fashioned detective story,” at least a fictional one such as this. Still, the needle – which takes an unusually long time to thread here (the death which is in fact a murder is only discovered in the book’s third act) – weaves a compelling if slightly implausible tale. Third Girl is one of Christie’s swinging sixties mysteries, with then-topical references to beatniks, hippies, gangs, reefers, drugs (“hopped up” young people), Mods and The Beatles. The “you’re too old” insult which affronts Poirot and motivates his desire to prove otherwise is probably the author’s way of, generally, addressing the then-burgeoning premise of the “generation gap” and, specifically, one imagines, to admonish critics who might consider her old-fashioned brand of detective fiction out of date. Indeed, with Third Girl, Agatha Christie confirms that she still possessed an amazing facility to reinvent detective fiction after nearly half a century (!) of writing. The author does, however, seem to despair of the times as they were: boys that look like girls, girls that like boys only for sex, and the pervasive long hair that provides the book with one of its most unbelievable revelations. Still, the author seems much less reluctant for the first time in many years to put her best selling and aged sleuth in the thick of things, even if it’s only to prove a point. One point of interest in the novel is in chapter 13 when Sir Roderick Horsfield, in an effort to recall Poirot’s first name, considers that it is “something like Achilles,” and notes, of course, that it’s not Achilles. This is the name that Poirot himself later uses in Curtain (1975, but written during World War II) when he names his brother.

The novel is rife with Poirot’s ruminations and reflections – infuriating even Mrs. Oliver – and a long search for a death that could affirm the girl’s thought that she may have murdered someone, making it, perhaps, one of the more difficult of Agatha Christie’s novels to film adequately. As scripted by Peter Flannery and directed by Dan Reed in their only Poirot endeavors, Third Girl gets a considerable overhaul that maintains pretty much only Norma’s intial claim, the unmasked imposter and the imposter’s murderous co-conspiritor. The most obvious change is setting the story’s clock back to the 1930s, the setting for the the time period of the rest of the Poirot series – a time that might not justify a “third girl” or “the peacock” as well as the considerably different era of the 1960s would (now, perhaps, too much of a revisionist joke, not unlike the Austin Powers movies). Many of the novel’s main characters remain, though Miss Lemon, Dr. Stillingfleet (from “The Dream”) and the private investigator Mr. Goby (who was also left out of the film version of After the Funeral) are dispensed with. The main characters are almost completely different here than their novel counterparts and not only is Louise Charpentier, Andrew’s former lover, turned into Lavinia Seagram, Norma’s former nanny, their suspicious deaths are completely different too. Poirot is also told here that Mrs Oliver sent Norma Restarick to him (in the book he discovers this later) and, conveniently, discovers Nanny Seagram’s death while he questions Mrs. Oliver about Norma (Poirot finds out about Louise’s death very late in the book). Mary Restarick goes from being Andrew’s current wife to being the wife he left many years ago (who, preposterously, kills herself on young Norma’s birthday), leaving Andrew free to dally with his secretary. Here, too, Miss Battersby has a terrible secret to hide that she doesn’t have in the book, which Poirot somehow figures out. David Baker is also a shady character with the good intentions he doesn’t have in the book, allowing “The Peacock” to survive the film. He’s not so lucky in the novel. The point of all these changes was – probably – to remove the tissue of coincidence that informs so much of the novel. But the result, which is still Christiesque (“Dead Man’s Mirror,” “The Case of the Missing Will,” Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, Sad Cypress), remains almost as outlandish. The one mistake the filmmakers make is omitting the influence of drugs on Norma. In the novel, Norma’s blackouts and actions are easily explained by the use of drugs. In the film, she does appear to be troubled by the deep psychological problems the scriptwriter provides for her, but it can hardly explain what sort of pressure would force her to believe that she is capable of murder.

The film looks unnecessarily dark, suggesting dark forces at work in all quarters, but the setting is unusually elegant, as if it were filmed in Amsterdam or some other old-world European city more than London, which would probably be prohibitively expensive to recreate in a 1930s perspective. Reed’s restless camera pokes around like a spy in almost every scene, telling of many covert missions, not unlike a Harry Potter movie – which Steven McKeon’s music again suggests (though Christopher Gunning’s main theme is used for the first time in quite a few years here). One of the most clever things the filmmakers do here, whether by accident or design, is include the somewhat relevant “mother losing her child” painting featured in the 1993 film of Dead Man’s Mirror in David’s studio while he’s painting Frances.It’s one of the paintings that leads Mrs. Oliver to conclude that David is a good painter, though it’s hard to say why he would paint this particular image, which would have no particular meaning to either him or Frances.

David Yelland and Zoë Wannamaker make welcome returns to Poirot in Third Girl as, respectively, George the valet and Ariadne Oliver, the crime writer. Even some of the other Third Girl actors returned to Poirot from different roles earlier in the series, including Lucy Leimann (Sonia), who appeared as Miss Burgess in the 2005 film Cards on the Table, Haydn Gwynne (Miss Battersby), who appeared as Coco in the 1991 film The Affair at the Victory Ball, and Tim Stern (Alf, the concierge), who also appeared in the 2004 Marple film 4.50 From Paddington and was a bellboy in the 1993 film The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan. Third Girl “name” actors include James Wilby (Andrew Restarick), who also appeared in the 2006 Marple film The Sittaford Mystery and Peter Bowles (Sir Roderick Horsfield), who also appeared in the excellent 1972 film Endless Night.

4. Appointment with Death (first broadcast September 22, 2008): While holidaying in Jerusalem, Hercule Poirot encounters a family headed by the tyrannical Mrs. Boynton, a mother who rules her adult step children so methodically that they have no real lives of their own. One afternoon, while the family is out exploring the Holy Land, Mrs. Boynton is discovered dead. Poirot is asked to investigate the death and wends his way through a maze of people who wanted the woman dead and the fact that the detective himself actually heard two of the children discuss killing her.

First published in 1938, Appointment with Death is a travelogue murder mystery in the signature tradition of the author’s Murder on the Orient Express (1934), Murder in Mesopotamia (1936), Death on the Nile (1937) and Evil Under the Sun (1941), where a group of seemingly dissimilar people congregate in a picturesque microcosm that provokes murder. Many of the aforementioned novels rank among the author’s most popular, but Appointment with Death is an exception, probably as it is peopled by particularly awful women, from the tyrant Mrs. Boynton – a textbook ugly American – who has the titular fate, to the obnoxiously opiniated Lady Westholme and even the smug, recently-doctored (as she likes reminding everyone), Sarah King, who could be a poster child for feminism and female achievement were it not for her grating, unlikable personality. Mrs. Boynton, in particular, is a monsterous creation, not unlike her male counterpart, Simeon Lee, from Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, published just six months after Appointment with Death. (As an aside, it is interesting to note how Christie kills these two parental tyrants off for reasons other than their parental tyranny.) Too few of the remaining females have endearing enough characteristics – perhaps only Nadine and Carol are remotely likable – and the males barely register as manly or masculine to matter much at all. Like Death in the Clouds (1935), the murderer here conceals their crime by dressing like a servant and like the previously-filmed Third Girl (1966), Appointment with Death turns on a remark made within Poirot’s earshot; in this case it is “You do see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed” and another phrase that is said to one person but meant for another that motivates the horrible woman’s death.

The story is one of Christie’s least engaging and, despite all of the potentially fascinating but heavy-handed Freudian psychology involved, one of her least believable. Even after proving how pretty much everyone could have murdered Mrs. Boynton, Poirot’s resolution to the crime is particularly difficult to accept as it is based on, one, a conversation that the detective was not present for and one whose true significance is unable to be vouched for by those who were there and, two, what amounts to guessing at the killer’s background and ultimate motivation for the crime. The killer’s suicide at the end of the novel also pretty much absolves the author of coming up with any real “evidence” that points to the murderer, something Poirot conveniently said early on that he could not guarantee. It’s kind of a cheat that seems to have not agreed with even the author herself, who revised the story for a 1945 stage play, dropping Hercule Poirot from the cast as well as changing the identity of the killer and the motivation for Mrs. Boynton’s death. Significantly, and predictably, neither the novel nor the play factors much in Agatha Christie’s own autobiography. While the play originally premiered in Glasgow, the 1945 West End (London) production of the play was significant for including among its cast a young Joan Hickson, playing Miss Pryce. Agatha Christie was so taken by Miss Hickson’s performance in the play that she wrote to the actress, expressing her hope that she would one day play her beloved Miss Marple. Indeed, Joan Hickson assumed the role of the elderly spinster many years later for an excellent series of 12 BBC TV productions made between 1984 and 1992.

Appointment with Death was first filmed in 1988 by Michael (Death Wish) Winner, with a fanciful script written in part by Anthony Schaffer, who also wrote 1978’s Death on the Nile and 1982’s Evil Under the Sun. The surprisingly handsome Golan/Globus feature film presented Peter Ustinov in his last of six performances as Hercule Poirot and rightly returned the great detective back to the 1930s after several TV productions that took place in oddly contemporary settings. The starry cast featured John Gielgud and Lauren Bacall (both of whom were featured in the 1974 film of Murder on the Orient Express), David Soul (who appeared in the 2004 Poirot film Death on the Nile), Hayley Mills (who appeared in the 1972 film Endless Night) and everybody’s nightmare of a mother, Piper Laurie (Carrie, also scored by this film’s composer, Pino Donaggio). The story took a number of liberties, but wound up pretty much as Agatha Christie’s novel, without the appallingly melodramatic epilogue the author added to the text.

The 2008 film adaptation of Appointment of Death seems to recognize the myriad faults of the author’s text and strives to improve the story with a number of changes that, surprisingly, render the film among the very worst in a series that now stretches past two decades in age. The original text’s most important motifs - “You do see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed” and “I never forget. I’ve never forgotten anything - not an action, not a name, not a face” – aren’t even present or part of the action here. Written in an arch, obtuse manner by Guy Andrews, who also wrote The Mystery of the Blue Train (2005) and Taken at the Flood (2006), the script of Appointment with Death does away with Nadine and Miss Pierce and adds many pointless characters such as Lord Boynton, archaeologist (like Christie’s second husband, Max Mallowan), in a peculiar search for the head of John the Baptist, a nanny who administers the beatings of children at the behest of Mrs. Boynton (something not even hinted at in the book) and the truly bizarre creation of Sister Agnieszka, a white slaver who has an unnatural interest in one of the Boynton girls. Andrews changes any number of the author’s original ideas and intentions to an almost preposterous degree. Such changes include an overwhelming and uncomfortable Catholic undertone to the story, the fact that all of the Boynton children are adopted (like the many suspects in Ordeal by Innocence), the parentage and adopted parentage of a number of characters – particularly Jinny, whose real parents turn out to be as awful as her stepmother – the switch from Lady Westholme, M.P., to Dame Celia Westholme, travel writer, and most surprisingly for a Poirot film, the unbelievable addition of a murderous accomplice, who masterminds an even more gruesome, Giallo-like (La corta notte delle bambole di vetro/Short Night of the Glass Dolls) end to Mrs. Boynton than the original murderer conceived.

Directed by Ashley Pearce, who helmed the Poirot films Mrs. McGinty’s Dead and Three Act Tragedy (2010), Appointment with Death was filmed on location in Morocco like a circus of freakish events, from the hysterically blowsy Cheryl Campbell as the American Lady Boynton to John Hannah’s doctor, who here is Scottish rather than French, probably in deference to the great John Rebus character the actor played briefly several years before in Rebus. Like Tom Clegg’s 2001 Poirot film Murder in Mesopotamia, Appointment with Death benefits by the way Pearce makes the story look more substantial than it ultimately is. The vistas and the compositions are often opulent, which unfortunately can’t improve a story that is delivered with so many red “fish”and such purple prose as to be, in the end, ridiculous.

Despite some big names in the cast (Tim Curry, Elizabeth McGovern), the casting seems particularly off here, though it’s hard to say which is worse: the horribly written roles or the rather inept casting of the characters. Only Christina Cole as Sarah Price seems cast correctly and plays her part quite well, improving on the character as written in the book. Cheryl Campbell (Lady Boynton) also appeared in the 1986 Miss Marple film The Murder at the Vicerage and the 1981 TV film The Seven Dials Mystery. Christina Cole (Sarah Price) and Angela Pleasance (Nanny) also appeared in the 2004 Marple film The Murder at the Vicerage. Handsome Tom Riley (Raymond) also appeared in the 2007 Marple film Ordeal by Innocence while John Hannah (Dr. Gerard) also appeared in the 2004 Marple film 4.50 from Paddington and Beth Goddard (Sister Agnieszka) also appeared as Violet Wilson in the 1993 Poirot film The Case of the Missing Will. Mark Gatiss, who plays Leonard very differently from the novel’s Lennox, also wrote the Poirot scripts Cat Among the Pigeons and Hallowe’en Party (2010).

Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 12