Thursday, April 10, 2008

"SUCKS TO YOU!" The 1982 filmed stage play of Agatha Christie's "SPIDER'S WEB" fell across my eyes when it aired on the brand-new Arts & Entertainment network on a programme called "STAGE" hosted by Tammy Grimes. Back in the early 80's, there were a lot of "filmed plays" on TV; besides A&E, HBO was a champion for a while airing a new filmed play a month. My last post mentioned the filmed stage play "SWEENEY TODD" which was also broadcast on A&E's STAGE and I thought I might focus on some of the "filmed stage plays" I most enjoyed back in the day. And here's this one.
"SPIDER'S WEB" was a play written by Agatha Christie at the behest of actress Margaret Lockwood who was tired of playing "baddies" all the time and wanted to play a "goodie" for a change. Christie penned this play (which was originally entitled "CLARISSA FINDS A BODY" and Lockwood starred in it to some success. Years later, in 1982 somebody somewhere decided to produced it for television with the new title of "SPIDER'S WEB" which frankly doesn't have much to do with the play itself.
This version stars Penelope Keith ("TO THE MANOR BORN" and "THE GOOD LIFE" aka "GOOD NEIGHBORS") as Clarissa Hailsham-Brown: a woman people never believe when she's telling the truth but always believe when she's lying. "SPIDER'S WEB" is vintage Agatha Christie: an English drawing room murder mystery among the upper class with a light comic touch. Tammy Grimes, in her introduction to the play, calls it "murder with manners". Director Basil Coleman evokes just the perfect atmosphere; the time period is never really given but it looks to me like the 1920's or early 1930's. The cast is wonderful. Comic actress Penelope Keith is surrounded by several veterans of the horror genre as well as the mystery genre. Clarissa's guardian Sir Rowland is played by Robert Flemyng (forever known to me as the necrophiliac title character in Riccardo Freda's Italian horror classic "THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK" with Barbara Steele). Their friend Hugo Birch is played by Hammer Horror veteran Thorley Walters ("FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED", "DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS", "THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA", "FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN", "VAMPIRE CIRCUS"). Nosy gardener Mrs. Peake is played by Elizabeth Spriggs (wonderful as Ian Holm's nagging wife in the murder mystery series "WE, THE ACCUSED"). Jeremy Warrender is played by David Yelland (who appeared as the Prince of Wales in the awful "CHARIOTS OF FIRE" as well as in 2 episodes of the BBC's "WAKING THE DEAD"). This is a coincidence because young child actress Holly Aird (who plays Clarissa's step daughter Pippa) starred in "WAKING THE DEAD" as well -- not to mention the role I'll always remember her for: as Elspeth in "THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA").
Like any other Agatha Christie mystery, it's really too involved to try to synopsize here. Suffice it to say that Clarissa and her husband Henry (Jonathan Newth of the absolutely superb 1981 BBC production of DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS as well as the DOCTOR WHO adventure "UNDERWORLD") have rented a country cottage for a ridiculously low rate. Henry is in the foreign service and has an extremely important "hush-hush" politician secretly flying in for a meeting. Henry leaves for the meeting and Clarissa suddenly stumbles over a dead body in her living room: it's Oliver Costello -- the husband of Henry's first wife who was also a drug dealer and attempted to blackmail Clarissa earlier and regain custody of Henry's young daughter Pippa. The little girl tearfully tells Clarissa that she killed Oliver Costello. Because of her husband's very important guest (and since Costello's dead already), Clarissa enlists the help of her friends Sir Rowland, Hugo Birch and Jeremy Warrender to dump the body in the nearby woods. Unfortunately, as soon as the men get there and are talked into helping with Clarissa's deception, the doorbell rings and the police have arrived saying that "someone" called saying there had been a murder. Before the police entered, the men hide the body inside a secret door behind a bookcase. Clarissa's improvised story doesn't hold water for long when Costello's car is discovered empty nearby. Clarissa eventually relents and tells the police about the body but they don't believe her story --even though it's true. She then lies and tells them she killed him in self defense. When the police go back to the secret passage where the body has been stored, they find it has disappeared. What happened to the corpse?!?!?! And did little Pippa REALLY kill him?!?!?!?
All this takes place in patented Agatha Christie fashion with a terrific country house set, sparkling dialogue and great performances from a veteran cast (hey, even the child actress is great!). The thing I really like about this production is the feeling that the entire cast has been performing this play for quite some time and has settled into the "sweet spot" making it a well-oiled machine. The play goes off like clockwork. I don't know if this group of actors was in fact performing this play on stage nightly but it certainly feels like it. Nevertheless, "SPIDER'S WEB" is a murder mystery play in the classic tradition which all admirers of Agatha Christie will thoroughly enjoy. And besides that, it's a hell of a lot of fun -- especially on a dark and stormy night.

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