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This double bill includes the televised version of two Poirot short stories, The Mystery of the Spanish Chest and The Theft of the Royal Ruby. In the former, Poirot is informed by a friend that society lady Marguerite Clayton is in danger of being murdered by her husband, Edward. Then Edward himself is found murdered, his body bundled in a Spanish chest, and it happened in the middle of a party that Marguerite, two of her admirers and Poirot himself was attending. The immediate suspect is the host of the party, Major Rich, who is madly in love with Marguerite. However, Poirot suspects that Major Rich was set up and that the real killer is still at large. He must prove how Edward's body was place in the chest and by whom.
David Suchet's portrayal of Poirot is as flawless as ever in this episode. It must be difficult for an actor to maintain such a high standard of acting throughout the many Poirot episodes that are in existence (there are over 60), but Suchet always manages it. This is only a short episode, at about 45 minutes, so there is little character development, but then there are few people who don't know a little about Poirot's background anyway. Hugh Fraser and Philip Jackson appear briefly as Captain Hastings and Inspector Japp, but it is really John McEnery as Colonel Curtis and Caroline Langrishe as Marguerite Clayton who stand out the most. McEnery is fantastically obnoxious and Langrishe gives a great performance as a woman terrified of her husband and devastated by Major Rich's arrest. Neither are over the top though - at least, not for a Poirot production, which nearly always involves on evil character and one fragile woman.
The Mystery of the Spanish Chest is not Christie's best work - that is nearly always reserved for her novels. However, it is entertaining enough and the story is well told. There is a strange section at the beginning of the film showing a fencing game, which doesn't seem to make much sense, but all becomes clear towards the end. It perhaps wasn't really necessary, but it does add a little bit of intrigue. The solution to the crime, when it is finally revealed, is a little bit forced and unconvincing, relying on too many coincidences, but that isn't really going to upset any Poirot fan. It probably isn't the best place for a newcomer to the series to start however; this is more an extra for those who have seen most of the other episodes.
The Theft of the Royal Ruby is much stronger. Set at Christmas, Poirot is asked to help an Egyptian Prince find his stolen ruby; for political reasons, it is necessary that the playboy Prince is kept happy. There is a suggestion that the thief may be going to a prominent archaeologist's home for the holiday, so Poirot joins the party and soon becomes involved in a desperate fight to find the ruby before any innocent members of the party are hurt. In the process, Poirot's life is put at risk, not helped by the younger members of the party, who are determined to fake a crime for Poirot to fix.
Suchet is great again as Poirot - the story certainly wouldn't be anywhere near as good without him - yet it is the other characters that make this particular episode so good. Stephanie Cole is particularly good as the matriarch of the family. She is much more refined than her role in, for example, Waiting for God, but she is still clearly the person the whole family looks up to. Frederick Treves is also good as her slightly dopey husband. Nigel Le Vaillant takes on the role of the inappropriate lover of the daughter of the family - he gives the performance just the right amount of sleaze, but it is not enough to convince the viewer that he is the real villain.
There is something about this episode that is deeply appealing, and that is quite possibly the Christmas setting. Seeing this wealthy family celebrate a traditional Christmas, home-crafted decorations and all, is lovely to see. One of the pluses of the Poirot series is the attention to detail and some of the locations that are chosen are completely stunning, including this one. Of course, the clothes are also gorgeous, so there is a real feast for the eyes. The story itself is a good one, provided that you are able to suspend disbelief - rubies and Egyptian Princes are perhaps pushing things a little too far. It's a pleasant change for the theft, rather than a murder, to be the centre of attention.
There are no extras with the episodes; a shame, because a short interview with David Suchet, some of the other actors, or with a member of the production team would have been interesting.
There are much stronger Poirot episodes out there - Five Little Pigs and Cat Among the Pigeons are two of my favourites. However, any fan of Poirot will want to see these episodes - they are very far from being poor and are worth watching for the sumptuous locations and costumes if nothing else. At around 45 minutes per episode, you won't exactly waste a great deal of time either. However, if you're a newcomer to the series, or you don't particularly like costume dramas, you will probably want to stay away; no doubt they will be shown on TV at some point anyway. Recommended, three stars out of five.
The DVD is available from Amazon from £1.54 (second-hand).