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Sparkling Cyanide (2003)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Sparkling Cyanide (2003)
Thames Television for ITV, tx. 5/10/2003
97 mins, colour
DirectorTristram Powell
Production CompanyCompany Pictures
ProducerSuzan Harrison
Dramatised byLaura Lamson
Original novelAgatha Christie

Cast: Pauline Collins (Dr Catherine Kendall); Oliver Ford Davies (Colonel Geoffrey Reece); Kenneth Cranham (George Barton); Jonathan Firth (Mark Drake); Susan Hampshire (Lucilla Drake); Clare Holman (Alexandra Farraday); James Wilby (Stephen Farraday)

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A young woman is mysteriously poisoned in a fashionable restaurant by drinking a cyanide-laced glass of champagne at her own birthday party.

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There remains something invincibly old-fashioned about the characters and situations of this updated Agatha Christie whodunit. Furthermore, the film (loosely adapted from Christie's 1945 novel) has been designed to serve a dual purpose: as a modest murder mystery, and as a springboard for a prospective mystery series.

The piece is taken in a formal manner and with rather undue seriousness by its makers, indicating a keenness to establish the basic elements of a series (which never emerged) featuring the low-key government agent sleuthing of Oliver Ford Davies' somewhat doddery Colonel Reece and his more astute colleague and partner Dr. Catherine Kendall (a level-headed, unruffled Pauline Collins); the Tommy and Tuppence of the senior citizen league. Their involvement in the plot (not in the Christie original, of course) is simply by the excuse that one of the dinner party guests was a government minister in line for promotion (and therefore must be seen to be 'squeaky clean').

This modernised version is set around the seemingly cutthroat milieu of professional football, populated by various backbiting, self-seeking types. They include the ferocious, multi-millionaire club owner George Barton (Kenneth Cranham, craggy of voice and face); Iris Marle, style guru to celebrities; Lucilla Drake, stepmother to the murdered woman and her sister, Iris; Lucilla's sullen son Mark; Ruth Lessing, Barton's mousy personal assistant; the high-flying Sports minister Stephen Farraday and his wife Alexandra. As each one becomes a jittery suspect after the poisoning of Barton's young wife so the film becomes largely an exercise in neurosis.

The storyline makes few demands on its actors, though Collins and Ford Davies make an interesting pair of elderly undercover agents (suggesting an offbeat pairing of George Smiley and Beryl Reid's Connie Sachs from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, BBC, 1979); and the tracking down of the murderer is more a matter of simple mathematics than of any developed logic in either plot or characters. (Once a certain amount of screen time has been devoted to the pursuit of each red herring, only a process of elimination would appear to lead to the selection of the killer in the final minutes.)

Basically an intriguing crossword-puzzle thriller, it is neither slick nor succinct enough to satisfy the demands of the genre, but there is still a great deal more to enjoy than to carp at.

Tise Vahimagi

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Agatha Christie on Television