For one solid week – September 12-18, Torquay celebrated the 120th anniversary of Agatha Christie’s birth. As a lifelong Christie fan, I was looking forward to every minute of the promised “murder, mystery and mayhem,” which all turned out to be the kind of innocent fun of a bygone time.
In this quiet, almost pastoral part of England, there are many remnants of years past, as well as reminders that the world’s best-selling novelist is also the best-loved daughter of the English Riviera.
The anniversary festival opened with an old-fashioned fete, featuring costumed stall-holders, a jazz band belting out period music and the Agatha Christie Dancers, who did the Charleston with energy and style. Actor Martin Gaisford as Hercule Poirot, Christie’s most famous detective, mingled with the crowds, posing for pictures and answering questions from fans. Though David Suchet has been the “official” film Poirot for 19 years, Gaisford is a convincing lookalike, with a formidable mustache that is just as Christie described it in the Belgian detective’s debut novel, “The Mysterious Affair in Styles.”
Christie’s grandson, Mathew Pritchard also appeared at the fete, telling stories about his celebrated grandmother-and assuring fans that Agatha Christie, with millions of books in print, along with DVDs, comics, games and downloadable products, is still a star in this digital age. (Pritchard recently signed a 10-year deal with publisher Harper Collins for worldwide distribution of Christie’s books.)
Also making an appearance at the fete were the two Chinese winners of an Agatha Christie competition, along with several Chinese journalists. The prize was a trip to the festival, personally escorted by Matthew Pritchard.
A 23-year-old member of the group who identified himself as “James,” told me the first film he had ever seen after China opened up to Western culture was “Death on the Nile.” The second was “Evil Under the Sun.” After that he went on to read Chrisite’s books. “I was just amazed by Agatha Christie,” he said, “she writes a good story, with simple language, good dialogue and good puzzles.” He went on to predict that Christie’s fan base “will be great in China.”
My Christie pilgrimage included a remarkably fresh performance of “Witness for the Prosecution” by the Agatha Christie Theatre Company and a visit to the Agatha Christie Gallery of the Torquay Museum, where I discovered a long list of actors who had played Poirot, starting with Charles Laughton’s 1928 West End performance. (My least favorite was Albert Finney, who turned in a near-cartoonish performance in the 1974 Hollywood version of “Murder on the Orient Express.”)
The museum is part of the Agatha Christie Mile, a meandering route that traces landmarks in the life of the Queen of Crime: the Princess Pier, where she roller-skated, Beacon Cove, where she swam (and once nearly drowned) and 800-year-old Torre Abbey, where head gardener Ali Marshall has created a year-round garden of all the poisonous plants used by Christie in her 80 novels.
Dame Agatha had pharmaceutical training as a young woman, so poison was her preferred murder weapon, and she famously wrote: “Poison has a certain appeal…it has not the crudeness of the revolver or the blunt instrument.” Ali Marshall shares Christie’s enthusiasm for poisons found in nature, and her own guide to the plants is prominently displayed in the garden. I learned that cyanide is found in peach kernels and that hyoscyamine (or henbane) is not an easy plant to find-Marshall sourced hers from witchcraft sites.
A highlight of my visit to the English Riviera was the tour of Greenway, the 400-year old holiday home Christie purchased in 1938 for £6,000. To reach the house, which is located on the River Dart, I took the vintage Greenway bus (reservations necessary); the house is also accessible by ferry and by car (advance parking reservations necessary).
Greenway was gifted to the National Trust by Christie’s family, and after a £5.4 million restoration, it was opened to the public in 2009. Stuffed as it is with weird and wacky and wonderful things, the Georgian house is warm and welcoming and very much alive, as if Dame Agatha herself might still be in residence.
A pile of gardening hats belong to her son-in-law rests on a table in the entrance hall, along with a (really) vintage mobile phone that looks as if it weighs 10 pounds. Her personal collections: papier mache, pottery, ceramics, pictures, books and more, fill the rooms, which are light and airy, creating a 1930s setting with a modern (1950s) overlay of amenities. In each room are scrapbooks filled with Christie’s writings, records of parties and entertainments, dinner menus, as well as the sweet trivia that filled the days at Greenway, which she described as “the loveliest place in the world.”
Dame Agatha’s presence is felt throughout the home, especially when a recording of her voice is played, in which she talks about her career in a matter-of-fact way, saying she made notes on plots as they occurred to her-but then had to find time to do the writing.
Near the end of my tour, I had lunch in Christie’s own kitchen, dining on chicken that was cooked in a vintage Aga, followed by a luscious bread pudding. (Lunch is priced at a modest £15 for two courses.)
Before leaving Greenway, I checked out the section of the house that had been turned into a five-bedroom rental apartment that sleeps 10 (rent is about £2700 a week in high season, much less in winter). The furniture here is from the Christie collection and the kitchen is pure 1950s, making this a dream spot for fans who are also lovers of all things retro.
The most elegant event of the week was the September 15 birthday party held at the Grand Hotel, where Christie honeymooned with first husband Archie. Actress Jane Asher, known also as a celebrity baker, created the recipe for the “Delicious Death” cake from ingredients mentioned in “Appointment with Death.”
The guest of honor at the gala was Julia McKenzie, the newest Miss Marple. McKenzie greeted guests, posed for pictures and spoke of her trepidation at being given an iconic role, particularly after the late Joan Hickson established herself as the one-and-only Miss Marple. “But,” she says, “I like to play the story line, rather than over-thinking it,” depicting Miss Marple as “a person you’d like as a friend, someone you’d trust.”
And then, with a twinkle in her eye and a hint of mischief in her smile, she asks: “But would you invite her anywhere? There’s always a murder wherever she happens to be.”
The party ended with a bang, but there were no murders, just an eye-popping display of fireworks on the beach below the hotel.