I discovered there was an annual Agatha Christie Festival when I heard that Sophie Hannah was writing a new Poirot novel – The Monogram Murders - and that she would be appearing at the Festival in September. I booked a B & B, event and train tickets and off I went to Torre Abbey in Torquay on Friday 12 September.
The Abbey was the Festival venue and it is beautiful. It's worth spending a morning exploring all the interactive tools that share the fascinating history of the Abbey. Some events were held in the Ballroom and others were outside in the Spanish Barn, which is often hired for weddings. There was a Jazz band performing in the gardens outside not far from the Agatha Christie poisonous plant garden. There were guided tours with the Head Gardener if you wanted to learn about the plants that were used to murder the victims in Christie novels.
On Sunday I went to the All Things Vintage & Lovely Fair in the Abbey, which was basically a giant dressing up box. You could buy vintage clothes, pottery, books and jewellery. There were also lots of craft stalls. I had a go at stamping prints on a canvas bag and learned how to make flowers out of ribbons. I was sitting there stitching away when a lady came up to me and asked about the flower I was making because she thought it might match the silk beaded purple dress she had bought off one of the vintage stalls for the bargain price of £15. When she realised I was not the stall holder she took up my invitation to sit down and join me to make a ribbon flower. The finished article was a perfect match for her dress (see mine below right).
In the afternoon I went off to the Spanish Barn to listen to Sonia Beck and Adrian Metcalfe read two short stories from the Agatha Christie collection: The Companion and The Mystery of the Plymouth Express. Both Sonia and Adrian are part of The Agatha Christie Theatre Company and they were fantastic as they brought every character in the stories vividly to life. I could have sat there and happily listened to them read for a lot longer. This event was a bargain at £5.
Later that day I returned to the Spanish Barn to learn all about how Sophie Hannah became the first author to be given the Christie families blessing to write a new Poirot novel. The Barn was absolutely packed and there was a real sense of warmth throughout the event, as Hannah explained the series of happy coincidences that led up to writing The Monogram Murders. Hannah had a great idea for a new Poirot novel just as the Christie family were considering whether or not to invite an author to write one. The grandson of Agatha Christie, Mathew Prichard, said that it was really important that Hannah was a huge fan of his grandmother’s work. Apparently, Hannah did a Dragon’s Den style pitch of her idea to the Christie family to win their backing.
Hannah reassured everyone that she hadn’t attempted to write The Monogram Murders in the style of Agatha Christie, as each author’s writing style is as unique as a fingerprint. Having read the novel this weekend I can attest to that. What Hannah has done is create a new relationship for the character of Poirot to bounce off in the form of Inspector Catchpole, who is more like Captain Hastings. Throughout the novel Poirot teaches Catchpole (and the reader) how to read between the lines to come to the truth. The novel features a cracking plot and captures the authentic feel of an Agatha Christie while retaining the uniqueness of Hannah’s fingerprint. I really loved it and I hope there are plans for a second novel because I’d really like to see how the character of Catchpole develops around Hannah’s fantastic interpretation of Poirot.
The next day I was back at the Abbey for the Kate Summerscale event in The Ballroom. Within minutes everyone was taken back to the 1860s as the origins of investigative policing were laid out through the story of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. This was a fascinating talk as Summerscale described how she found out about the true story of Mr Whicher. She originally wanted to write it as an autobiography but there wasn’t enough source material to do it, so she decided to tell his story in the form of a novel. It took 18 months of research before she sat down to start to write and the research continued for the next 18 months as the story came together. Since then Summerscale’s novel has been a massive success and has been turned into a TV series. Summerscale says she likes Paddy Considine’s portrayal of Mr Whicher (as do I). Apparently she has seen an image of the real Mr Whicher and he looks more like David Jason!
I headed to the Mystery Film Event With Dr John Curran in the Spanish Barn later that evening. Dr. Curran was highly entertaining as he explained that we would be listening to an old radio performance of Witness for the Prosecution first. This turned out to be equally entertaining, not least due to the dodgy foreign accents of said Witness. Afterwards, we watched a film of Lord Edgware Dies which was made in 1934. It was one of those films that was so bad it was great entertainment. Austin Trevor was terrible as Poirot, but not as bad as Richard Cooper as Hastings. Cooper’s ‘acting’ was so wooden you felt embarrassed for him! According to www.imbd.com this movie was meant to be the start of a series but failed to take off due to a lack of box office success. I don’t think any of us were surprised by this fact but watching the movie did lead to an entertaining discussion afterwards. It all made us appreciate just how marvellous David Suchet has been in the role of Poirot.
On Tuesday 16 September, I attended the International panel Event with Dr. John Curran, Ragnar Jonasson, Christie collectors and enthusiasts. This was one of the most fascinating panels, especially when Dr Curran asked everyone in the room whether or not they had spoken of their love of Agatha Christie novels with pride or kept it to themselves. This question arose when one panel member said that they had kept his passion a secret because they wanted to fit in at school. They were not alone in this as other people discussed whether or not they had been open about their love of Agatha Christie as young teenagers, or even in the present day. This drove me to ask the same question on twitter and that generated a huge chain of responses reflecting similar views to the answers during the panel. My twitter followers were mainly loud and proud about reading Agatha Christie novels (a huge thank you to everyone who did respond to that tweet).
Personally, I think that the Agatha Christie legacy is so great that no one should keep their admiration hidden. She is an author who is regularly mentioned when writers are questioned about the origins of their passion for crime writing during other festivals I’ve attended around the country. One panellist who comes from America said that an Agatha Christie novel had even been on the school curriculum one year. This sparked off another round of responses where people from Brazil, Germany and Malaysia said they had read the novels as an introduction to the grammatical structure of the English language, which was also confirmed by one of my twitter followers who has assigned the novels to their students in the past.
I was in the mood for Black Coffee at the Princess Theatre in Torquay on Wednesday 17 September. This new production of the play by Agatha Christie features a superb cast, including Jason Durr (Heartbeat) as Hercule Poirot. This is a cracking production that alternates between gentle humour and a dark atmosphere of murderous intent. Durr’s Poirot captures the mannerisms of the well known character in the novel perfectly, alternating between his despair at the English habits to snappy asides that indicate he knows when someone is lying to him. The play is going on tour and is well worth catching, log on to www.kenwright.com to find out more.
I didn’t attend any of the Fringe events although they did look like a lot of fun. You could attend murder mystery parties held in a variety of venues, including a train. There were also bus tours to Greenway, Agatha Christie’s holiday home in Torquay, which you can also go and stay in (thanks to Sophie Hannah for sharing that little gem).
Overall, I really enjoyed my few days in Torquay at the Agatha Christie Festival and would recommend the experience to anyone who loves the books or wants to find out more about one of England’s most celebrated crime writers. I stayed in Linden House, which is two minutes walk from Torre Abbey and about 20 minutes walk from the town centre. I had the Garden Room which was fabulous and featured a private patio area overlooking the garden. The breakfasts were fantastic with plenty of choice and freshly cooked. Linden House deserves all the accolades it has received on Trip Advisor to date, I highly recommend it if you fancy a luxury break. I also enjoyed exploring Torquay, If you love homemade cakes, you'll be in heaven here and there are restaurants to cater to every taste. The town has a great transport network and there are plenty of interesting places to explore around this part of the world, from Brixham to Dartmouth.