New York — Agatha Christie, whose seemingly sincere mysteries look more and more like sneaky social satire as they mature each year, is back on the tube. But in a Christie-like turn of events, you may have to welcome her by searching for her on all channels first.
Even though, in my mind, Agatha Christie is really Margaret Rutherford, I welcome her in any shape or form she chooses to return. This time she makes her television appearance in a does-it-really-matter-whodunit titled "The Seven Dials Mystery" (Thursday, 8-10:30 p.m., check local listings for stations, since it is probably airing on an independent station in your area but may be on network in a few places). But it is well worth searching out.
Madcap murder and ingenious international intrigue among the ridiculously working rich (foreign office, of course) are supposedly the main topics. This is the first of a short series of early Christie works on an ad hoc collection of around 50 independent stations, banded together as one sponsor's answer (Mobil) to its alleged lack of freedom on the commercial networks and Public Broadcasting. It's not so much a matter of programming as it is a matter of commercial message.
"Seven Dials" is a stylish, stylized, slightly incomprehensible mystery of manners, a kind of full-course dinner for aristocrats, with naive house parties, secret societies, and a chestnut of a story, clear only to dedicated Christie-philes. And the dessert is a too-rich mixture of sweet layers of Edwardian, Victorian, art deco cake.
You insist upon hearing about the plot? Well, I think it evolves about a group of foolish and rich young people in the late 1920s. One of them is the maddest cap of all, played with utterly charming emptyheadedness by Cheryl Campbell (you remember her from "Testament of Youth" and "Pennies From Heaven"). She sets out to solve an earlymorning murder which occurs on the estate of her eccentric father, John Gielgud (who appears only at the beginning and end of this complex story).
It's like that all the way through -- marvelous daffiness interrupted only now and then by rational activity, which ends up somehow in secret initiations into an international society whose purpose still remains a Christie-mystery to me, even after viewing the whole thing.
Good, clean, stylish, incomprehensible fun!
For some video-commercial buffs, one of the highlights may be the appearance of the "world famous" hearty-voiced actress Rula Lenska, heretofore seen only in America in a commercial.
Try as it may, "Seven Dials" does not manage to be frightening. It is too impeccably produced, designed, dressed, decorated, directed, acted, and hosted (by Peter Ustinov) for that. Major credit must go to executive producer/director Tony Wharmby for his deliciously madcap persistence.
Just about the only seriously ominous moments come with the commercials when a pseudo-newsroom, identified as the "Mobil Information Center" comes on the air and in simulated Evening News style (anchor and all) delivers its political message. In this case, the message is that America is once again on the march as we finally realize that tax breaks for corporations encourage economic expansion which in turn moves the US toward a new era of prosperity.
While these particular messages are not in themselves frightening (you may very well agree with their main point) -- what bothers me is the fact that they may eventually come to be regarded as real newscasts in some viewers' minds rather than the self-serving commercials masquerading as news which others may perceive them to be. Is it too high a price to pay for Agatha?